‘Let it come down.’
Macbeth is a remarkably saturnine, poisonous play: a thread of muddy doom is woven through the fabric of its plot, and any hint of redemption obscured by dark, threatening clouds. That its skeleton is constructed with certain stock materials—vaulting ambition punished, the insidious and cruel female, the equivocal and often deleterious nature of prophecy—is curious given its transcendence of the maudlin trappings of most of these sorts of tragedies: Macbeth takes place, after all, on a somewhat epic-scale; unlike similar fictions, however, it doesn’t squeeze in its more human elements as mere padding between its battle scenes: the play is its human elements. Despite the conspicuous spilling of blood and the sometimes convoluted machinations of its political contexts, Macbeth is truly a tragedy of the soul.
Relationships are strained here; and that of Lady Macbeth and her husband is, obviously, the most interesting and complex Shakespeare is offering: the veil between sanity and madness is delicate in a play where guilt is consistently put further on the backburner as the atrocities pile up. Lady Macbeth, seemingly a seething black hole of corruption and evil, provides us with an interesting contrast to the slow devolution of her husband: her own guilt manifests behind the curtain of consciousness, only reaching its climax offstage, where her (implied) suicide—and its motivation—remains somewhat mysterious and open to interpretation. Macbeth, on the other hand, remains unrepentant to the last, and we are treated to his gruesome undoing in exacting detail. Shakespeare has loaded the duality that exists in both of these characters with a great deal of psychological weight: the tension that boils between them is more complex than murderer and accessory (and we can pick who fits which title). Lady Macbeth’s convictions exist undeterred until she is confronted with their ramifications after-the-fact; Macbeth’s own convictions waver in the face of forethought, but once the transaction has been purchased with blood, he stands behind them, unwavering, to his very death. A haunted couple, they have become archetypes in our literature.
Macbeth’s relationship with Banquo is less baroque. Banquo provides a foil of reason to Macbeth’s decline: Banquo represents the innocent who stands on the just side of fate, while Macbeth rises heavenwards, like Icarus, chasing destiny with dire results. This begs a question, however: how much of what takes place in Macbeth is solely the work of destiny? Certainly one can say that the prophecies regarding both Banquo and Macbeth coming to their fruition is confirmation of the play’s propensity towards the supernatural, but of Macbeth’s pursuit of fate…this is more curious: after all, why plot to kill Duncan and make yourself king if the cards have already been laid out towards this end? Or are Macbeth’s crimes exactly what the prophecy infers? This question could be argued in circles, certainly, because it exists beyond the constraints of the play. Macbeth’s vision is very dark, however, and I would lean towards the latter conclusion: predestination requires a fated evil as much as a fated good, and we do not always find ourselves in the position to choose. This is one of the more troubling truths examined in Macbeth.
Macbeth is obsessed with the supernatural: with fate, with visions, with incantation, with prophecy. It is entirely natural, then, that its characters should be shrouded in the gloom of uncertainty: each of these people is swallowed up by the fog that surrounds them, whether for eventual good or ill. None of them leave this play without experiencing shattering transformation, both internal and external. But the play goes beyond average considerations in pursuit of more metaphysical themes: it suffocates us with its horrors and leaves us disconcerted by their import—chews at our hopes as much as at our fears. It implies, without beating us over the head, that perhaps free will is a more complicated privilege than we’d care to admit: that perhaps even that most elemental of freedoms is subject, somehow, to the caprices of fate.
(This review was suggested by the thought processes encountered during my involvement with a production of Macbeth, which I directed. This production is currently running through August 17th at the Paper Wing Theatre in Monterey, California. Tickets can be purchased at PaperWing.com. This production features an anachronistic slant, combining a traditional interpretation of the play with modern costuming, gothic and post-punk aesthetics and music, and a predilection towards minimalism and understatement. I greatly encourage my readers to check out the efforts of the author of this blog in their most appropriate context.)