Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some thoughts on Macbeth

This weekend I was at Fairleigh Dickinson University taking part in a day long colloquium on Macbeth. There were four talks given and I thought I would summarize and highlight some of the most interesting points.

The first paper, by Arthur Kinney, grappled with the question of why Macbeth remains appealing to audiences as a character, despite his murders. Kinney's argument is that Macbeth has more interiority than almost any of Shakespeare's characters--we the audience know what Macbeth thinks, his doubts, hopes and struggles, and this bonds us to him.

I gave the second talk, and argued that the Weird Sisters (side note: did you realize that these characters are never called witches in the play?) embody a kind of ambiguous fluidity that is opposed to the masculine world of Macbeth, where everything is ordered, structured and clearly labeled (even murder). After all, the Weird Sisters win in the end--everything they prophesied comes true and they are never called to account.

The third talk, by Steve Mentz was, to my mind, the most fascinating. He is engaged in the newest form of literary criticism--ecocriticism. This is a way of examining works of art through the lens of humanity's engagement with the natural world. Mentz argued that there is a "green world" of forests, a world of stability that is supportive of humanity (think of Birnam Wood) and a "blue world" of water, a world of instability that is either hostile to or simply inhospitable for humans. When he first started speaking, I wasn't sold, but by the end I was. I had no idea how many metaphors of water there were in Macbeth, from the "two spent swimmers" in 1.2 to Macbeth's request that the Doctor "sound the waters" of Scotland. Very impressive.

The final speaker, Iska Alter, spoke about the movie Scotland PA which is a wonderful adaptation of Macbeth. If you haven't seen it, it is well worth watching--Shakespeare's play is set in the 1970s in a fast food restaurant. The witches are dope smoking hippies and Macduff is a vegetarian police detective. In case you haven't see the movie, here's the trailer to whet your appetite!

In all, it was a wonderful colloquium that gave me some new thoughts about Macbeth and also made me remember the fantastic performance The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater did last year. The Wilma has a production of the Scottish play running now and I'm going to see it this Friday, so I'll be able to write up a comparative review soon.


  1. Interesting. This is interesting, are there transcriptions of the talks available? It's hard to engage with them without seeing them.

    But, this question why Macbeth remains appealing to audiences as a character, despite his murders. seems like a peculiar one, if only because the implication seems to be that murderers are somehow less appealing as characters on stage than non-murderers. But is that really true? Wouldn't almost always rather watch a story about someone getting what they want via murder than by some less catastrophic method. It kind of gets right to the heart of the question, doesn't it? Naturally, Shakespeare scholars argue that Macbeth is enduringly popular because of the monologues; but is that what the audiences are there for, is it the bloody mayhem?

    I'm interested in this second idea, too. What does it mean, "ambiguous fluidity"? The traditional meaning of "ambiguous", which is something like "both at once", seems at odds with the idea of fluidity, which must suggest permeable or indistinct boundaries. Doesn't "ambiguity" require specifically ordered positions that can be both occupied simultaneously? So, then, are the weird sisters paradoxical or just muddy?

    Also, what is it to say that they "win"? Do the weird sisters have an agenda in Macbeth that they're trying to achieve? I guess I didn't necessarily read it that way, nor that they were necessarily at fault for Macbeth's actions (since this does absolve him of some responsibility, also). Also, are we to read "fluidity" as being antithetical to "masculine"?

  2. I guess I'd have to hear the lecture to be sold on the "blue world" idea. If thou couldst, doctor, cast the water of my land, find her disease and purge it to a sound and pristine health seems to imply that the waters of the land are corrupted or diseased somehow, but that in their healthy state they wouldn't be, which I feel belies the idea that the aquatic world is implicitly hostile.

    In fact, since "water" is so often used in opposition to "blood" (a little water clears us of this deed or Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine
    ) seems to suggest that it's "blood" that represents a kind of hostility to which "water" exists as a pure or soothing contrary.

    Additionally, sure, there are an abundance of metaphors involving water, but are they metaphors for water? "Cast the waters" seems like a metaphor for disease or illness, and "two spent swimmers" is clearly a metaphor for exhaustion (there are few conditions more exhausting than being a "spent swimmer"--it's a particularly vivid description of an experience that I've personally never felt had an equal). And are the water-based metaphors really a statistically significant occurrence? Do they appear more often that metaphors involving other elements, or involving, I don't know, "teaching" or "blood"? It seems like it's only useful to say that [X] matters because of its abundance if we can say that [Y] and [Z] matter in terms of their non-abundance.