Sunday, October 22, 2006

Macbeth Murdering Sleep

"When shall we three meet again"?

It’s the first line in the Scottish Play. The line is uttered by Hecate, the weirdest of the three witches. She’s in a desert place with her weird sisters Graymalkin and Paddock. They are on the heath to meet a man called Macbeth. A name that scares the superstitious hell out of actors in theatres. Geoffrey Wright has made a cool and classy film version of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. In this version of Macbeth the characters are moved to modern Melbourne gangland. Macbeth (Sam Worthington) wins a criminal battle and ingratiates himself with the unseeing boss Duncan. The three witches are schoolgirls. They are charged with sexuality whether defacing a cemetery or dancing with Macbeth. They tell him their prophecies that shape the drama.

On a foul and fair day they anoint him Thane of Cawdor, then King but the seed will lie with Banquo’s babies. Macbeth achieves a gangland massacre and kills Duncan who visits his home. Wright sets his play in Melbourne and Victoria but his is not the first version to turn the Scottish kings into gangland murderers. In 1955 Ken Hughes filmed “Joe Macbeth” and set the play in the centre of American crime - Chicago. He and his wife Lily rub out Duca which makes Joe il Duce. Two years later Akira Kuresawa turned Macbeth into a samurai in Throne of Blood (released unimaginatively under the label Macbeth in the US).

But it is a Scottish play. It was written in the early 1600s to celebrate the ancestors of the new King James of England and Scotland. He had two names, James VI of Scotland and James I of England and he was the first to use a third name: King of Great Britain. Banquo, if he existed, was a forebear. Mac Bethad mac Findláich certainly existed. Known in English as Macbeth he ruled Scotland from 1040 AD until his death 17 years later. Shakespeare played fast and loose with aspects of Macbeth’s life. He became High King of Alba on the death of Donnchad whom he killed in battle. The English didn’t run Scotland then but were becoming interested. Siward, the Northumbrian, invaded Alba with a massive army and took control of Macbeth’s kingdom. Macbeth survived but was eventually defeat and killed in battle by Donnchad’s son, Máel Coluim mac Donnchada three years later.

Lady Macbeth didn’t feature strongly in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles story of Macbeth from which Shakespeare used for his story. She is based on a different figure, the semi-legendary Queen Gruoch of Scotland. Her first husband Gille Coemgáin was killed in 1032, burned in a hall with fifty of his men. Macbeth was her second husband. There is no record of her death. Shakespeare turns her into a very malevolent behind-the-scenes manipulator. Whereas Macbeth wants to do a Hamlet and prevaricate when Duncan sleeps, it is her Ladyship who spurs him on. She mocks and cajoles Macbeth every step of the way until he convinces himself that he is capable of murdering. But she gains no satisfaction for her husband’s eventual success. She realises hell is murky and drives herself insane unable to remove the damned spots on her conscience. She becomes Ophelia’s sister in suicide.

The scholar G. R. Eliot described the theme of Macbeth as follows, "wicked intention must in the end produce wicked action unless it is not merely revoked by the protagonist's better feelings, but entirely eradicated by his inmost will, aided by Divine grace." There is not much of the “better feelings” in Macbeth. It is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays. The body count is high even by his tragedies’ standards. He is beset by witches who point out his future. They con him into thinking he is invincible until a man not of woman born has taken Birnham Wood to Dunsinane.

Macbeth is one of the greatest works in Shakespeare’s astonishing canon. His portfolio is so good that many believe it cannot be the work of one man. Many have speculated who Shakespeare really was. Some favour the Oxfordian theory and say Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. They say that Shaksper the actor from Stratford was not the same as Shakespeare, the pen-name of the playwright. The Earl of Oxford was a poet and playwright whose life shared similarities with many of the events of the plays. Christopher Marlowe too has his supporters. The Marlovian Theory holds that Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 and continued to write plays using Shakespeare as the frontman. Sir Francis Bacon is another candidate. Bacon was a true English renaissance man. He was a scientist, philosopher, courtier, diplomat, essayist, historian and successful politician. He served as Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor. Whoever Shakespeare was, he was a genius.

In Macbeth everything is fair and foul. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Appearances can be deceiving. Even when Geoffrey Wright gives a 400 year old text a modern Melbourne treatment the story is the same: greed, ambition, power, murder, family, betrayal and empire building are all still part of the human condition.

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