Halloween, a night of masks, macabre, and dark imagination. What better night to attend Shakespeare’s Macbeth, filled with kilt dressed nobility and warriors, weird sisters prophesying, and dark castle chambers at the Blackfrier Theatre, in Stauntan, VA. Halloween and Macbeth are filled with contradictions. The peak of the golden Fall foliage season is about to give away to the barren landscape of Winter. Macbeth, returning from victory over the invading Norwegian forces, will soon degenerate into a killing force that leave the Scottish landscape barren. Halloween is the contrast to All Saint’s Day, as Macbeth’s driven passion is the contrast to the image of staid nobility.
Equivocation is a word and concept imbedded throughout the play. The Porter (Gregory Jon Phelps) banters about equivocations, while not answering the knock at the castle door.
“Knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the other devil’s name. Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.”
An equivocator is someone who argues both sides of an argument. But, in doing so, the equivocator defeats his own reasoning. The Porter, of course, mostly gives bawdy examples, say of how drink gives desire for romance but diminishes the man’s ability to perform in suggested positions. Elsewhere in the play various characters give examples of how their quest for power and position prevents them from achieving their end.
Macbeth (James Keegan) spends the duration of the play equivocating between his belief in the weird sister’s prophecy that he will be crowned king, and his fear that he will be dethroned. Lady Macbeth (Sarah Fallon) equivocations between her passion for her husband’s success, and her guilt at the destruction that she counsels him to perform in his quest. King Duncan (John Harrell) and Banquo (Rene’ Thornton, Jr) equivocate between their belief in Macbeth’s loyalty to them, and Macbeth’s blatant plotting to kill them. Only Macduff (Johathan Holtzman) appears decisive when he fleas Scotland for England, to save himself and rally an army to return to Scotland to defeat Macbeth. However, when he learns that Macbeth has had his wife and children killed, he equivocates between his desire for revenge and sense of meaningless at acting, for he no longer has a reason to care about the fate of Scotland.
The cast dramatizes these contradictions in addition to reciting their interactions and soliloquies. Macbeth constantly debates to the audience whether he is fulfilling the prophecies or acting against himself. Lady Macbeth shifts between writhing in anguish of dread and embracing Macbeth in the passion of their love. Duncan and Banquo step into the security of Macbeth’s castle, but hesitant at some perceived threat. Macduff lays sprawled on the back corner of the stage during the fight with Macbeth, deliberating whether to flee the battle or pick up his sword and continue the fight.
Inherent in the script and direction of a production of Macbeth is the issue of whether the audience can identify or empathize with any of the characters. On one level, none of them are desirable. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are death machines. Duncan and Banquo victims of their trust. Macduff the avenger with no interest in vanquishing the wrongs of the play. How does Macbeth become a play that keeps our interest beyond enjoying a couple of hours of mayhem?
Harold Bloom’s commentary on Macbeth (Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human) claims that Shakespeare wants us to identify with the horror that Macbeth faces. Shakespeare structures the other characters such that none are on stage as much as Macbeth. Some arrive early and exist the play (by death or exile). Others show up for only a scene or two, or only at the end of the play. Thus, we in the audience are trapped in our equivocations about our fates, prophesied and enacted. As Macbeth acts out his end, so are we pulled along with him in a whirlpool that soon engulfs us.
In contrast, the director, Jim Warren, writes in his program notes that he believes that what makes Macbeth human, and thereby identifiable with the audience, is his relationship and love with his wife. Without their passion, they are merely ambitious without morals. Without their love for each other, their acts against others are just cruelty. Without their intertwined lives, Macbeth’s grief at Lady Macbeth’s insanity and suicide would lack the motivation to defend his position.
Yet, my response was neither as Bloom nor Warren hoped. I found Macbeth to be blustering without forethought or remorse for how he pursued the throne. I found other characters to be more engaging, specifically Lady Macbeth’s manic-depressive desire and demise, and Macduff’s ambivalence about risking his life to fight and defeat Macbeth. Even Lady Macduff’s (Sara Hymes) and Thane of Ross’s (Chris Johnston) brief scene, in which Ross attempts to warn Lady Macduff that she and her children in danger, gave more connection to these doomed characters.
Lady Macduff: “What had he done, to make him fly the land?… His flight was madness: when our actions do not, our fears do make us traitors…”
Ross: “You know not whether it was his wisdom or his fear… But, cruel are the times, when we are traitors, and do not know ourselves; when we hold rumour from what we fear, yet know not what we fear…”
In our society, we seem to identify more and more with the horrors of Halloween. Movies and television programs find more graphic ways to shock or thrill us. Chase scenes, ballistics, and exploding buildings, vehicles, and people fill more time in our entertainment lives. While combat soldiers attempt to live with PTSD, some segments of our society appear to relish teasing themselves with tasting the excitement of those risks. While we proclaim disgust at Islamic State cyber beheadings, we play these on the news. Yet, we equivocate by ignoring that Saudi Arabia held two public beheadings per week in 2013. And, in response to public unrest about this practice is trying out public crucifixions instead.
But, if we were to diminish our interest in the macabre of Halloween, we would need to rectify this with our images of All Saints Day. Behind most saints’ ministries, healings, and miracles, is a gruesome death scene. Whether we want to identify with anyone in Macbeth, maybe Shakespeare understood that we could not equivocate our way out of our fates.