Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Tragedy of Macbeth: A Primer

The Great River Shakespeare Festival’s tragedy selection again offers ample opportunity for spilling blood on the stage, and even if you are not a fan of blood, its haunting look at human greed and ambition make it one of Shakespeare’s most popular offerings. While the Great River Shakespeare Festival has presented several tragedies, Macbeth may be the darkest. This characterization may be best illustrated by a brief comparison to Richard III.

In Richard III, Richard begins the play corrupt and deformed (a physical symbol of his moral deformity). Accepting that Richard is amoral allows the audience to become conspirators in his sinister and evil steps toward achieving the crown. Macbeth on the other hand, begins the play a respected war hero, loyal to the king, and content with his place in the governance of Scotland. In the end, his campaign for the crown is as ruthless and full of bloodshed as Richard’s. But Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the audience are all horrified by the turn in character required to get the crown. With Richard, the audience is fascinated, and to some extent won over, by the reckless bravado; with Macbeth the audience sees the process of choices that lead respected people down the bloody path to ruin, and they respond with the implication that they could have made those same choices.

The Story

The Scottish army has just won back-to-back wars behind the valor of Scotland’s generals, Banquo and Macbeth. The King rewards Macbeth for his service with an additional landed title: Thane of Cawdor.

But before the generals meet the king to receive their rewards, they meet three witches who greet Macbeth with the prophecy that he is Thane of Cawdor and will be King of Scotland. Macbeth thinks little of the witches words until he finds out that he indeed has been named Thane of Cawdor. This naturally leads him to wonder about the third prophecy.

Macbeth writes to his wife of the witches’ prophecy. Together, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide that becoming King is their fate, and they must take bold action to make it happen.

The Characters

Duncan—the current King of Scotland (Along with promoting Macbeth, he promotes his son, Malcolm, to be next in line for the throne, which rubs Macbeth and others the wrong way.)

Macbeth—an army general, Thane of Glamis, later Thane of Cawdor, later King of Scotland.

Lady Macbeth—wife of Macbeth.

Banquo—army general, hero of the recent war. He meets the witches with Macbeth and the witches prophesy that Banquo’s offspring will one day be king.

Macduff—one of a number of the king’s noblemen. Unlike many of the others, Macduff is suspicious of Macbeth and flees Scotland for England. A spirit conjured by the witches warns Macbeth to beware of Macduff.

Three Witches—women that Macbeth encounters in an open place who are able to foretell the future.

The Witches

Witches were a hot topic in the first decade of the 1600s in England, and today they continue to be one of the most interesting parts of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s audience would have held a variety of understandings about who or what witches were or whether they existed or whether they were simply the wild imaginations of superstitious people. On the European continent, there was a strong sentiment that witchcraft was real, that witches worked as extensions of the devil, and that they undermined the natural order of things. Persecutions of people (mostly poor women) as witches was very strong on the continent and in Scotland. Some in England would have held these same views, though England was much more skeptical of the existence of witches as evil, even though England had an anti-witchcraft law of their own on the books dating back to 1563.

James I (who was known as James IV when he was King of Scotland) assumed the English throne in 1603 and was King when Macbeth was first performed (probably 1606 or 1607). James had been a virulent prosecutor of witches in Scotland and six years before becoming King of England had authored an influential book vilifying witches called Daemonology. James not only identified witches as demonic, he saw them as an assault on the king—as a form of treason.

A close read of the scenes involving the witches find few clues as to what Shakespeare may have thought about witchcraft. Certainly, James I would have watched Macbeth and seen his version of witchcraft on stage. But it is probable that skeptics of witchcraft or believers in a witchcraft not inherently evil might have been satisfied as well. (There is much in the play to please James: The throne returns to his ancestor at the play’s end, and Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest work, perhaps appeasing James’ stated preference for short works.)

Believers in a demonic witchcraft would naturally see the witches as tricking Macbeth and maybe even “bewitching” him into his fateful, traitorous path. Skeptics could see that the witches offer prophecy in good faith, and if there is evil, it resides with the decisions Macbeth makes—based on his misunderstanding of the witches’ words and his own ambitions. Still others, as Shakespeare scholar William Carroll speculates, “must have ‘believed’ in witchcraft as a dramatic proposition that, like men dressed as ghosts or boys dressed as women, was simply another dramatic given that an audience had to grant to a play in order for it to work.”

Portraying the witches on stage, and the apparitions they call up, offers producers of Macbeth a wide range of choices. With the supernatural implications, I expect the Great River Shakespeare Festival will take full advantage of the opportunity to pull out all the fireworks.

Why see Macbeth?

Adherents to theorys about Tradgedy claim that plays such as Macbeth are somehow redemptive and cathartic because the tragic character meets his or her doom, and order is finally restored. Macbeth certainly meets this criteria, but on a more immediate level, Macbeth is a gripping story, told with great language, and presented here by a talented theatre company.

Macbeth plays in repetory with As You Like It through July 29
Visit the Great River Shakespeare Festival for schedules: Great River Shakespeare Festival

Information on James I and concepts of witchcraft in the 15 & 1600s are taken largely from William C. Carroll's William Shakespeare Macbeth: Texts and Contexts.

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