This has been another week where I have been struck by what a fantastic experience it is to read Shakespeare’s plays one after the other in roughly the order they were written/performed. I really do feel like I’ve developed a much greater understanding of him as a writer and of his work. The whole process has also highlighted how much I often take for granted in his work and how much my interpretations are shaped by preconceptions and assumptions.
Macbeth, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, is probably one of the plays that I know the best. I’ve never worked on a production and can only remember seeing one live and one streamed production, but I have run countless workshops with young people on the play and have acted Macbeth and Banquo in numerous Performance Workshops with Guildford Shakespeare Company (this is where we do a 60 minute script in hand performance of the piece for school groups). Not to mention a summer school project this year that used Macbeth as a springboard for devising work with a group of young people.
So, on the surface, it is a piece I am very familiar with. It was, therefore, I joy and a surprise to have the opportunity to read it afresh, without a project or workshop in mind – just to read it for what it is.
What struck me most was the scenes that are often cut out or glossed over when we look at it for education purposes. In particular, there’s a fascinating scene between Malcolm and Macduff when they are in England that I literally had no memory of ever having seen or read. Macduff is persuading Malcolm to come back to Scotland and unseat Macbeth. Malcolm, however, seems doubtful whether he will be any better – he claims that he is lustful, vengeful and greedy, and therefore unfit to rule. He draws comparisons between himself and the saintly English king, Edward the Confessor, who he is staying with and finds himself wanting. It is slightly unclear whether these claims are a devise to test Macduff’s loyalty or whether they are genuine, but it is a fascinating scene nonetheless. Not least because Malcolm is clearly conscious that he is technically dealing with a traitor in Macduff and so is unsure how much he can be trusted.
This reference to the divine leadership of Edward the Confessor seems really important to me. Although we never see him, this presence of a pure and just ruler, who has the power to literally heal his people, provides a powerful counterpoint to the tyrannical reign of Macbeth north of the border. It highlighted for me how much this play cannot be understood fully, if we don’t place the power of the supernatural front and centre. After all, the first characters we meet are the witches. None of the events of this story could happen if it wasn’t for them.
Much as we often shy away from the martial nature of the court in Hamlet, I think directors often shy away from the religious and supernatural nature of the Macbeth story because it is less immediately relevant in our culture and times. Yet, there is definitely an interesting production of Macbeth that places the witches at its heart, with a Macbeth who is almost possessed by some devilish, demonic force after his encounter with them on the moors. Macbeth does, after all, seem to have been a genuinely good, honourable, and loyal warrior up until his meeting with the witches. It is only from that point on that he starts to behave out of character. Is Lady Macbeth herself in some way being used by the witches to further their devious ends? After Macbeth’s second visit to the witches, he becomes even more inhuman, he seemingly becomes numb to human emotion.
This wouldn’t negate an internal struggle within the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In fact, it may make that struggle more pronounced, as there are almost two beings fighting within each of them. Lady Macbeth’s suicide is the only way in which her true self can destroy the demon within her. Whilst Macbeth is completely consumed by the demon, it always him to see ghosts and spirits where others cannot, it makes him cruel, inhuman, unfeeling. It makes him feel superhuman. Until the very last, when he realises that he has been tricked and the demon only ever meant to destroy him.
As you can probably tell, this reading has excited me a lot and is one I definitely want to pursue further. This joins Dream and Romeo and Juliet as the plays that have sparked an interesting and slightly unusual interpretation that I would love to explore and develop into a realised production.