Combat Shakespeare: Macbeth

SUNY NP Macbeth

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.

5 thoughts on “Combat Shakespeare: Macbeth”

  1. After reading your post I asked my 10th grader if they had studied any Shakespeare yet. Just so happens that they started on Othello today. I’ll have her read this post and keep it in mind as they discuss it in class.

    This begs the question about where the dividing line is between where the psyche of a warrior ends and where ptsd begins.

    1. How about PRE-Traumatic Stress Syndrome!? Characters such as Othello, Richard III, and Macbeth are maniacs before they go to war–ultra-competitive and driven to pursue what they cannot or should not have. When it comes to affairs of the heart, they “love not wisely, but too well,” as Othello claims (self-servingly and not exactly accurately).

  2. Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome! I love it. And that (naturally) reminds me of an eccentric thought from Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. “People who have been on earth for only ten years or so are suddenly beginning to compose fugues and prove subtle theorems in mathematics. It may be that we may bring a great many powers here with us, Miss Volsted. The chronicles say that before Napoleon was born his mother enjoyed visiting battlefields. But isn’t it possible that the little hoodlum, years before his birth, was already looking for a carnage-loving mother? So with the Bach family and the Mozart family and the Bernoulli family. Such family groups may have attracted musical or mathematical souls.”

    1. Thanks, kingdahfu. I don’t know if people have a history before they are born, but an event surely has a history before it happens, right? Wasn’t it Sartre who reminded us that as we drive down a road, everything that we see through the windshield was already there before it was visible to us? So for the future as it rushes through us into the past, perhaps. Kinda deep for what I’m trying to do here, but you got me thinking.

  3. Well, I love Bellow’s non-rational side. It is a great antidote to the mental confines of reasonableness. And the key point is “we may bring a great many powers here with us.” Your pre-tsd is to the point.

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