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. 

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[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

The Man Behind the Masterpieces: A Review of MFAH’s “Degas: A New Vision”

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Edgar Degas has recently been hailed the hero of many: from dancers appreciating his ability to depict movement to women acknowledging his realistic portrayal of the feminine form, there is much contemporary interest in Degas’s work. But a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas aims to revitalize the interest in the artist himself. At the entrance of Degas: A New Vision, the museum features a complex timeline of both Degas’s personal life and concurrent events in his beloved Paris and the wider European world. The timeline offers a context, both personal and historical, to what the exhibit features: more than 200 paintings from his life—one of the most extensive surveys of Degas’s work in thirty years.

Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834 and entered the art world in the 1850s—a time of immense change, as artists began to break from the Academy. Degas followed suit: throughout his career, he was closely connected to major artists in the impressionist movement, namely Monet, Manet, Cassat, and Renoir. He is mostly known for his candid and realistic portraits of women bathing, colorful scenes of theatre and ballet, and studies of horseracing.

But this is the Degas we all know. The exhibit invites the viewers to meet another Degas: one intensely personal, who relishes in perfectionism and fears his own blindness. Before entering the collection, guests encounter the final impressions of Degas upon his peers: a friend described him as “looking like the blind Homer, possessing a gaze that appears to contemplate eternity.”

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Dancer in the role of Harlequin, bronze

Degas’s contemplation of physical form and eternal search for perfection takes center stage in Degas: A New Vision. Sketches and sculptures—only one of which he chose to display during his lifetime—fill the gallery. At the entrance of the exhibit, viewers are greeted by Degas’s earliest sketches during his student years in Paris and Italy. As the gallery progresses, sculptures interrupt the direct path through the paintings, a reminder of Degas’s continual striving for perfection. He often destroyed his sculptures, recreating them time and time again before painting the sculpted form on canvas. Yet the figures that appear on his canvasses obviously benefit from these multiple drafts; it seems that his painted subjects are in motion, as if Degas expressed movement instead of merely an object. There is a tendency to think of “impressionism” as ungrounded and airy and unrealistic; but Degas successfully combines impressionism’s use of light and color with the perfection of form. Degas: A New Vision does not allow the audience to forget the artist’s knowledge of form with multiple sculptures featured and sketches enshrined alongside masterpieces.

The collection moves from early life to late life, beginning with Degas’s student paintings of human forms and ending with his famous Bathers and his lesser-known portrait photography. Yet even with this progression, the man himself never disappears from the exhibit. The placement of the paintings do not communicate a particular progression of style or philosophy, or even a definitive statement of Degas’s contribution to the world of modern art; instead, the arrangement reveals an artist in unceasing pursuit of expression, relishing in the possibilities of the sketch. There is a particular focus on Degas’s constantly shifting choice of medium: charcoal, paint, monotype, photography, and sculpture. He finds his voice in each, with echoes of his charcoal sketches seen in his landscapes and repetitions of peculiar framing of subject in both his paintings and photographs.

For all of the emphasis on novelty in the exhibit’s advertisements, there is a lack of focus on the lesser-known pieces of Degas. Perhaps the collection would more fittingly be titled A Complete Vision, as the audience benefits from the chronological layout and inclusion of the sketches. But Degas: A New Vision falls short by minimizing some of Degas’s most intriguing works of inspiration in the space. There are remarkable, lesser-known works by the artist that deserve the spotlight: Degas’s Japanese silk fan pieces, which so clearly show the artist’s love of tones and colors and dancers; his portraits and sketches of other artists, namely Eduoard Manet and Mary Cassat; and his moody photography, which is hidden in the back corner of the exhibit like a well-kept secret.

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Self-portrait with Christine and Yvonne Lerolle, Gelatin silver print, 1895

But even with this disregard of novelty, perhaps Degas: A New Vision accomplishes what every exhibit should: just enough intrigue to give the viewers at once a knowledge of the subject and an increasing desire to know more. Degas’s passion for art is what overwhelms the audience, and we leave with a portrait of the man behind the masterpieces. Most tellingly, hidden in the cluttered timeline at the beginning of the exhibit, are the words Degas ordered to be written on his tombstone: “he loved drawing very much.”