Tuesday, October 25, 2005

More Theater Babbling

Last week, I decided to a bit of online research regarding Macbeth, given I missed out on the dramaturgy session.

I found a bunch of interesting material on the history of the real-life MacBeth and MacDuff. As usual, Shakespeare did a bit of fudging on his facts.

I also got some differing interpretations on Lady MacDuff, from "timid, completely guileless, well intentioned, and too trusting of those around her", and the "architypical female of the era" who never questions her husband's loyalty, to an abandoned wife who
does not understand her husband's desertion and calls him a traitor, driven by fear.

I tend toward the latter interpretation, myself. She isn't guileless, but is somewhat constrained in her options for self-defense. She feels betrayed by her husband, but is ultimately resolute in the face of death. (Until she's actually attacked, that is. It's a bit hard to remain stoic while actually being killed, I should think.)

Another interesting interpretation:
The key to the scene, I think, is Macduff's Wife's conclusion to the scene:

Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world--where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defense,
To say I have done no harm.

The Lady's defense is not womanly but manly, in stereotypes. Men are logical and women are emotional, in stereotypes. What we have here is her arriving at a logical conclusion, but Macbeth has made the world illogical, counter to everything it should be.

I'm going to have to ruminate on that one a bit.

I got some idea of how what works with the scene: "Macbeth has his henchmen kill the family, including a gruesome rape and murder offstage of Lady Macduff. After these terrible deeds, all is not quiet. There's a baby bawling in the palace. Macbeth hands a machete-like sword to Siward (Patrick Robinson), the baby's cousin. Siward silences the crying child, trembling as he emerges with his bloody sword." And what doesn't: "But Macduff's two boys were such hyperactive brats that one almost cheered when they were dispatched by Macbeth's assassins. Lady Macduff was pregnant at the time of her murder, and so for some reason was Lady Macbeth when she appeared for her nightly sleepwalk. Perhaps the director (Geoffrey Hyland) was trying to make some comment on third-trimester abortion. The portly actress playing Lady Macduff also doubled as a Messenger and as the drunken Porter, playing the one with uncontrollable giggles, and the other with such determined scatalogy (wiggling her behind, bouncing her boobs, squatting on stage to urinate) that one didn't mind when her Lady Macduff was taken off either, pregnant or not."

I also found some interesting background material on the possible influences of the Gunpowder Plot on Shakespeare's script, which was written contemporaneously. Greenman suggested this to me a while back, and it's a fascinating topic.

The basics:
On the night of November 4, 1605, an important discovery was made in London: thirty-six barrels of highly explosive gunpowder, ready to blow a hole in the earth, were discovered directly below the House of Parliament in Westminster. Had the authorities not foiled this attempt, Parliament would have been destroyed, killing the members of Parliament as well as King James I of England (whose reign had only begun in 1603), and sending the English government into shambles. . . . One of the men behind this conspiracy was Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic who was motivated by England’s prohibition of the Catholic faith. . . . The trial to prosecute Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators was led by Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General prosecuting for James I. Guy Fawkes was convicted in January, 1606 and all of the fellow conspirators were convicted and executed by March, 1606.
(My note: the text being reviewed apparently likens this to the discovery at the height of the cold war that a group of terrorists almost succeeded in planting a nuclear bomb in Washington, to wipe out all three branches of government simultaneously. However, I'm wondering if the play might resonate more interestingly now if one could pull in the 9/11 analogy instead . . . I'm going to throw it out there for somebody else's mind, though, I'm no director.)

Some common themes in the Plot and the play:
The fact that the conspirators were Catholic linked them in the popular imagination with Jesuits. And the Jesuits themselves were often connected to witchcraft. Henry Garnet's A Treatise on Equivocation was found in the possession of one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This treatise, which was intended to address the question of how Catholics should answer authority if questioned upon their religion, lent itself to the usual claim that Jesuits were trying to "to lie like truth". The equivalence of opposites (fair is foul and foul is fair), double-dealing, deception, and of course "equivocation" itself figures prominently not only in Macbeth but in the other Gunpowder Plays as well.

The influences of the Treatise on Equivocation issue are straightforward and permeate the script:
I care not if thou dost for me as much.-
I pall in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: "Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane;" and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane…

I was a little more leery of the catholic/witchcraft connection, in light of the fact that James I was apparently the direct decendant of Fleance. So if the witches are equated with Catholics - equivocators who seek to wreak havoc on the natural order of the world and bring about the murder of two kings (Duncan, then MacBeth) - does that portrayal obviate the positive image of James as the prophecied king from the line of Banquo? I mean, the theater was utterly sponsored by the regency. So you produced plays (a la Richard III) that portrayed the current ruling power as "destined" to rule, having a glorious history. To put on a play in which a king is murdered, particularly right after the Gunpowder Plot, must have been a tad controversial. With James' known fascination with witches and Catholics, would he have seen the play as a portrayal of his family as destined to rule, or predicted to rule by the same lying witches(Catholics?) that were trying to kill him personally?

I need to dig a bit more into that one. But it's a fascinating play, with interesting interpretations.

On the other hand it was also amusing to see the inept attempts to summarize the text that pass themselves off on the web:
Act IV, Scene 2 (Fife, Macduff's Castle)
Lady Macduff is wondering why her husband left. She thinks he was mad, looking like a traitor, loveless and cowardly to leave his family and possessions. Ross tries to comfort her, telling her he knows what is wrong at the moment. People don't know they are traitors, when they know fear. Ross leaves and says he will be back. Lady Macduff has an interesting conversation with her son Sirrah about what they will do without a father. The messenger tells her to leave, that she is in danger. But Lady Macduff doesn't know where to go, and she has done no wrong. As she realizes that doing good is sometimes a bad thing, the murderers arrive. The murderers kill the Son, but Lady Macduff escapes.

WTF?!?!?!? They actually slapped a copyright on that, too. Go figure.

A side thought:

I wonder how far back the tradition of Lady MacBeth having red hair goes? She serves as a stereotypical warning against women seeking to be too strong or powerful (read: masculine). Given the play was written only a few years after Elizabeth I's death, could a bit of "ding, dong the witch is dead" be extrapolated from the text?

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