William Shakespeare needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest English playwrights. He is so canonized and celebrated that almost every tertiary level English teacher must have one or more Shakespeare’s plays or even a full compilation of all the plays in the in-house library. Many of his plays are also included in the syllabi of the English programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels. This is why English department students have to buy and keep Shakespeare’s plays throughout their academic lives. Most plays are available at the local bookstores in different editions. Critics, scholars and researchers have been assiduous in publishing different versions of the same play. Therefore, while buying a Shakespeare's play, it becomes a vital concern to choose the right edition.
Nonetheless, why does a reader have to bother about the edition and editor’s note in a book? Does it make any difference in the play itself? The play remains the same play. The words are not changed or modified. The Shakespearean English remains as it is—a hard nut to crack for many contemporary readers. Then why do teachers recommend a particular edition of a play to the students while making a course plan? Let’s talk about the newly published Shakespearean play Macbeth—one of the most significant tragedies—in Mohit Ul Alam’s edition which is published by Albatross Classics—a sister concern of Friend’s Book Corner—in October 2021. There are other versions of Macbeth in the same store. Still, I recommend Mohit Ul Alam’s edition. Here’s why!
Professor Dr. Mohit Ul Alam has relentlessly worked hard to bring this book to life. He has consulted with nine other editions of Macbeth to prepare his edition. The list of consulted texts is included in the “Acknowledgement” section. From the list, we can see that the editor used such excellent and world-class editions of Macbeth published by giant publishers like Norton, Cambridge, Oxford, Macmillan, The Arden Shakespeare and so on. In a way, Mohit Ul Alam’s Macbeth is an amalgamation of nine other versions. Think of a piece of prism. Let's say, this three-dimensional solid object is our brain. The single visible electromagnetic light is Alam’s Macbeth. As Alam's words enter the prism of our brain, we get nine more colors and waves on the other end. Isn't it beautiful and, at the same time, rewarding?
Professor Alam dedicated this piece of hotcake to one of the most distinguished Shakespearean scholars Dr. David Scott Kastan who is the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University. One-third of the book is filled with scholarly notes in the “Introduction” which is divided into seven different sections. Each section has more sub-sections that elaborately deal with different important themes and ideas. Shakespeare, in a way, becomes more than just a playwright. He, like the tragic protagonist Macbeth, exists in the book more as an idea.
Macbeth is the shortest tragedies among the four great tragedies of William Shakespeare. It deals with the psychology of a murderer. Editor Professor Alam asks a striking question in “The Story of Macbeth”, “Why does one want to kill? Out of envy, greed, or revenge?” Then he clarifies that Macbeth, an able Scottish general, commits regicide by killing king Duncan “out of greed, greed for the highest place in the kingdom”. Though he goes through psychological pressure, he finally commits the sin. The story is made easily clear in a single page.
But wait! As you go on reading, you get lost in a labyrinth of references and editor’s own insightful comments. I read, forgot and had to re-read. Professor Alam accommodates many possible historical circumstances in “The Date of Composition”. He comes up with a buffet of historical and political information in “Sources”. The editor never tries to establish any absolute documentation. He gives multiple possible ideas to set the interpretation free for his readers. The readers will decide which one to get and which one to forget. Nevertheless, the decision is not easy to make. The more you read, the more you feel the urge to research and explore the unexplored. Professor Alam, as a teacher, does the same thing to his students in his class. He takes his students to the sea of knowledge and lets them float, dive and swim the way they wish! It is the reader’s credibility to find the right kind of pearl for his or her tassel. I can see this scholarly, yet entertaining aspect of his personality in his work too.
This book deals with the major themes of the play Macbeth. Starting from the theme of “Usurpation versus Morality”, editor Alam leaves his scholarly remarks on atypical themes like “The Theory of Passibility” and “The Air-drawn Dagger” by, at the same time, incorporating dialectical and theoretically powerful interpretations of other Shakespearean scholars. One good thing is to note that editor Alam has not been Eurocentric in his approach. He accommodates scholars from all-over the world. His approach of fostering foreign ideas in his edition is inclusive and translational indeed. And it beautifully makes this edition worth reading for the Bangladeshi readers.
I had a subtle lamentation over the fact that Professor Alam did not include a thorough and large chapter on Feminism and Genderism in his edition of Hamlet. This time, as I could find quite an elaborated, superbly explained and brilliantly composed section “Genderism and Parentalism”, my heart leaped up with joy! The editor asks two vital questions which, in my opinion, help the readers to decipher genderism in a few more Shakespearean plays too. These two questions are: “What is or should be the relationship between husband and wife? And, secondly, what should be meant by parenting?”
