Out, damned spot: Lady Macbeth’s Diagnosis as Cure

When I was leading my seniors in a close reading and production of Macbeth, their reaction to a particular character was first disgust and, later, enchantment. This character was none other than Lady Macbeth. As we read the first half of the play, students repeatedly characterized her as the “devil on Macbeth’s shoulder” in their writing responses, giving her the hefty load of single-handedly carrying the plot.

It is somewhat true—Lady Macbeth, within several lines of meeting her for the first time, is praying to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…”, so that she can rid herself of feminine tenderness, replacing it “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” It is Lady Macbeth who convinces Macbeth to murder their king by questioning Macbeth’s very manhood. It is Lady Macbeth who calls Macbeth foolish for saying that his blood-covered hands are a sorry sight. And it is Lady Macbeth who seems to have no hesitations about their evil designs, as Macbeth himself continues to search for reassurances of his plan by summoning the witches, and reports that his mind is “full of scorpions.” Even as Macbeth appears to be going crazy as he sees Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth moves forward with the banquet as if they have done no wrong.

But I have never seen my students so captivated by a Shakespearean scene than the moment that Lady Macbeth appears sleep-walking in sight of her servant and a doctor near the end of the play. The one character that they had quickly dismissed and blamed for the entire play suddenly captured their attention, and they watched as closely as the doctor who is attempting to diagnose Lady Macbeth’s disease.

Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene echoes the night of Duncan’s death, when she was resolved to commit the murder of the king, praying that she be relieved from the “passage of remorse.” And it does seem that throughout the play she is free from guilt, unlike Macbeth himself. But Macbeth’s concern of his bloody hands (“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”) transfers to Lady Macbeth in the last act as she sleep-walks, attempting to scrub her hands clean. Likewise, Macbeth’s fear that he has “murdered sleep” foretells Lady Macbeth’s inability to rest as she wanders the castle nightly, trying to clean her hands that will “ne’er be clean.” Her sleepless guilt is even more striking when taken in light of Macbeth’s description of sleep the night of Duncan’s murder:

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher of life’s feast.screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

Flannery O’Connor once said that every good villain is one that we can relate to. I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have agreed. This “devil on the shoulder” of Macbeth becomes the very picture of remorse. In one of the shortest scenes of the play, Lady Macbeth suddenly captures our feelings of guilt: “Yet here’s a spot… Out, damned spot, out, I say!” And though the audience knows what crimes haunt her, she lives in that damned night of the past every time she sleep walks, as she goes to bed at the cue of a knock—the same end of that dark night of Duncan’s death.

I imagine that the scene captivates audiences for several reasons: the oddness of sleep-walking, a character that we thought less than human suddenly tormented by her former sins, but most importantly, her expression of the inner guilt that each of us have felt at one time or another.

The most recent remake of Macbeth cuts this scene short, and leaves out two of its major characters—the ever-watchful servant and doctor. Without the servant and doctor, the audience is left to themselves to make what they will out of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking monologue. But Shakespeare does something beautiful here with the presence of the doctor, who quickly realizes that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is “beyond his practice.” His diagnosis may be the wisest words in all the play: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

M.H. Abrams, in his book Natural Supernaturalism, calls attention to our use of physiological terms to describe our moral well-being. He points out that the “reigning diagnosis of our own age of anxiety [is] the claim that man, who was once well, is now ill.” Since these terms are so common in our own age, perhaps it can be difficult to see Lady Macbeth as anything but a victim of madness—but Lady Macbeth and her prophetic doctor show us otherwise: her malaise is due to the guilt that engulfed her the night of Duncan’s murder.

Lady Macbeth’s character works on us in mysterious ways; first we see her as a devil that sits on the shoulder of her tragic husband, and then suddenly she appears to us as a mirror of our own guilt, of which only the Divine will heal. Perhaps we would all benefit from the doctor’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth’s ills:

“More needs she the divine than the physician.

God, God forgive us all.”

See Part 1 of the Macbeth series.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series.

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

Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?: Confessions of a Macbeth-Obsessed Teacher

img_2841When the air gets cooler and my preference switches from iced tea to hot, I have an insatiable desire to immerse myself in the story of Macbeth. Maybe my craving comes from the early-falling darkness that demands a tale to follow suit; perhaps it’s the talk of witches and spirits that haunts each October; but just maybe my inclination stems from a classroom tradition I established: the reading and performing of Macbeth every fall.

First, I’ll quickly confess that the playing-out of this tradition is evidence of my evolving philosophy of education. The first year, we rushed through: the students read mostly at

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My students are talented! Sammy Reuscher, “Macbeth”, whiteboard, 2015.

home, I quizzed, and then we did a very brief day of student-planned performances. Perfect! We had “checked” Shakespeare off the list. Onward to the rest of British literature! Of course, this was a sorry excuse for a study of Macbeth.

The second year, I slowed it down a bit: we read the entire play in class, spent a few weeks rehearsing an abridged version, and then performed it for the entire high school during morning classes. The students also submitted five journals reflecting on the experience and themes from the play. But there was something lacking: complete engagement with the text, as the play itself was still an attempt to “get through the material.”

