22 February 2013

The play that shall not be named.

(Part of my extremely intermittent musings on literature, which is actually my field of competence.)

The play of Shakespeare that I love most is the Voldemort of the group, the one that shall not be named, The Scottish Play. You know, that one.


Why that one, you may well ask?  There are a lot of reasons why.  One is its brevity.  It is the shortest of Shakespeare's plays.  The lines spoken by Hamlet alone are nearly longer than the whole of Macbeth. That brevity gives it a kind of concentration and focus that is not to be seen anywhere else in Shakespeare's canon.  He uses his words in this play like a sniper uses bullets: every one must count.  Take for instance, the opening scene.  To compare Macbeth again with Hamlet, we see that in Hamlet's opening scene, there are themes of reversal of order, a world upside down, of threats to the nation, and supernatural forces plying their way into the world of men.  The exact same themes are in Macbeth's opening scene, but with one difference:  The opening scene in Hamlet is (depending on the version- more of that another time) 178 lines long.  The opening scene in Macbeth is a mere 12 lines.  It's so short, I can quote it in its entirety here.


SCENE I. A desert place.

Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch
Where the place?
Second Witch
Upon the heath.
Third Witch
There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch
I come, Graymalkin!
Second Witch
Paddock calls.
Third Witch
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

As far as teasers go, this is the masterpiece.  The opening line of the whole play tells us that the meeting of the three witches is already over:  The play begins with an ending.  To put it another way, we are thrown into the middle of something that is already occurring.  They tell us a little more:  there is a battle going on, which they know will be settled be by sundown, and they will meet with someone called Macbeth. They are called away by their familiars, and they leave with the another reversal: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.  In twelve lines, there is war, plotting, supernatural powers, and evil is afoot.  Welcome to the play.

And the briliance only begins there. Shakespeare's genius is to be found throughout the play.  The very existence of the play itself is a stroke of genius.  At the time when this play was written, James the VI Scotland had recently ascended the throne of England,  and was now also James I of England.  He also became the patron of the Shakespeare's acting company.  So Shakespeare writes a Scottish play for his new Scottish king, which features ancestors of James in the characters of Banquo and Fleance.  Unlike the sources of the play, in which Banquo was clearly a co-conspirator with Macbeth, in this play he is Macbeth's friend but ignorant of Macbeth's plans to murder Duncan, and he is ultimately killed because Macbeth is jealous that the witches gave Banquo a more glorious destiny than his own.  Shakespeare really plays up on this in the scene where Macbeth visits the witches, and is shown an endless line of kingly descendents in the line of James.  The witches are also a tip of the hat to James, as James was obsessed with the idea, considered himself and expert on the subject, and even wrote a book on the subject, called the Daemonologie.

The witches in the play are witches in the old sense:  They are evil, and one listens to them at one's peril.  Macbeth hears what they have to say, and is destroyed.  Even Banquo, given a more benign fate than Macbeth, is destroyed because he asks the witches to tell him his fate, and Macbeth learns that Banquo will one day be a rival. The witches are a perversion of nature, women who are deformed.  In the drama of the time, they would have been played by men in dresses.  Shakespeare mixes both the perversion of nature and the men in drag with Banquo's nudge-nudge line: "you should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so."

But this play is far more than a piece of flattery for his new boss, or a ply about his obsession.   In some ways, it follows the pattern of Several of Shakespeare's other tragedies: The main character does something Very Bad around the middle of the play, and then faces the consequences and fall out for the remainder.  Romeo and Juliet get married behind their parents back, and the rest of this play is about how this act of disobedience pulls down both families.  Richard the Third murders and schemes his way to the throne, and finds no security, only a thousand tongues branding him a murderer.  Brutus murders Caesar, and is ultimately destroyed for it.  The Renaissance authors use this pattern because their plays hold a didactic function:  they show the audience how the Wages of Sin is Death.

But in Macbeth, Shakespeare does something very different, right before Macbeth murders the king.  Most other villains- Richard III, Brutus, Titus, Aaron, Edmund, to name a few- have speeches wherein they explain why they are going to do what they do, and embrace being a villain- even if for a good reason.  Macbeth does something far different and far more powerful:  He doesn't tell you why he does what he does.  He tells you instead why he almost doesn't do it.

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: 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.
Here Macbeth is considering the idea:  If this one act would be all there is to it, then Maybe.  But he knows that more will come from this.  He then considers why he should not do it.
                        He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
Macbeth is aware o the horror of this deed.  And why would he do such a thing?
                                           I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

And here he is aware that disaster may come of this.  When his wife enters at the end of this speech, he tells her that they will proceed no further in this affair, but she presses him on, and he relents.  This leads to one of the most powerful scenes in Shakespeare: Macbeth slowly ascending to Duncan's bedroom to murder, fully aware and fully repulsed by what he is about to do.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

A bell rings

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

  And thus Macbeth goes to murder Duncan.  He is going to do evil, and he knows he has no good reason, and he cannot turn away.

With these few scenes, the stage is set for Macbeth's downfall, and it is the most powerful in Shakespeare.  Shakespeare wrote other plays about the temptation of power and the destruction it brings, but none so bleak.  Macbeth begins a a good man who goes bad.  He gets the crown, but never enjoys it, loses his wife, his sleep, his sanity.  His last advisor and attendant is Seyton, and he dies alone, abandoned, and his head is placed upon a spike to the cheers of his foes, and through it all he knew he shouldn't.  The bell that summoned Macbeth was not merely a knell for Duncan, it was one for Macbeth himself, and it did not summon him to heaven.

Click here for more of my musings on The Bard.

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