Thoughts on tragedy and free will

Reflecting further on that dreadful production of Macbeth I discussed, I’ve been wondering whether I’m naturally prejudiced against contemporary staging of Shakespeare and, if not, what my particular problem with that example was.

My first comment probably comes over as a bit old-fogeyish. I do wish actors would learn how to really speak Shakespeare’s verse. It’s no use pretending it’s like the dialogue in a TV police procedural. It has enormous cultural resonance and an immense ability to create its own world. I think that’s why I tend to prefer the more "classic" productions. I don’t mean "classic" in the sense that everybody has to be in doublet and hose. But when the design becomes a distraction, and takes over from the language as the major vehicle for conveying the meaning of the play, it becomes problematic.

The RSC "Hamlet" got it about right, I think. Most of the Court were in rather sober suits/evening dress. If you dress everybody in black, you have to get around the problem that the text says Hamlet is rebelling by wearing black amid the festivities of the new marriage. They got around that very simply and economically by having him go around barefoot. It sent a very clear message about his alienation, but not one that detracted from the action as a whole.

Another example I liked – David Tennant wore a red T-shirt adorned with a fake six-pack for the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. For me that spoke volumes about his inner turmoil –  he was trying to step up into the conventional role of the very masculine revenging prince, but the "trappings and forms" of manhood weren’t enough for him to resolve his deep reservations about that persona. Compare this with, say "Henry V", where the young king remarks that only "ceremony" separates the King from the common man – otherwise he feels very similar anxieties on the eve of battle. In Henry V we see a monarch who triumphantly steps into the role of king and becomes a motivational leader by inhabiting the royal persona. We might not like what he becomes, but we can’t argue against its effectiveness in the context of battle. By contrast, Hamlet is presented as someone who’d be incapable of making that shift. In fact, there was a strong implication throughout the RSC production that, usurper or not, Claudius was the right man to be running Denmark.

Anyway, to return to the Royal Exchange’s "Macbeth" – I think my problem with that particular reading is crystallised by the way the witches are presented. Clearly the director has a strong view on the way war brutalises children and makes them agents of evil, but also victims. In fairness, what decent person wouldn’t have a view on that? And that strand of thinking is by no means absent from the text of "Macbeth", which returns repeatedly to images of aborted and deformed births (think of Lady Macbeth saying she’d dash her baby’s brains out at the breast rather than pass up the chance to murder Duncan, for example). So there may be a place for child soldiers in a contemporary reading of the play.

But my problem with this is that Macbeth is a tragedy, and for a tragedy to work you have to believe that the tragic hero has choices. There needs to be a defining moment when he chooses the course of action that will eventually lead to his downfall. Part of the dramatic action is seeing the thought processes that lead him to that crucial choice, and that is well explored in "Macbeth."

Is he already thinking about his ambition to seize the crown when he hears the witches’ prophecy, or is it a complete surprise to him? Do they drop their words of poison into fertile soil? If you think about it logically, if Macbeth does decide to believe the witches’ prophecy, that should lead him not to murder Duncan, but to wait for "chance to crown me king without my stay." The fact that he lets them influence him, but is then persuaded to take the matter into his own hands, is in fact an example of his tragic flaw, his moral weakness.

Now if you make the witches into child soldiers, then they become part of the system that the play critiques. The war is already going on, and has victims, when the story opens. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s obvious that Macbeth doesn’t begin with a country at peace. However, I think the tragic conception is far more powerful if the witches are presented as morally neutral. That sounds like an odd way to talk about witches, those paradigmatic representations of evil, but once the witches become victims of the system, much of their power is lost. They become passive victims of a pre-existing situation and, by implication, so does Macbeth. The individual free will which is at the heart of any tragic narrative, the motor driving dramatic tension, is replaced by social commentary. The play becomes a polemic.

In my view Shakespeare was rarely, if ever, a polemical writer in the modern sense. He had strong opinions but his genius lay in his ability to present conflicting possibilities. For example, Henry V can be an ideal hero or a warmongering bastard. We can argue it either way and that’s why the plays still absorb people. Shakespeare saw the moral contradictions of the social systems he presented, but his characters always have choices. And choices make drama.

Does that make sense?

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on tragedy and free will

  1. I definitely agree that the witches should be morally neutral. I think by giving them an agenda it detracts from the question without an answer: do the witches forsee the future or create it? And like you said, that has to eliminate the character’s free will (although obviously it’s a construct and so free will is a fairly fluid concept), but I think that’s vital when the crux of the play is the repercussions of a single choice. You’re right, making Macbeth a victim of circumstance diminishes his moral responsibility and makes him less accountable, and indeed less interesting, as a character.
    And I’d agree with you about ‘classic’ Shakespeare – the actors should be able to work the meter. The themes and the language of Shakespeare is timeless, but the style is not. If you don’t recognise them in their context of the Elizabethan theatre then you start to miss the point. Like – the concept of realism didn’t exist in theatre until much, much later, so there’s no point in pretending that Shakespeare can be 100% realistic. I think take them and interpret them, but interpret them as they are, not as is current or edgy. Don’t project modern sensibilities on to them.

  2. Just my opinion – but the more I think of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth (I’ve no idea if the historical person was anything like that, and I suspect Shakespeare didn’t have one either), the more clearly I see somebody who is mentally ill (for what reasonable person would say they’d have dash’d the brains out of their child, sworn to or no?)
    She loses her mind entirely later on, if I remember … the first scene of Act Five is mostly about that happening.
    I wonder sometimes if the attitude, the ruthless ambition, she shows in the first half of the play isn’t in part the first signs of that.
    What do you think?

  3. It’s a play about things that are “unnatural”. The murder of God’s anointed king and Lady Macbeth’s clearly unfeminine behaviour would have been linked in the Renaissance mind. Their concept of mental illness tended to be tied into the act of disturbing the natural social order of obedience and conformity.
    Having said that, she can certainly be played as unbalanced. It’s a dysfunctional relationship in my view. It seems to me that she’s in love with the idea of Macbeth as the dominant, conquering male, and that she never loves him more than at the moment he enters with the bloody daggers and says he’s done the deed. But it’s all downhill from there. She finds she’s unleashed something she can’t control and, far from it being the making of their relationship, he begins to freeze her out more and more as he descends into evil. When he bumps off Banquo he won’t tell her what’s going through her mind but, in a very revealing little exchange, he patronises her with a conventional term of endearment,
    “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
    ‘Til thou applaud the deed.”
    I think this, plus guilt and loneliness, is probably what drives her to madness, but the fact that we see nothing of her for the whole of Act IV is one of those tantalising spaces that Shakespeare loved to create, for our imaginations to work on.

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