Philippa Kelly
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Shakespeare’s portrayal of a mighty soldier turned murderous serial killer offers a massive psychological journey, achieved within his shortest play, about two hours in stage time. Even before he assassinates King Duncan, Macbeth is haunted by foresight of the consequences of this action: yet he and his wife, Lady Macbeth, cannot seem able to resist exploring the full range of what they feel they deserve and are capable of. Ironically, in seeking to claim their full earthly rewards, they diminish in the play, with Lady Macbeth’s fainting in the banquet scene being her last major appearance before the sleepwalking scene that precedes her death, and Macbeth becoming a small and petty figure, cowed by the ravages of his mind: “I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.” Part of the great fascination of the once-valiant Macbeth’s steady diminution is that it occurs to a character who also has a highly developed sense of what it means to be good in terms of service, honor and duty, and what it costs to transgress.

Listen more in my Foreword:

Hello everybody ,this is Philippa’s Foreword, and I’m delighted to welcome you to the fourth and final production of our year: Macbeth, directed by the fantastic Victor Malana Maog.

Macbeth, or the Scottish play, is one of Shakespeare’s shorter dramas. The action is very tight, almost impacted. And yet it travels on a huge emotional arc, as we journey from the report of the valiant Macbeth, heroic in defense of Scotland, to the final scene where we witness his demise. Interestingly, Macbeth, unlike Shakepeare’s other tragic protagonists, is both introduced and concluded with by report. We hear of his valiant action at the beginning, and he’s present at the end, only as a decapitated head, and by the label of “bloody butcher.”

In the space of two hours, or a month of theater time, we hear reports of Macbeth and Banquo’s valiant defense of Scotland, in three separate and consecutive battles. We follow Macbeth’s huge emotional arc with his wife, Lady Macbeth, we witnessed the reign of three kings, destruction wrought all through Scotland, and the saving of Scotland by the English forces, a lovely nod of approval that Shakespeare gave in reverse to King James, who had very recently come down from Scotland to take the reins of the English throne at Elizabeth’s death, and thereby to unite Scotland and England, within the British Empire.

And another reason that King James the first would have loved Macbeth is that James was a notorious Witch Hunter. Unfortunately, this was also a notorious way of destroying any woman seen as the least bit threatening to patriarchy or property. James would have danced on his throne, in appreciation of his play, in which witches are associated with transgression. There’s no actual recorded performance of the play until 1611. But it was certainly performed in front of King James, in 1506, right after it was written.

So what about these witches? James may have seen them as evil, but they’re not as simple as that. Who are they? Why does Shakespeare have them in the play? And what does that signify thematically? Well, it’s true, generally, that whenever you see witches, they rarely mean anything good. It’s true that they predict that Macbeth will be king and that Banquo’s children will be king. And in offering these predictions, they also upset the order of regal authority, and the authority of the protagonist. Internally, you could say in defense of the witches, well, they don’t force Macbeth to kill the king. They don’t even suggest it, they simply greet him as Thane of Cawdor. And they predict that he will be king. But what they do is both canny and uncanny, foul and fair.

No sooner had the witches greet Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, than he finds that he IS Thane of Cawdor. He’s been promoted by the king. Do the witches have a mysterious connection to predestination? Because there’s truth in this greeting by the witches. Their prophecies for the future are granted weight. Macbeth—played by the wonderful newcomer to our stage, Rey Lucas—can’t stop thinking about them. And his wife, Lady Macbeth—played by the equally wonderful Liz Sklar—can’t stop thinking about them either.

And so in this play, Shakespeare takes us into the world of Scotland and into the world of human autonomy. Where does human free will come from? Is Macbeth’s action, his murder of the king, the cause of his character and thus, of his destiny? Or is his character shaped and honed by his wife, the cause of his action and his destiny? When we meet the witches, for the first time, he says, Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more. Imperfect has its origins in Latin meaning unfinished, not fully formed. And surely this suggests that Macbeth’s ambition, his insurrection is somewhere planted there already.

