Macbeth is Shakespearean tragedy at its scariest. It opens with a crash of thunder and a flash of lightening, with a hurly-burly of fog and filthy air, with three spellbinding wicked witches¯and it only gets worse from there. Notoriously difficult to produce, Macbeth has been christened “the Scottish play” by a long line of dramatists wary of uttering its cursed name. A black baptism, at best, as holy water and cleansing are alien to the text itself.
But, as a recent production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music proves, wringing the play for every drop of horror can be the secret to success. The director, Rupert Goold, masterfully depicts the evil of power and, more terrifying, the power of evil¯yet he doesn’t go about this in any traditional, warty-nosed-witch sort of way. His production, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, debuted last year in England and, after finishing its run in Brooklyn, will be moving on to Broadway.
The Goold production stages the play with a Cold War setting¯stark but suffocating, minimalist but extreme. Critics are usually inured to such proletarian emotions as shock or horror, but not for this production: “The violence that permeates Macbeth is rendered with chilling Stalinist absolutism,” London’s Evening Standard declared. “ Macbeth builds a tyranny of fear in which surveillance, torture, and random killings are routine,” added The Telegraph .
But the fear goes deeper than just totalitarianism. Macbeth is not really suspenseful; even the least literary viewers know to expect a succession of murders. Act 1¯Macbeth meets the witches. Act 2¯He kills King Duncan. Act 3¯He kills Banquo; Act 4¯He kills Macduff’s wife and kids. Act 5¯He kills more people and then Macduff kills him. Exeunt Omnes .
Granted, it’s hard to portray so much death without a little gore¯or, in Goold’s case, a lot of gore. But that doesn’t necessarily make the watcher terrified. As Lady Macbeth chides her husband when he flinches at Duncan’s body: The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures: ’Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil.
And yet this production is somehow both awe-full and terrifying. Bestial behavior and violence can cause us to feel pity or disgust. It is when they are shrouded in feigned ignorance and quotidian merriment¯when they wear human faces¯that they become truly horrible. Stars, hide your fires , says Macbeth. Let not light see my black and deep desires: / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
The king and his entourage are oblivious to Macbeth’s schemes, and, at least initially, his deeds are cloaked in darkness. But the audience cannot wink away the evil: We see Macbeth on the evening of his first murder don his most gregarious face. We see him take Lady Macbeth’s bejeweled hand and stroll into the dining room, carrying a Black Forest cake. Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t , counsels his wife.
The audience watches as Macbeth recruits assassins: Thence it is, / That I to your assistance do make love , he cajoles, Masking the business from the common eye / For sundry weighty reasons . All the while, he stands before the butcher block, sedately wielding his knife on a hambone. As if to clinch the deal, he cuts off a wedge and nonchalantly hands it to his accomplice. Praising the actor’s performance, The Telegraph claimed that Patrick Stewart “can make the simple act of preparing a ham sandwich one of the scariest things you’ve ever seen.”
By this point in the play, Goold has gathered momentum and the Stalinist sets become both bolder and more natural. There is, for instance, the scene of Banquo and his son hunching in a crowded overnight train, as the assassins come charging through. The other passengers duck out of the way, but, after the smoke has cleared, they resume their seats and stare icily ahead, deliberately ignoring the slaughtered body at their feet.
Later in the play, we see a hall full of people seated on scarlet-cushioned chairs and blithely enjoying a piano concert¯immediately after the heartrending murder of Macduff’s family. The audience can’t avoid remembering the Stalinist purges, masked under the façade of unity and collective improvement.
Such theatrical moments can devolve into perverse irony or absurdity¯how can someone craft a murder while spreading mustard?¯but history, too often and too recently, reminds us that the absurd is quite possible. The distance between the world of mustard and the world of blood, the world of day-to-day necessity and the world of vicious ambition, is not as great as we like to think, and the battle lines are easily blurred.
The messiness begins as soon as we enter Macbeth’s mind, weighing the witches’ initial greeting:
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?
Later he will learn to doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth ¯to admit that the road to perdition may indeed be paved with royal gold¯but at the beginning all he can fathom is that his reason and desires are at war: Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not.
Unlike the distraught Hamlet, however, Macbeth neither freezes out of indecision nor delays out of prudence. His vaulting ambition . . . o’erleaps itself , and under his hand Duncan falls. Of course, that initiates the series of cover-up murders, a desperate attempt to make right by seeming right: False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
Both Macbeth and his wife are frightening when they don false faces for their companions. But they are even more terrible fighting the battle of self-deception. Lady Macbeth¯the fiend-like queen and queen of fiends¯leads the way:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!”
