Humanism is woven into nearly all of Shakespeare's work. Empathy is valued. Hypocrisy and arrogance are skewered. Humanity's capacity for self-sacrifice, for finding a higher purpose than self-interest, is vaunted. There is also an acceptance of our deeper flaws. Shakespeare sees us in toto, yet manages to paint us as worthy, to say our lives and our actions matter.
Macbeth is not a play that follows this pattern. It's the bleakest of Shakespeare's plays. For though it has characters that embody great virtue, the protagonist is no such man. His eventual fate lacks a sense of moral satisfaction. What's more, Shakespeare's other tragedies each end on a redemptive note. I would argue the speech by Malcolm, the assumptive king, in the final moments of the play, does not offer any significant counterpoint to the cumulative dark force of Macbeth. The scales are tipped too drastically for any sort of equilibrium to be restored.
It is this bleak power that connects Macbeth to the world of Jacobean playwriting (the era of King James was what followed Elizabeth's death). Jacobean plays are distinguished by being particularly violent, shockingly bloody, and grim in tone. (One of the most famous is "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," in which a brother and sister are engaged in an incestuous affair, assisted by a priest. At the climax of the play, the brother enters with his sister's heart on a knife, having torn it out to make sure she would never give it to another.)
I would argue that Macbeth is one of the plays that ushered in the Jacobean style of tragedy. It is a style that feels very contemporary as well. What's now called "torture porn" (the "Saw" movie franchise, for example) is certainly more graphic than anything mustered on Shakespeare's stage, but the violence in contemporary films and video games seems designed to provoke the same reaction as the violence in Macbeth: visceral, animalistic shock. Shakespeare has an edge in terms of realism, though. Stage blood in his day was procured from the butcher's, and actors fought with sharp-edged weapons so they would be able to pierce pig's bladders full of blood at crucial moments in the fight. The sight and smell of blood congealing in the hot sun would have certainly added an element of disgusting verisimilitude.
But surely Shakespeare was up to more in this play than simple shock value? What I find so frightening about the play is that Shakespeare, the great humanist, created such a distressing world in Macbeth. He posits a world in which there is no control. That isn't so odd -- nearly all the comedies have one lover or another declaring, "Fate! Show thy force!" What is much worse is that in Macbeth, Shakespeare posits a world where our lives have no meaning, where the sum of our existence is "a tale told by an idiot." I shouldn't be surprised that Shakespeare could imagine such a world. What does surprise me is the weight with which he makes that argument.
Our company has tackled this play several times in the past and it is my experience that the real curse one encounters is not the myriad accidents, bad luck, and broken swords but the terrible reviews it invariably generates. Macbeth is a popular play to teach in American schools (students usually encounter it in 9th grade) and as such, people form a very particular view about what they should expect from an early age: creepy witches, strapping men in kilts hitting each other, bleak solemn monologues, a terrifying, bossy wife badgering her noble husband into murder... more kilts... etc.
One of the problems for a modern audience is that we no longer, as a society, believe in witchcraft, magic, or the supernatural. To an Elizabethan, witches were a real, threatening presence. Today, witches appear at Halloween, have pointy hats, hooked noses, broomsticks and, in L.A., increasingly shorter skirts. In our production, we talked a long time about how to make the witches actually frightening. I've seen productions where the witches are scary hobos, weird Gollum-like creatures, female soldiers, mysterious caped figures, traditional, warty hags, the whole the gamut. However, none of these portrayals ever occurred as a genuine threat.
At a certain point, in rehearsal, we realized that we were barking up the wrong tree. The Witches themselves are not frightening: it is their effect upon their chosen victim that is disturbing. In seeking to portray them as individually malevolent we were losing sight of the bigger picture. We started to explore the ways in which the Witches existed in the world of the play -- on the periphery. Eventually, we found ways of placing them in many scenes, casually viewing the effects of their suggestion as it unfolds through the play. Their costumes were initially goth-like: black biker jackets and heavy eyeliner. This attempt to make them look sinister undermined the ambiguity we were trying to effect. So Daniel Mahler, our costume designer, replaced the costumes with white flowing dresses, a contrast to the dark colors of the other characters. They started to flow through the play, gleefully giggling at their handiwork. Were they deliberately leading Macbeth toward his fate or merely watching his calamity unfold as he acts on their suggestion? I don't know the answer but I do know that we discovered something much more unsettling than if we pursued the course we originally intended. The Witches move through the play like a river of amorality, disrupting all control and balance.
Amorality is an awe-invoking concept, both terrible and majestic. A lack of absolute good and absolute evil, an absence of meaning: look for the heart of Macbeth and you find a void. How we fill this void is our choice. And it is this that is both inspiring and daunting. If our lives are to have meaning, Shakespeare seems to say, it is solely up to us to decide what that meaning is. I'd say Heaven help us, but I fear I'd be missing the point.
Want to read more? Check out more of Artbound's most recent articles:
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Actor Luis Galindo discusses the challenges of playing the title role of Macbeth in this summer's Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival.
Sharpies, Nightmares, and the 'Radical Transparency' of Independent Shakespeare Co.
Artistic Director Melissa Chalsma divulges the inspiration and unintended effects of an interactive art piece created for Macbeth: The Nightmare Floor.
Top Image: Photo by Grettel Cortes.
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