In the company of Banquo, King Duncan arrives in great good spirits at the castle of his principal thane Macbeth to whose dauntless military prowess he owes the survival of his reign. Duncan knows nothing of the “weird sisters” who have prophesied that Macbeth will be king and Banquo the begetter of kings; and he has no intimation either of the disturbing thoughts that have been stirring in Macbeth’s mind or the still more disturbing thoughts that have been welling up in the mind of Macbeth’s ambitious wife. Scotland at last seems to be at peace, and its ruler is in the mood to enjoy himself, almost as if he were a tourist: “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” he remarks to Banquo. Echoing the king’s pleasure, Banquo calls attention to the little birds—swallows or house-martins —that are nesting everywhere:
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heavens’ breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantagebut this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;
Where they most breed and haunt I have observed
The air is delicate.
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, Macbeth moves at a feverish pace, but it makes room for this lingering, cinematic gaze. The birds, “temple-haunting” because they frequently nest in the walls of ancient cathedrals, here are roosting in the castle’s nooks and crannies. But this is no temple of peace. Soon enough a “guest of summer”—the king himself—will be murdered in his bed; Scotland’s “procreant cradle” will give way to slaughtered children; and the delicate air, the sweet-scented breath of heaven, will thicken and grow rank with the stench of blood and offal. This moment at the castle gate is the last glimpse of the sweetness, calm, and fertility that the Macbeths will destroy forever.
But in Rupert Goold’s stylish production of Macbeth, originally mounted for the Chichester Theatre in England and then moved with great success to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and to Broadway, even this brief pause is too long: Goold cuts the last four lines and resituates the arrival of Duncan and Banquo to the castle’s interior—what looks like a basement kitchen—where they come upon the staff preparing the evening’s banquet. The “temple-haunting martlet” still makes an appearance, but only as a dead bird that Banquo, smiling inanely, calls attention to as he lifts it up from the pile of foodstuff being readied for the oven. And the audience immediately recognizes that the knife-wielding kitchen servants are none other than the witches whom they have first encountered as efficiently murderous nurses in the opening scene’s battlefield hospital.
There is quiet wit in this small detail of the bird—the king and Banquo are themselves dead ducks—and those who know the play extremely well can take particular pleasure at the in-joke. But it comes at a price: Goold’s cut marks his production’s complete erasure, from the beginning and without a trace, of a benignant existence worth cherishing. It is not that the tragedy Shakespeare wrote is under any illusions about the security of the “loved mansionry” it invokes: Banquo’s lines in the text are followed by the ominous stage direction: “Enter Lady Macbeth.” But the temple-haunting martlet is part of the play’s elaborate pattern of reminders of what it would be like to be at home in the world: “He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust”; “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/To make thee full of growing”; “I have given suck, and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me”; “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”; “I drink to th’ general joy of th’whole table”; “the natural ruby of your cheeks”; “The time is free.”
With the possible exception of the last of these words—spoken when the tyrant has been defeated and beheaded—Shakespeare clearly intends each of these lines to be grimly undercut. (The entrances and exits throughout this play are fiendishly ironic.) But hopes have to have been alive in the first place to be murdered, and Goold’s production, which relentlessly conjures up Stalinist Russia of the late 1930s, steadfastly refuses to grant them even a hypothetical existence.
Did Kate Fleetwood’s jittery, nail-biting, neurotic Lady Macbeth ever know a moment of maternal tenderness? Did Patrick Stewart’s anxious, grimly wary Macbeth ever enjoy a decent night’s sleep? As Fleetwood and Stewart perform the roles, there is no strong sense of a deterioration of either personality or moral bearing over the course of the play. How could there be, for there has been nothing from which they could deteriorate? Shakespeare’s text holds open the possibility for the characters to display psychic change, but Goold must have instructed his actors to ignore this possibility, and not only by erasing any glimpses of a past happiness. Even their divergent states of unhappiness are unchanging. This Lady Macbeth does not slowly move from icily ambitious self-possession to nervous collapse: she has always been a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And this Macbeth does not progressively harden within, until the life he had once so fervently embraced comes to seem to him a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Patrick Stewart manages to suggest that he has always been only one very small step ahead of despair.
