5 Reasons Why Breaking Bad is Macbeth

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Breaking Bad is now in its final death throes, and we will soon all see what happens to Walter White and the rest of his crew, not to mention his tortured family.  Most well written stories reference great literature, but Vince Gilligan has indeed made some obvious references from Shakespeare that are evident throughout the series.  I would like to make 5 observations about Breaking Badthat I feel are ironclad proof that the writers know their Shakespeare…at least Macbeth.

  1. Skyler White and Lady Macbeth – Many things have been written about Walter White’s wife, but one thing that is true is that she is definitely a shrew.  She belittles Walter with her actions more than her words and then with everything that she can muster.  She eventually joins Walter in his meth operation, laundering money for him through the car wash.  Lady Macbeth belittles Macbeth many times in the play, questioning his manhood and even going as far as insulting him when he carries the daggers out of Duncan’s bedroom.  She then, however, helps him with his bloody bid for power even to the point of giving him suggestions as to how to go about it.
  2. Perceived Invincibility – Walter White and Macbeth both develop an invincibility complex.  Macbeth is told by the witches that “no man of woman born” can harm him, so he does deeds that he would otherwise not do because he feels as if he cannot be killed.  Walter White makes meth that is over 99% pure, something average meth cooks are not capable of doing because they do not possess his chemistry background.  He begins to believe he is untouchable because in his mind all of the other drug lords and cartels know he has the best product.  Therefore, to kill him would be to lose that high quality product.  This is tested when Jessie learns to make the meth exactly like Walter.  Macbeth eliminates every rival, real or imagined, and Walter does the same, spreading out a map of Albuquerque on Jessie’s kitchen bar and exclaiming that “all of this territory is just ripe for the taking.” When Jessie mentions that the other drug lords won’t take kindly to encroaching on their territory, Walter simply states that Jessie now has a “rep” because of crushing the head of a rival with an ATM machine, and that they will “deal with” anyone who stands in their way.
  3. Driven by Prophesy – Both Walter White and Macbeth receive prophesies about their eventual fates but even when the prophesies do not work in their favor they continue on their downward spiral.  Macbeth is told he will become king while Walter is told he will die from lung cancer.  Both of these prophesies drive them to courses of action that send them on a path toward evil and depravity.  At the start, Macbeth questions the prophesy that he will be king, but then Lady Macbeth spurs him on with insults.  Walter’s decision to remedy his family’s financial situation can be seen as somewhat noble, but the means by which he does this are depraved and immoral.  Another similarity here is that once Macbeth discovers that Macduff is “no man of woman born” in Act V, he does not back down or stop his fight for control.  Walter, when he finds out in Season 2 that his tumor has shrunk by 80%, pounds a paper dispenser in the bathroom with his fist until his knuckles bleed, continuing on his path to control the meth trade anyway.
  4. Pros and Cons of Murder – Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 2 and Walter’s first deliberate murder are extremely similar.   Macbeth weighs the pros and cons of committing murder in his soliloquy in Act I, vii, making a list of reasons why one should and should not murder another.   Walter, in the episode “And the Bag’s In the River”, makes a very similar list of pros and cons before going down into the basement to kill Krazy Eight.  In Act II, i, Macbeth sees a dagger floating before him, a vision of what he is about to do.  Walter re-assembles the broken plate (in the same episode mentioned above) and discovers that Krazy Eight has a broken shard that he plans to use as a dagger, which in essence is a “vision” of a dagger.
  5. Jessie Pinkman and Lady Macbeth – Another character who has amazing similarities with Lady Macbeth is Jessie Pinkman.  In “And the Bag’s In the River”, Jessie teases Walter about killing someone or doing what is necessary, telling Walter “You have to do your part!”, which means he has to go down into the basement and kill Eight Ball.  Lady Macbeth belittles Macbeth when he commits his first murder (Act II, ii) taking the daggers from him saying: “Infirm of purpose!/Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead/Are but as pictures: ’tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.”  As Macbeth grows in power and evil, Lady Macbeth shrinks in importance and eventually goes mad, seeing the vision of blood on her hands that will not be washed away, a picture of her guilt.  Jessie shrinks in importance as Walter becomes the meth lord of Albuquerque, eventually falling completely into drug addiction so that he becomes useless.  Jessie’s “Out, Out, Damn spot!” moment has to be when he begins to fear for his life and hallucinates that two Mormon missionaries are two murderers with machetes on motorcycles in Season 2, the mental damage from his evil deeds and his guilt.  Another similarity is that Walter loses all compassion for Jessie when he goes over the edge with drug addiction, going out on his own in pursuit of power and money.  Macbeth, when he learns of Lady Macbeth’s death in Act V says “She should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word”, refusing to feel anything at all about her demise.

