Sound and Fury

Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'

by Garry Wills
The New York Public Library/ Oxford University Press, 223 pp., $19.95

Garry Wills’s new book is of a type that raises some general issues in addition to the particular ones addressed. Should we try to find out how writers, composers, and performers originally did it, and what they originally meant by it? Or dismissing such ambitions as futile and impossible, should we go ahead and do it our way, make it mean whatever seems best to us? These are questions, and choices are for some reason more urgent now than they used to be. Musicologists have persuaded many musicians that knowing how they originally did it, and then doing it that way, on ancient instruments or copies of them, is the only way to be authentic. The ears of listeners are increasingly attuned to vibratoless string quality, and performances that a couple of decades ago sounded authoritative can now sound vulgar.

Theatrical directors have been more willfully modern, less easily persuaded by antiquarians, perhaps because they realize that nobody could bear Shakespeare in a similar approximation of the original conditions—Elizabethan pronunciation, for instance, and authentic rhetorical gesture. But even so they seem more inclined to attend to scholarship than they were a few years back. And this must be an encouragement to historical scholars, who can now hope that their researches will have some effect on actual performance.

It seems likely that a perfect modern reproduction of an old opera or play, if it were possible, would be dull and inert, or at any rate so foreign to our cultural expectations that we could regard it only as a curiosity. The ideal arrangement would be to have a continual interplay, across the horizon of time, between what is now known of the original conditions and contexts of performance and the modern interests that have made the piece worth reviving. Such transactions do sometimes occur, perhaps especially in music, more rarely in drama. What isn’t desirable is total archaeological correctness. Behind the assumption that this should be the aim there is another assumption, namely that there is one true reading of Macbeth, or whatever play is in question, and that as scholarship comes closer and closer to finding it directors will naturally seek to project this single correct interpretation. This ambition is misplaced, not only because most directors prefer to project themselves, but also because plays cannot survive independently of what is made of them in the course of a continuous history of interpretations. Some of these interpretations are more false or improbable than others, yet they are still essential to the establishment of the prejudices that inescapably condition the attitudes even of devoted antiquarians, in whose ranks Garry Wills has now enrolled himself.

He had been thinking about Macbeth for years, he says, before an invitation from the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press to give a set of lectures provided him with an opportunity to develop and expound his views on the play. He had long been puzzled by reports of its evil reputation and had felt,…

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