Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Something wicked(er) this way comes...

(Image: From DramaTech Theatre’s 2007 production of Macbeth: Michelle Hendrickson, Brittany Roberts, Lee Smith as the Weird Sisters. Much closer to the original “three women fairies or nymphs” reported by Simon Forman in 1611.)

In exploring my reactions to Middleton’s alterations of Macbeth, I find my thoughts falling neatly into two boxes: one labeled “Witches,” and the other, “Everything Else.” I suppose that’s only appropriate: Gary Taylor himself notes the most significant change Middleton made was “to transform into witches the three characters who are identified as ‘weird sisters’ in Shakespeare’s chief historical source and in passages clearly written by Shakespeare.”

We’ve talked about the specifics of that change already: spells, song, dance, and the superfluous character of Hecate. Taylor, in his notes, only delineates the Middletonian material; it falls to that redoubtable scholar, the late Inga-Stina Ewbank, to mount a defense of these additions on artistic grounds. She makes a game attempt, but I find her arguments ultimately unconvincing—and I note that even she is silent on the question of whether the revisions can seriously be taken to constitute an artistic improvement.

Probably the core of her argument is that Middleton’s passages “give the play a new dimension of theatrical magic,” but I would argue that this “new dimension” is at odds with what makes Macbeth such a chilling exploration of the darker places in the human soul. As she puts it, the effect is to make the drama “less focused on the moral self-destruction of Macbeth, and to shift the emphasis on to the witches as being in command, free and unbounded.” Which is exactly the problem: if Macbeth becomes nothing more than a kind of voodoo doll (as he becomes explicitly in the Orson Welles stage and film productions of the last century), why should we ultimately care? What can we take away from such a play—“stay away from witches?” If that were all there was to Macbeth, I doubt we’d still care about it.

In my own condensation of Macbeth for DramaTech Theatre’s 2007 production, I cut the witches deeply, removing not only most of Middleton’s additions, but a fair slice of Shakespeare, too (on the theory that even he “witched up” the characters, possibly to impress King James). Since the two things everyone in the audience knows from Macbeth are, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and, “Double, double, toil and trouble,” I devoted a large portion of my program notes to explaining why they wouldn’t be hearing one of those lines. I thought I’d quote from those notes in making my rebuttal:


Of all the cuts we made, perhaps the most missed will be all the witches’ rhymes and spells. So, we might as well get it out of the way up front: tonight’s production of Macbeth will be strictly cauldron-free. No eye of newt, nor tongue of frog, not even the tiniest fillet of a fenny snake.

The witches have been crowd-pleasers for four hundred years, and especially in a Halloween production of Macbeth, their cut lines are conspicuous. But our aim was to strip away those haunted-house trappings and make these characters something much bigger and more powerful, and, yes, scarier than three old crones cackling over a pot. No one in the play or in Shakespeare’s sources ever calls these beings “witches:” they, along with everyone else, call themselves “the weird sisters,” from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, or “fate.” At bottom, they are the Goddesses of Fate, the Norns, the beings who know what was, and what is, and what shall be:

“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”

“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”

“All hail, Macbeth—that shalt be King hereafter!”

As always in myth, one of the most terrible things that can happen to you is to catch a glimpse of Fate: it is too big and terrible for a human mind to process; it comes to us in seeming riddles that we interpret, foolishly, by hearing what we want and ignoring the rest. The Sisters never tell Macbeth, “You will be King tomorrow,” or, “You will be King if you kill Duncan,” but his ambition (and Lady Macbeth’s) seizes hold of the idea and his moral sense is not strong enough to win out in the end. When he returns to the Sisters and demands to see the consequences of his murder, the knowledge crushes him: a parade of kings descended not from him, but from Banquo, stretching out “to the crack of doom” (one of the monarchs in Banquo’s mirror—if you believe in the power of Prophesy—would be Queen Elizabeth the Second, sitting on the throne of Scotland nine centuries later).

Even in Shakespeare’s day, Macbeth was being “witched up” with all the haunted-house trimmings, but I think this makes the play a smaller thing. In 21st-Century America, relatively few of us are genuinely scared of Halloween witches. But who isn’t afraid of the vastness of Time, against which background we all seem so impossibly small and all our actions futile?