There are many more, so many in fact that the show should probably be called Macmeth.  What do you think, Shakespeare fans?  Do you see any other similarities between the Bard and the Bad?  Post comments below.

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13 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Breaking Bad is Macbeth

  1. I love this. I was thinking about this connection watching season 5, when Skyler walks into the pool in almost a trance, like Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. There’s even an almost direct reference- whether intentional or not, in “Fifty-One” where Skyler says she has “blood on her hands” like Lady Macbeth did.

  2. Pingback: Stealing from Shakespeare | Screenwriting from Iowa

  3. Breaking Bad was utterly addictive. We consumed it avidly. I must admit the Shakespearian aspects passed over my head.
    Cheers

    Opher from Opher’s World

  4. As one who normally reads and not really a television watcher, I am I must admit, somewhat of a late comer to Breaking Bad- encouraged by a co-worker and a past resident of Albuquerque, I was intrigued. Eventually, I purchased the entire series on DVD, and have been rather voracious, being in turn amazed at the quality, and appalled by the violence which descends upon it like the bloodiest execution written by Shakespeare. After the second episode, I began to feel I was watching the best of Shakespeare, and have felt so since that time. Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers has wound a tale as dark as Macbeth, with elements of Hamlet. There are of course influences from the Godfather Part II, which is of itself wonderfully Shakespearean. Like others posting here, I could write on and on about this. In my “spare time” – not that I have much of between day job, teaching fitness and m music – singer -songwriter – musician……… but I am honestly tempted to create a play based upon Breaking Bad, written in the style and settings of Elizabethan Shakespeare….write on Macduff!

    • I say go for it. I love the show and am looking forward to “Better Call Saul” premiering on the same night as one of my other favorites: “The Walking Dead”. Thanks for posting!

  5. Excellent post there!

    While writing a post about how Shakespeare creates plot in “Macbeth”, I also noticed these similarities. I love “Breaking Bad”, I just think season 4 (and to a certain extent also season 3) is a lot weaker, because the character of Gus Fring doesn’t work for me at all. The other seasons are great!

    I’m gonna go ahead and post a link to my article here:

    http://www.ridethepen.com/kafka-metamorphosis-realism-atmosphere/

  6. I spotted the similarity quite late on I am ashamed to say! The major plot similarity is that Walt kills the King (Fring) so he can build his own empire & become king. Loads of theme similarities; disruption of natural order, murder, conspiracy, treachery. The flash forwards could also be likened to the witches prophecies!!

  7. The main similarity is the devolution of of a noble character that is the result of breaking one’s own moral code. Macbeth kills the king whom he knows doesn’t deserve to die. This one heinous act leads him to slowly become more and more evil to defend his position. He loses everything in the end, love, friends, power, and life itself.
    Walter becomes involved in destroying lives through his decision to produce meth. Like Macbeth, this one heinous decision leads him down a path of becoming increasingly wicked mostly, like Macbeth, to defend himself. Inthe end, just like Macbeth, he loses all: love,friends, power, and his life. The one difference from Macbeth is that he seems to succeed in providing for his family. I personally did not like this part of the ending. Becoming a drug dealer might cause one to prosper in real life, but it should never do so in literature.

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  9. I’m a student teacher in a high school who is just getting into a unit on Macbeth with one of my classes. I’ve been amazed at the similarities between the worlds of Shakespeare’s Scotland and Vince Gilligan’s New Mexico.

    Dean Norris recently said on the Grantland Hollywood Prospectus podcast that he considers “Breaking Bad” to be modern Shakespeare. There’s no question. Walter White is a tragic hero, driven by his own delusional motivations and hubris.

    I actually noticed a scene in last night’s penultimate episode (“Granite State,” which aired on 9/22/13). If you haven’t seen the episode yet, I’d suggest waiting before you read on.

    In the scene where Walt is about to leave his cabin in New Hampshire, he pauses before opening the gate and actually says, “Tomorrow… tomorrow.” I actually wondered aloud if this was the writers’ way of subtly referencing Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy. While Walt certainly does not offer a lengthy thematic statement, it seemed funny to me that he said the word more than once.

    I don’t think there’s any question that Walt is in the throes of his fall from grace right now. It is extremely Shakespearean, and it’s hard to argue any parallels between Heisenberg and the once noble Thane.

    I could write about this series all day. It’s exceptional, and probably the purest treatment of Shakespearean conventions I’ve ever seen.

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