Sometimes, I hear people say they just don’t get sports, art, classical music, or mathematics, or so on. I often feel the same way.
Omniscience would be nice, wouldn’t it? I wish that I knew more about more. There is so, so much that I don’t know, but maybe that’s a problem with being human.
What really puzzles me, though, is when people take pride in not knowing something, when they scoff at the thought of learning about Emily Dickinson, or Shakespeare, or pro wrestling, or NASCAR.
I can understand when shared knowledge can form community. People who love Shakespeare can have their discussion groups and conferences and journals. But when people reinforce their communities by what they don’t know, when someone rolls their eyes when asked about the NFL, or MMA, or even the Olympics?
Of that, I am not so sure.
I’m an English professor, and I love Shakespeare. However, it bothers me when current events pass me by. As easy as it would be to hole up with a good book, I think it’s also good to keep my eyes open to what's around me—even though I may not yet understand what I see.
I’ve often heard it said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But what of those who do not know the present? We talk of works such as Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello as being for all time.
But if this is true, the times we’re living in now should relate to even our most hallowed classics.
Right now, the Olympics are happening and there is a doping controversy surrounding a Russian figure skater. She’s 15 years old and does quadruple jumps and gosh if she doesn’t make me think of Macbeth.
Yes, Macbeth. It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies—mostly because the play is over with the first act. The witches tempt and Macbeth listens, and the rest of the play is just watching the crash and burn.
This is different from any of the other four great tragedies. Hamlet is not yet ready for prime time. Othello has already won his battles and desires quiet time with his trophy wife. And King Lear has already done enough not-nice things in his long reign that he just wants to give everything to his kids and be done with it.
But Macbeth? Unlike Hamlet, he is at the zenith of his power. Unlike Othello, his ambition is still fiery and fresh. And unlike Lear, he hasn’t yet created his legacy.
His time is right now.
Except that it isn’t.
King Duncan will hand his throne over to his son Malcolm and that will be it. Nothing Macbeth can do will secure him the crown. Macbeth will always be runner-up, not because he lacks ability, or dedication, or ambition—but because he does not have the right genetics.
Which is better, obey the rules and be forgotten—or break them and have a chance at glory? Macbeth must make up his mind—and he must do it now, while he has the opportunity.
Say what you will about Kamila Valieva—this is peak performance:
An Olympic event comes only once every four years. No matter your age, if you can make it to the Olympics, you are somewhere near your peak, and how long will that last?
I have heard people say there is no excuse for cheating. And yet, Macbeth knows one timeless truth: no one remembers the runner-up.
The Olympics coronate the literal kings and queens of their sports. And so, you train and dedicate and grow and dream. But what if you lack the right genetics? Imagine giving your life to a sport…then realizing that you are doomed to obscurity.
And then the witches show up, telling you that there yet shall be a way.
It is easy to say there is no justification for cheating. But Macbeth’s justification is plain for all to see. Challenge the gods. If you win, you get to be king!
Think of the joy that you would bring to your family, your team, your hometown, and your country.
Macbeth is a tragic hero precisely because we know why he succumbed to temptation—humans share a seed of ambition, a desire for greatness, a fear of being forgotten. And so, like Macbeth, every athlete at the cusp of greatness must face their own temptations and decide whose voices to follow.
Oh, and like Lady Macbeth, your coaches are urging you to seize the day.
It is tempting to mock and pillory those who are caught cheating at the Olympics. However, Macbeth shows us that in every fall, there are ambitions and desires that all of us, to some extent, share.
What the Olympics say about Macbeth is even more fascinating. Because although Macbeth has often been faulted for his ruthlessness and ambition, as I watch the Olympics, I find that explanation less and less adequate.
The International Olympic Committee exists to guard the integrity of Olympic Games. Again, it is easy to think of the IOC as the embodiment the Olympic spirit, far above favoritism or corruption. But this is far from true. Bribery happens. Scandals happen. Two athletes are caught cheating. One is banned, the other is forgiven.
Say what you will about Sha'Carri Richardson—this is peak performance, as well:
Why are some penalized, while others allowed their glory? If the arbiters are not consistent—then the argument of crimes “against the natural order” go out the window.
So why, exactly, is Macbeth reviled? People have successfully deposed their kings—in fact, Shakespeare wrote of one, Henry Bolingbroke in Richard II. Even Brutus from Julius Caesar receives better press than Macbeth.
Other than “because we said so,” what makes one overthrow okay and the other not? And, if the right of kings is divine, then what does that say about God?
Viewed this way, Macbeth’s crime is not against the natural order, but against a deeper chaos, one that, on a whim, may reject one dynasty and sanction another.
The witches might not be working against God—they might be in collusion with God. They may even BE God.
And so, when Macbeth is finally killed by Macduff—who has his own prophesied gift, being not of woman born—the tragedy lies not in ambition, nor even betrayal.
What is most devastating is that, in all his actions, Macbeth was hopelessly trapped in a game that was far more scheming and manipulative than his human soul could ever, ever dream.