Ask Philippa: Macbeth

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Philippa Kelly

Ask Philippa: Macbeth

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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24 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.

    1. Hi, Phillipa,
      We were at the show last night, and would love a copy of your full Grove talk.
      Many thanks,
      Lisa and Alan

      1. of course, Lisa and Alan! Send me your email and I’ll attach it! In the meantime, I am so into the idea of the witches as a lead into this play. How do we live with the fact that life is uncontrollable? We reach to religion, fortune-tellers, spread sheets, even social media. The witches are, in a sense, both fair and foul – they reach toward the depths of the human heart to seek out the dark mysteries that lie there; and they gesture toward unknown potentials.

    2. Hi, Philippa,
      Thanks so much for the reply. I (the dad) am bringing Neil (turning 14 tomorrow, Oct 11) to the Sat Oct 12 show for his birthday present. He and I read ‘Macbeth’ last summer and he’s thought a lot about it. We appreciate your thoughts. I’ll email you for your actor’s notes and your talk.
      Thanks so much again!

  3. Here is a beautiful quotation sent in by patron Maxime Stinnett after seeing our MACBETH last night and appreciating how Shakespeare’s protagonist struggles to live in paradox that is unwelcome to him (and to many of us all)

    “The mission of art lies neither in fleeing from, nor flirting with, the contradictions which mold the consciousness of our society, but in coming to grips with them and dialectically mastering them.” – Helmut Lachenmann, p. 22 of “The ‘Beautiful’ in Music Today”

  4. Hello Philippa, my wife and I greatly enjoyed listening to your thoughts on Macbeth in the Grove before the show. Any extra research you could send to my email would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  5. Philippa:
    Wonderful production where the set use of confining boxes/cubes reinforces the theme of Macbeth retreating into himself/the fears of his mind that almost traps himself. The acting was outstanding with lady Macbeth owning the stage when she sleepwalks, and the sounds of anguish coming from her caused an amazing reaction from the crowd. With Cal Shakes’ interest in gender role reversals, an alert observer will have a nice surprise with what you do with the witches. Victor’s masterful direction to portray the issues with uncheck ambition is magnified by the casts’ excellent portrayals of their reactions to that.

    One question for you: The Macbeth’s do not mention religion or use religious references or imagery. However, one of Calvinism core believes is Pre-destiny: “Everyone is predestined, according to God’s plan, to be saved or damned. No action on any one’s part can change this.” Could it be that Shakespeare is leveraging the religious arguments about pre density that were a force in his time as one of the central themes in Macbeth?

    1. Hello Ernest,

      What a great question! Sir Thomas Browne, in RELIGIO MEDCI, refers to “that terrible term Predestination, which hath troubled so many weak heads to conceive, and the wisest to explain. It is in respect of God no precious determination of our estates to come, but a definitive blast of his will already fulfilled, I was [in time past] not only before myself, but Adam, that is, in the Idea of God…thus I was dead before I was alive, though my grave be in England, my dying place was Paradise, and Eve miscarried of mee before she conceiv’d of Cain’. But this abiding sense of a providential universe does NOT mean that we humans (in Shakespeare’s time) can’t influence our own destinies – so that sin, as with the Macbeth’s results in the physical torture of sleeplessness. Sin also resulted, many believed, in all kinds of physical ailments: Sir Ralph Josselin, for example, says in his diary: “Stung I was with a bee on my nose, I presently pluckt out the sting, and layd on honey, so that my face swelled not, thus divine providence reaches to the lowest things. lett not sin oh Lord that dreadfull sting bee able to poison mee. ” I have to run and teach now (Berkeley Theater Explorations, every Monday beginning at 12) but I may write more later!

      1. hi again, just further to the above now that I have a little more time: I would say that in the world around Shakespeare, there is little space for individual agency that does not risk spilling over into various degrees of wickedness and sin – but this is what made it so fascinating for the playwright to explore this dark world of human mystery from which “agency” was seen to arise. Who am I? What motivates me? In a world dominated by religious boundaries, rights and wrongs, where does human ambition lie and how does (or doesn’t) it fit in?

  6. Intriguing acting with the Leads playing well off of each other to develop the psychological tension so important for this play to succeed. The supporting cast at times excelled, with a veteran using his experience to not only deliver excellent timing for an ageing porter, but also play a youth. The contrast delighted the audience.

    Was it the director’s intention to have the audience wonder if Lady Macbeth had lost a child in birth and what did Shakespeare’s audience know about postpartum depression?

    1. Hello Will,
      That has got to be a pseudonym! Will Yorick! Love it! But as for your question, it’s an intriguing one, and Victor definitely wanted to allude to a possible backstory for Lady M.

      First of all, when we experience Renaissance plays, what we are looking for is something we recognize: something that enables us to measure – to erase or to illuminate – the distance, chronological, geographical and cultural – between ourselves and the play. Whether Shakespeare knew someone personally who suffered from post-natal depression will never be known: but the fact that those suffering from mental illnesses were almost always cared for at home would have increased individuals’ exposure to mental illness and to cases of post-natal depression, so much so that mental illness associated with childbirth was recorded in medical textbooks.

      For many, Lady M’s declaration of readiness to commit infanticide is both shocking and enigmatic. At the climax of her efforts to sting Macbeth into regicidal action she says:

      I have given suck, and know
      How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
      I would, while it was smiling in my face,
      Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
      And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
      Have done to this.

      The infanticide is hypothetical, but Lady Macbeth’s motherhood is not. The term, “post-natal depression” was not in parlance at the time, but it was a known and acknowledged state, and she’d have been observed by the audience in terms of this mental-health possibility, particularly given her relative youth. Is the death of her child (or children) recent? If she has suffered more than one child’s death, the mental strain on her might be accentuated. Her husband has had his feats of war to divert him from the grief of losing a child, whereas the extremely intelligent and resourceful Lady Macbeth has to spend her time waiting, as we see from her first appearance in the play: she waits for Macbeth to come home in order to discuss the letter he’s sent; then she awaits the imminent arrival of Duncan; then she waits for her husband to take the action they’ve agreed on. Both men travel – whereas Lady Macbeth is stuck in one place. For a bereaved mother stationed in the castle – notably without a gentlewoman in whom to confide (unusual for Shakespeare’s women, who reveal their thoughts and sufferings via conversations with their ladies-in-waiting, thereby offering a clarity of thought that Lady Macbeth’s solitude does not permit us), she is devoid of any female confidant until the sleepwalking scene, when she is OBSERVED BY her gentlewoman, rather than confiding in her. Lady Macbeth therefore has large amounts of time to grieve alone.

  7. My wife and I always enjoy your pre-talks in the Grove, and yesterday’s was superb in every respect.
    Your pre and post talks are an integral part of the Cal Shakes experience that draws us back year after year.
    Thank you!

    1. Hello Bill, thank you for this lovely comment! I love the rehearsal hall and the theater, of course – but the grove is a portal where we speakers get the chance to open up some context and research to open the gateway for your visit to our beautiful cast and production. I’m so glad you enjoy it as much as I enjoy being there.

  8. We really enjoyed this production of Macbeth. But there’s something that always bugs me about this play. It’s that Macbeth’s fate turns on two, well, jokes — and not very good jokes at that. At the time Shakespeare was writing, would these jokes have been considered funny, silly, profound, clever, or something else entirely?

    1. Hello Eileen, by “jokes,” do you mean that one would be “fair is foul and foul is fair”? Can you clarify? I am always gripped by what Banquo says: “See how our partner’s rapt.” “Rapt” comes from the term “raptus,” meaning “seized” – suggesting that the witches seize on his imagination and catch them in their grasp. BUT you can only seize on an imagination that is primed and ready. But tell me more about the jokes.

  9. Hello Philippa – We thought the Macbeth performance last night was wonderful! The production more than stood on its own, but I can’t help comparing it with the production that I saw many years ago at Cal Shakes. I seem to remember that the previous production rearranged the ending a bit so that the last scene with on-stage actors was Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” soliloquy. That short speech is so powerful and it always seems to lose its effect a bit when followed by the final “war scenes” and Duncan’s victory, which seem anti-climatic to me. Once Lady Macbeth is dead and Macbeth loses all his ambition (even for life), everything else seems…well, inevitable. Is my memory correct that the previous production “ended” with this speech? Have you seen other directors chose to re-stage the ending? Also, Eric used the word “Macbeth” in his introduction (instead of “The Scottish Play”). First time I’ve ever heard someone in the theater do that. Was that on purpose? LOVE CAL SHAKES!

