Welcome to my thoughts on Trinity Rep’s production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. While it was not widely performed in his lifetime, for the last five centuries it has been one of Shakespeare’s most popular and, possibly, his most frequently produced work. Personally, I encountered this play for the first time at the age of 12, when I was asked to play the title role in a sixth grade production. The picture to the left is me with a full head of Beatles hair, in a tunic that my mother made, wearing her costume jewelry and some unfortunately colored tights (my staff delight in subjecting me to such public ignomies). I mention my grade school encounter because one of the challenges in staging Macbeth is its frequency of production. This will be the third Trinity Rep staging on our mainstage season; the first incarnation being done in 1969, directed by Adrian Hall, then another in 1992, directed by Richard Jenkins. Why return to it now?
The answer lies in the origins of the play, somewhere around the year 1606. James I ascends the English throne in 1603, when Elizabeth I dies without leaving an heir. James is a Scottish king, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and his new reign is a time of great political turmoil. Then, in 1605, the great Gunpowder Plot, led by Guy Fawkes, tries to blow up the English parliament building while the king is giving a speech to both houses. For a vivid description and analysis, I’ll refer those interested to Garry Wills’ brilliant book, Witches and Jesuits.
Wills invites us to imagine that a communist cell had attempted to blow up the US Capitol building during a State of the Union address in the 1950s, and that plot was foiled. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and nuclear threat, imagine what our society would have felt. Such was the Gunpowder Plot in Shakespeare’s day. The ripples into English society from this event, already ill at ease because of the new, unfamiliar Scottish king, were palpable in every corner of the kingdom. Playwrights are always the antennae and the mirror of their day, and Wills contends that there are many plays that have direct links to the Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth being only one of them. These plays are linked to feelings of political and moral instability, to a sense of universal dread of the times, to a feeling that all of the old, reliable rules have been cast aside.
Sound familiar? It is this political DNA that makes Macbeth such a timely play, particularly for our political moment. The feelings that I described above are keenly felt by us as citizens when we take in what is happening in our world today. Further, there is a tragic flaw that is found more often in Macbeth than in any other Shakespearean character. It is what critic Susanne Wofford calls “tragic self-assertion” in her excellent essay about the play (and the dismemberment and beheading in it). Wofford discusses Macbeth’s willingness to reject all social, moral, and political constraint as being his greatest tragic flaw. We see this same, boundless self-assertion, or self-interest, in our leaders today. Macbeth presents a powerful, timely parable for us. It invites re-membering (after its dis-membering), even if we have seen it many times before. So lean in and enjoy the ride. I look forward to seeing you at the theater.