Although the conjugal relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seems to be a good one, Lady Macbeth’s controversial personality becomes a matter of scrutiny. She is ambitious, even more than Macbeth himself. When her husband hesitates, she, with her characteristically strong voice, counsels Macbeth and motivates him to commit regicide. Though this couple is portrayed as villainous, they are loving and caring towards each other. Lady Macbeth’s deteriorated condition in the sleepwalking scene proves her insanity and Macbeth’s caring nature as a husband. There is a yin-yang possibility in the interpersonal relationships among the characters.
The brilliant editor professor Alam writes not only about the themes and imageries, but also about the paradoxical use of language. There is a separate section “Language” in which he writes about the metalinguistic features. It is wonderful that a literary scholar, apart from possessing a profound knowledge about the literary devices, has a strong command over the semantic and pragmatic aspects of the textual language. His book on English literary terms and techniques has been a precious source of literariness for the Bangladeshi students of English. His specialization clearly reflects through this “Language” section.
After a profound and mindful reading of the “Introduction”, any reader will find the main text easier and more comprehensible than before. Still, if there are more difficulties left to the contemporary readers, the footnotes serve as the torchbearer. When you get lost in an Elizabethan word, scroll down to the footnote section. You will find the simplest meaning of the most difficult Shakespearean word in the footnote. Rest assured, for Alam’s edition of Macbeth, you will never need to consult with “No fear Shakespeare” type of websites. Moreover, you will never look for the modern English version of the play as well.
The number of pages may scare many slow and lazy readers. However, almost two-third portion of all the pages accommodate footnotes. Only one-third of the page contains the main text. In footnote, editor professor Alam not just clarifies the meanings of the words, he also explains the literariness of a few phrases. For example, when Macduff says to Macbeth, “I know this is a joyful trouble to you”, Alam explains the phrase “joyful trouble” in the footnote. He writes, “an oxymoronic expression by which Macduff means that Macbeth’s troubles in hosting Duncan are actually his (Macbeth’s) pleasure”.
As I have mentioned earlier, Macbeth is the shortest tragedies among all four great Shakespearean tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello). It has only 2162 lines whereas Hamlet has 4000 lines. Macbeth, in my opinion, is more dynamic, intense and thrilling than other great tragedies of William Shakespeare. Though the theme of murder is more evident in Titus Andronicus, Macbeth is a perfect blend of ambition, greed and its after-math. It is, as Brian Morris states, Shakespeare’s least religious play. Still, the intermingling themes of sin, guilt and redemption are prominent in the story of Macbeth.
William Shakespeare, very dramatically, brings out the hidden desire of Macbeth to become the king and Lady Macbeth to get rid of her femininity in order to commit the sin. The story resonates with the Bengali proverb: “Lobhepaap, paapemrittyu” as greed leads to sin and sin leads to death. Although Macbeth is hesitant in the first place, his wife Lady Macbeth advocates in favor of the killing. This play is called the “least of Shakespeare’s religious plays”. Still, we can get a biblical connection with Eve’s desire to eat the “fruit of knowledge” in Lady Macbeth’s advocacy. Like Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lady Macbeth encourages her “Adam” Macbeth to ignore his moral side and listen to the devilish witches. These witches are portrayed as supernatural creatures. However, if we view them through Freudian lenses, we can see their presence in our own unconscious mind.
One of the most acclaimed feminist writer Virginia Woolf suggests the female writer to “Kill the Angel in the House” in her brilliant essay “Professions for Women”. This angel is not a literal or supernatural angel. By Angel, Woolf refers to the inner self of a woman who is suppressed, domesticized and always stops a woman to become a writer. Similarly, the witches that paranoid Macbeth at times are his unconscious voice that speaks of his own hidden desire of reaching the super-ambitious goal of becoming the king.
The psychological depth of the play also helps to understand the dark and harsh sides of European history too. For example, Lady Macbeth’s character resembles Margaret Beaufort who was the wife of Henry VI and the woman behind War of Roses in England. Shakespeare immortalized her as “She-wolf” and “tiger’s her wrapped in a woman’s hide”. I find similarity between the historical figure Margaret of Anjou and the fictional character Lady Macbeth though there are tons of dissimilarity too. I love Shakespeare’s Macbeth partly because he has actively empowered the female characters in this play. The question of negative or positive remains under debate which I would love to extend in my research paper.
On the whole, this edition of Macbeth is, by far, the best one for any researcher to start thorough and theoretical research on Macbeth. Professor Dr. Mohit Ul Alam is our Harold Bloom who is known as “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world”. Like Bloom, professor Alam has also emerged to be the most famous Bangladeshi editor of Shakespeare’s plays. His contribution to Bangladeshi education is immense. As a reader, reviewer and admirer of professor Alam’s works, I humbly request him to edit more Shakespeare’s plays, at least the major ones, for the sake of the subcontinental students. This edition of Macbeth is available at Friend’s Book Corner in Dhaka and Azad Bookstore at Chattogram. Grab your copy and stay enlightened. Happy reading!
The writer is a Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, Premier University Chittagong