Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mulling Over Macbeth

Last night, Melissa and I finished watching Rupert Goold's Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. For now, you can watch the whole thing on PBS here; for right now, here's a wonderful, creepy clip:

As that clip makes clear, Goold's take on the Three Witches is profoundly disturbing, perverse and wicked: the fact that the witches tend to appear out of their different scenes as either as nurses or scullery maids chopping up meat makes it that much easier for him to play around with themes of corruption, possession, and general foulness. It is when the production is that most open in pursuing such themes that I like it best...and as it only rarely seems to take up some other set of themes, that means I liked the production a great deal. It wasn't perfect, I think, but it was damn close.

I'd already been thinking about Macbeth a bit lately, so watching this production fit alongside my thoughts well. Partly I was thinking about it due to this insightful set of reflections upon different productions of the play, written up by Noah Millman. And partly it was because of a conversation I'd had with Marv Hinten, an English professor here at Friends U., who told me that if he ever was to give a graduation address or similarly important speech, and he was expected to make use of a Shakespeare play, he would use Macbeth. I'm in agreement with him there. Macbeth has long been my favorite Shakespeare play, and not just because, as I've written before, I think it has the finest soliloquy that Shakespeare ever wrote. It's because, of all his plays, it is the one which most obviously, and most deeply, address themes of sin, evil, and morality.

I'd never seen nor read a Shakespeare play before I went to BYU, and when I took a course on Shakespeare there, it was, perhaps predictably, taught to me in a way which to some degree surely reflected the peculiar context of reading literature at a religious school. I don't think that was at all a negative thing; reading Shakespeare in an aggressive secular context will have its own pitfalls. But what I did realize, as time went on and I read and saw (one year, fortunately, down at the wonderful Utah Shakespeare Festival) of his plays, that I just couldn't agree with the tendency some scholars have to see Shakespeare as someone who was frequently thinking seriously about religion, healing, forgiveness, and redemption and damnation. I don't really see it in Hamlet or The Tempest, for example. But I admit--I do see it in Macbeth. I particularly saw in one very audacious protection of the play put on at BYU, where the Three Witches were quite explicitly played as demonic figures, constantly lurking about, tempting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (and Banquo too, though he resists), enabling them to accomplish every act of wickedness they open themselves up to (in that production, the Three Witches merged to become the Third Murderer, which I found delightfully horrifying). In that play--and really, this is the way I've experienced the play ever since, and the basis upon which I judge productions of it--Macbeth and his Lady are frankly hypocrites, two people who have put up a show of virtue and excellence to hide the deadly ambitious thoughts lurking within them, whom feel themselves liberated by the prophecies of the Three Witches...but who continually appeal to the darkness, to the forces of evil, and to each other (at least at the beginning...eventually Macbeth shuts his wife out), to keep up their determination for their unnatural, bloody rampage. Stewart and Fleetwood do that as well, I think; in their presentation of the famous "If it were done when 'tis done" soliloquy and scene, we see a Macbeth who really wants to murder Duncan, but recognizes--more of Shakespeare's appreciation of double-mindedness here!--that his "vaulting ambition" isn't quite enough to get him to overcome his doubts, and he rather stiffly announces to Lady Macbeth that he has cold feet...perhaps to goad her into committing herself that much more thoroughly, as a buttress to his own weak, wicked, tempted will.

Melissa isn't as fond as the stark moral reading I give to play as I am, in which the tragedy of Macbeth is that, unlike Banquo--who calls upon God's mercy to protect him from the "cursed thoughts that [his] nature gives way to in repose"--he is a man who is willing to embrace evil deeds when cruelly tempted by their promised end. She is much more comfortable seeing the Three Witches the way Akira Kurosawa presented them in Throne of Blood--as an at least apparently neutral nature spirit, offering merely prophecy rather than temptation, and that the evil of the play comes not from Macbeth's embrace of an wicked promise, but of Macbeth's choices themselves. In that sense, she reads the play as less a religious tale, with witches and ghosts, and more a psychological study: how is it that someone comes to do that which they hold to be wrong, and what does it do to them when they see themselves as the villain? Both will have different implications for what Noah wisely calls Macbeth's "apotheosis of nihilism": is he pondering the fact that he has fallen into (or leaped into) a situation in which all is pointless, where there is no hope or future...or is he slowly, surely realizing that he, unwittingly, has brought such hopelessness to pass, that he has made it his own? Stewart plays it the first way; other great performers have gone the second route. Consider:


...and Ian McKellan

Well, there's no right on wrong here--just possible readings, of a tremendous text. But all this has just left me excited: it's summer, and that means the Wichita Shakespeare Company's outdoor productions are going to begin again. First up, The Taming of the Shrew. Can't wait.

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