Reading Macbeth is a staple in high school English. My 11th grade lesson: Unbridled ambition destroys a person. My adult lessons: Resist temptation, ferret out truth and understand that the present moment is the most important moment.
First produced in 1605, Macbeth's lessons still resonate in 2012. Macbeth, a prominent noble and general, helps his king, Duncan, crush a rebellion led by the Thane of Cawdor. Cawdor is executed, and Malcolm, Duncan's son, reflects that "[n]othing in his life became [Cawdor] like leaving it; he died as one that had been studied in his death to throw away the dearest thing he owed, as't were a careless trifle."
Returning to Macbeth's castle from victorious battle over Cawdor's forces, Macbeth and fellow noble Banquo encounter three witches who make a prophecy that Macbeth will be king. Macbeth tells his wife, who urges him to kill Duncan and take the crown he deserves. Macbeth knows he shouldn't and says, "I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other." Translation: Rush ahead of yourself and tumble into disaster. Lady Macbeth eggs him on, but Macbeth protests, "Prithee, peace: I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none."
She won't leave it alone, and in one of the most chilling passages in literature, she tells him she is more of a man than him, saying, "I would, while [my baby] was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out ..." if need be. Shamed into action, Macbeth murders Duncan.
This single evil act leads to multiple evil acts. Macbeth murders Banquo because Macbeth believes Banquo suspects he murdered Duncan. Thinking Macduff, another noble, is aligning himself with Malcolm, Macbeth orders the slaughter of Macduff's family.
After Macduff's family is killed, Malcolm and Macduff join forces against Macbeth. Malcolm rallies the disheartened nobles: "The night is long that never finds the day." Waiting for their attack, Macbeth knows he is already dead; his body just needs to catch up: "I have almost forgot the taste of fears. ... I have supped full with horrors. Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts cannot once start me." His unethical acts numbed his soul. Macduff's sword takes care of his body.
Shakespeare teaches how to ferret out the real from the fake. Just be observant, which Lady Macbeth understands when warning her husband, "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters." Banquo remarks to Macbeth, after meeting the witches, that " ... oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray's in deepest consequence."
Or, be more proactive, as Malcolm is when deciding whether Macduff is a friend or an enemy. Malcolm falsely tells Macduff that he is unfit to succeed his father because of his unbridled sexual appetites. "The cistern of my lust, and my desire all continent impediments would o'erbear that did oppose my will," Malcolm says. After more back and forth, Macduff concludes Malcolm is not fit to be king. Malcolm has found an honest man who will stand up for what is right, not what is expedient.
This additional exchange between Malcolm and Macduff crystallizes other wise counsel from Shakespeare: When in doubt on a dubious proposition, go with your gut-level reaction. At first, Macduff tries to negotiate his conscience, because he so desperately wants an honest leader for Scotland. He acknowledges Malcolm's weaknesses, telling him, "All these are [bearable] with other graces weighed." But, when Malcolm says there are no other graces, Macduff declares, "Fare thee well, lord." Life lesson: A conscience is only so negotiable.