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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Celia Daileader reflects upon Middleton's work on the sisters/witches in her essay in the recent book collection "Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance":