Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Will's World

I have just returned from three lovely days in Chicago with my BFF, to see her daughter in a production of Macbeth (and also to spoil her very delectable grandkids).

It was neat seeing a production of the Scottish Play at this particular moment, as I am about halfway through Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. The author takes the few known events of Shakespeare's life (as evidenced by a marriage certificate here, a baptismal certificate there), looks at what was happening in the world around Shakespeare (Elizabethan England at the time of the Settlement, when Roman Catholics were essentially thought to be treasonous by nature, but everyone was trying to live with the Book of Common Prayer), and finds connections in the plays and sonnets. So, for example, a play presented for Queen Elizabeth (on a well-documented visit of hers to a town four miles from Stratford-on-Avon when Shakespeare was a boy) turns up in astonishing detail in a description of mermaids and Poseidon in The Tempest.

This reminds me of nothing so much as certain approaches to scripture study. So as a fan of both the Bard and the Book, I am pretty much in heaven.

Greenblatt had a section on marriages in the plays ("Wooing, Wedding and Repenting"). Short version: not so good. Shakespeare has many couples who are longing to be married, but precious few married couples whose relationships we get to see in any detail. The big (and fascinating) exceptions are Gertrude and Claudius (from Hamlet) and Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.

The highlight of this weekend's play for me was probably Lady Macbeth's famous early soliloquy, in which she invokes the spirits of the underworld to aid her in helping her husband to do what she knows must be done: bloody murder of the king (in Shakespeare's world, undoing the will of God). Lady Macbeth bent and placed a hand on the floor as she began her invocation:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'
Macbeth, I,v.

What I find most remarkable here? This is a prayer. It's just not what one (read: this Christian minister) would normally think to be prayer. But it is a perfect inverse of prayer: she prays to be made what she is not (not to best fulfill what she is); she prays for the gift of cruelty (not goodness or kindness); she prays away her conscience (rather than praying to be guided by it).

It was horrible and thrilling. By the end of the play, we see what comes of such a prayer: rivers of blood.


steve westby said...

A prayer! What an interesting take on that piece of Shakespeare.

And yet I wonder, a prayer to whom? To God? To the darker aspects of her nature? To some evil force?

I guess it brings up the issue of whether the character believes she is justified in how she is about to act. If so, she might somehow believe that she can offer such a "prayer" to God. If, as I suspect, she is more ambivalent, aware on some level of the wrongness of her choice, then it is interesting to think about just who she was praying to.

Magdalene6127 said...

Well, yes... I think she was praying to "spirits of the underworld," not God. Shakespeare is very clear that Macbeth's murderous actions are not of God; quite the contrary. A strong case is made in the depiction of Duncan that he is God's chosen one for the throne (and S's role as an entertainer to the Queen would require this view of him: divine right.)

What's chilling about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is that neither of them ever pauses (a la Hamlet) to question whether they should do what they are about to do. They know it's wrong, it's evil. But they are compelled, it seems, by the tantalizing prize they perceive as theirs for the taking.

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