December 22, 2021

Thoughts On Shakespeare’s “Pervasive Presence”

By Stuart Mitchner

“Ah, Shakespeare, Shakespeare! … The great maestro of the human heart!”

—Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Verdi is so quoted in Saturday’s New York Times under the banner headline “’Hail, Shakespeare’ Resonates Across Italy,” for an article on the opera house opening nights of Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello, and Julius Caesar in Milan, Florence, Naples, and Rome.

Above the headline is a lurid panoramic backdrop from David Livermore’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Shown in the foreground, a scattered crowd of people in modern dress appear to be waiting for something to happen, like a chorus of citizens anticipating a cue, seemingly unaware of the fantastical urban inferno looming behind them. It’s as if the set designer is trying to visually evoke Harold Bloom’s vision of Macbeth’s “power of contamination.” In the opening chapter of his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom refers to Shakespeare’s “pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or ‘spell of light,’ almost too vast to comprehend.”

Comic Relief

Shakespeare shows up again in Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section in the form of an immense, darkly foreboding two-page ad for The Tragedy of Macbeth, “written for the screen and directed by Joel Coen.” Looking to keep things cheerful with Christmas only three days away, I went right to the knocking at the gate in Act Two and the Porter’s moment in the spotlight, which Bloom notes as “the first and only comedy allowed in this drama.” Here Shakespeare introduces “a healing touch of nature where Macbeth has intimidated us with the preternatural, and with the Macbeths’ mutual phantasmagoria of murder and power.”

The Porter arrives on the scene, “cheerfully hungover” (as Bloom puts it) while the audience is still reeling from the murder of Duncan; the stage is all his as he and the invisible knocker at the gate play out a duet of sorts. For each barrage of knocking, the Porter has a different riff: the knocker might be a farmer who “hanged himself in expectation of plenty”; or an equivocator who “committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”; or maybe it’s an English tailor “come hither, for stealing out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.”

And when Macduff finally enters demanding to know what took so long, the Porter tells him “we were carousing … and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.” When Macduff, in classic straight man style, asks what three things, the Porter says: “Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.”

Plague to Plague

In New York, Christmas week 2021, theaters are canceling performances as actors and crew members test positive for the virus. In London, 1605-1606, Shakespeare was writing King Lear and Macbeth in lockdown, the plague having closed the Globe Theatre for the better part of a year. Traces of plague imagery show up in both plays, the best-known being “Fair is foul and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air,” the mantra chanted by the witches in Macbeth’s opening scene and echoed throughout the play. In Lear, the mad king howls, “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!”

Hints of Shakespeare’s “pervasive presence” can be found in HBO’s Succession, which impressed on-again, off-again viewers like myself with a brilliant Season 3 finale last week. While there’s nothing in the series comparable to King Lear’s rhetorical/poetical energy, the characters and dialogue are enlivened by colorfully profane invective, with Brian Cox’s modern day Lear, Logan Roy, delivering the mightiest curses, most frequently in the form of f-off (or eff-off ) bombs in a world where the show’s f-word flies fast and free. Sites have been devoted to documenting the f-word and its derivatives, as in’s “comprehensive breakdown of “Every ‘F*3k Off’ “ in Season One.

Shakespeare in Chicago

Unlike Succession, Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic miniseries on HBO Max based on Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name, brings you in and keeps you watching from the first moment, which takes place in a large Chicago theater during a production of King Lear. The scene in progress is the one in which Lear enters “fantastically dressed with flowers.” When the blind Duke of Gloucester recognizes his voice (“Is’t not the king?”), Lear replies, “Ay, every inch a king. When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.” But all the quaking is being done by Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), the actor playing Lear. The one person in the theatre who knows what’s going on hurries to the stage as Leander collapses and apparently dies. Only Jeevan (Himesh Patel), the man who rushed the stage, seems to be aware of the onset of the plague that will soon do away with all but a fraction of humanity. Seeing that there’s no one to look after Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler), an 8-year-old actress who is presumably playing one of Lear’s daughters as a child (although no such part exists in the play), Jeevan takes it upon himself to find her parents or her handler or, if need be, to see her safely home.

Visual Poetry

The scenes in which the big dark-bearded, bundled-up man and the gaily, brightly bundled-up little girl make their way through a wintry Chicago night are at once charming and compelling, thanks to the visual poetry created by so unlikely a couple. Perhaps because my search for the spirit of the season has me thinking in extremes, such as Shakespeare’s “aurora borealis” or “spell of light,” I’m inclined to see the child — in her blue, orange, vermillion winter jacket, her matching even more colorful scarf, and especially her magnificent knit cap, with the multicolored tassel on top — as a fairy tale Christmas tree ornament come to life.

But what strikes me more than anything else is her bearing, the way she seems to perceive the world as she walks around the big city with an imposing stranger, just the sort that she’s been told by her parents to avoid; and after she tells him as much, she sizes him up as if he were applying for a part in her play. When he formally introduces himself, she looks at him, pointedly, intelligently taking him in, no “cute little girl” mannerisms. She’s at home in the world, like Rosalind and Portia and other heroines imagined to life by the “great maestro of the human heart.”

Thomas DeQuincey ends his essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”: “O, mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers, — like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless or inert — but that, the further we press in our discoveries, the more we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident!”