Blindness is ignorance, and ignorance is bliss¯or so she hopes. The problem with living in double worlds is that they are hard to keep straight. Macbeth and his wife begin by trying to hide the bloody knives from everyone else’s vision, but soon they are seeing blood and knives everywhere. They try to bury their real acts of murder under the blanket of night , dismissing them as shadowy dreams, but meanwhile their guilty imaginations come hauntingly to life. The perfidious mind becomes a living hell.
Goold conveys this brilliantly by playing the banquet scene twice: once before and once after intermission. The first time, knives gleam in the eerie light, the walls go red with blood, and the murdered Banquo actually does comes striding down the starched white tablecloth. The second time, Macbeth’s ravings are the same, but without Banquo¯the scene exactly replayed, but this time the ghost is only in Macbeth’s mind.
When moral chaos swallows their minds, Macbeth and his wife fall quickly to nihilism: Absurdity exists, and existence, they conclude, is absurdity. Life is but a fitful fever , the mind is full of scorpions , and, no matter how long or how often Lady Macbeth chafes her hands under the faucet, the stains remain. Out, damned spot; out, I say , she cries, and we glimpse her mad vision as the sink fills with blood. Out, Out ¯Macbeth, in his familiar speech, says it too:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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,
The queen has just died¯probably by suicide¯and Macbeth can only shrug: If she hadn’t died now, she would have died later. If anything, death has more purpose than life, for it finally rids us of our shadow-stained hands; at long last, it allows us to escape the meaningless of the moment. As he put it earlier: Better be with the dead, / Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, / Than on the torture of the mind to lie / In restless ecstasy. Spoken in an austere Soviet kitchen, between the ominous sink and knife-strewn butcher block, his nihilistic creed resounds.
Of course, as any half-literate audience knows, Macbeth kills the king, and of course this begins a chain reaction of murders. But why of course ? The witches and their interaction with Macbeth whisper the answer, and here the director’s interpretation is key. When they are portrayed as proper witches¯old hags with beards and warts, dancing around a boiling cauldron¯they seem the figments of wild (and thankfully extinct) superstition. Peace! The charm’s wound up , they say, and from there Macbeth is a doomed man. Yes, he obviously battles with his wife and within himself, but the witches are the ones who brew the hell-broth of powerful trouble , who whet his thirst for power. And when he sees the fatal vision of the dagger leading him into Duncan’s chamber, the weird sisters, we might well suppose, are again at work.
Other productions, prompted by the psychological fascination of the nineteenth century , portray the witches as the personification of Macbeth’s deranged psyche. The madman’s mind is a scary place, and Shakespeare takes us inside. Unfortunately, neither presentation quite works: In the first, evil veers toward omnipotence; in the second, it verges on nonexistence. Either way, we might hope that there’s a psychiatric ward in heaven, for traumatized Macbeth can hardly be held culpable.
In Goold’s production, however, the witches fit the Stalinist setting. Clothed in gray dresses and white nurses’ veils, they lurk around a wartime triage unit in the opening scene¯and whether they are saving or ending lives is uncertain. The next time we see them, their veils are knotted up into the kerchiefs of scullery maids, and they haunt Macbeth’s kitchen with downcast eyes, deliberate steps, and a knife always in hand. They appear again in the royal dining room, minding their own business¯but still, somehow, an ineradicable reminder and temptation to violence.
Evil is real, and evil is frighteningly human. Come you spirits , calls Lady Macbeth, Unsex me here, / . . . Make thick my blood, / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse. The spirits hear her cry, but they do not turn her into a witch or a specter; provocatively sensual is how Lady Macbeth works best. Hie thee hither , she says, awaiting Macbeth’s return from war, That I may pour my spirits in thine ear. Hasty Macbeth may not mirror Hamlet, but his wife certainly mirrors Claudius: Poison in the ear can kill the king, and poisoned words can, too.
Intermittently throughout, propaganda newsreels of military parades flash on the whitewashed walls, and Rupert Goold’s Stalinist Macbeth again strikes too close to life. With a hero who is neither insane nor spellbound, it depicts the fine balance between the real presence of evil and man’s personal moral agency. And it shows the moral balance, within Macbeth and his wife, set fatally awry.
But is that the final word? Is there any hope of remedy, or is man, as Macbeth puts it, no more than a walking shadow , caught in a tale of sound and fury ? I dare do all that may become a man , he initially resolves, but Lady Macbeth subtly counters, And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man . She is not the first: Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods . So Lady Macbeth took and ate, and her husband who was with her did likewise.
Yet sound and fury, signifying nothing, are not the end. Even while the head of the dead butcher is lifted high¯for evil doesn’t vanish¯the new and rightful king resolves to plant newly with the time , to restore order and honor: This and what needful else / That calls upon us, by the grace of grace / We will perform in measure, time, and place.
The valediction is gentle, but the hope¯we may hope¯is powerful.
Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things .