I have no pretense of being a Shakespeare scholar, by any means. As I was educated primarily in Canadian public schools, my path of learning going into university had been embarrassingly narrow (so much so that I cannot spell the word “embarrassing,” but I really mean that I missed much of what an education could offer). I also have the disadvantage of living on the edge of a continent where it is rare to see Shakespeare on stage.
In order to make up for my lack of scholarship or stage access, in 2021, I launched a “Shakespeare Play a Month” personal challenge. Last year, I fell short of the challenge by a couple of plays, but did pretty well otherwise. At the beginning of the challenge, I was alternating comedies and tragedies–presuming that I like the comedies best and wanted to warm up before reading the histories. I read The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night (comedies), Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear (histories) before turning to the History Cycle.
I am still trying to situate the histories, filled with brilliant speeches and characters, but occasionally puzzling to me. I’ll finish the first History Cycle quartet with a rereading of Henry V in the next month or two (which I have seen performed beautifully). What surprised me is how deeply I found myself wound into the tragedies. While I am still uncertain what to think about The Tempest (which I am ensured is genius), I found myself disconnected from As You Like It. Instead, I was reaching for Hamlet and Othello out of a desire for more.
My tragic shading is not without exception, of course. The Taming of the Shrew is just so much fun (as is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have read a few times). My favourite comedy, though, is most certainly The Merchant of Venice, which I taught last week for the first time. It was a bit of a tragedy, admittedly, to only have 90 minutes for such a deceptively complex play. I find this work of Shakespeare so rich in ideas and images, so playful with language, so experimental in its inversions of role, and filled with elegant speeches that combine wisdom and passion and some element of cultural criticism that I haven’t quite yet defined.
For the sake of honesty, I must admit to having an intellectual crush on Portia the female protagonist. I know that some other Shakespeare characters are “greater” in the ways that critics weigh the matter–Shylock in this play, Iago, Falstaff, Hamlet, Macbeth and his Lady (or Lady Macbeth and her man)…. Maybe Prospero or King Lear or Henry V (in his most desperate speeches). The characters pop in Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. But it is Portia whom I admire the most, if admiration can be considered a category for greatness.*
I’m still figuring out The Merchant of Venice, as my post last year confesses. The play just astonishes me. But, I chose to teach it because it is a great piece of literature for talking about culture, gender, race, and different kinds of love. In the end, I brought those elements out. However, I chose to use a careful study of words to do so, digging into certain Germanic-rooted words that Shakespeare uses early in the script and plays with throughout, like “sad,” “weary,” “bond,” “kind,” and “blood.”
I think we had a brilliant conversation.
As I have been caught up by tragedies–and Merchant of Venice has tragic elements–I decided to return to Macbeth after some years away. From my first introduction in high school, I have had trouble finding sympathy with the play. I have never been sure why–though having seen two pretty terrible performances has not been able to be overcome by a pretty good Shakespeare in the Park performance a few years ago. Macbeth has some iconic speeches and is one of the more intensely character-driven plays (Harold Bloom said somewhere that 1/3 and 3/8’s of the lines in Macbeth and Hamlet, respectively, are spoken by the protagonist). I know it is one of the “greats,” so I picked up Macbeth this month to try again.
I quite enjoyed the play, though there is a spooky element to my Shakespeare reading this month. I was struggling to get to sleep earlier in January. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I turned on the light and reached for a book. I opened Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 2 (my first time ever reading the play). It isn’t irony but Shakespeare’s genius, I’m sure, but I began to read this passage:
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
“O sleep, O gentle sleep,” how indeed have I frightened away what even the richest man cannot afford to purchase? I still don’t have the answer to that question–despite its importance both for my insomniac life and in that play of awakenings and endarkenings. It is this sleepless passage that begins the king’s decline. After the long complaint about sleep, the play ends with this Sword of Damocles line of Shakespearean thrift:
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
I wonder what I am up against?
Once again, reaching for Macbeth in the middle of the night last Thursday, I read:
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast
It is not conscience that keeps me awake, I believe. Even still, with restless Macbeth who has murdered sleep even as his wife has called for everlasting night, I suffer the same dis-ease: my sleeves of care are still unravelled, my sore labour remains unbathed, and unceasing are the thoughts which course fruitlessly through my mind.
So Macbeth has walked with me in the wee sma’s this winter, and I have enjoyed (if one can claim such things) Macbeth’s journey in an entirely fresh way.