Shakespeare’s text calls for a variety of settings; as usual, he used his bare stage to move fluidly, from the castle’s outermost gate to its innermost chamber, from the army camp to the eerie heath, from Macduff’s undefended mansion at Fife to the English court of King Edward the Confessor. Goold’s production cannot entirely escape this fluidity, but the brilliantly sinister, seedy set by Anthony Ward manages to convey the sense that all spaces in the play are the same: the camp hospital is the morgue is the torture chamber is the castle keep is the witches’ cavern. Inverness, Forres, Fife, Dunsinane, and, for that matter, England are all virtually indistinguishable in their sordidness and their menace, a menace epitomized in the rear freight elevator that, as in a horror movie, repeatedly arrives bearing nightmarish cargo.
And the countryside, haunt of the witches, offers no alternative: if you manage somehow to break out of the barbed wire enclosure, you should not hope to find a sympathetic welcome from a band of freedom fighters or shelter in the hut of some honest peasants. When Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane —the soldiers holding the cut branches as camouflage —what we have witnessed, as Goold stages it, is a successful military stratagem without a hint of renewal. It is probably a good thing that the tyrant Macbeth is killed, but this production does not want you to delude yourself into thinking for a moment that there is any exit from the night kitchen.
It is not altogether clear whether Shakespeare thought there was any escape either. To be sure, he offered his company’s patron, King James, the gratifying vision of a royal line stretching out, as Macbeth bitterly puts it, “to th’ crack of doom,” but this vision, presented as a pageant by the witches, has no reassuring content, nothing even vaguely resembling a promise of peace, justice, and prosperity. The lines spoken at the close of the play by Malcolm, the victorious son of the murdered Duncan, are startling in how little they alter the tragedy’s mood:
We shall not spend a large expense of time
Before we reckon with your several loves,
And make us even with you.
This is, as anyone in the audience who has not been dozing will recognize at once, precisely what at the play’s opening King Duncan had anxiously tried to do, after his followers had saved his skin and his crown. Seating yourself on a tottering throne, you reward your friends, punish your enemies, and try to look confident. The only difference is that Duncan had done it all rather more gracefully. To “make us even with you” cannot sound altogether reassuring to Malcolm’s supporters. The new ruler goes on to promise darkly that he will begin his regime by “Producing forth the cruel ministers/Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen.” And he closes with an oddly abrupt, impersonal expression of thanks coupled with an invitation that obviously cannot be safely refused:
So, thanks to all at once, and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.
How nice—at least the show trials might be an edifying spectacle.
Goold underscores the grim point by having Malcolm deliver his speech while holding aloft the gory, severed head of Macbeth—in the text there is no indication that he takes it from the hands of the avenging Macduff—but Shakespeare in any case invites, or at least allows, skepticism about the new regime in Scotland. What this production does is to enlarge the skepticism until it infects virtually everything in the entire play, from its first moments to its last. As a card-carrying Shakespearean, I have called attention to the tiny detail of the temple-haunting martlet, but specialized knowledge is hardly required: in Goold’s Macbeth we quickly sense the atmosphere of Stalinist Russia, with its pervasive paranoia, its inner circles of nervous, vulpine flatterers, its interrogation chambers and extorted confessions, its public rituals of adulation braided together with opportunism, fear, and hatred. Banquo’s assassination—he is not here on a lonely walk in the country, in the company of his son, but on a crowded train—is accompanied by video projections of grainy newsreel footage meant to invoke the fate of so many of Stalin’s one-time associates.
None of this, of course, is meant to be an exact mapping of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy onto the actuarial record of Stalin’s cronies. It is meant rather to suggest the ruthless totalitarian regime that Macbeth has established, and it succeeds in conferring an intense, modern resonance on such moments as the tyrant’s tortuous explanation of why he will need to disavow the act he is hiring the murderers to do—
and though I could
With barefaced power sweep him from my sight
And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,
For certain friends that are both his and mine,
Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall
Who I myself struck down—
or the brief glimpse of his intelligence network:
How sayst thou that Macduff denies his person
At our great bidding?
Did you send to him, sir?
I hear it by the way, but I willsend.
There’s not a one of them, but inhis house
I keep a servant fee’d.
But the Stalinist setting does something more than provide an instance of modern tyranny; it closes off the vistas of hope that might otherwise have been glimpsed in such characters as Banquo, Malcolm, and Macduff. Some monsters are manifestly worse than others, but none of the dour-faced men on the reviewing platform should inspire any trust—and the fact that the principal monster happened to want to destroy this or that person and slaughter his family does not in itself confer any moral authority on the victim.