And that, in a nutshell, is my case against the Witches…and for the Weird Sisters, spinning their threads of destiny, not even deigning to feel contempt or pity for us mortals. Witches may be powerfully dramatic, even in this age that we flatter ourselves to call “rational”, but I’ll take the Sisters of Fate any day.

Footnote: DramaTech Theatre is the student-run theatrical company of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, http://www.dramatech.org/, and was my emotional and artistic home through the long years of my undergraduate experience in the 1990s. A bunch of engineers doing theatre? Quixotic, yes, but, like Quixote, capable of occasional moments of grace and wonder.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Maid's Tragedy: A Postscript

One last notable thing about The Maid's Tragedy is the inclusion of a fully-dressed marriage masque in the first act. It has room for lots of special effects, and mythological/allegorical figures like Night and Neptune and Eolus reciting tedious bombast, and is just as wretched as any other court masque you could name, though mercifully short and far easier to get through than most of Jonson’s self-important nonsense. It holds no intrinsic interest for the modern reader—doesn’t even resonate with the plot of the rest of the play, which would have been cool—but one imagines it would have been a real treat for the original audience, in a world where the masque was considered the pinnacle of high art, and invitations were an object of fierce wrangling. What redeems this indulgence—slightly—is that the play also contains the perfect dismissal of the whole masque form, offered by a nobleman as they’re preparing for the show:

Strato, thou hast some skill in Poetry. What thinkst thou of a masque? Will it be well?

As well as masque can be.

As masque can be?

Yes, they must commend their King, and speak in praise of the assembly, bless the bride and bridegroom, in person of some God; they are tied to rules of flattery.

Damn straight: conventional and obsequious. And Ben Jonson knew that perfectly well, whatever he told himself to get through the night.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Digression: The Maid’s Tragedy

(Image: illustration from the title page of the quarto printing)

Life has kept me away from this blog for a few days now. Mostly, I’ve been busy with an out-of-town conference, and I found the carry-on baggage restrictions less than amenable to my bringing my Full Textual Apparatus along for the ride. But it wasn’t all Sudoku in the airport bar: I thought I’d use to opportunity to caulk over one of the many, many cracks in my knowledge of the Renaissance Stage: Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy.

Why that play? Well, I own a copy, but that’s been true for like fifteen years without instilling a sense of urgency. I suppose talking about Cardenio put me in mind of it: Cardenio brings up the play George Buc (with the poetic heart of a government censor) called “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy,” and that always makes me think about how I’d never read the first. It’s anthologized and performed often enough to suggest that it’s not entirely devoid of artistic quality, and I rather enjoy Fletcher, based on what little of him I’ve read (Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, mostly). So, maybe a funny choice for someone who hasn’t even read The Alchemist for crying out loud, but there you go.

To the fan of Shakespeare, much is familiar: bodies everywhere, cross-dressing, wild and wooly plotting, platitudinous closing speech by the new authority figure (who orders everyone to carry the bodies off the stage)…yep, that’s Jacobethan drama. I’m glad to know there are some things you can count on.

But there’s that hard edge of cynicism, too, that Shakespeare seldom dabbled in: that Troilus and Cressida quality where “virtue” is a word for chumps. Newly-married Amintor, in the best scene in the play, is taken aback when his bride, Evadne, refuses to go to bed with him—has sworn, in fact, an oath that she will not. He grapples for some charming explanation:

If you have sworn to any of the Virgins
That were your old companions, to preserve
Your Maidenhead a night, it may be done
Without this means.

Oh, Amintor, you poor, dumb kid. His wife practically snorts in reply:

A Maidenhead, Amintor, at my years?

No bashful virgin, Evadne is in fact conducting a liaison with the very man who arranged her marriage: the King. He won’t (or can’t—the play isn’t clear) marry her himself, and needs a nominal husband for her, to cover any pregnancies that come along. Amintor is the patsy, the beard, the front man—and on no account is he to sample the merchandise.

