‘Something wicked this way comes’ Macbeth and the performance of ‘evil’
Macbeth, dir. Rupert Goold, 2010 Goold’s film ends with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth descending into hell. Is a belief in the supernatural necessary in order to appreciate the play?
‘Theatre of cruelty’ • French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) advocated a ‘theatre of cruelty’ in which ‘metaphysics must be made to enter the mind through the body’ (1993: 77). • Artaud proposed a theatre rich in physical, dream-like imagery: ‘a theatre where violent physical images pulverise, mesmerise the audience’s sensibilities’ (1993: 63). • For Artaud, theatre was a place for an audience to vent its inner ‘cruelty’: ‘its taste for crime, its erotic obsessions, its savageness, its fantasies’ (1993: 70-1). • ‘We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this.’ (1993: 60)
Macbeth and evil • It is an idea about the transcendent nature of ‘evil’ which underpins most traditional readings of Macbeth. • In 1959, for example, Irving Ribner argued that: • ‘Macbeth is in many ways Shakespeare’s maturest and most daring experiment in tragedy, for in this play he set himself to describe the operation of evil in all its manifestations: to define its very nature, to depict its seduction of man, and to show its effect upon all of the planes of creation once it has been unleashed by one man’s sinful moral choice.’ (1959: 147)
An evil play? • The Macbeth myth: • Charles Macklin’s production, 1772 – audience riots (due in part to rivalry with Garrick). • New York, 1849: Englishman William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest play in rival productions. Riots involved an estimated 20,000 people, and resulted in 30 fatalities and many more injuries. • When Constantin Stanislavski mounted a production at the Moscow Art Theatre, his prompter was found dead during a performance. • Bad luck surrounded Laurence Olivier’s 1937 production at the Old Vic (not least the death of actress LilianBaylis, due to play Lady Macbeth). • Actor Harold Norman, playing Macbeth, was stabbed to death for real at the Oldham Rep in 1947. (Dickson 2009: 217) • Of course, there are rational explanations for the ‘curse’.
Language and the uncanny • When the witches claim to perform ‘a deed without a name’ (4.1.65), they unsettle our faith in the possibility of explaining and articulating the unknown. • This sense that the most terrifying aspects of existence transcend language (an idea shared by Artaud) manifests itself throughout the play: • ‘Speak, if you can. What are you?’ (Macbeth, 1.3.45) • ‘Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more. … Speak, I charge you.’ (Macbeth, 1.3.68,76) • ‘O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee.’ (Macduff, 2.3.62-3) • ‘…I have wordsThat would be howled out in the desert airWhere hearing should not latch them.’ (Ross, 4.3.194-6) • ‘…the grief that does not speakWhispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.’ (Malcolm, 4.3.210-11) • ‘I think, but dare not speak.’ (Doctor, 5.1.76)
Inverted prayer • To an audience with faith in the power of words to solicit the supernatural (for good or for evil), the language of the play is highly-charged: LADY MACBETH. …Come, you spiritsThat tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,And fill me from the crown to the toe top-fullOf direst cruelty. … Come to my woman’s breasts,And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,Wherever in your sightless substancesYou wait on nature’s mischief. (1.5.39-49)
Inverted prayer • As he contemplates his future crimes, Macbeth’s couplets tend to foreground the play’s cosmology of heaven and hell, as well as taking on the form of inverted prayer: • Stars, hide your fires,Let not light see my black and deep desires. (1.4.50-1) • I go, and it is done. The bell invites me.Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knellThat summons thee to heaven or to hell. (2.1.62-4) • It is concluded. Banquo, thy soul’s flight,If it find heaven, must find it out to-night. (3.1.142-3)
Inverted prayer • It is perhaps this perversion of religious speech which renders Macbeth unable to recourse to prayer: MACBETH. …I could not say ‘Amen’When they did say ‘God bless us.’ …I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’Stuck in my throat. (2.2.26-31)
Inverted prayer • Macbeth echoes his wife’s inverted prayer later in the play: MACBETH. …Come, seeling night,Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,And with thy bloody and invisible handCancel and tear to pieces that great bondWhich keeps me pale. (3.2.47-51)
Witches • Of course, the most famous uses of inverted prayer in the play are in the witches’ incantations: • Fair is foul, and foul is fair,Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.10-11) • Double, double, toil and trouble,Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (4.1.21-1) • Their power to command forces beyond human comprehension is a key aspect of the play’s mythology. • The next clip is from Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948).
