Lady Macbeth, Gabriel von Max (1885)
Lady Macbeth’s mad midnight wanderings are certainly one of the more enduring images of Macbeth, but, to me, they also evoke its biggest question. What drives Lady Macbeth mad? It is obvious from early in the play that Macbeth himself is a bit unhinged; he hallucinates a bloody dagger even before he has murdered Duncan. Whether or not he was unbalanced in the first place, or the thought (and later commission) of murder drove him mad is open to debate, but it is quite clear his conscience and mental health are sorely tried by the means of his rise to kingship. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to display no such scruples. She exhibits no qualms of conscience regarding the murder of Duncan. She cajoles and pushes Macbeth, asking him why he even mentioned the idea if he had no intention of following through on it. After Duncan is murdered, she begs him to put the deed behind him, to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten crown. The only concern she has is that they may be found out. Thus it seemed very odd to me when she is suddenly consumed by guilt, so agonized by inner voices that she cannot sleep in peace, and eventually kills herself. While the sleepwalking scene is harrowing and moving, it made no sense to me. It seems out of character for this ruthless, ambitious woman to suddenly be driven mad by her sins. What gives?
I just could not make the leap from scheming, ambitious Lady Macbeth to the disturbed, haunted sleepwalker. It seemed to me that there must be something missing. I apparently am not the only one. Poking around on the DVD, I found some excellent commentary by Ian McKellan. He acknowledges that many feel that there is a scene missing, but he contends that there is not. McKellan points out that the explicit words might not be there, but that Judi Dench’s acting shows it. So I watched the play again bearing that in mind — and he is right. Dench’s Lady Macbeth’s increasing desperation as her husband descends into madness and depravity is obvious. Her initial distress and alarm when she hears that Macbeth has murdered Duncan’s guards becomes distinct panic in the moments before and during the fateful banquet. It is not entirely unbelievable that Dench’s Lady becomes mad with shock and grief once you can tear your eyes away from McKellan’s Macbeth and watch her. It is, as I have said before, a brilliant performance.
But what really is driving Lady Macbeth’s despair and eventual derangement? Dench’s stellar performance notwithstanding, is this a matter of interpretation, or is it actually in the play? Initially I thought it was largely dependant on interpretation. We see the stress; we have to fill in the descent into madness. But on further examination, I discovered it really is in there. I just had to work hard to find it.
I do not think it is guilt over the initial murder that is haunting Lady Macbeth; she seems fine with that, even claiming she would have stabbed Duncan herself had he not looked so much like her father as he slept. I think, instead, that it is the stress of dealing with Macbeth’s self-reproach and insanity, and the increasing number of murders he commissions in order to cover his killing of Duncan, that drives her over the edge. She apparently seems okay with the one murder. She is, after all, the person who pushes for it in the first place, and then repeatedly urges Macbeth to put it behind him, telling him that “what’s done is done,” and that his guilty thoughts should “indeed have died with them they think on.” What she cannot deal with is what that murder has done to Macbeth. She has made him king, but in doing so, has also made him miserable and insane. Macbeth feels so guilty about murdering Duncan that he thinks his sin must be obvious to everyone. He sees enemies all around him, enemies that must be eliminated, and each elimination seems to necessitate even more. It is true that Banquo was suspicious, but everyone else seems to suspect the princes, whose flight has cemented their guilt in the eyes of the other nobles. As Lady Macbeth begs her husband to forget murdering Banquo, her growing horror at his need to eliminate all suspicion is apparent. After the banquet, we do not see her again until the sleepwalking scene, where it is obvious from both her manner and her ravings that Macbeth’s degeneration has taken a toll on her. She is agonized over the murder of Macduff’s kin — “The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?” It is THAT blood she has on her hands, the blood of all the people she did NOT feel needed to be murdered in order to secure Macbeth’s place as king. She can live with Duncan’s murder. She cannot live with the madman she has unleashed, and the bloodbath that has ensued.
Of course, this all may be just a giant fanwank on my part. This interpretation is what makes sense to me, and so that is what I see to be there. It can also be argued that what Lady Macbeth forced her husband to do was so contrary to her womanly nature (as perceived by Elizabethan morals) that she could not remain sane, having gone against her God-given role. This is likely true, and also quite likely how Elizabethan audiences interpreted it, but I also think there is some of my interpretation about it too. As always, YMMV.
