In the proper Halloween spirit:
When faced with something wonderfully complex and vivid and a bit too great to swallow, humans tend to simplify. I understand the impulse: We can only deal with things we can control, themes and stories we can cleanly describe and neatly categorize. We shudder at (and violently attempt to tame) that Hydra of creativity: we shy away (or allow ourselves to be consumed) by that great playwright, Shakespeare.
It’s an inescapable name in any land touched in the slightest by Western civilization. I first read of Shakespeare (probably when I was 6) in My First Book of Biographies. I was given (at 15) the complete works of Shakespeare in a hand-me-down, crumbling, leather bound edition, purchased by a wiser soul than mine in Leeds in the 1970s. Never having been taught the plays in either middle school or high school, I tried to read Midsummer Night’s Dream and abandoned it in Act 2, and then tried to read Julius Caesar in a literature book, only to abandon it in the first scene. It was a language I failed to understand, so I simply stayed away.
My first real foray into the work of the bard was not until my sophomore year of college: whilst in the Core, I read Macbeth. Shortly after, I saw an all-women production of the play. I was enchanted: the bloody deeds, the dark dread, the phantasmagoria…I was hooked on the story, and proceeded to integrate the plot into a short movie I made with my classmates later that year.
I just didn’t see that I didn’t understand a word of it.
I can’t say I began to understand any of the works until I signed on to be the stage manager of a student production of Hamlet. Having worked on another early modern English play (A Mad World, My Masters, by Thomas Middleton), and concurrently having a small part in John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, I slowly familiarized myself to the language of the period. I sat in rehearsal after rehearsal, watching passionate young actors portray the scenes before me. I found poetry in the dialogue: I was mesmerized by the enormousness of meaning in the text, the subtlety of communication, and the moral ambiguity of even the most cheerful and heroic of characters. By the time that play was through, I had planned to register for a Shakespeare course for my last semester in college.
When, during that last semester, I reread Macbeth, I was in for a horrible surprise. I had confidently asserted that the Scottish tragedy was my favorite Shakespeare play (I had only read about 4 of them at that point). But as I read Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 5, I realized I wasn’t understanding a word. The language was cryptic and confusing: and I realized that back when I couldn’t “speak” Shakespeare, I had still sensed the immense essence. Now that I tried to consciously tread my way through the work, I felt completely lost.
This sense of ignorance sowed the seed of my interest in Macbeth. It wasn’t just about the nature of evil and the threat of the supernatural; what puzzled me, through and through, was the burning question: Why is such a great warrior as Macbeth driven to absolute hell over the murder of his king? Why is this play, as Harold Bloom put it, a “tragedy of the imagination“?
I tried my best to answer that question in a final paper for my Shakespeare course. The essence of my curiosity is expressed in this excerpt from my paper:
“Macbeth’s notorious “infirm[ity] of purpose” (2.2.56) is problematic in view of his aggressive character and his allegedly strong motivations for killing Duncan. Despite having “black and deep desires” (1.4.51) to aspire to kingship, Macbeth refers to the murder early on as a “terrible feat” (1.7.81), as something to “wink at” (1.4.52) since it is too unbearable to consider, much less to carry out. The mere thought of the murder itself fills him with fear, “against the use of nature” (1.3.138). The reference to nature is important because the unnatural character of the act itself explains this swift change in Macbeth’s attitude and thought once an opportunity actually appears”.
I go on to argue that the tragedy in the play consists not of the bloodiness of Macbeth’s murder (the play opens with a reference of him “unseam[ing a man] from the nave to th’ chops” (Act 1, Scene 1)), but rather in how it steeps him in dishonor. It’s not about killing a man: it’s about killing a king you have sworn fealty to, then sending hired assassins to take out your war partner, and finally ordering the slaughter of an enemy’s wife and children. Macbeth is not just coated in blood: he has done what is unnatural in this honor-based society, and it leads to his downfall.
This is just one of the many fascinating themes this play covers. While there are several great adaptations (the Trevor Nunn version with Sir Ian McKellan and Dame Judi Dench is great, and one of the most famous renditions is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which takes place in feudal Japan, and which some have argued is the best adaptation that currently exists despite not a word of it being in English, much less Shakespearean English), I’m currently infatuated with the Patrick Stewart’s PBS filmed version. Kate Fleetwood’s madness scene is chilling: don’t miss it, you can find the play in its entirety here.
Vampires, zombies, axe-murderers: all the above can be fun and scary. But they’re external. There’s nothing more fearsome than the darkness that is bred within.