Despite being one of Shakespeare's shorter plays, Macbeth took a long time to get through. I started about two weeks ago and finally finished this morning. I'm going to blame the weather for the slow progress, as lately I've had to shovel/salt about once every three days. Soooo annoying!
I've also been watching too much TV (shocking, I know), including the wonderful pre-WWI drama DOWNTON ABBEY on PBS. It's a British import, airing in four parts (the final part airs tonight), and I am very excited to see that a second season is in the works. It appears that the original British production aired as eight one-hour episodes, but PBS cut it down to four 90-minute episodes.
Before the series began airing here, I read THIS article about it in one of the British papers. The basic gist of it is that, according to PBS, Americans couldn't handle watching four two-hour episodes because of our allegedly short attention spans. The article also takes PBS to task for the brief intros presented (in this case by Laura Linney) before each episode.
Here's my take. The first 90-minute episode started rather slowly but picked up nicely about 40 minutes in. The next two episodes have had good pacing all the way through, and I expect the same from tonight's finale. As for the intros, I find them helpful but not necessary. They are brief and serve primarily to put the events portrayed in the show in a social, historical context rather than to provide detailed explanations of the plot. On the other hand, there are certainly enough "clues" in the show itself that anyone who's paying even half-attention to what's going on should be able to pick up on it. At any rate, I'm not too bothered by the way PBS has handled things, and I hope they'll pick up Season 2.
Now, back to Macbeth. I started rereading the play in mid-January in advance of seeing a production by the BLOOMSBURG THEATRE ENSEMBLE. The group received a grant from the NEA to stage this special production. It features just seven actors and has been cut down to a 70-minute running time to accommodate high school audiences. The idea is that BTE will take the production to high schools around the area to introduce Shakespeare to a new generation of students.
I did read Macbeth in high school and I seem to recall that we watched all or part of a production (maybe Roman Polanski's?) in class. I think I also read the play for the course I took at Leeds, and I saw a full-length production at BTE in 1994. So, after more than 15 years, I figured that I probably forgot more than I learned (much like I had with HAMLET) and rereading might be a good idea.
But, as I mentioned, I didn't get through the entire play - in fact, I think I only managed the first act - before seeing this latest production. So, I'll give my thoughts on it and then compare to my recently finished rereading.
The stripped-down, down-sized production that BTE performed moved fast! With a running time of just over an hour, there was no need - and no time, really - for an intermission. The actor who played Macbeth had just that role to focus on. But, the other actors in the cast doubled up. For example, the same actor played Duncan and Macduff; Lady Macbeth also played one of the witches; and Banquo doubled as Hecate (and a witch).
The set and costuming were simple and functional. The set imagined a stone castle as you might find in medieval times. But, the costuming was more modern - leather jackets and some police-style body armor - with different colored patches and sashes used to differentiate the various alliances/regimes. Taken together, the set and the costumes facilitated the quick scene changes that the production demanded. There was also plenty of violence including, most shockingly, the smashing of a baby (played by a doll) on the ground.
The program stated that the production would follow a sort of supernatural thread, taking its cue from the Weird sisters and the later appearance of their "boss," Hecate. It is, after all, these witches who spur the initial action when they proclaim that Macbeth will be king. They also influence his final, bloody actions when they make their declarations regarding, among other things, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. I thought it was a nice touch and in keeping with the theme (whether intentional or out of necessity) to have the same actor transition from Banquo to Banquo's Ghost to Hecate/witch.
I also think that this emphasis on the supernatural is in keeping with what I took away from my now-completed reading of the play. Interestingly, the introduction to Macbeth in the ANTHOLOGY I own barely mentions the supernatural theme and, instead, delves into the question, "How many children does Lady Macbeth have?" It's a good question (and the play leads you to believe that she has at least one) and could, I suppose, help unravel the motive for Macbeth's bloodlust. Not only does he want the crown for himself, but he may go about killing rivals as a means to buy time (perhaps time enough for his own male heir to be born and/or grow) to disprove the part of the witches' prophecy that says Banquo, not Macbeth, will be the father of kings.
But, a singular focus on this question risks missing the larger issue which I feel is one of Nature vs. Art, a recurring theme in Shakespeare's plays. In this case, Art (which can be read as "against nature" or "unnatural" or "false") would be represented by the Weird sisters, and the bloodshed that Macbeth carries out can be seen as a warning of what can happen when nature is interfered with or ignored.
References to nature pervade the play and are made by many characters. Notably, Macbeth himself is aware of the tension. After his first meeting with the Weird sisters, he returns to his castle and debates whether his thoughts of killing King Duncan should proceed:
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague th' inventor." (I,vii, 5-10)
Macbeth resolves to "proceed no further" until Lady Macbeth questions his manhood. Ultimately, Macbeth succumbs to her ambition - and his own:
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show;
False face must hide what the false heart doth know." (I, vii, 79-82)
Then, shortly after, as he sees visions of daggers and contemplates doing the deed, he says:
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain's sleep; now witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings;" (II, i, 48-52)
There are many more references to nature made by various characters throughout the play. The overarching message is that going against nature - going against your best and truest instincts - will lead to nothing good. The doctor who comes to see about Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking problem sums it up:
Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician." (V, i, 69-72)
Given these circumstances, I'm not sure that, ultimately, it matters how many children Lady Macbeth had or whether any of them were sons. Once she and Macbeth went against their nature as parents and as loyal subjects, their children were doomed to be collateral damage.
The only question I have after seeing and reading the play is: What the hell happened to Fleance?