What Macbeth Teaches Us About the Boston Bombing

Scrutinizing culture.
April 26 2013 5:41 AM

“The Insane Root That Takes the Reason Prisoner”

Macbeth, Boston, and the two paradoxes of evil.

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Here’s Gregory Doran, who directed Sher’s Macbeth: “... in other words Lady Macbeth is haunted by her conscience, and what Harriet [Walter] made clear in the sleepwalking scene is that here is a woman who has insisted that her husband do this terrible deed [murder the King, Duncan] in order to get the crown, and then immediately finds both the emptiness of the role and also that her relationship with her husband has somehow diminished. And I think that is very poignant.”

So it’s a poignant domestic drama! No, this won’t do, but that’s the problem with getting top-notch actors and actresses: They’re always looking for “psychological depth.” There’s far more to Macbeth than that level of playing it. More than psychological depth, the play explores metaphysical depths.

Consider just a random selection of lines I’ve “untimely ripped” from their context:

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“… Have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?”

“… the heavens, as troubled by man’s act.
Threatens his bloody stage …
And yet daylight strangles the traveling lamp.”

“O, full of scorpions is my mind …”

“… Magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood …”

“Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top Macbeth.”


And of course his ultimate metaphysical despair:

“Life’s … a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

No day at the beach there in old Scotland, no domestic drama. Instead, it’s a bloody landscape little changed in any but superficial ways from ours.

Alan Cumming’s performance—and the direction of John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg—is brilliant because Cumming radically reframes the locus of evil to the very framework of being—and to its framer, whoever that is. From evil in the individual psyche to the evil built into the very structure and texture of the world, we are locked down and tortured in. He gives us the Macbeth that Shakespeare ripped untimely from his brain before he wrote it, the Macbeth he instantiated in ours. The one we absorb when we read it alone, or a superbly skilled actor like Cumming burns into our brain, and it enters our head the way it has Cumming’s, all at once, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

He doesn’t make it smaller by reducing it to one character; he makes it larger by playing it as if all the characters were inside us. We’ve all got Macbeth and Lady Macbeth within, as well as the demons that torment them with the reality of an evil universe. Watching it without the distractions of a host of “poor players strutting and fretting their hour on the stage,” we are forced to face the truth: We’re in a world more like a psycho ward than anything else, a world haunted by demonic forces beyond our ken, evil and good, contending unequally for our souls. He makes Macbeth the metaphysical tragedy it should be. An even deeper incarnation of evil than we could have imagined.

And he recites the iambic pentameter with astonishing, electrifying precision and finesse, leaping in one shift of facial expression (and discreetly placed towel) from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth in a tour de force of higher Shakespearean consciousness of the sort I haven’t seen since Peter Brook’s life-changing Midsummer Night’s Dream and his film of Lear. (OK, and Welles’ Falstaff film, too.)

This Macbeth acknowledges the evil within us but suggests that there is an evil pervading the very structure of Being itself in this world—a world ruled not by morality but by bloody insanity. A world that comports more with the Gnostic vision that this world was created not by any benevolent God but by an evil demiurge posing as God, beyond God’s control, or worse, doing God’s bidding.

It is the Scottish play suited to a time when the president—when he’s not ordering blowback-generating drone strikes—basically does nothing else but shuttle from one scene of mass murder, tragedy, and terror to another, trying his best to utter the words to describe the blasted heath he’s found himself on.

One word he shouldn’t utter: “Macbeth.”

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