    1. philippa M kelly

      Hello Phyllis,
      You are absolutely right! The last Macbeth (directed by Joel Sass, a wonderful director based in Minneapolis) changed the ending so that the ghosts of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth came on at the end to deliver the “tomorrow and tomorrow” speeches and “to bed, to bed.” In a way the theme of this production was quite similar to what Victor aimed for in this production – the sense that what we may revile as “evil” (epitomized in the head of the “bloody butcher” in a bag) is perhaps a way of “disposing” of, and thereby rejecting, our own murky interiors. We are all so complex as humans – so capable of nurturing impulses and venality – and to see Macbeth as “this bloody butcher” who can be expunged from Scotland to the tune of general rejoicing is to deny the presence of ambition and treachery in ourselves, which (as Macbeth suggests) can always “return to plague the inventor.” The returning ghosts in the 2010 production, like the “fair is foul” delivered as an epilogue to this 2019 production, haunts the play with the black and deep desires that are part of being human – it’s not so easy to objectify the Macbeths as a form of pollution that can be disposed of as we say “good riddance.”

      Eric did say “Macbeth” – as do I! There’s a whole mythology around Macbeth and curses. It all began with the original performance on August 7, 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as Lady Macbeth, collapsed from a fever and later died. It is said – and I don’t know whether this is apocryphal – that Shakespeare himself had to step in and 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 Macready, supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, clashed with police. Twenty- two people were killed and some 36 more injured. So today many people still turn round three times and throw salt over their shoulders, or perform other rituals, to dispel the curse, and some refuse to call Macbeth anything other than THE SCOTTISH PLAY. But not Eric or me! We dispel any curse with the anthem, “PEETS COFFEE AND TEA!”

  10. Calshakes’ production was simply one of the best Macbeth performances I’ve ever seen. This should be noteworthy as I’ve not only studied Macbeth, seen over 20 productions, and am an avid theater goer with admittedly high expectations.

    On so many levels beginning with your always insightful grove talk, to the unexpected staging, (bird) sound design, thought provoking directing, and the actors delivering the best in their craft, I was (almost disturbingly) IN the story that I thought I knew so well. Special call outs to Rey Lucas’ agonizingly human rendition of Macbeth, but most of all to Liz Skylar (Lady Macbeth) who transported me into an already engaging performance through her primal scream which “left no prisoners”. I’m still haunted with her sleepwalking scene…

    The set design was genius simultaneously both transparent AND claustrophobic, leaving evidence of this human tragedy impossible to miss. Congratulations for a stand-out performance!

  11. This production of MacBeth is a reason we have been subscribers for 30 years. Acting and production were excellent. The director used his interpretation of the play to grip us without gimmicks or distortion of the play. MacBeth is rich with complex themes and stories and characters. We have seen 8 or more productions of the Scottish play over the years, as well as reading it numerous times. Seeing this production brought out more, something new. I want to go read the play again.
    We also really appreciated Kathleen Sheehan’s grove talk. It seemed she could have gone on for hours, and we would have listened.
    One question I would like to have asked her, and still wonder about, is Shakespeare’s us of time. Kathleen touched on how time moves and passes, I think she called it emotional time. It is not clock time, neither through the night nor over the course of MacBeth’s ascending and reign. I don’t know exactly what my question is… other than how did he do this? Is there a tradition of plays or playwrights he draws off of or learned from? Is this a talent of his own? Do you see it develop through the course of his canon? I know time is amiss in The Tempest and Hamlet. MacBeth seems to me a more deliberate use of time warping for a purpose to carry themes of the play.
    I thought of Poe’s the “Tell Tale Heart” throughout this show.
    Thanks, Mike

  12. philippa M kelly

    Hello Mike,
    I also received this as an email, so will cut and paste here, with a special shout-out to Cathleen who gave the wondrous grove talk you saw and heard.

    As for your question about clock time, Cathleen might want to say more – but Shakespeare often used a timescape that was not representative of “real” time. For instance, Macbeth shows the deaths of 2 kings and the reigns of 3 – and all seems incredibly compressed. It is like Macbeth ages 100 years (My time of life is fallen into the sear.) But how long is this meant to “actually” be in stage time? It is unclear. And Shakespeare doesn’t feel the need to parse it out accurately. It’s all about what feels right – that time is incredibly compressed. Or consider Othello: it clearly takes more than 2 days to sail from Venice to Cyprus – but Shakespeare makes his represented time just a few days. It’s the distinction between verisimilitude and what drives the action.

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