I never knew a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth could so thoroughly enrapture a person, until the American Shakespeare Center (in Staunton, Va.) players did it to me.
They managed to produce the Platonic forms of all the characters. Macbeth: Martial, fraternal, and desperately in love with the only true confidante a man in such desperate, violent times can have, his wife. Banquo: The nobler of the two soldier-friends, but just barely. Duncan: magnanimous, not simpering. Macduff: tortured, but manly. Lady Macbeth: ravishing, graceful, and just imaginative enough to come untethered from reality.
To be honest, until I saw this ASC production, I did not adequately understand how seamless a masterpiece the play really is. Even the comic relief–the drunken porter muttering jokes to himself about souls arriving in the bad place, as he makes his way to the castle gate–serves the dramatic effect.
The fundamental dramatic effect of Macbeth is: Hell can, and does, boil over onto the surface of the earth. The demons, being more intelligent and realistic than we are, can exercise something that looks to us like Providence. They mold the future. But they do it not by commanding any force of nature. Rather, they make the future by exploiting one particular self-fulfilling prophecy: the moral weakness of man. As Banquo warns Macbeth, after they have heard the witches’ predictions of their future glory:
…oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (I:iii)
Months ago I promised a sequel to my reflection on Othello, the other Shakespearian tour of the dark heart of fallen man. Evil follows a completely different trajectory in Othello than it does in Macbeth. The entire dramatic action of Othello involves depicting a seduction into evil.
Othello spars with his tempter, trying to fight off Iago’s evil insinuations. In the end, the tempter in Othello must risk everything to ensnare his prey. Only Iago’s breathtaking courage in the service of his hatred can win the game. “This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite.” (Iago, in V.i) When the Moor finally gives in, only the denouement of the play remains.
Macbeth, on the other hand, gives in to evil in Act I. His play depicts something other than seduction: it shows how evil consumes the soul of someone who has given into it.
When the witches plant the seed in Macbeth’s imagination, he immediately conceives of assassinating the king. Then Lady Macbeth overwhelms his lingering scruples by the superior strength of her will.
After he kills Duncan, Macbeth would that the loud pre-dawn knocking at the gate couldst awake his victim. (I once saw Sean Connery play Macbeth, and of all the lines I ever heard him utter on screen, his “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!” from Macbeth lingers in my mind the most.)
In other words, in Act II, the murderer still trembles with remorse, with guilt. But then he descends further into darkness. To escape the grasp of truth, he must murder Duncan’s sleeping guards. Then Macbeth lies bald-facedly to his friend and brother-in-arms Banquo.
While the rest of the martial company starts awake and cold-sober at the dreadful reality they now face, Macbeth slips into the drunkenness of a conscience running from itself. He gluts himself on malice, knows that he has damned himself, and overtakes his wife in ruthless designs. “Blood will have blood.” “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” With nothing but the ambition he killed for to comfort him, he grasps at it with utter desperation. The witches’ prediction that Banquo’s offspring will wear the crown consumes Macbeth with an anxiety that is as pointless as it is pathetic.
Nothing about the play disturbs us as much as Macbeth’s murderous betrayal of his friend Banquo. When Banquo and Macbeth first step on the stage together, at the play’s beginning, do they trust each other? Why would we doubt it? Two heroes of a great battle, positioned to be rivals, but happy to walk together with easy familiarity, laughing together calmly. After the witches appear, Macbeth and Banquo want to speak to each other confidentially about the predictions they have heard. But after Macbeth conceives his ambitious plan, he puts his conversation with Banquo off. Then he puts it off again.
James Keegan, playing the lead role at ASC, absolutely crushed the depraved comedy of this line of Macbeth’s, after Banquo’s ghost appears at the royal banquet:
Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ the olden time,
Ere human statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d
Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder is. (III.iv)
As the play moves toward its conclusion, Macbeth wants only to talk with the witches again. They have ensnared his mind altogether, and he trusts them with the faith which a soldier should have in his commander and in his comrades in arms.
The witches trick him into consummate arrogance; he becomes a tyrant whom no one can love. The ruthless wife that he worshipped cannot escape the pangs of conscience; guilt torments her in her sleep. The two intimate interlocutors, who conspired together so intimately in Act I, grow into strangers living in Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara-like marital solitude under the same roof.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes perfect sense when one accepts that ghosts can and do appear. Macbeth makes sense when we accept that demons can and do operate on earth, that witches can and do serve the demons, and that hell is as ugly and cruel as it is real. Shakespeare himself, of course, never doubted any of these things.
Macbeth gets off some fine speeches, profound meditations on the nature of time and its relationship with justice. Like when he imagines that the murder he plots could somehow escape having any lasting significance, could serve as a kind of Judgment Day unto itself:
…if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. (I.vii)
This becomes a theme of Macbeth’s descent into remorseless villainy: thoughts and deeds must become one, leaving no room whatsoever for the operation of conscience:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives. (II.i)
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it; from this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. (IV.i)
But then his immediate ruthlessness crashes into the reality of his wife’s suicide. And the present, without past and without consequences, becomes meaningless, too.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v)
Macbeth’s mind has descended fully into darkness. He expostulates the Devil’s definition of life. May God preserve us.