Witches • Are the witches human or inhuman? • On the one hand, there is something of the ‘village witch’ about their petty concerns in 1.3 (the first witch’s vendetta against a mean-spirited sailor’s wife, for example). • On the other, Banquo suggests that they ‘look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth’ (1.3.39) and that ‘The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them’ (1.3.77-8). • Do the witches control, or merely foresee, the future? • Shakespeare’s source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, is also ambiguous: • ‘…the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science, because everything came to pass as they had spoken.’
A feminist reading • Peter Stallybrass discusses the ‘social utility’ of witchcraft beliefs, arguing that beliefs in the ‘unnatural’ ‘imply and legitimate their opposite, the “natural”’ (2005: 190): • ‘Witchcraft accusations are a way of reaffirming a particular order against outsiders, or of attacking an internal rival, or of attacking “deviance”. Witchcraft in Macbeth… is not simply a reflection of a pre-given order of things: rather, it is a particular working upon, and legitimation of, the hegemony of patriarchy.’ (2005: 190) • King James and the North Berwick witchcraft trials, 1590 (and others)
Lady Macbeth and the witches • Shakespeare sets up several parallels between the witches and the character of Lady Macbeth: • They mirror each other structurally in Act 1: 1.1, 1.3, 1.5 and 1.7 are private, female-dominated scenes, alternating with public, male-dominated ones. • Both are figured as dangerous androgynes: the ‘unsexed’ Lady Macbeth and the ‘bearded’ witches; • Both are associated with infanticide: Lady Macbeth imagines dashing out the brains of her child (1.7.54-9), while the witches’ potion includes a ‘Finger of birth-strangled babe’ (4.1.30). • Against this, one might contrast the passive, motherly Lady Macduff (4.2).
Lady Macbeth • Lady Macbeth assumes a male role in policing her husband’s masculinity: • ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ (1.7.49) • ‘Are you a man?’ (3.4.57) • ‘What, quite unmanned in folly?’ (3.4.72) • Macbeth recognises her masculinity when he tells her, ‘thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males’ (1.7.73-4).
Lady Macbeth • Lisa Jardine analyses Lady Macbeth in light of Hic Mulier: or the Man-Woman (1620), a Jacobean condemnation of ‘masculine’ women. • Arguing that the drama of the early modern period was ‘full of set-piece denunciations of the “not-woman” in her many forms’, Jardine identifies Lady Macbeth as the archetype of Jacobean drama’s ‘not-woman’ (1983: 93, 97-8).
The politics of Macbeth • One can read Macbeth as an intensely conservative political drama: • Performed only months after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, it demonstrates the terrible consequences of regicide; • It serves to legitimate James’s authority by presenting his rule as supernaturally-foretold: Banquo was his ancestor, and the procession of ‘eight Kings’ in 4.1 illustrates his royal lineage (conveniently omitting his politically-awkward mother, Mary Queen of Scots). • The divinely-appointed King’s ability to heal scrofula with ‘holy prayers’ is narrated in a (completely unnecessary) passage in Act 4 (4.3.141-60). James is known to have participated in such ceremonies himself. • See the opening sequence of Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (1978)…
Mythologising ‘evil’ MACBETH. …Besides, this DuncanHath borne his faculties so meek, hath beenSo clear in his great office, that his virtuesWill plead like angels, trumpet-tongued againstThe deep damnation of his taking-off. (1.7.16-20) OLD MAN.’Tis unnatural,Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday lastA falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed. (2.4.10-13) DOCTOR. Foul whisp’rings are abroad. Unnatural deedsDo breed unnatural troubles. (5.1.68-9) • Association of witches with natural disorder: thunder, lightning, fog, filthy air.
