All hail Macbeth: Shakespeare’s greatest


“Saying the most possible in the fewest words”: only one definition of poetry has ever stuck with me so acutely. It gave me a greater appreciation for a poem’s every word. It explained the brilliance of “so much” depending upon a red wheelbarrow.

And, most importantly, it captured a reason why I believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth is better than Hamlet.

Though Hamlet is generally regarded as his best play, whether because Hamlet is the most difficult, intriguing character in drama, or because the show epitomizes passionate dramatics (plots for revenge, a play within a play, a bloody last scene, questionable incest and a steaming plate of irony–what more could be asked of Shakespeare’s best?), I stand by the Scottish Play. Without discounting Hamlet’s influential plot, characters and language, Macbeth, as Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, is a far tighter play than Hamlet, his longest, and Macbeth’s language is powerful and succinct, meeting my favorite definition of poetry well. Though Hamlet may be a more intriguing character for actors, an actor’s challenge in portraying a character does not mean the play itself is better.

Indeed, the way Macbeth ends with Macbeth’s decapitated head, after beginning with Macdonwald’s, creates a much pithier drama than Hamlet, bringing the story full-circle. Though Hamlet is by no means a bad play–it is still among my favorites–Macbeth, however cursed, pummels its audience in a way Hamlet scarcely does.

As Shakespeare wrote Macbeth a few years after he wrote Hamlet, his skill is simply more refined. In tracking Shakespeare’s growth as a writer from Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet to Macbeth, his usage of blank verse alone demonstrates this refinement; earlier in his career, he was more prone to end phrases with the line and stick more rigidly to the syllabic formula, but as he progresses, he strays from the formula more often, ending phrases in the middle of lines, abandoning and adding syllables with purpose. His rhetorical development is better cultivated in Macbeth–seen easily in analyzing and comparing Macbeth’s last soliloquy to Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” speech.

While alone, each soliloquy is brilliant, in contrast to each other, the “Tomorrow” speech elucidates Macbeth’s superiority. Every comment Macbeth makes about his future, the future in general, death in the play, death in general, his own life, life in general, is contained within 12 exquisitely crafted lines. The last words of each line are chosen so deliberately they paint a picture of the speech as a whole: “hereafter,” “word,” “tomorrow,” “to day,” “fools,” “candle,” “player,” “stage,” “tale,” “fury,” “nothing.” Though Hamlet’s speech certainly employs powerful words (and perhaps its first lines are better-known), it lacks the extremely potent and specific wording throughout its entirety.

Despite Hamlet’s loud, unmistakable personality, Macbeth’s characters–Lady Macbeth, in particular–feel more believable than Hamlet’s, and Lady Macbeth’s downfall seems far more reasonable, to me, than Ophelia’s, mostly due to Ophelia’s underdevelopment as a character. Lady Macbeth crumbles under the weight of her recent past with comprehensible reasons; Ophelia seems to arrive at madness unclearly–her relationship with her father never indicated such a strong attachment, and her behaviors up until that point failed to reflect any approaching steep decline. As for Hamlet himself, he reminds me far too much of Holden Caulfield, in all his angsty, ranting glory–and I never liked Holden Caulfield–because Hamlet, if he weren’t so torn up about his father, would be the guy to get really, really bummed out about profane graffiti.

Some say, “Hamlet is your favorite when you’re young, and King Lear is your favorite when you’re old”–a fallacy, at least for me, because though I can’t speak for my future tastes, the Weird Sisters certainly can.


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