Several interesting tidbits from The Shakespeare Standard:
I have several areas I want to address regarding Macbeth, so I’m going to do a series of shorter posts instead of one giant post wall. They will go up over the next week or so as I have them ready. The play has just given me so much to think about. The comedies are easy to take at face value; the tragedies evoke so many questions. The motivations, the characters of the principals, the relationship of the plays to the times. I really was an idiot to think I knew anything about this play; there is more depth and complexity to it than I ever imagined. Isn’t that fantastic?
First off, this. That list is kind of embarrassing now, but I am leaving it up. As I said, a lot of that comes from come from some mid-century YA literature I read as a teenager. I think it’s interesting that authors writing for teens in the US in the 1950s felt that they could make allusions to Shakespeare (albeit mangled by a father trying to be funny) and expect their audience to get them. I, coming along a few decades later certainly did not. I was aware that they were Shakespearean, but nothing more. This play is peppered with phrases I have heard all my life; I just did not know their origins. One of my favorite references comes from Betty Smiths’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The mother in the book reads a page of Shakespeare to her children every night, though neither she nor the children really understand it. One day, when one of the children is taunted by a neighbor child, she lets loose with “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re jus’ full of soun’ ‘n furry siggaflying nothing.” I am afraid I may have sniggered inappropriately when I got to that part of the play.
References to the three witches and their spellmaking, and to Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot” are, likewise, everywhere. I am glad to have finally seen them in their proper context. As for the rest, I plead ignorance, an ignorance that has now been, happily, remedied.
ETA I am not writing “MacBeth” in my tags. WordPress keeps correcting it to that. I know it’s Macbeth.
I was intending to discuss this play in depth and then move on to a review of the DVD, but this performance was so damn good I need to talk about it NOW. The recording I am talking about is this: A Performance of Macbeth. I picked this version somewhat at random; I am a fan of Judi Dench, but there was really no reason other than that to chose this one over the dozen or so Macbeths Netflix has on offer. I am so glad I did. I was a Macbeth virgin; I am delighted that A Performance of Macbeth was my first. It may have spoiled me for all Macbeths hereafter.
So, what is it that has excited me so much about this particular production? Quite simply, the utterly fantastic performances of the actors. In the mouths of these actors, every one of them, down to the boy playing young Macduff, the language LIVES. I believe these actors. That has apparently become my criteria for a good performance — do I believe these actors are who they are supposed to be? In this case, the answer is an emphatic yes.
While everyone is fantastic, it is Ian McKellan and Judi Dench who drive the excellence of this production. McKellan’s Macbeth seems more calculating. less conflicted than he appears in the text. His initial doubts are more of convention than conscience — he should not murder the King, not because it is morally wrong, but because it would be against social norms. Duncan is his kin, his King, and his guest; to murder him would be a breach of order and obligation. In the text, I read that scene (Act I, Scene VII) as a man wrestling with his conscience; one who truly does not want to do the deed, but can see no way around it. McKellan’s Macbeth at this point is all about the responsibilities of a man in his position, not the moral implications of his treason. It is not until the dagger speech in Act II that conscience, and with it, incipient madness, seem to take hold. After the murder has been done, Macbeth truly begins to become unhinged. In Act III, he initially seems to be under control, but is barely holding it together. The director’s choice not to show Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene makes Macbeth’s madness all the more real — we do not know what he sees, or why he is raving. And rave he does! Not in a scenery-chewing bombastic way, but in a way that makes him seem truly mad — he really does appear to be a man whose mind is “full of scorpions.” (And AGAIN with the damn spit! The man was practically foaming at the mouth. Is that a requirement for Shakespearean anti-heroes?) The decision not to show Banquo’s ghost, and to frame the appearance of the eight kings in Act IV as hallucinations abetted by the witches potion, makes the play less supernatural and more psychological. I like this interpretation, but I have to admit, I would have been a bit confused if I had not had the text next to me, and thus had a clue as to what Macbeth was seeing. Whether or not his mental imbalance is organic or created by the witches, his steely resolve to eliminate all of his opposition, and his confidence that he cannot be dethroned, (as the conditions the witches have set out for that occurrence are seemingly impossible) breeds in Macbeth a new and dangerous madness. He holds to that; it is all that keeps him together, even while Scotland is falling apart around him. His rigid control breaks briefly when he is told of Lady Macbeth’s suicide. McKellan’s delivery of the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Act V is chilling; you can see him losing his grip as he realizes that life holds nothing for him any longer. His nobles and subjects have abandoned him, his wife is dead; all he has left are the witches promises. And then he finds that the wood IS moving, and that Macduff was not born of woman in the conventional way. The prophecies have come true, though not in the way he expected, and all hope is lost. He will die fighting, but he will die.
