Sunday, February 27, 2011

Discussion: Macbeth

The play: Macbeth

The plot tweet: Witches prophesy greatness for Macbeth; he and his wife take matters into their own hands by killing the king. But blood follows blood.

My favorite line:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
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.


For reasons I don't understand, Shakespeare has practically no presence here in Indianapolis. We don't have a dedicated Shakespeare company, as do similar cities like Cincinnati, and our classical theater companies tend to offer lighter fare. So, I was delighted several years ago to see that one of our larger professional theater companies was producing Macbeth.

And then I read the fine print: It was part of the theater's "Short Shakespeare" series, featuring condensed versions of the plays with running times of as little as 45 minutes.

I wrote a letter, a very angry one. I believe it included the sentence, "You only show one Shakespeare play every other year, and then you have the nerve to chop it in half?" I'm pretty sure I swore never to patronize the theater again, a promise I haven't kept.*

Obviously I skipped the production, so I'm not sure what was cut. Since then, I've often wondered about that, because I don't see how Macbeth can be cut. A line here, a line there, sure, but a whole hour? The thing that strikes me about Macbeth is its ruthless economy. It has just a handful of well-sketched characters, a simple and fast-moving plot, and no distractions of sub-plot or comic relief. You can't trim much fat from a play that is already thin.

Sure, you can probably cut the scene with the porter, but it is the one moment of comic relief in the entire play, and it underscores several important themes and terms that show up elsewhere in the play. Sure, you can probably cut the charming scene with Lady Macduff and her son, but it emphasizes Macbeth's descent into bloody tyranny. Except for the two brief appearances of Hecate (which are non-Shakespearean anyway), what can be omitted from this already short and streamlined play?

The Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival produced Macbeth last year (properly, as in, the whole play), and the two scenes I've just mentioned -- the porter scene and the Lady Macduff scene -- were actually two of the most memorable. (The production was also memorable for its depiction of Lady Macbeth as a Michelle Obama look-alike, which was extremely distracting and besides that seemed like a rather odd choice for a Canadian theater company.)

I've been reading some excellent commentary on Macbeth this week, most of it focused on the characters of Macbeth and his wife. But the commentary that really struck me this week, in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, focused instead on Banquo. The gist: Although he does a better job of resisting the witches' temptation initially, he too succumbs to evil. He keeps silent about the witches, even when the king is almost immediately murdered in Macbeth's house. And, in some of the last lines he speaks, he shows how obsessed he has become with the idea of his descendants wearing the crown:
Thou hast it now -- king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised: and I fear
Thou play'dst most foully for't. Yet it was said
It should not stand in thy posterity,
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them --
As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine --
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope? But hush, no more.
Macbeth's rapid descent into evil overshadows the whisperings that Banquo too is succumbing to temptation, especially when Macbeth shortly afterward has Banquo murdered. Had Banquo lived longer, however, he might eventually have given Macbeth genuine cause for concern.

I want to add just one note about the ending. The rebellion against Macbeth is supported by the English, and Malcolm's final speech proclaims that the Scottish thanes will "henceforth be earls" -- an English term. In the recent Stratford production, Malcom's aides placed an English flag next to the Scottish flag during this speech, which was staged as a press conference, and it was quite clear that the Scots had not expected this and did not approve. Have the Scots lost their country in the process of saving it?


*And thank goodness, because just this weekend I saw this same theater's outstanding production of In Acting Shakespeare, a one-man show by James DeVita, itself an adaptation of Sir Ian McKellen's one-man show Acting Shakespeare. I've seen DeVita perform several times at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, most recently in All's Well that Ends Well and Waiting for Godot, and he is a fantastic actor. The one-man show was a wonderful glimpse behind the curtain, helping us understand what DeVita loves about Shakespeare and how he learned to act the Bard's work in an accessible way. He got an immediate standing ovation, and he deserved it.

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