Stars, hide your fires: The Modern Misinterpretation of Macbeth

Macbeth productions tend to disappoint me. Hopefully, I will have the good fortune of seeing one within my lifetime that captures my imagination in a way that past productions have failed to. Of course, my students performing Macbeth has always been a treat, and watching their understanding of the script unfold is a delight. But for professionally produced stagings, I have yet to find one that expresses the Scottish play in all of its depth.

When the new Michael Fassbender Macbeth came out last year, I was ready to be impressed—though, of course, when I heard they abridged the script, disappointment began to set in. Even though I had the joy of watching it for the first time in Scotland on a rainy, foggy evening, my disgruntlement with the film culminated in the realization that Fassbender had cut the scene with the gatekeeper, welcoming guests of Macbeth’s castle to “hell.” Overall, the cinematography is excellent, the scenes well-constructed, the setting fitting, the depiction of Lady Macbeth genius—yet a key aspect is missing.

Another Macbeth film, starring Patrick Stewart, sets the play in a dystopian, Stalin-inspired world, full of heavy machinery, underground bunkers, and plenty of gore. The witches in this film may be the most chilling of any production I’ve seen. But this film suffers the same downfall as Fassbender’s: both fail to grasp the meaning of kingship.

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Because the story begins in the midst of a thunderstorm and ends with a bloody, beheaded Macbeth, most will say that this is Shakespeare’s darkest play. And much of it is—but that does not mean that the darkness is all-encompassing. Instead, light enters the play with the character of King Duncan. He himself connects royalty with stars: “But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers.”[1] And in the very same scene, Macbeth confesses that his dark thoughts should be hidden from these same stars: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”[2]

In the infamous scene of Lady Macbeth plotting Duncan’s death, she says a line that is often overlooked. When Macbeth notes that the king will be leaving their castle in the morning, Lady Macbeth replies, “O, never shall sun that morrow see!”[3] Not only is she referring to a darkness that will cover the kingdom after the king has been murdered, but also to the king himself, who brings light and peace and stability to the land. In Macbeth’s agony of decision, he again relates King Duncan to the heavens: “…his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / the deep damnation of his taking off.”[4]

One of the main issues with current productions of Macbeth is a lack of light at the beginning of the play. For Fassbender’s and Stewart’s productions, both begin in a darkness that appears the same throughout the play. But in Shakespeare’s script, the physical setting—and the recognition that the true king is associated with light—seems rather important. The problem is that without the light, the story appears to be two equal but warring tribes, not a usurpation of a throne. But Shakespeare is doing something quite different in the text. The night of Duncan’s death is marked by a physical darkness: “the moon is down… There’s [frugality] in heaven; Their candles are all out.”[5]

So why do many modern productions disregard this shift in light? Why do they seem to ignore the importance of the kingship?

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On a cloudy morning in November, twelve students huddled around a screen, trying to interpret the following picture. We had been studying Macbeth for a couple of weeks at this point, and I provided a picture or lines to contemplate at the beginning of every class.

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You may not recognize the image, but it is the reconstructed ceiling of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It depicts the heavens in all of its glory—the sun, the stars, the constellations. But more importantly than that, it depicts the pre-modern imaginary that made stories like Macbeth possible.

During the time of Shakespeare, the English culture recognized a particular order and structure in the world. Not only did they have a monarchy, but the monarchy acted as head of the church, which then had command of bishops and priests throughout the country. The very understanding of the heavens, of stars and the sun and the constellations, reflected the order of the earthly authorities.

In contrast, modernity has flattened the structures of the past. The Enlightenment brought on political revolutions that questioned the authority of the monarchy, and the Great Awakening and its repercussions did the same for the hierarchy of the church. With the popularity of democracy and evangelicalism, the structures of the past are but faded memories. Perhaps this is one reason why the recent drama The Crown has become so popular—an antiquated system that tries to act in the midst of a modern world seems almost contradictory.

Not only did democracy and evangelicalism “flatten” the world (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has a lot to say about this), but the attempt to explain away a deity by Darwin and the epistemological concerns of Enlightenment philosophers created a sort of wasteland in which any order or structure became artificial.

And this change brought about a change in theatre: instead of building a stage similar to Shakespeare’s with the heavens displayed for all to see, theatres became blank stages, ready for whatever meaning a playwright wanted to create. This can be easily seen in Ian McKellen’s staging of the Scottish play in the 1970s.

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If you can imagine Macbeth first being staged under the heavens of the Globe Theatre, you can see why Macbeth hiding his deep and dark desires from the stars is so important: he is speaking not within a world that cares only for his desires, but one that is inherently structured, and one whose order includes supernatural beings who will judge him for his misdeeds. The gatekeeper’s drunken monologue, introducing Macbeth’s guests to hell, proves this. Macbeth is not a free human trying to gain power in whatever way he can—he is a disobedient man who has ignored the established order of the world.

I imagine that some modern productions leave the gatekeeper out for two reasons: first of all, the play to moderns is all darkness—they do not recognize the light that a true king holds, nor do they recognize an order that could be restored, so the comedy of the gatekeeper seems quite out of place ; secondly, the gatekeeper pronounces a judgment on Macbeth that moderns wish to withhold. Macbeth in the modern mind becomes just another potential ruler, attempting to create his own meaning. For Shakespeare, Macbeth was a madman, unwilling to submit to an already-existing reality.

Perhaps the most consequential symptom of a modern interpretation of Macbeth is a failure to recognize his madness at the end of the play. If you watch a production of Macbeth and begin to nod in agreement with his famous lines…

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.[6]

…you are taking him too seriously. When Macbeth first pronounced these lines under the heavens of the Globe Theatre, the audience knew the truth: a man who ignores the reality of an ordered world will end in utter madness. The universe does not consist of nothingness, for they could see the heavens displayed brightly above the stage.

Macbeth, often acclaimed as a nihilistic play, is rather a dismissal of nihilism. It is a play of crossed boundaries, fallen structures, and, most of all, the resulting madness.

See Part 1 of the Macbeth series. 

See Part 3 of the Macbeth series. 

__________________________________

[1] 1.4.47-48

[2] 1.4.57-58

[3] 1.6.71-72

[4] 1.7.18-20

[5] 2.1.1-5

[6] 5.5.24-28


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