by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
“X has changed—they didn’t used to be like that. I never imagined they could be so disloyal/selfish/horrible/unkind…” How many times have we said or heard such words? Chances are, X hasn’t grown a gruesome new characteristic like a carbuncle—X has revealed their paradox: that complexity, that mystery, that comes from the dark reaches of human potential. Paradox is at the core of human actions, and it makes us difficult to understand—even, or especially, to ourselves.
How can you be both generous and selfish, loyal to others and to yourself, dignified and vain, loving and destructive? Such paradox fuels the engines of the great plays Shakespeare wrote early in the 17th century—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. All of the tragic protagonists are “tragic” because they wrestle with the unraveling of assumed intrinsic identity, believing themselves to be one way and experiencing themselves to be disturbingly “other.” Lear gives away his kingdom, believing (like many a wealthy person) that people will love and honor him when he no longer has favors and financial rewards to bestow. Hamlet can’t understand how his mother could love two husbands, in very short order, completely: “frailty, thy name is woman,” he sighs. No: frailty, thy name is human. We are frail because we have the capacity to change—and in our very frailty, in the un-solidity of our identities, is our capacity to thrive and survive.
Like his other theatrical companions, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, Macbeth struggles to understand this. He is a soldier, accustomed to fighting one way and with all his strength. But as you visit our magnificent production in the next few weeks, listen to the language: “Bellona’s bridegroom, bathed in blood;” “’Two truths are told, as swelling prologues to the imperial theme.” “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor to make thee full of growing.” All of these images suggest an underscore of doubleness. Macbeth, the warrior, has won greatness through his body, and it’s with his body that he now experiences the “fair and foul” world introduced by the witches at the top of the play. “Amen stuck in my throat;” “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife;” “I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.” And his wife, Lady Macbeth, herself unravels in images of internal torture experienced in sleep, a time when no human being can control their thoughts.
“There is no quality so universal …as diversity and variety,” wrote the French philosopher, Montaigne, from whose writings Shakespeare drew so much; and “there is little relation betwixt our actions, which are in perpetual mutation, and fixed and immutable laws.” (Montaigne, Of Experience.) The Macbeths share with us images by which they feel with their bodies the intensity of their identity divisions: the squeezing of their spirits into impossibly tight frames, the ripping of a baby’s lips from a breast full of milk. They express, in this magnificent play, paradox in all its humanness; humanness in all its paradox. The uncertainty that faces us all; the ambition that drives us to take fearsome risks; the remorse that will destroy us if we can’t find a way to forgive ourselves. The death that awaits us all after this brief foray on the stage of life; and, despite such dark truths, the appetite that awakens us freshly, hungrily, to every day.