As a chance to re-experience the play within an unending closure of our stages, I watched the Joel Coen Macbeth. This 2021 production stars Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. I like the Coen Brothers’ work and was intrigued by this Americanization of the Scottish play. Though less than a month since its release, it has already received a number of award nominations and wins, especially for Washington’s lead performance, Kathryn Hunter’s strange and brilliant support work on stage, and aspects of art direction, adaptation, and cinematography.
The design of this film is immediately striking. It is a stage performance of Macbeth, not an adaptation. Stefan Dechant’s set design creates a stage-on-screen of stark simplicity that successfully highlights the actors’ performances. Almost without fail, Coen uses light and darkness in deft shadowplay and angular contrast and symmetry in the architectural scenes, and with great patience and depth in the travel and crossroads scenes. I am not certain this works as effectively in the “Tomorrow” monologue upon Lady Macbeth’s death as it does in the other great speeches–and some of the rear shots are out of sync with the dialogue. However, the stark minimalism and use of many camera angles have the advantage of allowing the actor a great range of possibilities in interpreting the line.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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,
Overall, I am won over by Denzel Washington’s performance. I was uncertain while watching whether his restrained descent could justify the kind of brutal destruction of life Macbeth perpetrates. After all, he begins as someone Lady Macbeth fears “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” Hag-ridden by time and possibility, he will soon become a man impatient with the limits of his dagger and harassed by daggers of the mind. Lady Macbeth will, but contrast, ultimately lose herself in the plea to the “murdering ministers” to draw on night and restrain providence as she pours words like salve or poison in her husband’s ear.
With American sensibilities and a long tradition of quiet character studies of cruel simplicity, Joel Coen creates a Romaneque tragedy from the pages of the Scottish play. And yet, with all its patience, he effectively uses sound and fury–spurred on by character innovations both weird and grotesque. Of these innovations, the fantastic figures of impossibility are the greatest. I have noted the witches, but Coen augments the role of one character, collapsing various plotpoints into a single person to allow for a satanic figure in fine clothing, an angel of shadow cloaked in light, the haunting of sin crouching at the door. Thus, it is not only Lady Macbeth who pours spirits in Macbeth’s ear. It is well done.
And the penultimate swordfight is just absolutely brilliant.
I am not fully won over. The use of birds and bushes works well, the rooky woods, but the CGI ravens and rooks and martlets seem disjointed from the actors’ movement on stage and yet are essential to their psychological development. I don’t know if Lady Macbeth is quite right–good though. I tend to be impatient with the casting of strong women on screen, perhaps because I imagine what is simply impossible when I read them in print. Denzel Washington as Macbeth is frequently excellent, including intimate moments with Lady Macbeth. To his credit–and misquoting Lewis (in his essay, “Variation in Shakespeare and Others”–it strikes me that Washington’s performance makes me believe that Macbeth really spoke as we hear him speak, that he was a creative, mimetic poet of piercing quality. To do so, though, Coen mutes the splendour of the setting–the haunting terrain and rough manners of medieval Scotland are limited to the stage.
I do not know if I was wise or not, but I chose this new Coen Macbeth film over the Trever Nunn 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production, featuring Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. After all, Sir Ian McKellen’s”To-morrow” speech is now famous:
Perhaps, though, I lack the courage to have the admirable Dame Judi Dench speak to me this truth: “You lack the season of all natures, sleep.” Whether in the play this is Lady Macbeth’s regret at her own ministration of ear-spirits, an unreasonable complaint that her prayers have been answered, a rebuke against Macbeth’s madness, fear of the potency of fate, or commentary upon man’s mortal ends, the critic must decide. For me, I remain like Banquo. Though the heavens are breeding time for me to sleep, so that “heavy summons” of rest “lies like lead upon me.” Still, “I would not sleep.” So, like Banquo, I pray–not to Lady Macbeth’s ministering spirits, I not, but instead:
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!
*I noted on Facebook that I think this is why I am disappointed that Lady Jessica of the Atreides disappears in the second Dune novel, for she is a Lady Portia 10,000 years in the making. I thought the Dune film captured Jessica as well as any stage could allow Portia to live. Someday I hope to find out!
**My own sleeplessness in stories of adventures puts me in mind of Mark H. Williams’ Mythopoeic-award nominated Arthurian romp, Sleepless Knights, which I review here.