I was reading this scene in my hotel room, and it just smacked me. A complete sucker-punch. We’re in the second act at this point, and there’s been no indication this is coming. Evadne—no “maid”—isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to Aspatia, a lovely young woman of good birth, who was engaged to marry Amintor before the King hatched his own scheme and ordered Amintor to call it off. She takes this badly.

The play opens after the wedding ceremony, but just prior to the evening’s celebrations. Allegedly set on the island of Rhodes, there is no attempt to capture a foreign culture beyond giving everyone strange names. One of Evadne’s brothers, Melantius, has been summoned home from the wars to attend the festivities, but he was told only that it was his friend Amintor’s wedding, not Evadne’s, and he didn’t get the memo about the last-minute change of brides. Before anyone can clear this up, he sees the jilted Aspatia and congratulates her, giving us one of the other really potent moments in the script:

Hail, maid and wife!
Thou fair Aspatia, may the holy knot
That thou hast tied today last till the hand
Of age undo’t; may’st thou bring a race
Unto Amintor that may fill the world
Successively with soldiers.

My hard fortunes
Deserve not scorn; for I was never proud
When they were good.

(Exit Aspatia.)

How now?

Awkward. That moment of understated dignity for Aspatia is, regrettably, the only one of its kind. She comes completely unglued soon enough, in really unattractive fashion: luxuriating in grief and pity, whining and wailing in front of anyone who will listen. As all the ladies are getting Evadne (un)dressed and prepared for what is supposed to be her big night, Aspatia won’t shut up:

…this should have been
My night, and all your hands been employed
In giving me a spotless offering
To young Amintor’s bed, as we are now
For you…

Yes, dear, you had a bad turn, but now you’re just behaving badly. Why don’t you beg off and go home? Ah, but she’s only gotten started:

This is the last time you shall look on me;
Ladies, farewell; as soon as I am dead,
Come all and watch one night about my hearse;
Bring each a mournful story and a tear
To offer at it when I go to earth…

Now that’s an unpleasant wedding guest. Sadly, this kind of operatic over-reaction becomes the dominant mode of the remainder of the play. The King drops in next morning to say hello, and flies into a jealous rage when Amintor plays the happy husband in public, which was the whole plan from the beginning, right? (The King is not only a lech, but a bit of a fool. Any resemblance to James I is purely coincidental.) Amintor goes crying to his new brothers-in-law, and the only discussion is about when and how they’ll kill the king. Bit harsh? Try the scene where Melantius confronts his sister and demands to have the truth from her mouth:

By thy foul self, no humane hand shall help thee,
If thou criest: When I have killed thee, as I have
Vowed to do, if thou confess not, naked
As thou hast left thine honor, will I leave thee,
That on they branded flesh the world may read
Thy black shame, and my justice; wilt thou bend yet?

This is, of course, perfectly disgusting, and it marked the moment in the play at which I stopped caring about much of anyone. But, in the forthrightly misogynistic world of the Maid’s Tragedy, this little talking-to was just what Evadne needed. She collapses in tears and resolves to sin no more. More than that: while the boys are cooking up some cockamamie plot to get control of the harbor fort, Evadne ties the King to her bed at their next encounter and stabs him. (In the last chuckle of the play, the King thinks it’s some kind of sex game at first. He finds it less charming when he learns the name of the game is “regicide.”)

Now it’s time for those bodies to start piling up, and what’s left of characterization, plot, poetry, all get shoved aside to make room for the blood and thunder. Remember Aspatia? She dresses up like her brother, seeks out Amintor, and challenges him to a duel—which she deliberately loses, so she can spend the remainder of the play gasping and expiring on the floor with as much melodrama as she can muster. By now, she’s grown so tiresome that I’m imploring Amintor to give her one more good stab and get it over with. In the middle of this, Evadne comes in to show her husband how she’s reformed her morals by progressing from adulteress to murderer, and Amintor demonstrates how the poetry has utterly collapsed at this point:

There is presage of some important thing
About thee, which it seems thy tongue hath lost:
Thy hands are bloody, and thou hast a knife.