Mythologising ‘evil’ • Clergyman Robert Bolton, preaching in 1621: • ‘Take sovereignty from the face of the earth, and you turn it into a cockpit. Men would become cut-throats and cannibals one unto another. Murder, adulteries, incests, rapes, robberies, perjuries, witchcrafts, blasphemies, all kinds of villainies, outrages, and savage cruelty, would overflow all countries. We should have a very hell upon earth, and the face of it covered with blood, as it was once with water.’ • James I’s ideology of Absolutism, says Alan Sinfield, • ‘…represented the English state as a pyramid, any disturbance of which would produce general disaster. … This system was said to be “natural” and ordained by “God”; it was “good,” and disruptions of it were “evil.”’ (1992: 96)
Legitimate violence • ‘It is often said that Macbeth is about “evil”, but we might draw a more careful distinction: between the violence which the State considers legitimate and that which it does not.’ (Sinfield 1992: 95) • Think about the following clip from the TV series 24, as framed by Fox News…
Legitimate violence CAPTAIN. …brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name! – Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steelWhich smoked with bloody execution,Like valour’s minion Carved out his passage till he faced the slave,Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to himTill he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,And fixed his head upon our battlements. DUNCAN. O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman! (1.2.16-24) LADY MACDUFF. But I remember nowI am in this earthly world, where to do harmIs often laudable, to do good sometimeAccounted dangerous folly. (4.2.75-8)
Legitimate violence • Macbeth’s illegitimate violence is punished, finally, by another embodiment of the legitimate order of violence from which he transgressed – the severing of his own head by Macduff. • Final parallel between Duncan/Macbeth and Malcolm/Macduff… • Note Macduff’s willingness to legitimate Malcolm’s (feigned) ‘black and deep desires’ in Act 4 (‘take upon you what is yours’; 4.3.71). • Modern productions which set Macbeth in the world of gang warfare tend to emphasise this aspect of the play. See Penny Woolcock’s Macbeth on the Estate (1997)…
Duncan in Holinshed • The Prologue to Macbeth on the Estate echoes Holinshed: MACDUFF. But in time, Duncan grew fat, slack – and many misruled men took occasion thereof to trouble peace with seditious commotion. (film) • Holinshed: ‘The beginning of Duncane’s reign was very quiet and peaceable, without any notable trouble; but after it was perceived how negligent he was in punishing offenders, many misruled persons took occasion thereof to trouble the peace and quiet state of the common-wealth, by seditious commotions which had their beginnings in this wise.’
Duncan in Holinshed • In Shakespeare’s source, in fact, Duncan and Macbeth are not so very different from one another: • ‘Makbeth, after the departure thus of Duncane’s sons, used great liberality towards the nobles of the realm, thereby to win their favour; and when he saw that no man went about to trouble him, he set his whole intention to maintain justice, and to punish all enormities and abuses which had chanced through the feeble and slothful administration of Duncane.’ • Holinshed goes on to report that Macbeth ruled with justice for 10 years before becoming tyrannical.
The witches: heroines of the piece? • ‘The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little the play itself recognises the fact, and however much the critics may have set out to defame them. It is they who, by releasing ambitious thoughts in Macbeth, expose a reverence for hierarchical social order for what it is, as the pious self-deception of a society based on routine oppression and incessant warfare. … The witches are exiles from that violent order, inhabiting their own sisterly community on its shadowy borderlands, refusing all truck with its tribal bickerings and military honours. … their words to Macbeth catalyse this region of otherness and desire within himself, so that by the end of the play it has flooded up within him to shatter and engulf his previously assured identity.’ (Eagleton 1986: 2) • See the ending of Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth (1971)…
References • Artaud, Antonin (1993) The Theatre and its Double, translated by Victor Corti, London: Calder. • Dickson, Andrew (2009) The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, London: Penguin. • Eagleton, Terry (1986) William Shakespeare, Oxford: Blackwell. • Jardine, Lisa (1983) Still Harping on Daughters,Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, Brighton: Harvester Press. • Ribner, Irving (1959) ‘Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 10:2, 147-59. • Sinfield, Alan (1992) Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. • Stallybrass, Peter (2005) ‘Macbeth and witchcraft’ in John Russell Brown [ed.] Focus on Macbeth, London: Routledge, 189-209.