Spread now over the entire social world of the play, we encounter the flattening that we have already remarked in the characters of Macbeth and his Lady. No doubt the lives of Sergey Kirov or Lev Kamenev, Politburo members killed by Stalin in the 1930s, had their edifying moments, but one would be a fool to dream that if only one of them, rather than the Great Father of His People, had been at the helm of the USSR it would all have been so wonderful. The setting has the effect of diminishing any serious interest one might have had in Banquo’s scruples—
Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose,
or Malcolm’s self-doubts: “The king-becoming graces,…I have no relish of them.” More tellingly, it drains away the significance of the spiritual torment that Shakespeare goes out of his way to depict in Macbeth at the play’s opening. Patrick Stewart is a viscerally powerful actor with a huge stage presence, but Goold’s conception of the play gives him almost no room to convey convincingly Macbeth’s metaphysical horror, his fear that Duncan’s virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.
The tell-tale sign of the audience’s relation to this tremendous soul-sickness came—at least on the evening I saw the performance—a few minutes later when Macbeth saw the spectral dagger in the air before him, the handle toward his hand. Just as they did later at the appearance at the banquet of Banquo’s ghost, the members of the audience laughed.
What does it mean that the audience laughed at moments that are probably meant to provoke gasps of horror? It is certainly not a matter of acting skill, nor is it, I think, the simple consequence of directorial misinterpretation. Shakespeare himself manifestly saw what is potentially comic in these moments and called attention to it. He understood perfectly well that horror and laughter could, under certain circumstances, be paired and reinforce each other, though they could also pull, as they did in Patrick Stewart’s performance, in opposite directions.
“…Art thou but/A dagger of the mind, a false creation…?” Macbeth asks wonderingly, as he attempts and fails to clutch the fatal object; “There’s no such thing.” So too Lady Macbeth attempts to mock away her husband’s terror at the hideous sight of the murdered Banquo:
This is the very painting of your fear;
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan. Oh, these flaws and starts,
Impostors to true fear, would well become
A woman’s story at a winter’s fire
Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself,
Why do you make such faces? When all’s done
You look but on a stool.
For the audience to join in the laughter in the way that it did meant in effect that it accepted the reassuring claim (made by Macbeth to himself or by Lady Macbeth to Macbeth) that there was nothing there—only the hallucination of a “heat-oppressèd brain.” There are limits to how reassuring this claim is: mental illness is hardly a joke, though laughing at the mentally ill has a long history. But brain-sickness is better than something else. What?
That is a question the play keeps asking, from its very first moments to its last, and it is one that surfaces repeatedly in Shakespeare’s other tragedies as well. “Do you see nothing there?” an agonized Hamlet asks his mother, and she replies, “Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.” When he insists that he sees his father, “in his habit as he lived,” his mother offers a psychological explanation:
This the very coinage of your brain.
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
The alternative is that there is something out there, something that a character in a Shakespearean comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, terms “an unknown fear.”
Macbeth famously begins with this unknown fear: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” chant the weird sisters, “Hover through the fog and filthy air.” “The charm’s wound up,” the ghastly creatures intone, just as Macbeth makes his first entrance, echoing the words he has not heard: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” What “charm”? And what is the meaning of the uncanny echo? The play is at once utterly insistent and utterly withholding: some horrible supernatural power seems to be omnipresent and yet maddeningly elusive. “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags,” Macbeth demands, “What is’t you do?” They answer: “A deed without a name.” And when he insists on further answers, they give him prophecies that sound like stupendous, otherworldly assurances—“none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” and “Until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him”—only to be disclosed as cheap verbal tricks.
Shakespeare, then, deliberately situated his tragedy in a queasy betwixt-and-between world, where the metaphysical forces in which everyone professed to believe were simultaneously affirmed and negated. The effect is to capture a culture undergoing an unsteady, uncertain process of demystification, a culture where, as Macbeth puts it to himself, “nothing is/But what is not.”
Like most modern stagings of the play, Goold’s production wants as little to do with this in-between world as possible. When Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth asks the “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex” her, she is telling us something that has to do with psychiatry, not priestcraft. (Hence in the sleepwalking scene, the actor Byron Jennings, playing the doctor as an absurd buffoon, had to throw away the line “More needs she the divine than the physician.”) In this Macbeth there are no convincing intimations of the demonic, the predestined, the sacred, or the damned. The most frightening character in the play is not Hecate, the goddess of the witches, but the coarse, violent, drunken porter. Supernaturalism is replaced by Stalinism, with the consequences at which we have already glanced.
