I recently saw a preview performance of Jack OBriens production of Macbeth at Lincoln Centerthe one starring Ethan Hawke in the title role. Heres the short review: Its not great. Dont waste your money on it. But the great thing about bad Shakespeare is that it can be bad in an interesting way.
Lets begin with the bad: Ethan Hawke, in the title role, is little more than a thuggish and uncomplicated brute. He stumbles through the play, often inebriated or highhe even smokes pot with the devil!as the bodies pile up around him.
Suffice to say, this isnt Shakespeares Macbeth. Theres no complexity, no moral conflict, and no depth brought to the role. Hawke delivers the Is this a dagger I see before me? speech on his knees, fumbling for the dagger of the mind, like a drunk man looking for his keys. Hes not conflictedjust stupid.
Yet theres something right about making the Scottish tyrant so vulgar and unromantic. It reminds us Macbeth is ultimately a butcher, not a hero. True, in a more nuanced Macbeth , wed see him as both: a fallen hero. But this one-note performance does help us see more clearly the nature of evil. As Simone Weil says, Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Hawkes Macbeth touches on this truth: Evil isnt noble looking. Evil is small and petty and ugly.
But as Macbeth becomes more of a brute, Lady Macbeth is elevated to a higher moral ground than she is usually given. Lady Macbeth (played by a slinking, androgynous Anne-Marie Duff) and Macbeth are in entirely different playsalmost different centuries. Shes British, hes American. Shes classical, highly theatrical, and very poised. Hes relaxed, modern, and sleazy. Instead of being the power couple from hell, they understand each other very poorly.
Take this line, said to Lady Macbeth right before Banquos murder: O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!
Usually, Macbeth says this to indicate his guilty conscience. Ethan Hawke laughs as he says it, turning it into a kind of revolting foreplay, speaking the line as he flops down onto their bed and pulls her closer to him with one hand. He wraps his other hand around her throat. It frightens her. When she pulls away, he laughs again. This Macbeth loves his scorpions. Their poison seems to make him hungrier. Its a stomach turning and interesting moment in what would otherwise be a flat and flashy production.
Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is surprised by and scared of her husbands cruelty. How is this possible? After all, shes the one that spurs him on at first. Shouldnt she know that this is who she married, and that this is what shes getting? Well, yesand so she, too, shows us something about evilthat is, the follies of romanticizing evil, how seductive it can be.
This Lady Macbeth was in love with imaginary evil. She may have even fancied herself beyond good and evil, even though she has to invoke the devil to get things done. She mistakes bloodthirstiness and strength for greatness of soul by marrying a great warrior who she thinks will be a great king. She is willing to do whatever it takes to get him there. But once she relieves him from the bonds of morality, he becomes insatiable, a monster dangerous even to her.
Lady Macbeth is repelled and frightened when Macbeth reveals himself for what he is. It is not clear that this Macbeth loves her at all. By the end of the play, her madness is mere inconvenience to him, occurring, it seems, while hes off philandering with nubile witches. When she dies, he barely flinches. Shes an afterthought. Their story is sad, but not tragic, and certainly not a love story.
But Lady Macbeths mistake is an easy one to make: Its the mistake made by every sympathetic member of the audience for Macbeth . We, too, are sucked in by its power, to find high tragedy in what otherwise must also be recognized as monsters behaving monstrously. Yet the wisdom of monsters can be seductive, can seem more profound than it really is. How often is Macbeths linethat life is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothingrepeated as if it were Shakespeares deep and penetrating wisdom of life? It isnt. Its the pitiful cry of a man who realizes hes been hollowed out by his own vices.
That said, its still a bad production, even if its bad in an enlightening way. Theres no way to view Macbeth as pure brute without ignoring large parts of the play. His claim that life signifies nothing comes only after he has supp’d full with horrors, and ruined any chance of having what he says he really wants:
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep . . . breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
He says that his own heart, if it could, would stop beating and kill him. But it dares not: It is too afraid of him to stop. His body fears and hates him. He loathes his life, but fears Hell too much to let it go. Those are not the words of a man who has no conscience.
Diminishing Macbeths complexity weakens the entire play. Macbeth is a great man who ruins himself with wickedness, but in this production hes merely a bad guy who stays a bad guy until he dies like a dog. This production suffers from the ease with which Macbeth shrugs off his humanity. But by the time Macduff strangles the life out of him, youre ready to see him go. And maybe thats a good thing.
Kate Havard is a journalist in New York City and a Tikvah fellow. You can catch Jack OBriens Macbeth at the Lincoln Center from November 13, 2013January 12, 2014. The image is taken from the Lincoln Center production photos .