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9 january 2016

I first saw Macbeth when I was six. My father directed the show at Loyola University of Chicago, and played King Duncan. It is nice to see your father as a king, but somewhat Oedipal to see him stabbed to death in the second act.

Duncan is of course not stabbed to death onstage, though the bloody knives are in real and imaginary presence. Bunches of other characters are poignarded or epéed in the course of the play, which is short, suspenseful, and brilliant in its depiction of a corrupt monarchy. Macbeth has always been my ideal of a Shakespeare play. America being what it is, the violence of Macbeth was suitable for me at the age of six when the sexuality of Othello wouldn't have been, so I not only saw the play but read and re-read it when I was a child, starting of course with Classics Illustrated and graduating to the helpfully annotated paperback Folger Library "General Reader's" edition. Being a child of the 1960s I also read Barbara Garson's MacBird! and got every reference. American history was warped in front of my eyes, as it transpired, by satirical Shakespearean allusions.

I should mention in passing that, growing up in a theatrical family, I never heard the old superstition that you shouldn't say the title of the "Scottish Play" till I was nearly fifty and my father long since retired. It may be a British superstition that never obtained in America. It may be rubbish. Anyway, we never avoided saying the title. Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth.

There isn't a wasted moment in Macbeth – unless you count the goofy appearances of Hecate in Act 3, Scene 5, and at the start of Act 4, which most editors believe to be interpolations. For some reason, either Shakespeare or some later producer thought that Macbeth needed some songs, and imported Hecate and some extra musical numbers for the Weird Sisters from a play by Thomas Middleton. Kenneth Muir, writing in the 1951 Arden edition, says

One would like to think that Shakespeare was dead and buried, or at least living in retirement in Stratford, before his fellows spoilt his play. (xxx)
Later editing theory takes the good with the bad. Actually Muir himself, to be fair, was already heading in directions that would lead away from the idea that Shakespeare made a pristine verbal icon that everyone else who touched was in danger of "corrupting." There is a long tradition of seeing one verbal tic in Macbeth – the rhymed couplets that end many scenes and are sometimes formulaic and trite – as attributable to bozos providing additional dialogue. Muir thinks that's nonsense, and the Shakespeare just liked the closure of rhymes, and may occasionally have produced a clinker.

So other than that there's not a wasted moment. War, witches, murder, searing guilt, paranoid tyranny, more war, and damned be him who first cries "hold, enough." Along the way we get the simplest of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, at once among the most and least sympathetic of the bunch. Macbeth doesn't know any way to seize power, let alone govern effectively, without killing anyone who might pose a threat. He is also shatteringly ashamed of himself, unable either to enjoy the spoils (his wife's advice) or rationalize his own cruelty with claims of any higher purpose. The talkier scenes in the play involve the noblemen of Scotland reflecting bitterly on totalitarian society. 1930s settings have been popular for plays of this kind (including Ian McKellen's famous Richard III), and Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in a film version set in a stylized 1930s kingdom. Stewart's version is too long and lugubrious, but there are some nice touches: the Sisters get to be hospital nurses, of course, and the best scene of all has Stewart insulting the murderers that Macbeth hires to kill Banquo – all the while for some unknown reason fixing them sandwiches in the castle kitchen.

And of course, the poetry is incomparable. Macbeth must have produced more titles of other literary works than any other Shakespeare play. Even while poleaxed with guilt, Macbeth can't stop spinning memorable lines.

One of the most memorable neatly shows the difference between Shakespeare's early (but modern-seeming) diction and that of his 18th-century admirers. Late in the play, the war going badly, Macbeth reflects that he has lived long enough.

My way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf (Act 5, Scene 3)
Samuel Johnson suspected corruption: because, as Muir's note says, "there was no relation between 'way of life' and 'fallen into the sere'" (145). Suppose a scribe or compositor had misread "May?" There's your neat, neoclassical antithesis: May vs. "yellow leaf." It's also clunky as hell, hitting you over the head with a stock comparison of May and November; not to mention that Macbeth was never much of a lovely-month-of-May guy to start with. As so often, Shakespeare knew when not to gild the yellow leaf.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. 1623. Edited by Kenneth Muir. 1951, 1972. London: Methuen, 1979.

UPDATE 08.23.19: Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that Giuseppe Verdi adapted as an opera, with libretto by his frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave. Macbeth premiered in 1847 but was revised a few times during Verdi's career. Paraphrasing somebody German or Klingon, I have to say that Macbeth is even better in the original Italian. I recently watched a DVD of the 2001 production staged in Zürich, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, starring Thomas Hampson and Paoletta Maroccu. Despite a bizarrely eclectic production, featuring weird sisters toting all kinds of red plastic toys, Fleance carting around a glow-in-the-dark green typewriter, murderers in Starfleet uniforms, mad Lady Macbeth scrawling stick figures on a mirror with Magic Marker, and a lawn of green grass on the apron of the stage for various folks to run their hands through at random, the music shone through, and the whole show was briskly paced.

Piave basically took an Italian translation of the Scottish play, struck out all non-essential lines, and handed it over to Verdi. The weird sisters and the murderers become full-sized choruses, but appropriately so. The one interpolation is a patriotic chorus that starts Act IV. Verdi had had a huge hit with "Va pensiero" in Nabucco some years earlier, and you can't blame him for wanting to catch lightning twice. "Patria oppressa" is no "Va pensiero," but it's pretty good, and it isn't even that far from Shakespeare. In the fourth act of the play, Shakespeare has Macduff and Malcolm trade some observations about what a hell-hole Scotland has become; Piave and Verdi basically just reassigned those sentiments to a chorus of refugees.

It's a simple matter for Macduff, "strappato dal seno materno," to dispatch Macbeth, and unlike most dying opera protagonists, our antihero does not get to sing after his stabbing. Instead Verdi ends the opera with a triumphant chorus proclaiming Malcolm as the new king. This too parallels Shakespeare, of course, but the paring-down that Piave practices on the text alters the takeaway, I think. In Shakespeare, Malcolm is fairly well-developed, mostly via that long heart-to-heart with Macduff. In Verdi, Malcolm has all of six lines before his coronation, most of them about getting Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. The stirring strains of his triumph are a bit suspect, because aside from his being a tenor and therefore presumably a nice guy, Verdi's audience has no idea who Malcolm is. The implication is hard to escape: the reign of Malcolm may become a matter of same stuff, different king.