Judi Dench’s performance is equally brilliant. I was surprised by the passion in her Lady Macbeth, and the obvious chemistry between the two leads. Dench’s Lady is a duplicitous bitch, easily playing first the gracious hostess and then the stunned, grieving subject. She is all ambition and no remorse. Not so much bullying as shaming Macbeth into action, and, once Duncan is killed, willing and able to put the murder behind them in a way that McKellan’s Macbeth is unable to do. Until suddenly, she can’t. (This is a problem I have with the play and not the performance; I will address it next week) Lady Macbeth’s haunted nocturnal wanderings are brilliantly and heartbreakingly portrayed by Dench, her keening physically painful to hear. It is a shattering performance, one which I shall use as the standard to judge all future Lady Macbeths.
The rest of the performances are all up to the standard set by Dench and McKellan. I plan to address the witches in a later post, so all I will say here is that they are quietly creepy, and they make what could have been stereotypical, over familiar roles menacing and believable. I do not understand Malcolm’s perception of evil in himself, but that is not the fault of the production, but of the play. Roger Rees is effective in the role of reluctant heir. The only quibble I have with the performances (and it really is a tiny one) is in the final scene of Act IV, when Macduff learns that his wife and children have been killed. Shakespeare has given us a brilliantly written scene, a shattered man, asking over and over in shocked disbelief whether his entire family has been killed. I did not get the shock or the grief. I do not want weeping and wailing; the scene does not call for that. I just did not get the pain. I do not know if it was the actor’s or the director’s choice to play that scene so indifferently, but it just didn’t seem real to me.
The setting is extremely stark and minimal. The performance begins with a circle of chairs on the stage. The actors file in and sit. A camera pans across the face of each actor, showing but not showing each deeply shadowed face. Then the witches arise, and the performance begins.
The shadowed beginning sets the tone for the entire performance. There is no scenery and very few props, but they are not needed. The dark, stark setting initially seems too bare. The lighting is only on the actors; the background is completely black. It did seem a bit too dark at some times (although that may just be my living room — it is a bit too bright at midday for good TV viewing), but it is not at all claustrophobic. The shadows are used most effectively, and the use of the actors in isolation, illuminated only by a swinging light in the climactic scene, increases the tension dramatically. The camera work and the lighting are both brilliant.
The staging was interesting as well. As I said above, there were no sets, and only the few props that were necessary to the story. I did not feel their absence. Perhaps if I were seeing the performance live, and could see the whole empty stage, it might have made a difference; with the tight focus on the actors, it was fine, I can’t say why I feel this technique worked well with this performance, and not with the 1984 BBC production of Coriolanus I reviewed here. It is likely due to the caliber of the performances. The actors in this production are so damn good, I don’t NEED scenery.
There were a few interesting choices in the positioning of the actors. I usually am annoyed by lines that are supposed to be asides. Often the actors are placed in such a way as it would be implausible that they would not be overheard. I realize this is likely an artifact of live theater — there is a limited area to work with, and the audience has to be able to hear everything. I did not have that problem with this production. Despite the small stage, the tight focus provides separation; asides feel properly aside. In an interesting turn about from this, in Act V, when Macbeth is comforting himself with the mantra that he cannot be defeated “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,” Malcolm and his cohorts are placed nearby, almost as if they are in a position to overhear Macbeth, and so use his own mad ravings to defeat him. I do not know if that was the director’s intent, but that is how it comes across. I hope it was. I like it. It builds on the impression present in this production that Macbeth, as always, is the architect of his own defeat; all that he has done is his own choice, the witches and his wife are just catalysts to get the reaction going; everything else is all him.