The third year, I must admit, was a highlight of my teaching career thus far. I still failed in many ways: not addressing the needs of every student, not drawing some students into discussion, not giving enough time for rehearsals… but we read it together in class, discussed each act, contemplated particular lines from the play, and then students performed excerpts, memorizing the original language instead of an abridged version. Finally, we were living together in the narrative, reflecting on Shakespeare’s words, recognizing our own souls in the confessions of the characters.

 

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Rehearsal, Fall 2015

The Scottish play is a frightening narrative, but what’s even more unnerving is when you and most of your students can admit: “I understand Macbeth as a character.” This was a statement much more prevalent in that third year of our tradition, as we journeyed together through Macbeth’s tragedy. If you haven’t read the play, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of Macbeth as a character: he is tempted by a prophecy to take matters into his own hands and consequently kills the king and becomes a tyrant.

Wait—isn’t my goal to lead students in wisdom and virtue? How is it virtuous and wise to say that I can understand—nay, even identify with—Macbeth?

Despite growing up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, and teaching at Christian schools, it took me three years of teaching to realize that traditional Christian rhythms are helpful in leading students to wisdom and virtue: the pattern of daily prayer, the cycle of work and rest during the week and then the Sabbath, and the repetition of repentance and renewal each year during Lent and Easter. By this time in my teaching career, we were practicing the daily prayers at noon with my church history class, contemplating Berry’s Sabbath poetry in my AP Literature class… but I had yet to turn my “lectern into a confessional,” as Josh Gibbs often proposes. Some Christian practices in the classroom are encouraged, even by teachers in progressive education: addressing the marginalized, being hospitable to the stranger, giving to the poor. But the practice of repentance is inherently against the model of progressive education, where the teacher is seen as the ultimate guide and guardian to the students’ education and self-esteem.

Yet the Christian narrative does just that: subverts the worldly institutions and interrupts the secular narrative. In the third year of teaching Macbeth, I had decided that to truly encounter wisdom and virtue in this study, I had some repenting to do: his attempt to control his own fate, his power-hungry, ambitious self—well, that’s me. And some of my students followed in the confession, soon recognizing this downfall of human nature: the desire for power, the grasp for control. Macbeth himself confesses, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition…” and soon after realizes that he must attempt to hide his sin: “False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

After we recognized this downfall of Macbeth (and, if you will, the human race),  the unexpected occurred.

Macbeth is considered by most the darkest play that Shakespeare ever composed. But instead of the students agreeing with Macbeth that life “is a tale // told by an idiot, full of sound and fury // signifying nothing”, they recognized this manifesto as an extension of his pride. Suddenly, we could no longer follow Macbeth into insanity, as modern readers often do. Rather, the story itself showed us the way to renewal after repentance.

This redemptive reading of the tragedy is, I suggest, impossible to discern with the modern, nihilistic view of life. And that is why no contemporary production of Macbeth has ever satiated my autumnal cravings. But that’s for another post.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series. 

See Part 3 of the Macbeth series. 

 

Why “Dappled Studies”?

img_2700Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.
“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

If you know me well, you’ll gather two things: 1) my likelihood to name a blog after a poem, and 2) my obsession with Hopkins. This poem completed my long journey back to faith after an arduous crisis; how could I read it without experiencing both confession and praise?

Like most literary obsessions I now have, I discovered Hopkins’ poetry because of my students. When I taught AP Literature, I devoted an entire quarter to poetic structure—and, of course, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a textbook example (quite literally in our AP textbook). Intrigued by his mastery of sound, I began researching and discovered that this poet-turned-priest burned all of his pre-conversion poetry. He then swore off poetry because he didn’t see the connection between his vocation and art. Thankfully, seven years later, his rector pressured him to write a poem in remembrance of five monks drowning in a shipwreck, and afterwards he couldn’t put the pen down. What does this conviction of Hopkins’ to refrain from poetry reveal about his view of art?

Hopkins understood the power of art to speak to the human soul; he appreciated the responsibility of the artist; and perhaps above all, he realized the importance of language in pointing us to the Word Himself.

Yet Hopkins, for all his wisdom and clarity concerning art, had a dappled life. He was surrounded by darkness in his later years (see his poem “Peace”). And this idea of “dappling” reminds me of reality: there are shadows that we don’t quite understand, moments that will never become clear. There is a fickleness, a constant change to our lives, that may confuse us. This dappling affects even my studies: every grasping at truth seems to terminate in both beauty and mystery.

I remember discovering this poem last winter, and it became so sacred to me that I didn’t even want to teach it. But I eventually gave in–even if it was just for the beauty of Hopkins’s language–and brought it into the classroom. My students, being teenagers, were experiencing immense changes every day; they were struggling to see the beauty of life, wondering who would be loyal in the end, and perhaps seeking something eternal. Hopkins, in eleven short lines, encapsulates my goal in the classroom: to communicate beauty, mystery, and an unchanging God while inviting moments of doxology and confession.

The line that surprises me every time I read this poem is the last: “Praise him.” For all the things we encounter in life, those things “counter, original, spare, strange,” our response should be doxology. What begins as a description of spotted things ends in a simple response: praising the God of all.

And if you haven’t read this poem all the way through–aloud–now would be the time; you may soon come to appreciate Hopkins’s mastery of the English language and his insight into the human soul.