I’m reading as much as I can find about “Macbeth” and Shakespeare to make sure I know the terrain of the play.
Recently I encountered Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s WILL IN THE WORLD, a brilliantly well-informed musing
on probable historical influences on Shakespeare. The ideas in this book knocked me over. Read it.
Greenblatt writes about how “Macbeth” was written to score big with patron James I (the King James Bible guy),
a Scot who ended up on the throne of England. James was a religious nut fascinated by witches. Witches
worked, as James believed, not by physically destroying people, but by creating illusions that led them
to destroy themselves. They specialized in “equivocation,” in which tricks of language led the victims astray.
Or, as Banquo in “Macbeth” puts it, “Oftentimes to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell
us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.” Banquo, the one good guy in
the play, bears the name of one of James’s actual Scottish ancestors.
Anyway, I quickly found myself a fan of Greenblatt. I went to the web, read about him, and through a
series of lucky connections, was able to contact him by email. He had seen P&T in San Francisco and liked us.
And he was coming to Vegas to lecture on the idea of beauty in Shakespeare at UNLV. Would I be interested,
he asked, to have a cup of coffee with him before the lecture?
I mentioned this invitation to Johnny Thompson, who’s consulting on magic, and he joined me at the offices
the Chairman of the UNLV English department, where, today at 4:40 p.m. we found, sitting at a round table
with three chairs, Stephen Greenblatt.
He looked up brightly from under a point of short black hair, his frame trim as an arrow, in a black suit
and a shirt with the collar casually open. He wore a pair of beautiful boots, and barely peeking out
of the jacket sleeves, his shirt cuffs were closed with cufflinks with a pearly sheen.
He talked pure American – he’s actually from a Boston suburb – with liberal uses of words like “weird”
On the book flap he’d looked rather sinister, “like a Shakespearean villain’s henchman,” as a friend
put it. But in person, he looked vital, I was guessing a youthful late forties. Later Wikipedia
told me he’s actually in his early sixties. Doing what you love is a fountain of youth, better even than
a Carribean island.
“I was doing some thinking,” said Greenblatt, as we sat down with him. “I was trying to guess what
you’d find in this play that would interest someone of your profession.”
He said he thought a magician would be struck by how much Macbeth is excited by the apparently romantic,
magical nature of the world that’s promised him; then how it all turns out to be a rip-off.
The magical “woods that come to Dunsinane,” are just guys holding up branches. The mysterious
“man not of woman born” is just a guy born by caesarian. Even being king is no fun for Macbeth,
because the job is so full of worries about safety.
That rang bells for me. I told Greenblatt that I noticed throughtout the text of “Macbeth”
the image of the double take: Macbeth sees something; then, on second glance, it turns out to
be something else, usually much less pleasant. Nobody in the play is quite what he/she seems,
and virtually every plot point hinges on deception, illusion, or double meaning.
In our “Macbeth” we’re using magic to put the audience in the same uneasy, uncertain position Macbeth is.
The staging deceives the audience as Macbeth deceives the King and the witches deceive Macbeth.
We want the audience in its seats to be going, “Wait a minute: Am I nuts? What did I just see?”
the same way the characters do.
Greenblatt sees that idea more globally: Macbeth experiences the world like a person watching
a magic trick – and experiences the disappointment (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) that
people feel when the finally see how the trick is done.
Okay, so already the visit has paid off. My idea of the theme is clearer and deeper from
a few quickly spoken words from this man.
But Greenblatt wasn’t finished. He mused that in “Macbeth” we can see that Shakespeare was aware
of something that science is now only beginning to understand: how much of apparent decision
making is really just genetic programming. “Shakespeare might have thought of it in the form
of Calvinism, predestination,” he said, but the substance is the same: Macbeth thinks he’s
making choices, but there’s no real choice. As we all can see clearly, he’s going to kill
the king, no matter how much tries to talk himself out of it. And when he takes advice
from somebody else (the Witches, Mrs. Macbeth) they just lead him back to what he’s programmed to do.
If you know the play, you’ll understand how much this makes sense out of all the soliloquies.
I told Greenblatt about some of our staging ideas. He seemed thrilled and said things like,
“Of course, I’m trying to think how I can exploit this production,” and “Would you be wiling to
come to Cambridge and talk to my students?” That would be fun, talking to kids who know more
about this subject than I will know in my lifetime.