The costume palette here is mostly black and white, as it was in the BBC Coriolanus, but here I am okay with it. The era is undefined; sequined tops on the witches mix with priestly garb for Duncan; Ross is dressed as an early 20th century civil servant, while Malcolm wears a timeless cabled jumper, and Lady Macbeth, a gown and coif of indeterminate era. It looks a bit like they raided the costume stores for whatever felt appropriate, but for some reason, it works. There is some white hat/black hat element to the costuming, something I didn’t realize I had noticed until Act IV, scene III. I had apparently internalized the costuming so much, that when Malcolm was lamenting his sins, I wrote “but he is wearing a WHITE jumper!” in my notes. I will watch again (to check this out, and also, because it is just fucking brilliant), but I am pretty sure the innocent characters — Duncan, Lady Macduff and her son — are all in white, the only truly “evil” characters — the witches and the Macbeths — are all in black, and everyone else is mixed, as there is good and evil in us all. The only pops of color are the golden royal regalia (that looks more priestly than kingly to me) and the Macbeth’s gloriously bloody hands after the murder of Duncan.
This being my first (and only) Macbeth to date, I really have no basis for comparison, but I find it hard to believe there are many out there better than this performance. Go rent it. You can thank me later.
When I began writing this blog, I think I intended it to be sort of a celebration of all things Shakespeare. Really, the primary reason I started it was that I wanted to talk about Coriolanus (the play itself), but not necessarily about Tom Hiddleston. And while I did do a lot of talking about Hiddleston (and I likely will do more; I am seeing Henry V at Chicago Shakes in May, and I kind of feel like I will have to reference The Hollow Crown), I also got to talk about the play, about the questions it raised, the impressions I had, the things I did not understand. And I think that is actually what this blog is about — not necessarily profound pontifications on Shakespeare, but my relationship to Shakespeare. I changed my tagline from “one woman’s musings” to “one’s woman’s discovery” because that is what it is — a record of me, learning about Shakespeare. Because I have found I really do not know very much about Shakespeare at all.
Think of it as a long, DIY, auto-tutorial course on Shakespeare. Yes, I could take a class. I am sure there are many local and on-line courses that I could take advantage of. But I do not want anyone to tell me what to think, or to tell me that I am wrong. (When I get my other blog up and running, there will be an essay on the collaborative nature of writing and reading. I believe that, basically, as far as interpretation is concerned, there IS no wrong.) I do not want to hear the conventional wisdom. No, I will not be saying anything new; after 400 years, I doubt that there IS anything new one can say about Shakespeare. I will likely reinvent the wheel, many times over. But the point of it is that I will be doing the thinking, I will be drawing the conclusions, I will be using my oh-so-rusty brain for its intended purpose for once. For some reason I cannot yet fathom, these plays have made me feel energized in ways that I haven’t for a very long time. I want to understand why, and to keep that feeling alive for as long as possible.
The format of the blog won’t change; really all that is changing is my realization of what the blog actually is. I have discovered it works best if I see a performance before reading the play; then I can use the text to explore ideas, questions, and feelings that the performance has raised. I will also be using the plays as a jumping off point for investigating the historical and cultural aspects of the plays, as I did with homoeroticism and Coriolanus. And I still intend to look at works inspired or influenced by Shakespeare (I have some Pratchett lined up soon that you are going to love.) I hope you find it interesting. I’m pretty sure I will.
I was going to come and post some exaggerated excuse about my Internet going down (which it did, but not for long enough to make that much of a difference), but I am trying to be honest here. I am just having a little trouble balancing blogging with the rest of my life. Balance is something I have always had a problem with. I am still going to continue doing this blog. I just need a bit of a reset this week. I am extremely excited to be writing about the Macbeth I watched yesterday (A Performance of Macbeth, Thames 1979). You should go to Netflix right now and put it at the top of your DVD queue; it is fucking brilliant. I just want to do it justice. So…I will post it when I post it and hopefully get back on schedule in the next couple of weeks.