Monday, April 26, 2010

Shakesblogging: Macbeth

What I love about this play: It’s so tight and dark and tense, with so many lines that give me the shivers. From Act 1 alone: “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky / And fan our people cold.” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” “Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” “What thou wouldst highly / That wouldst thou holily.” “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.” “Come, thick night / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.”

The verse in this play feels intensely imagistic to me – there’s a lot of emphasis on the visual, things seen and partly-seen and unseen, and a lot of recurring visual imagery: blood, birds, fog and smoke and darkness. It’s also just stunning poetry, in general: the long leaden vowels of “Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak”; the slow drag of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” It cries out to be read aloud.

Some nice character touches: Banquo’s “A heavy summons likes like lead upon me / And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose.” (I like the hint here that he’s an almost-Macbeth, sleepless while the innocent are sleeping and grappling with the same temptations that Macbeth is, but he manages to rein them in.) I’m also fond of Lady Macbeth’s “What, in our house?”, which is just the sort of awkward and inappropriate thing people do blurt out when they’re in a state of shock, and I can’t for the life of me work out whether it’s the first sign that she’s losing control of the situation, or quite deliberate, and a stroke of brilliance.

(Random question: Has anyone ever seen or heard of a production in which Lady Macbeth’s child actually appears on stage? I’m staring right now at the “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, / And put a barren sceptre in my grip,” speech, which I’d always taken to mean that Macbeth didn’t have a living heir, but in context, it actually doesn’t; rather, he’s saying that the witches have done this to him by predicting that Banquo’s children will succeed to the throne. And he doesn’t brood or obsess about his own childlessness at all, as you might expect, just about Fleance’s continued existence. I think the kid could easily be alive at the beginning of the play; really, the only thing pointing against it is Macduff’s “He has no children,” and this could just as easily refer to Malcolm as Macbeth. I also think this could be really interesting in performance, especially if the child eventually meets an awful fate as a result of Macbeth’s choices. Yeah, I’m cruel, but there are dead mothers and dead babies all over this play, and it would fit so well, thematically.)

Favorite memory: Re-reading this for my Shakespeare class last fall. For some reason, I’d never had occasion to read it since I was in college, and I’d only seen one very, very bad stage production during the twelve years in between, so it was this huge rush of re-discovery: how did I forget this play was so good?


Sisyphus said...

I love MacBeth best. I got to do scenes from it for a project in 10th grade, and then for my summer abroad got to see a really weird version of it over in England at Stratford. The set was canted 14 degrees and the only thing in the middle was a big gnarled tree that the actors scoffed at and said looked like it was stolen from Waiting for Godot.

(NB: Macbeth may actually be a close second for me behind Lear. I never did click over here and rant about how great the end of the series Deadwood was, with it's quotes from Lear and all.)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I ever read start to finish without stopping once. I was so completely taken with it that I just couldn't put it down. The pace is frantic, and it pretty much never lets up. I love it. I did a reading of it with my students last semester, and they were mesmerized too. I haven't taught it yet, just did the one reading, but I am definitely going to include it next time. Loads of fun!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

I had almost forgotten. And then we went to see Verdi's opera of it a few weeks ago. And, in between laughing at the very, very simplistic Italian, and rediscovering just how taut and tense Verdi's psychological music can be, I kept remembering just how the Shakespeare works, and rediscovering the power (in their absence) of the real poetry there.