Evadne explains how she has killed her lover, and now wants Amintor to give her another chance. Amintor has to leave the room for a minute to do the math on that one. As soon as he is gone, she takes a page from Aspatia’s book and offers proof of her love by killing herself with that aforementioned knife. Naturally, Amintor comes back on stage at that moment, thinking perhaps that with some counseling and a willingness to change and grow, they can make this work, but it’s too late. Evadne dies. Aspatia comes to just long enough to reveal her true identity, and dies. Amintor decides that death must be in fashion and rounds things out by killing himself.

Nothing left to do but mop up the mess. The new King (the former King’s brother) comes on with everyone else who’s still breathing, and Melantius tries to kill himself, but they wrestle his sword away from him. Melantius is almost—almost—a Miles Gloriosus figure, always blustering and whipping out his rapier, never actually doing anything. You can’t really read him as satire; just as you can’t read the play as satire, though it might work better that way. It’s all too earnest, too moralizing, even under that patina of cynicism. If Beaumont and Fletcher had had the courage of their lack of convictions, they might have made a better play: something genuinely dark and troubling. But they want to wallow in the filth and yet, ultimately, be above it, and like so many other writers who wanted to both have their cake and eat it, they get neither.

So, The Maid’s Tragedy: neglected masterpiece? No. Some good moments, one really good scene, but it falls apart badly after Act II, and ends up about as empty as any summer blockbuster at the multiplex. But I am glad that I’ve finally read the “First Maiden’s Tragedy,” and I’m ready for Middleton to bring on the Second.

I hope he makes a better job of it…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Curious History of Cardenio...

I have to give a shout-out to Jeffrey Gantz for his excellent treatment of the whole vexed question of Cardenio, so often tagged as "Shakespeare's Lost Play," in The Phoenix. A Boston company is mounting a new play inspired by...well, lots of stuff, including Theobald's play Double Falsehood and material from Don Quixote.

Gantz recounts the entire history of the search for Cardenio, and brings a healthy scepticism to the table. I am always a bit surprised at how willing people are to accept the idea of Cardenio as a Shakespeare collaboration, when all we have to support that are two exceptionally dubious attributions well after the fact. (Attribution one is from bookseller Humphrey Mosely, and is worthless. Attribution two is from theatre impressario Louis Theobald, who was obliged to climb down when he printed Double Falsehood.)

There is even a Middleton connection, thanks to an eccentric book published by handwriting analyst Charles Hamilton in the 1990's: he examined the manuscript of the play I guess we're supposed to call The Lady's Tragedy now, but has traditionally been referred to as The Second Maiden's Tragedy, and pronounced it Shakespeare's long-lost Cardenio--even though it's not the right story from Quixote and everyone else believes Middleton wrote it. No one took that attribution seriously except for the odd company looing to stage a curiousity; Gantz calls Hamilton's book "dismally argued." I agree--I'm no expert, but it seems to me that Hamilton managed to convince himself that the English "secretary hand" was the same thing as "Shakespeare's handwriting."

I'll come back to The Lady's Tragedy in the fullness of time, as it is naturally included in the lavish new Middleton. I haven't read it before, but it seems to get a lot of praise--not from Gantz, who pronounces it "neither very good nor very Shakespearean." I'll give him the latter, but hope he's wrong on the former.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Anatomy of an Adaptation

Now that we’ve talked about this crazy text of Macbeth, let me lay out the shape of the Middletonian adaptation, according to Gary Taylor’s text and notes. My intent is to take each of the major items in future posts, one by one, and give you the invaluable perspective of a Computer Science major on these difficult matters of textual scholarship. Man, do I love this Internet we built!

The original Macbeth was probably written sometime around 1606—within fifty years of that date, almost certainly. Middleton’s adaptation was done perhaps in 1616, with a similar margin of error. I’ll refer to them as the 1606 and 1616 versions—it’s probably close enough.

