The theatrical superstition known as the Macbeth curse has it that terrible things may happen if you say the name of the play offstage; to be safe, say “the Scottish play.” The legend of the curse is said to have begun with the first performance, at the court of King James in August 1606, when the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth became ill and died; according to legend, he had to be replaced at the last minute by Shakespeare himself. Inhumane though it may be to think so, that tragic twist of fate had its upside, since the Bard was apparently an esteemed actor, having played, among other parts, King Hamlet’s ghost. The prospect of seeing Shakespeare impersonating one of his greatest creations, and in Medieval drag, is amusing to imagine in this, his 450th birthday year.
Of course if any of Shakespeare’s works is likely to carry a curse, it would be the one driven by the prophetic ravings of witches. But then Macbeth has been anything but unlucky at the box office, witness the three productions playing in New York in the past year, a major film currently in production, not to mention perennial allusions in the news media (“The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”) and the updated version of the fearful couple played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Penn Wright in the Netflix hit series, House of Cards.
Since Macbeth is wrapped in a language as often as not unfathomable to members of the audience new to Shakespeare’s music or else innately antagonistic to it due to boring classroom assignments, the challenge is how to package it, or how to most effectively exploit its horrors and wonders or even its poetry? Last year’s Alan Cummings version at the Ethel Barrymore simplified matters by reducing the production to a one-actor, one-act virtuoso piece set in a mental institution. Now, not five months after the closing of the Lincoln Center Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s you-are-there spectacular is playing at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue through June 22. In an online introduction to this, his New York stage debut, Branagh expounds on the theatrical advantages of the space, the military associations inherent in the massive Gothic Revival building with its vast drill hall once used by soldiers preparing for war, or coming back from it. Branagh and Ashford envision theatregoers being engulfed by the production from the moment they pass through the castle gate into “an amazing space, of amazing dimensions.” On its way to the heart of the action, the audience experiences the mist and rain of the heath, the world of the witches, wholly exposed to the “primitive energy” of the play, close enough to the battle scenes to see the sparks flying as swords strike swords. “You’ll be there in all the rain and blood and sweat,” says Branagh.
But will Shakespeare be there? The best of all possible outcomes would be for the spectacle and atmosphere to sustain the acting and the language until the audience is witness to “the things that make Shakespeare Shakespeare.” As Herman Melville observes, these “things” are not to be found in the “sort of rant” that “brings down the house” for “those mistaken souls, who dream of Shakepeare as a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps and Macbeth daggers.” Writing in the summer of 1850 shortly before embarking on his Shakespearean masterpiece, Moby Dick, Melville is talking about “those deep far-away things” in Shakespeare, “those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.” Through the mouths of his “dark characters” Shakespeare “craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King, tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”
Macbeth’s truth is in all the “sound and fury” surrounding and speaking through him. Critics questioning his intellectual/poetical capacities make me think of the naysayers who refuse to believe that someone who missed out on Oxford or Cambridge was capable of writing the plays. How then to explain Macbeth’s claim to all that glorious language? In The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom imagines Macbeth’s “language and imaginings” to be “those of a seer,” the poetry coming to him “unbidden,” as with a fit or a seizure like the one that takes possession of the usurper when he sees Banquo’s ghost. Much as the poet and killer latent in the character of Hamlet are awakened by the narrative of a ghost, the poet and killer in Macbeth are spawned in the demonic realm occupied by the three witches, which, though they “terrify us by taking over the play,” according to Bloom, “also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemonic.”