But is it there in all of us as human beings? Is transgression, in other words, a part of being human? And then this takes us to the notion of sin. Is an action.a sin if we don’t know that it’s a sin? And we might consider the words that you’ll hear from Duncan, in scene two: “The sin of my ingratitude even now weighs heavy on me. Thou art so far before that swiftest wing of recompense is slow to overtake thee. Only I have left to say, more is thy due than more than all can pay. Here, Duncan refers to the sin of his ingratitude, suggesting that he may have ignited the sin in Macbeth, because he’s promoted him twice. Once as Thane of Glamis in the backstory, and secondly as Thane of Cawdor. If Macbeth is told by the king that he deserves so much, perhaps this great soldier deserves even more.

And all of this is complicated by the fact that Macbeth is a trained killer. Killing is what he’s done for a living. Killing is what he’s been acclaimed for, like Banquo. Like Siward, like all the other soldiers. And here’s the thing. Macbeth knows that however we turn the mirror, to kill your own King is more than a killing, more than a murder. It’s an assassination and it’s a regicide. And look at the way Macbeth gets caught up in trying to pronounce the word—which Shakespeare coined, by the way—assassination. If the assassination could tramel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success… all those “s”s, all those “a”s, in which Macbeth expresses, via his very language, the turmoil and confusion going on inside his mind.

I can’t possibly conclude this introduction without two things. Firstly, telling you what a Thane is. A Thane is an old Scottish term for warlord. And warlords were by their nature, fighters and claimers of land. And secondly, I want to address the mythology about Macbeth, curses, and “the Scottish play.” It all began with the original performance on August 7, 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as Lady Macbeth, playing before the king, collapsed from a fever and later died. It’s said, and I don’t know whether this is apocryphal, that Shakespeare himself stepped in to play the role on short notice. Over the next two centuries, the disasters continued, the curse taking its greatest toll after the Astor Place riots in New York City in 1849. During a performance of Macbeth by British actor William Charles, McCready, supporters of his American rival Edwin Forrest, clashed with police. 22 people were killed and some 36 more were injured. So today, many people still turn around three times, throw salt over their shoulders, and perform other rituals to dispel the curse, insisting on calling it the Scottish play.

Call it what you like. Just come see our play. Come hear a Grove Talk, there’s one before every single performance beginning 45 minutes in advance, and we often have talk backs as well. You will love it and it’s just a fabulous closer to our season.

Have a question about Macbeth?

Ask Philippa, our Resident Dramaturg in the comments below!

Dr. Kelly’s work has been supported by many foundations and organizations, including the Fulbright,  Rockefeller, and Walter and Eliza Hall Foundations, the Commonwealth Awards, the Centre for Human Emotions, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, the California Arts Council, and the  Bly Awards for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. The best known of her several books is The King and I,  critically acclaimed for framing King Lear through an Australian lens for social justice. With Amrita Ramanan (Director  of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, Oregon Shakespeare Festival),  Dr. Kelly is editing a field-wide volume of case studies, Diversity,  Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field, to be published by Routledge in the summer of 2019.

Macbeth begins performances September 18. Get tickets and more information here.

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2 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Macbeth”

  1. 1. Would Macbeth have achieved the 3 positions that the Witches told him about if he had just waited and let them come to him? Or did their prophesy also encompass the combined ambition of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth and rely on their machinations for the prophesy to be true?

    2. From Cassius in ‘Julius Caesar’ to Macbeth and others . . . what exactly did Shakespeare have against ambition itself (as opposed to, you know, HOMICIDAL ambition, which is obviously a bad thing)?

  2. Hello Neil and Rich. Welcome to being the first posters on the Ask Philippa! Macbeth site! Great questions both. This is the quandary for Macbeth – he says “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/Without my stir.” Why not wait? I think what tips him over the edge is that Duncan names Malcolm as crown prince at the very moment that he is honoring Macbeth. And as for your second question – I think Shakespeare was fascinated by human ambition and by the impulse to transgress that is PART of human creativity. Can we be fully human if we don’t wish to stretch higher? But then also he was inheriting the feudal spirit that suggested that “service” is more important than anything. When Duncan says “More is thy due than more than all can pay,” Macbeth replies, “The service and the loyalty I owe/In doing it, pays itself.” I’m just off to Heinz St to record a Macbeth outreach talk. It will be out there by tomorrow. Please listen and react if you have thoughts! And post it around if you feel like it.

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