The Sydney Theatre Company is about to open a very high profile production of Macbeth, with Hugo Weaving in the title role, which is a fairly standard thing to do with a popular actor once he gets a touch too old to play Hamlet. What continues to strike me about this play is how the shared cultural memory of what it contains is so powerful. People think they know what is in it, via a kind of second or third hand recollection of references. The best productions are brave enough to return to the text with open hands, emptied of assumptions. With this in mind, the post below is a slightly updated version of the programme notes I wrote for a production of Macbeth in 2008, directed by Selina Cartmell, and performed at Smock Alley in Dublin.
Has there ever been another play so full of strikingly memorable incident as Macbeth? Witches, prophesies, murder, guilt, revenge; a compelling anti-hero, and one of the most powerful female roles ever written. And yet those ideas, those images, characters and moments, are so often not what we thought. Like Macbeth himself, we often accept the surface presentation, and miss the secret ironies it conceals.
Lady Macbeth, for example, is less and more than she has been given credit for. When, in lines that fix themselves in the listener’s memory, she tells her husband that she would kill her own child if she had sworn to do so, it has usually been read as a mark of her callousness, forgetting that her point is that this is the most horrifying thing she can think of doing. When she asks for the help of dark powers, rather than demonstrating her fiendishness, she shows her vulnerability by revealing to us that she doesn’t have the necessary resolve to perform evil deeds without them. Immediately after Duncan’s murder she even admits, privately, that she was not capable of bringing herself to do it.
The witches, too, are other than they are usually thought to be. No one in the play ever actually refers to them as witches; the women Macbeth meets on the blasted heath are always called the “weird sisters”. They “have more in them than mortal knowledge”, but do less to actively control events (by casting spells or forcing people to do anything) than to offer their knowledge to those who cannot resist abusing it. In fact, they seem to have less in common with our modern image of the witch (bearing pointy hat and broomstick) than they have with the Ancient Greek prophetess or Sibyl. This is especially true in the way they play with the tradition of the prophesy that brings unexpected doom on the seeker through his own misinterpretation. The prophetess is a trickster, she tells you the truth, but never the whole truth. Her power lies in uncovering her subjects’ own weakness.
Even Banquo is a central player in a kind of illusion. The irony of the prophesy that he will be the father of kings is less that Macbeth fails to stop it, than that he shouldn’t have worried in the first place. In the sources for the play, and surrounding folklore, Banquo’s offspring eventually became kings of England, and were never associated with the throne Macbeth is trying so desperately to guard. His efforts are not only futile, but needless. Each one of the weird sisters’ prophesies conceals as well as reveals.
At the time the play was written, the belief in witchcraft was so powerful that many hundreds of women in Britain (thousands throughout Europe) were killed on the charge of being witches. King James himself was profoundly alarmed at the idea of any power that sought to disrupt the natural order by threatening the divinely appointed nature of kingship. Shakespeare was wise enough to show that the only real power sorcery has is its effect on the minds of those who believe in it, but wily enough to conceal this lesson under a story in which disruption of order is properly punished.
The stories we see told in movies or on television, or that we read in books, are often packed with violence and with murder – that’s entertainment. We get used to seeing people do the most horrendous things to other people, and then carry on as if these actions have not affected them, have not changed them in any fundamental way. Shakespeare knew better. In Macbeth, his portrait is of a couple who start down a path hoping to avoid consequences, but find such an idea is an impossible fantasy. Macbeth and his wife kill their king, and then discover that what destroys them is not this act in itself, but the way it changes them personally. They are not the same people afterwards, and in real life, as in this play, the effects of violent trauma cannot be hidden forever. Their concealment of their original crime is successful – no one ever proves that they were the ones who murdered Duncan – but in the end they cannot help revealing their failures of self. The power of the weird sisters was to know what lay beneath.