But what should any contemporary production of the play—one performed outside the Bible Belt—do? What can a modern director make of Macbeth‘s supernatural elements? The answer is not, I think, a miming of religiosity, in an attempt to recover what has been slowly receding since the early seventeenth century. Even in its original moment—the play was probably first performed in 1606—Shakespeare’s tragedy did not depend upon robust, unquestioned faith, but rather upon the uneasy negotiation with beliefs that were decaying, vanishing “as breath into the wind.” In the wake of the Enlightenment, it is no longer possible to conduct that negotiation in the same terms, even in the make-believe realm of the theater.
Already in 1846 Giuseppe Verdi, in his passionately humanist admiration for Shakespeare, conceived one possible answer: he shifted the focus of the whole drama to Lady Macbeth and created an opera that centers on the demonic intensity of her desire for power and her erotic domination of her husband. Verdi has almost no interest in the religious dimension of the story: the trumpet-tongued angels or the eye of heaven peeping “through the blanket of the dark” entirely disappear. But Lady Macbeth’s astonishing aria, upon receiving her husband’s letter—“Vieni! T’affretta!“—conveys a sexualized delirium that fills the stage, taking the place of both the divine and the demonic. The deep fantasy of power is hers, in Verdi’s vision, not her husband’s, and one of the opera’s greatest moments comes with lines that were taken from Macbeth—“Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood”—and given to her: “La luce langue.” In Shakespeare’s play these lines are part of Macbeth’s ongoing struggle to suppress his moral sensitivity:
Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day….
But in Verdi’s opera, they are part of his wife’s ecstasy: “Oh, lust for the throne,” she sings, “Oh, sceptre, you are mine at last! Every mortal desire is silenced and satisfied in you.”
For a few weeks this spring it was possible for audiences to shuttle between the Macbeth directed by Rupert Goold and the Macbeth directed by Adrian Noble and conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. In the opera, as in the stage production, the witches have lost their supernatural aura: Noble presents them as an oddly jaunty chorus of World War II–era British moms, wearing white socks and clutching large handbags. But the pitch of sexual excitement in Verdi’s music, even with the relatively weak libretto written for him by Francesco Maria Piave, entirely filled the hole left by the shriveling of the metaphysical. And where the Stalinist setting of the stage version left no room for political hope, Noble’s modern war setting allowed a moving Banquo (sung magnificently by the German bass René Pape) and a magnificent Act 4 chorus of refugees singing plaintively of their “patria oppressa.”
Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth also attempted to posit sexual excitement as a substitute for spiritual horror, but this excitement was conveyed not through the soaring cadences of Verdi’s music but through such gestures as his grabbing at his wife’s crotch when he tells her to bear men-children only. It is as if the director believed that the language of Shakespeare’s play was not entirely adequate to a frenzied erotic explanation —after all, Macbeth is not Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra—and, accordingly, his interpretation of the murderer and his wife retreated quickly to a depressed and depressing domesticity. Lady Macbeth appears in an apron, a piece of cake is taken away from young Fleance and put back in the fridge, and Macbeth goes about making and eating a sandwich while he arranges for the assassination of Banquo.
As a piece of stage business the sandwich was at once annoying and brilliant: annoying because the audience had to listen to Stewart talking with his mouth full and brilliant because it conveyed a vulgarity and shallowness that was finally more convincing in this production than Stalinism or sexual excitement or metaphysical dread. For this interpretation, too, Shakespeare, in his limitless aesthetic generosity, provided a textual foundation. There is a moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the ridiculous Bottom, magically transformed into an ass, does not marvel at his metamorphosis but merely remarks that “I could munch your good dry oats.” Macbeth is the only other play by Shakespeare in which the word “munch” appears, here in the mouth of one of the witches:
A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched, and munched, and munched. “Give me,” quoth I.
Stewart’s Macbeth is incapable of spiritual agony, but as a strikingly thoughtless criminal he is perhaps more suited to our time and place. Munching on his sandwich as he orders the murder of his friend, he is the apostle of shallowness. He had been rattled, to be sure, by the magnitude of king-killing, but he has by now completely accepted what his wife has offered him: not sexual ecstasy but willed stupidity:
A little water clears us of this deed.
How easy is it then!
He has succeeding in “seeling” his moral vision—sewing his eyelids shut, as falconers did to tame their jittery birds—so that even the most spectacular signs and wonders leave him indifferent. “Where we lay,” Lennox reports in the morning after the king’s assassination,
Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’ air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New-hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.
Macbeth’s four-word response was, as Stewart spoke the line, eloquent in its genuine emptiness: “‘Twas a rough night.”
Every age has the heroes and villains it deserves, and Shakespeare inevitably provides the necessary materials. What we have deserved, this production suggests, is a former war hero’s fatal, perversely elected shallowness.