The Bardathon: 26 – Macbeth

Macbeth has an exciting story about witches and murders, exudes a powerful atmosphere and moves quickly, and is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. Not surprisingly, it is widely regarded as one of the most “accessible”, and is a favourite both in the classroom and in regional repertory theatres (at least, it was back in the days when regional repertory theatres used regularly to perform Shakespeare). It is therefore all the more surprising that there are so few good performances of this play: I have seen several productions on stage over the years, but not one that I would consider even satisfactory. And, strange as it may seem to say so about a play that is quite rightly acknowledged to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the human imagination, it seems to me that Shakespeare has to take some of the blame for this: the pacing of this play seems to me to leave a lot to be desired.

Such criticism ought not to be made lightly, of course, given that Shakespeare was, amongst other things an absolute master of dramatic pacing. But it is entirely possible – indeed, probable – that the text we currently have is a cut-down version of what had once been a longer play. (Indeed, the editors of the Oxford edition say very confidently that the play we have now was “edited by Thomas Middleton”.) But if the original play had been longer, it’s hard to see which aspects of the current text could have been expanded upon: the principal characters are depicted to perfection, and one wonders how any extra scene or speech could have added to their characterisation. It is, of course, possible that the other characters had been given a greater presence in the original text, but once again, it is hard to imagine how their roles could have been expanded without diluting the intensity generated by the dominant presence of the two principal characters.

I suppose there is little point in speculating on what the play might have been like: all we have to go on is what we have now, and we must focus on that. And what we have now, although a work of undoubted genius, is also, it seems to me, clumsily paced. Has there ever been a production of this play, I wonder, where the momentum hasn’t faltered after the end of the second act? In all other Shakespeare tragedies, the narrative arc with which the play opens reaches a sort of natural hiatus at the end of the exposition, and, invariably, this occurs somewhere in the first act – usually towards the end. In Julius Caesar, it occurs at the end of the scene where Cassius first plants the seeds of conspiracy into Brutus’ mind; in Othello, it occurs at the end of the Senate scene; in Hamlet, the narrative arc of the opening stretches out till the end of the long first act with its climax on the battlements of Elsinore, when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost; in King Lear, we have a double exposition, and the narrative arc with which the play opens comes to a natural halt at the end of the second scene, when Cordelia has been banished and Edmund has convinced Gloucester of Edgar’s treachery. In all these cases, the exposition ends somewhere in the first act with a natural hiatus in the narrative. But in Macbeth, it’s different: the narrative continues uninterrupted right to the end of the second act. It is, indeed, breathtaking: the tension mounts in a continuous crescendo, never for a moment pausing for breath, until we reach a sequence of some of the most exciting and terrifying of all scenes in drama. Only after the discovery of Duncan’s murder can we pause for breath. But by then, we are almost half way through the play.

And what follows is, in comparison, more fragmented. There are still magnificent scenes, of course: there are still some of the finest passages of dramatic verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but the momentum undeniably falters. And then, we come to that problematic fourth act, with the long scene in the English court. Shakespeare in his tragedies usually gave his main actor a bit of a break in the fourth act, but I doubt there has been any production where this scene hasn’t seemed too long. Yes, Shakespeare brings us back into the action quite magnficently with that terrifying sleepwalking scene, but it cannot be denied that the dramatic momentum of the first two acts has disappeared.

It seems petty-minded, I agree, to write in such negative terms about so great a masterpiece, but the fact remains that this is one of the most difficult of plays to pull off in performance, and the reasons seem to me to be worth investigating. Another reason why it fails so often is, I think, the staging. It is a big mistake, I think, to stage Macbeth as an epic play, or to play it in a big theatre. Yes, it is about dynasties and battles, but its atmosphere is of a suffocating claustrophobia: it is, I think, a chamber play, and should ideally be played in intimate surroundings, with the audience as close to the actors as possible; and the great speeches should be confided in us – whispered rather than declaimed. And, while it may hurt the profits of the theatre bar, it should ideally be played without a break.

The central theme of this play is evil. It addresses the question posed by Gloucester in King Lear: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Of course, Shakespeare had created memorable evil characters before – Richard III, Goneril & Regan, Edmund, Iago – but in all of these cases, we come to a dead end when we try to investigate the question of what it is that makes them evil. Why are they evil? Because they do evil things. Why do they do evil things? Because they are evil. However striking these characters are, all investigation into their evil natures founders on this circular logic. But the evil characters in this play – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – are different in type. Unlike, say, Richard III, these people are intelligent and sensitive characters, admirable in many respects. How can people such as these allow evil to enter into their souls? And, just as importantly, once they have allowed this evil to enter, how do they live with it? Shakespeare had touched upon this once before – not with Richard III, but with Claudius, that other monarch who had murdered his way to the throne. But, impressive though the characterisation of Claudius is, he is not he central character of the play: Shakespeare could not afford to dissect Claudius’ soul in too great a detail because Prince Hamlet had to be kept in the central dramatic spotlight. But the issues raised by the character of Claudius had clearly sojourned in Shakespeare’s mind, and here are to be answered.

The economy with which Shakespeare depicts his two principal characters here is breathtaking. Macbeth both wants and doesn’t want at the same time: he desires with all his heart, but with all his heart he flinches from that action that would lead to the fulfilment of his desire. Whatever his decision, he cuts off an important part of himself. And Lady Macbeth has to force herself to be evil: she invites evil spirits to possess her, because she knows that she cannot be evil without their aid. Of course, we may view these evil spirits (and, indeed, the witches) as symbolic manifestations of these characters’ evil desires: but whether we view these spirits either on a literal or on a metaphorical level, once they have possessed her, they destroy her.

Both characters lose their minds, I think. In the famous sleepwalking scene, we see Lady Macbeth suffering all the torments of hell itself while still resident on earth: she relives repeatedly that night on which she had lost her soul – she has no option but to live through it again and again. And as for Macbeth, he has to live with the awareness of what he has done, and of its significance. After Duncan’s murder, he says that had he died an hour hence, he would have lived a blessed time, for now “there is nothing serious in mortality”. If the witches “lie like truth”, Macbeth here is telling the truth like lies: in dramatic terms, this is Macbeth feigning sorrow for Duncan’s death, but in psychological terms, he is revealing a great truth about himself. For the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t really matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters – there is nothing serious in mortality. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – all of time is but a series of undifferentiated days, mere sound and fury signifying nothing. That word “nothing” had haunted King Lear as well, but, contrary to what Lear had thought, something does come out of nothing in that play. But here, there is no Cordelia to light up the profound darkness with her love: hell is, indeed, murky.

And yet, Macbeth cannot completely convince himself that nothing really matters. Even as a mass-murderer, he retains to the end an awareness of what he has lost, of what he could never seek to have. When he speaks to the doctor ostensibly about his wife, he knows that it is his own “diseased mind” that he is really speaking about. And no – no doctor could minister to that.

These two characters have committed evil beyond imagining (at one point in the play, we see a child murdered on stage). And yet, perhaps, there is no other play where by the end we are made to wonder with such insistence what these two people have done to themselves. For we have followed every step of their descent into hell – a hell which they have entered even while on this earth. To face up to this play is to face up to the greatest terror that may be imagined.


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