A production of Macbeth I saw last weekend featured modern war trappings such as Hesco barriers and plywood staircases set among crumbled stand-alone stone columns. Anyone who has soldiered in an ancient Iraq or Afghanistan fortress, now blown apart by war and reconstituted using American military building materials, would recognize the look. The actors patrolled the stage with M4s hanging from three-point slings, red dot aiming lasers shining center mass on dog tags jangling on their adversaries’ chests.
“Out, damned spot!” indeed, as Lady Macbeth’s signature line has it. “Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier and afeard?”
So what do you get when you pay Macbeth four hundred years forward and place it in a heavily militarized Eurasian setting? The play’s nods toward clan warfare might seem to foretell the tribal rivalries of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Macbeth’s murderous ambition is so deeply rooted in psychology that the play’s social-historical dimensions barely register. Nor does the homicidal jockeying for power in Shakespeare’s Scotland suggest imperial wrangling for control of semi-sovereign foreign states. Perhaps it could be read allegorically as a commentary on Washington D.C. leadership dynamics, but, again, the play seems way more personal than political.
What Macbeth seems to be about most is what many of Shakespeare’s plays are about: the life after war of a man of combat. When one thinks about it, it’s surprising how often and with such intensity Shakespeare returns to this subject. Macbeth, Richard III, Othello, and Coriolanus, for starters. Shakespeare’s warrior kings rage through civil society like wounded lions let loose at a county fair. Their recklessness, restlessness, easily-pricked pride, propensity for violence, and vulnerability to flattery and blandishment spell bad news to peace and happiness. It’s evil because it looks like evil and does evil, but the prophecies of the witches that infect Macbeth’s psyche suggest not that he makes poor choices or is ethically corrupt, but the inevitability of his destructive behavior.
Macbeth, directed by Paul Kassel, recently closed at the State University of New York-New Paltz’s McKenna Theater.