The most significant systematic modification Middleton made to the 1606 Macbeth was to make it witchier. The three beings Macbeth and Banquo encounter on a blasted heath are called “wayward sisters” or “weyard sisters” by everyone in the play, themselves included, and this looks back to Shakespeare’s source, Hollinshed’s Chronicles, which called them “weird sisters,” the term that editors generally standardize the spelling to. The women are indeed strange, but “weird” here is from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, or “fate.” So the Sisters are, originally, the three Fates. Shakespeare made them a little like witches, killing swine and cursing ships, and Middleton turned the dials up to 11, with familiar spirits, dances in a ring, invocation spells. This is important to me, as the most significant systematic modification I made to Macbeth for the 2007 production I worked on was to de-witch the play as thoroughly as possible. Not an eye of newt to be found. I’ll talk about the different visions of these characters in a future post.

Gary Taylor also argues for a second systematic modification, in which Middleton toned down the Catholicism in the 1606 version, even as he cranked up the witchcraft. I’m not sure that I’m on board for that ride, but I’ll call attention to it scene-by-scene.

The 1616 Macbeth presents an account of a battle, told in pieces by various characters that come on stage to report to the King. It’s a disjointed scene, and many people have seen signs of cuts and compressions in the text. Taylor suggests that the 1606 original actually presented the battle, in one of those wonderful swirling scenes with lots of noise and running—such as comes at the end of Henry IV, Part 1, or near the beginning of Coriolanus. He supposes Middleton re-arranged the language and caulked over the seams as best he could with new lines.

The next substantial alteration is the appearance of Hecate, who calls out the other three Witches for reaching out to Macbeth without her oversight. There follows a special-effects spectacular, with spirits in clouds, flying machines, and the first of two songs, lovingly reconstructed from The Witch and Davenant’s later version of Macbeth.

After Hecate roars off into the darkness, there is a shot scene where Lennox and an unnamed Lord feel each other out on the whole Macbeth situation. There’s some lovely, subtle verse there:

…the gracious Duncan
Was pitied of Macbeth. Marry, he was dead,
And the right valiant Banquo walked too late—
Whom you may say, if’t please you, Fleance killed,
For Fleance fled. Men must not walk too late.

Taylor suggests Middleton cut this scene down, and meant to cut it further, but some intended deletions remained in the manuscript. I don’t have an opinion to offer yet.

Back to the witches now, and Hecate’s second song, after which Macbeth arrives to demand more prophesies, because that’s worked out so well for him thus far. The argument here is interesting. Taylor believes there was a cauldron as far back as 1606, but that the three apparitions were Middleton’s innovation—the prophesies were originally spoken by the Weird Sisters themselves. Interesting. If so, it’s the one element of the 1616 Macbeth that I can whole-heartedly embrace. After the witches vanish, Macbeth has a chilling soliloquy that Taylor credits, mostly, to Middleton:

To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to the edge o’th’ sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line…

(You know, I’m starting to enjoy adding punctuation to the text as I type it. With this edition, everyone can be an editor!)

Back at Fife, Middleton evidently expanded or revised the dialogue between Lady Macduff and her son. The argument turns on vocabulary and an odd, redundant quality to the existing text that I noticed when I made my own edit.

The final substantial innovation comes in that interminable scene in England, where Macduff, Ross and Malcolm launch their rebellion, and it’s one of the most surprising items in this edition—Taylor argues that, in 1606, Edward the Confessor actually appeared on stage, cured the sick, anointed Malcolm as Scotland’s rightful King, and loaned him an army. True or not, it’s a striking idea, and I can’t help thinking that it would make for a much more effective scene than what we have today. Why would Middleton cut it? Here’s where we get back to the Catholicism argument—Edward was a Catholic saint, and, for political reasons, he had to go.

The rest of the play proceeds as we all remember: sleepwalking, Birnam Wood, Homeric duels. The confusing way Macbeth seems to be killed both off-stage and on may point to a final Middleton edit, or may not.

Of course, we’ll never see all the lines of the 1606 Macbeth that Middleton cut, but the remarkable quality of this edition is to present the Shakespearean original as much as the Middletonian adaptation. It makes me wonder if some gutsy director might not try to put Edward Confessor back on the stage…there’s a very fine line between clever and stupid, as they say; I wonder which side of the line that would come down on?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Alien and Alienating Text

Before digging any deeper into this edition of Macbeth, I wanted to talk about the remarkable nature of the text itself. It is billed as “a genetic text,” designed to present and explore the layers of composition, and is a quirky, idiosyncratic beast. There are neither punctuation marks in the text (except for apostrophes) nor capital letters at the beginnings of sentences or verse lines, so we get Shakespeare by way of e e cummings:

she should have died hereafter
there would have been a time for such a word
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death out out brief candle
life’s but a walking shadow a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more it is a tale
told by an idiot full of sound and fury
signifying nothing
enter a messenger
                                thou com’st to use
thy tongue thy story quickly

Huh. The argument goes, neither Shakespeare nor Middleton used much in the way of capitals or punctuation in their surviving manuscripts (real Shakespeare nuts will note that you have to accept the “Hand D” additions to Sir Thomas More as Shakespeare’s in order to give him any “surviving manuscripts”), so that the 1623 Folio punctuation “reflects the practices of different compositors and scribes,” and not the playwrights. The spellings, too, are taken to have more to do with the print-shop compositors, and so all the spelling is quietly regularized to modern norms, as being the most neutral choice possible. “Words have to be spelled, one way or another,” and “the choice of any early modern spellings would necessarily have been arbitrary, lending an undeserved weight to differences which have no more authority than differences in punctuation.”

Okay, but then we go a bridge too far: “This completely unpunctuated text lets readers decide for themselves how to interpret the words…glossarial commentaries, like punctuation, make interpretive choices about which meanings are appropriate and which are not.” That might explain why Macbeth has been stripped of punctuation and commentary, but it doesn’t explain why we wouldn’t want to do that for every other play in the book. Doing this once as a special exercise in textual exploration is one thing, but don’t let’s try to make some kind of post-modernist virtue out of it.

Beyond this, every word is color-coded, as it were, to show Gary Taylor’s assessment of its provenance, thus:

-What Shakespeare wrote and Middleton left untouched is in normal type.
-Middleton’s additions are in bold.
-Words that Middleton deleted or meant to delete are in light gray.

“Deleted?” But how can we know that? There’s just the one text, and you can’t see what’s not in it. Ah, but Doctor Taylor can—even if only through a glass, darkly. He conjectures that certain passages were re-arranged from Shakespeare’s original manuscript: these appear in gray in their “original” positions, and then in bold where Middleton is supposed to have relocated them. There is also the rare bit that seems to have been meant for deletion, but somehow survived in the manuscript—redundancies and so forth. Last of all, Taylor takes a couple of tentative stabs at describing what might have once been present in Macbeth before Middleton’s cuts—including a cameo appearance by Edward the Confessor himself.

Gentle reader, I perceive your dubiousness through the very fabric of time and space. But let’s leave our discussion of the details for another day. I can only report that I’ve been turning Taylor’s conjectures over and over in my mind these past days, and there is a satisfying resonance to them, a kind of ring of plausibility, if not of Truth in all her glory. We’ll talk about all these items one at a time—for now, I just wanted to paint a picture of this very odd text.

In truth, I rather like it. It’s not a text for reading, really, but there’s no need for that: as the editors point out several times, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a “traditional” text of Macbeth. I count five of ‘em on my bookshelf right now. This is more in the nature of a blueprint or schematic drawing: the intent is to expose the structural members, not conceal them. One thing I’m really coming to admire about Taylor’s editorial practice is his ability to communicate important non-verbal messages through form and style. This wacky Macbeth actively avoids polish. It looks like an archaeological dig site, which I suppose it almost is. In spite of the stated reasons for stripping all the capital letters and punctuation, I think the biggest one was to contribute to the atmosphere of roughness in the text, which encourages us to be open-minded to the possibilities of revision and reconstruction in a way that a “clean” text might not. An “alien and alienating” text, as Taylor puts it, putting one in mind of Brecht and his “alienation effect”—setting us apart to better analyze and judge.

I keep thinking I’m just going to bang out a few quick thoughts, and, next thing I know, I’m closing in on 900 words again. Past time to shut this one down!