I asked him about some of the cuts we’re making, thinking he’d probably be a purist who
would be averse to cutting Shakespeare. “Shakespeare,” he said, “expected to be cut.
He wrote to be cut. That’s why all the plays are so full. Now, Ben Jonson was very explicit about
not cutting or altering. That’s why Jonson is so infrequently done nowadays. In fact Jonson said
Shakespeare worked with such facility that he should be ‘stopped.’”
“The whole first half of ‘Macbeth,’” said Greenblatt,” is perhaps the greatest instance in Shakespeare
of narrative focus, an almost unbearable narrative intensity. Narrative intensification does
not necessarily mean compression. In the first half of “Macbeth” Shakespeare in fact greatly
slows the action down.”
For comparison, he showed us the account of the assassination he’d transcribed from Shakespeare’s source,
Holinshed’s Chronicle, (where Macbeth is called Donwald):
Then Donwald, though he abhorred the act greatlie in his heart, yet through the instigation of his wife,
hee called foure of his servants unto him (whome he had made privie to his wicked intent before, and framed
to his purpose with large gifts) and now declaring unto them, after what sort they should work the feat,
they gladlie obeyed the instructions, & speedily going about the murther, they enter the chamber
(in which the king laie) a little before cocks crow, where they secretlie cut his throte as he lay
sleeping, without any buskling at all…(p.482)
“Contrast Shakespeare’s treatment of the scene,” said Greenblatt, “where the act is delayed until
the audience itself weirdly craves it, and where the murder – the assassination, as it’s called,
in the first use of the word in English – is committed by Macbeth himself, not only after
unbearable indecision, but after a strange, tormented desire to turn himself into an allegorical
representation of evil.”
Really, one couldn’t ask for a better description of the movement of the play.
The “slowing down” he’s talking about isn’t literal. The play’s action is, in fact, incredibly swift.
From the time Macbeth makes himself a hero to the time he murders that king is less than 24 hours,
by my reckoning and Duncan’s murder happens about as far into the show as Marion Crane dies in “Psycho”
-- shockingly fast.
But we are inside the minds of the killers and their world has a dreamlike, slow motion quality about it,
an agonizing progression of painfully protracted suspense. Macbeth himself tries to be rational,
but is blocked by explosions of desire, terror, moral rightness, filial piety, lust, and finally
a sense of slipping into a love affair with evil. Lady Macbeth steels herself to be strong against
her husband’s better nature, but though she can pave the way, she cannot stab the knife.
Now, all this while, Johnny Thompson, a much wiser man than I, is quietly soaking up every word.
Me, I can’t resist bragging about my little discoveries.
I remarked that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Macbeth ever explicitly says, “We’re going to kill the king.”
They talk around the subject, leaving the one explicit statement, “Let’s kill Duncan,” out
of their conversation as carefully as the murder itself is kept off the stage. Lady Macbeth says
ominously of the doomed king’s imminent arrival, “He that’s coming must be provided for,”
and the meaning is horribly obvious.
The closest she ever gets is to “Let’s kill the old bastard,” is saying to Macbeth that
when Duncan’s guards are drunk, “…What cannot you and I perform upon the unguarded Duncan?”
We must supply the answer. Macbeth comes closest to saying the words as he’s trying to argue
himself out of the deed: “I…as his host…should against his murderer shut the door, / not bear
the knife myself.”
Greenblatt had never remarked on that before, and pointed out the explicit word “assassination.”
“But,” he added, “of course, that’s a Shakespearean ten-dollar word that nobody in the crowd
would have known. Usually he’ll explain those words – ‘would the multitudinous seas incarnadine,’
gets explained seconds later in ‘making the green one red.’ But not here.”
When I described our idea for the witches rising from a field of corpses, Greenblatt told us
that typically after a battle in the Renaissance period, all the dead on the battlefield would be naked.
People would strip the slain of everything, and most bodies were shoveled into common graves.
Families of “important” people would send out people trained to identify the remains.
“But I’m not exactly sure that would work for your purposes…”
Our thirty-five minutes with Greenblatt flew by. In the end, I played the fanboy and asked him to
autograph two copies of “Will in the World.” The one for me he inscribed “with admiration and perennial
wonder.” And for my friend who had found Greenblatt's book
jacket photo so sinister, he wrote, "From Shakespeare's villainous