Bloom makes the point that while Shakespeare confers “his own intellect upon Hamlet, his own capacity for more life upon Falstaff, his own wit upon Rosalind,” he gives Macbeth “what might be called the passive element in his own imagination.” This sounds like the area Melville has in mind when he speaks of “those deep far-away things,” and like what Keats is thinking of when he speaks of Negative Capability, the quality “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”
In the Mines of Macbeth
As a Rutgers graduate student in David Kalstone’s Shakespeare class, I happily submerged myself in the reading, with Macbeth and Hamlet the high points. But when it came to the moment of dissertation truth, I couldn’t get past the base camp on Mt. Hamlet. For Macbeth, I lowered myself down into the mines, way way down. My ravaged copy of the Yale paperback is a ballpoint-spattered chaos, all ink-specks and scribbles. This is where you set the theatrical and historical reality to one side because on the page it’s all Shakespeare. No special effects. No legends or curses. It’s the word, the word, and nothing but the word. “Close reading,” they called it. In fact, the notion became so much a part of your approach to life that on long walks you would find yourself close-reading nature or even the gritty sidewalks of New Brunswick.
Close reading develops a species of know-it-all arrogance in the student with the leaky ballpoint. What fools those mortals be, namely the mandated custodians of the text who sleep through their watch, allowing alien subversions and perversions of the Word. The most egregious example of a rent in the fabric of Macbeth occurs in the first scene of Act IV, when, after Shakespeare’s truly written third witch adds to the pot “maw and gulf/Of the ravined salt-sea shark” along with “Finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch delivered by a drab,” a bogus Heccat enters, reducing the infernal brew to a children’s naptime sing-along, “And now about the cauldron sing, Like elves and fairies in a ring,/Enchanting all that you put in.” Though he knows the passage is spurious, Eugene M. Waith, the editor of the Yale Shakespeare, leaves it there to be pounced on by the vigilant grad student scoring and circling and exclaiming, “not WS!”
A Deadly Riot
A few days prior to the May 1849 Astor Place Riots described at length in James Shapiro’s new anthology Shakespeare in America (Library of America $29.95), Herman Melville and Washington Irving were among the signers of a petition addressed to the Scottish actor William Macready, whose performance of Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House had been savaged by the hisses, threats, and cat-calls from supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, who was across town playing the same role at a less elegant venue. When Macready refused to be driven from the stage, rotten eggs, and coins and chairs were thrown, and the police finally stopped the show. Macready had planned to take the next boat home until he received the petition, which requested him to reconsider his decision, and assured him “that the good sense and respect for order, prevailing in this community, will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.”
Macready was convinced, another performance was announced, and the city geared up for a riot. Though the chief of police had 900 policemen at his disposal, he called in the militia, with the result that among the thousands mobbing the streets around the Opera House, 22 people, including a number of innocent bystanders, were killed. One can’t help wondering if the rioting would have led to fatalities on the same scale had another less curse-plagued play been on the stage of the Opera House. Few lines in Hamlet or Othello seem as creepy, as ominous, as inviting of catastrophe, as the Second Witch’s “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”
Voodoo Claims a Critic
Another bizarre instance that believers in the Macbeth curse could cite is described in John Houseman’s account of the Negro Theatre production overseen by Houseman and directed by 20-year-old “boy wonder” Orson Welles. Known as the Vodoo Macbeth (all-black cast, Haitian setting, a troupe of African drummers including an authentic witch doctor, the sacrifice of five goats), the play that opened on April 14, 1935 at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre and received generally good notices, with the notable exception of one by the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, who panned the performance, calling it “an exhibition of deluxe boondoggling.” Housman describes Hammond’s piece as a political polemic “savage but eloquent” and as a theatrical notice, “irrelevant and malignant.” While the producers were not “unduly disturbed” by the wording, the witch doctor and members of the drum troupe solemnly informed Houseman that they believed the review to be “an evil one, the work of an enemy, a bad man.” A day later the newspapers announced the sudden illness of the well-known critic Percy Hammond, “who died some days later — of pneumonia, it was said.”
Once again this ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary would not be possible without the Library of America’s anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes Melville’s unsigned love letter to Hawthorne (“Hawthorne and his Mosses”), from which the quotes about Shakespeare are taken, as well as the information about the Astor Place Riots and John Houseman’s essay on the Voodoo Macbeth, “Run-Through.”