Questionable choices distract from an otherwise superb ‘Macbeth’
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
The actors were superb and the set was stunning. The only thought of dismay I could summon watching this fall’s production of “Macbeth” was why our university lacks the facilities our performing arts program deserves. That was my only conceivable contention, until I read the program.
My first distress in reading the director’s note was not the self admittedly peculiar juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” with Robert Frost’s banal “The Road Not Taken,” but rather the way in which it demonstrates a poor understanding of both texts.
I won’t belabor the obvious problem with implying that Frost’s poem concerns a moral choice (“Then took the other, as just as fair … Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same/And both that morning equally lay…”).
My concern was the director’s oversimplification of “Macbeth,” which may have led an unfamiliar audience to believe that the Bard’s most violent tragedy is not much more than a complex morality play.
While morality certainly plays a role in the central message of “Macbeth,” the mere struggle between good and evil doesn’t. One might say the meaning of the Scottish play is more an exploration of man’s desire for power and glory. In this regard, moral constraints are necessary to prevent him from doing the unthinkable.
“Macbeth” is the story of a man who, tempted by the servants of Satan and encouraged by his wife, abandons morality in order to pursue the throne of Scotland and immortality through dynastic succession.
Having navigated my way out of an unnecessarily complicated analysis of “Macbeth” as a morality play, my eyes wandered onto the first sentence of the next paragraph.
“Shakespeare’s plays illuminate universal truths … which sometimes shine more clearly taken out of their Renaissance setting. I have chosen to set the play in the future, sometime after 2012 and the end of the Mayan calendar, when nuclear warfare has devastated the entire planet, and where those who have managed to survive exist in tribes, battling for supremacy.”
This is supposed to clarify Shakespeare’s universal truth?
I will not embark on a description of the street fighting scenes, which better resembled WWE wrestling matches than the battles characteristic of Shakespeare’s history plays. Nor will I engage in a diatribe about the intellectual left’s obsession with a return to barbarism.
Instead, I will only point out that such an artistic choice only served to further remove the audience from the central message.
Man’s desire for power and the necessity of moral constraint is not a matter best crystallized by a post-apocalyptic setting; nor is it a problem confined to geopolitical matters. As anyone who has ever attended a family reunion, served on a town zoning board, or read the minutes of a UNH Student Senate meeting can attest to, the dilemma of man’s desire for power transcends time and social organization.
But our journey down the road of literary Gomorra must go on.
“Given our present society, where women can be leaders and warriors, criminals and mothers (by choice? Or fate?), I decided that my future society would embrace gender equality leading to women portraying Duncan, Banquo, Siward, Fleance, Angus, Metieth, the Doctoer and the Porter, all traditionally played by men. Some will suggest that this alters the dynamics of the play, but I suggest that it broadens the impact.”
If this decision was made on the basis of a shortage of male actors, then such a choice is understandable. However, my instruction in literature by educators who confessed fidelity to new criticism forces me to back to the text.
There, the director clearly states that her motivation in this choice is to make a statement about gender equality and, one might infer, to correct Shakespeare’s misogyny.
Unfortunately, in this play, the casting of women in male roles blurs or, worse, blinds us to Shakespeare’s critique of masculinity. Recall how Lady Macbeth repeatedly accuses her husband of being unmanly to entice him into murdering Duncan (“When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man”)?