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Safe From Larvae and Rust: Macbeth and Hip-Hop


“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

Well, it’s been two weeks since the last entry. The homework load has been especially unforgiving, and on top of that there was the English IOP (more on that later), WPA and an organic chemistry test. But now I’m glad to be back.

If you’re in the IB program, you are required to give Individual Oral Presentations in English class. It’s a 12-15 minute solo presentation during which you talk about one or two of the books that were taught during first semester of junior year. The central requirement of the presentation is that it’s supposed to deepen the class’s understanding of the works that you talk about. We had the options of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Woman at Point Zero and Macbeth. So I naturally chose to talk about the one that I actually liked, Macbeth.

If you’ve read this blog before, you might have noticed my obsession with Vladimir Nabokov. I mean, he’s only the greatest writer in the English language since Shakespeare. I drew the inspiration for my presentation from this quote by him:

“[Shakespeare’s] verbal poetic texture is the greatest the world has ever known, and immensely superior to the structure of his plays as plays. It is the metaphor that is the thing, not the play.

When we studied Macbeth in class, I felt unsatisfied. Instead of indulging in the magnificent poetry, we instead strapped it to a chair and whipped it into a carcass with literary criticisms such as Nihilism, New Historicism, Feminism, Archetypes and psychoanalysis – which was especially painful.

We highlighted literary devices with crayons and said, “Hey, look! There’s personification! Oh, cool! There’s another metaphor!” “Was Lady Macbeth a seductress? Does Macbeth have the Oedipus Complex?” Does it matter? Shakespeare is the great writer that he is because of his poetry; all other aspects of the play — plot, themes, characters — serve the poetry, not the other way around.

So that was what I wanted to say in the presentation. I had to come up with a creative way to say it. I like rap music. What if I compared Macbeth to a rap song and made the point at the same time? It’s a far stretch but whatever.

To start it off, I played a short original rap song called “Nuthin But a G Thane” that the amazing junior Deegan Poores helped me make. It sampled Lana Del Rey’s live rendition of “Million Dollar Man”, Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out My Life Woman” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. This served the purpose of showing how sampling in hip-hop works.

Then, I stated that I would like to bring into question Macbeth’s merits as a great piece of literature and whether Shakespeare really deserves the credit of a genius that he gets for writing it. Now, I have no credential whatsoever to do that, since it would take years of scholarly study and books to discredit such a towering work as a great piece of literature. But I had to have some support for my main point, so I was willing to stretch my weak arguments as far as I could.

I pointed out the unoriginality of the plot, which was lifted straight out of a history book. I compared the downfall of Macbeth to that of Othello and said that Macbeth’s character developments are way too rushed and unconvincing. I also said that the ending was unsatisfying, since there was no redemption and pity for Macbeth when he died. Shakespeare had us rooting for the murderer the entire play only to tack on a flimsy anti-tyranny moral message in the end. I tried to point out as many flaws in Macbeth as possible to show that it doesn’t hold up well as a great play.

Then I showed the Nabokov quote and started to analyze the poetic texture of the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. I broke it down line by line and tried to show Shakespeare’s unique use of rhythm, imagery and sounds. I acted it out and tried to stir the imagination of my classmates and get them to feel the poetry.

At last, I tied it into rap music. A music scholar can’t study rap beats for music composition, because rap beats are essentially chopped up bits of pre-existing songs stacked on top of each other and put on repeat. The only thing that matters and what sets rappers apart is the lyrics. That’s the rapper’s creativity and message. Rappers are poets. They have something to say and they use rap beats to really sell their message and give them power. To do that, they draw from the music that they know and love and rap over them. In the end, it’s still the lyrics that truly matter.

So Macbeth in that way is like a rap song, with its borrowed plot and weak character developments and structure. Packed full of action, murder and magic, it was intended as entertainment for the masses, and the masses didn’t care about themes, nihilism, psychoanalysis and whatever. The only thing that matters is Shakespeare’s poetry, which is where his true genius lies. The plot is only a drumbeat, the characters are manipulated samples, but the words are what makes Shakespeare and Macbeth immortal.

It’s depressing to hear that some schools teach Shakespeare with that watered down No Fear crap. Without the language, Shakespeare’s plays are nothing more than a bunch of unoriginal stories, entertainments. I really hope Shakespeare’s use of language could be a main focus in English classrooms. I also really hope I got a good grade on that presentation.

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