Macbeth in the Age of Trump

I started teaching Macbeth three weeks ago in my English class.  It has been a couple of years since I taught the play.  We’ve gotten through the opening and the murder of Duncan, and yesterday we read the aftermath scene, where Old Man, Ross, and Macduff discuss what happened and what is to become of Scotland.

A few of my students asked me “Why did the people go along with this?  Its clear that Macbeth did it.”  I explained that it wasn’t as clear as they thought, with the guards dead and Malcolm and Donalbain fled, Macbeth can spin whatever story he wants.  They didn’t get that, Macbeth is guilty, the evidence is there, they should ask questions, get at the truth, not make him King.  So I said “Think about the majority of people in Scotland, from the Thanes down to the peasants.  What will change with Macbeth as king?  Will there be more war, more famine, more trouble?  One king is as good as the next.  The Thanes keep their power, Scotland moves on much as it always does.  If people think there will be no change individually to their lives, most won’t be bothered to find out the truth.  They might have a bad feeling about the situation, or maybe suspect, but to actually risk their lives, risk a civil war over the crown, it just wasn’t worth it.  They are willing to accept the official “Truth” because that was what was easiest and safest.”

Besides, Macbeth is a war hero.  He saved Scotland from the Viking horde.  On the battlefield there was no stopping him, and he used his powers to help Scotland be safe and free from the rule of tyranny.  Why would this man turn around and murder the king?  So while everyone has their doubts, and questions, and suspicions, in the end they all accepted the “Truth” Macbeth gave because they wanted to think the best of him, they wanted to believe he would keep them save.

But the same skills that make you a great general, don’t necessarily make you a great king.  The same traits that make you a great warrior – aggression, determination, hard-headedness, a drive to achieve your goal no matter what gets in your way, can make for a terrible, tyrannical king who runs with no vision and an iron fist.  It is not a given, but it is a possibility, and the people of Scotland ended up betting on the wrong horse.

I remember at the end of Macbeth, when their hero king has now killed his best friend, put the wife and children of a perceived enemy to the sword, and terrorized the land, he tells his subordinate Seyton “Hang any that speak of fear” (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 3), as he is shut in his castle, surrounded by people that support him because they are afraid or because they are paid to do so.  Cut off from reality, a mad king with a dead wife who wonders in the end how it all went so wrong.

All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.  The people of Scotland were probably good men and women, who just wanted to live their lives in peace.  They saw what happened to their last king but chose to believe otherwise, and they paid the price.

Shakespeare told us something in Macbeth about human nature, the need to seek power in some, the lengths one will go to serve ambition.  But I think the most important lesson is that none of this would have been possible without the compliance of the people of Scotland, the willful ignorance of the court, and the fleeing of Malcolm.  Had any of these groups stood up and questioned what happened, it would have been a very different play.


RSC Julius Caesar (2012)

I wish they would release this with a US DVD coding.  I just can’t bring myself to purchase the European version for fear it will not work on my player.  If you have no idea what I am talking about you can check out this making of feature on youtube.   I wish I had taken the time to watch this when it was (illegally it turns out) up on youtube.


Midsummer – Kingsmen Shakespeare Company

Midsummer Night’s Dream is not one of my favorite plays.  I tend towards the tragedies anyway, and in the productions or films I’ve seen of this play I usually find the tradesman player group tedious and the woods stuff uneven.  I also don’t much like Helena, I find her sad instead of funny.

So last weekend when I went to see the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was very surprised how much I liked it.  They did a tight production that did not linger, which I think really helped in those spots that have always given me difficulty.  Bottom, since it often goes to a named actor, can often be ham-ed up to the point of being almost painful to watch.  This performance was just ham-y enough to sell the part but not try to steal the show.  The lovers moved on and off the stage, using the space to help tell the story and keep it exciting.  That had a lot to do with the staging.

The physical comedy in this production was amazing.  The director really read between the lines to use space and physical action to help punch up the story.  Some directors seem to think that since Shakespeare left no stage directions they should be minimal except as can be deducted from lines of play.  That is usually a mistake, especially with the comedies.  You need to make the world breath (see Branagh’s Much Ado) and this production does that.  They add an Indian element with the Queen and the dancing that works in the context of the play they are doing.  The end play within a play with the tradesman players always before felt tacked on, like the play was over but time still had to be filled.  In this production I laughed harder then ever before at this ending and saw what that part can really be capable of.

If you live in the LA area I highly recommend A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company (Website Here).  They are located in Thousand Oaks and preform in a beautiful outdoor setting on the campus of California Lutheran University.  Tickets are $20, bring a low to ground folding chair and a blanket (it gets a bit chilly when the sun sets), and get ready to enjoy some of  the best Shakespeare comedy I’ve seen in a long time.

Seneca Burn!

Maybe this is a bit of a stretch on a Shakespeare blog, but there is much evidence that Seneca’s work had a profound effect on Shakespeare (and all the playwrights of his day) and I just wanted to share this.  Here is a quote from one of Seneca’s philosophical works and the phrasing so reminded me of the way Shakespeare would craft an insult that it seemed to fit with what I do here.

From “On the Shortness of Life” Chapter VI, Seneca is talking about a person who was a well known pain in the ass and how his life ended, and closes with the following:

“It is a question whether he died by his own hand; for he fell from a sudden wound received in his groin, some doubting whether his death was voluntary, no one, whether it was timely.”

Seneca burn!

The Dying Art of Plays

I wish there was an organization that would go to playhouses, record the current production, and put them for free on Youtube.  I know this will never happen because of the money.  The play’s investors will want a piece, then there are the rights to the material, and the actors will want cut as well.  There are too many interests involved.

The sad truth is that plays are dying out.  What was once a popular pastime, then became an art form, is now disappearing.  People are going less and less, and unless you live in a major city odds are you don’t even have access to theater.  Maybe a local theater will put on something, but it will be populist works because most of these small theaters barely stay afloat, even with donation funding.  My local theater is barely holding on, and according to some board members I know the audience that comes is quite old.  Younger people don’t go to the theater, and it is hard for them to fill seats.  The big holiday plays are what keeps them afloat.

There are many great performances out there, but most everyone in America never gets to experience it, and one day it might just be Broadway that is the only place to see theater (and even that seems to be more centered on musicals based on popular lit or movies, not classics).  We will have to fly to Europe to see a stage production.  So while American Theater still exists it would be great to record it and save it.

Quoting Shakespeare

Last night I saw Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale production (more on that in a future entry).  During the intermission they showed some videos, and one was this speech, given by an actor in another production.  I couldn’t find that video, but I did find the original spoken by the speech’s author.  It is worth checking out.


Macbeth is coming! 12/4

I cannot remember the last time a movie based on a Shakespeare play got a wide release.  Usually you had to go to an art house theater and only in major cities.  I had to drive an hour to Santa Monica to see Branagh’s Hamlet.  I think that awful modern R+J was the last to get a wide treatment.  And now Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, looks to be getting one.  I doubt it will be super wide, but if you want to see this one you will probably have a chance.  It comes out the first week of December.  Here is the most recent trailer, which really showcases the artistic use of light and color.  I am really looking forward to this.  That will be a great week for Shakespeare, since Branagh’s Winter’s Tale is in theaters Monday and this will open Friday.