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Macbeth, pt. 1

First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.

I first read Macbeth when I was in high school. I can't be positive, but I believe it was something we read senior year. For sure, I had to memorize the soliloquy from Act II, scene 1 for English class. It's the one that begins "Is this a dagger which I see before me, /The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee." I don't recall if we actually had to say the soliloquy aloud; I rather suspect that we had to write it out from memory – that's the sort of thing that was "done" back in the day. Nowadays, of course, kids have to make videos for class for this sort of thing.

In addition to being a music geek (aka a "band fag", among other pet names) when I was in high school, I also did all the plays. For one of the plays I was in, my character was an eccentric woman who liked to spout lines from plays. These included some of Macbeth's lines from Act V, scene 5:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, and is pretty easy to read and comprehend. It's terribly bloody, of course. Death follows death in this story of power-hungry madness.

In preparing to talk about the play here, I've been re-reading it, of course. I also watched Season Two of Slings & Arrows (thanks again, mystery giver!), in which they produced the Scottish play. (More on why I occasionally refer to it that way in a moment.) In Episode 3 from the second season, the character Geoffrey Tennant (director of the fictional New Bumbrage Shakespeare Festival) says that the key question at the heart of the play is "What is it that turns a man into a monster?" I suppose that's as good a summation of the crux of the play as any other.

The Scottish Play

In researching Macbeth for a post in 2007, I learned that for centuries, it's been considered unlucky by many theatre folk to say the name "Macbeth" unless it's during rehearsal or performance, perhaps because Shakespeare presumed to use real magic, but more likely because theatre folks are a superstitious lot, the same as athletes and other folk. Others think it's only unlucky to say the name of the play whilst in or near a theatre, but saying it elsewhere (like in a classroom) is okay. It's usually called "the Scottish play" or "the Scottish king" or "MacBee" in order to avoid the curse, although in Slings & Arrows, some of the actors call the character "Mackers" when not in performance. The remedy, should one utter the name aloud, is to leave the room, close the door, turn around three times, say a dirty word (or spit, some say), then knock on the door and ask to be let back in.

Or you can undo the ill by quoting from Hamlet, act 1, scene 4, beginning with line 39:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Being with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee.

Later today, a summary of the play. Assuming I'm not prevented by thunder, lightning, or by rain.

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( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 15th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC)
Years ago I bought a book at Stratford about the unluckiness of the Scottish play. Here's a link to some of the things that have happened to actors while performing this play.


And for owls and Jews, I can see why the witches' speech is unlucky!
Jun. 15th, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC)
There are quite a few lists available on the interweb and elsewhere. Many of the unlucky things happen to actors in other plays as well, but people look for it with Macbeth.
Jun. 15th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
I saw a great production of Macbeth at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival several years ago, but I have to say that my favorite version lately is the one produced by the BBC's Shakespeare Re-Told series, where the play opens with garbage collectors sitting inside a huge truck, eating tongue sandwiches in the middle of a trash heap. Took me awhile to realize that THEY were the witches.
Jun. 15th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
I'm watching that production tonight - having finished watching the SLINGS & ARROWS season dedicated to Macbeth, I'm moving on to James McAvoy. Who is yummy. But perhaps not as Macbeth. I'll see.
Jun. 15th, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC)
I can't remember - how does Lady M die? I know that in the movie Scotland PA, she gets her hands cut off (or fried, maybe?) but I can't remember what actually happened to her in the play.
Jun. 15th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC)
In the play, it's announced that she's dead. It's later intimated that she killed herself. Her death happens off-stage, however.
Jun. 16th, 2009 12:59 pm (UTC)
Oh! Well, I guess that explains why I couldn't remember how she died. It's a shame that was offstage - she's an awesome character.
Jun. 16th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
She is pretty awesome. Her death is announced, and at the end of the play, either Malcolm or Macduff intimates that she took her own life, although it's not firmly established.

Interesting that Shakespeare has both Ophelia and Lady M die offstage and under implications of suicide, but without flat-out stating it, whereas Juliet stabs herself on stage (Romeo & Othello also kill themselves on stage). I think he wanted the ambiguity there because he wasn't certain whether a person who was actually mad could form intent. Just a pet theory, but it seems like it might hold water.
Jun. 15th, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
I love that Act V, Scene 5 passage you quoted. So beautiful and haunting and dismal.
Jun. 15th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
I love that passage, too. I like characterizing things as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" in other contexts, which is what the character from the play I was in did as well.
Jun. 16th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
I had no idea you could "undo" the goof! :)
Jun. 16th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)
Sure you can. Although in one episode of Slings & Arrows, a woman trying to undo the curse managed to fall off the stage while singing, and her swearing therefore occurred when she landed off stage and hurt herself. (Heh.)
Jun. 22nd, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)
Then there's the case of the two actors Mossup and Keanering, in Black Adder III. In Unison: "AAAAAAH! Hot potato off its coals, but we'll make amends." (actors tweak one another's noses viciously.)

I'm glad to know of the Hamlet speech--I usually send my actors outside to spit, and they look at me like I'm insane. My Lucentio last year was fond of flouting the superstition, and on opening night an audience member got heat stroke, causing curtain to be held for another 30 minutes as we waited for the ambulance etc....

Jun. 22nd, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Macbeth
They can also spin around counter-clockwise and then swear. Interesting to hear your Lucentio story!

Edited at 2009-06-22 03:42 pm (UTC)
Jun. 22nd, 2009 10:13 am (UTC)
I was recently in a production playing Hecate.
That was fun, because the role's normally cut out because people think Middleton wrote her anyway. :)

I love your idea about a mad person not being able to form intent. That's very likely. I also think that those two deaths happen offstage, because we can even speculate murder in both cases.

Claudius is paranoid and has every reason to fear Ophelia at that point in the play. She could be conspiring against him with Hamlet. Her drowning might be a highly poetic and tragic accident, or it could be suicide, or Gertrude's detailed account could simply be a picturesque lie, told by a messenger covering things up.

Lady MacBeth has likewise become inconvenient to the villain of her play, what with all the sleepwalking and confessions, and her sudden loss of enthusiasm for killing everyone in their path. She seems to have had a change of heart starting with the murder of Lady MacDuff, and her "The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?" points out that in her heart of hearts she expects that the same thing will happen to her.

In our production, the anonymous messenger who warns Lady MacDuff, was in fact, Lady MacBeth herself.

MacBeth's line "she should have died hereafter, there would have been a time for such a word," reminds me a lot of people who say, "well, he would have died anyway," when they want to excuse a killing. But he's sad. Her death is his fault one way or the other, but he sees it as a regrettable necessity. It's a horrible irony that he killed Duncan for her, and that this action is what ultimately made him lose her.

No wonder he feels life is a tale told by an idiot.
Jun. 22nd, 2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
Re: I was recently in a production playing Hecate.
Yeah, I think Middleton wrote the Hecate parts. Cool that your production left it in, though - I'll be she was fun to play.

Having Lady Macbeth warn Lady Macduff makes little sense to me on several letters (in the play, Macbeth doesn't tell her what he's up to wit the murders of Banquo or Macduff's family, and as a practical matter, they weren't next-door neighbors, so she wouldn't have been able to travel that far in order to do it), but it would definitely add a different level/layer to the play, which I'm sure was the director's intent.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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