Sheila O’Malley gets to the heart of the Scottish play, and it’s a very dark heart indeed:
Macbeth is nihilistic in a way that Shakespeare’s other tragedies are not, with their piercing moments at the end of mercy, revelation, and awareness of all that is lost (Lear’s “never, never, never, never”, and Hamlet’s “the rest is silence” being primary examples of the characters’ sudden tragic understanding of how they and they alone are responsible.) But with Macbeth, he chops his way to the top, he is haunted along the way by the leering Ghost of Banquo, he loses his marbles, and finally loses his own head, and nobody feels bad about it, because he’s already murdered anyone who would give a shite, and they have a new King now, “long live the King of Scotland”.
Titus Andronicus, you say? I don’t think so. Admittedly, I’ve only seen it staged once, and that for television; but Titus struck me as a series of set pieces more than as a coherent story. Harold Bloom once said that the ideal director for Titus would be Mel Brooks. (It’s good to be the tragedian.)
This is not to say, though, that Macbeth is exactly straightforward in its presentation:
It is effed up, and I love it dearly. It is also, if you think about it, quite realistic. Brutally so. Often, with such murdering psychopath leaders, there is no moral. It’s like coming into contact in the wild with a grizzly bear or a cobra or some other terribly dangerous predator. The grizzly bear isn’t operating out of malevolence, he is acting according to his own nature (phone call for Timothy Treadwell). The only appropriate response if you are being attacked by a wild animal is to find a way to kill it dead. The same is true, sorry to say, with leaders like Pol Pot, or Idi Amin, or Stalin. You can try to turn yourself inside out rationalizing their behavior, and saying “they had some good ideas at first, but it all went wrong” — as nitwits continuously do. But sometimes, sorry to say, people are just dangerous douchebags and they need to be put down. Power cannot be trusted in the hands of just anyone, and history is full of the monsters to prove it. Macbeth is about that. Macbeth knows what power does. Macbeth knows what the possibility of power unleashes in those who want it. And so, once the walls are soaked in blood, everyone can sit around and say, “Phew, we got rid of that sonofabitch”, but at what cost? What does it mean? What do we learn from Macbeth? Think before you answer that too readily. There is a mystery at the heart of that play, or, maybe it’s best to say the play has a heart of darkness that actors/directors have been fascinated by/repelled by/drawn to for centuries. Trying to figure it out is one of the main reason to even put on a play at all.
Idi Amin, you’ll remember, actually proclaimed himself to be the King of Scotland.
The single scariest aspect of Macbeth, at least to me as a callow high-school youth back in the Jurassic period, was that I couldn’t tell who was more villainous: the man with his name in the title, or the woman who let it slip that “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.” And in those days, proper allocation of blame was still considered essential. It didn’t exactly put me off the fairer sex, whom I didn’t understand anyway; but I spent too much time wondering what I could be pushed into doing under an influence similarly dire.