Posts Tagged ‘Macbeth’

Ionesco: Macbett

February 12, 2018

51IYbJ5xszL._AC_US218_I’ve always liked the theatre of the absurd, ever since I had to study Ionesco for French A-level; my recent reflections on Macbeth sent me back to his version of the play, Macbett, which I hadn’t read for many years.

There are the moments where a pair of characters share and repeat identical or almost identical lines, pantomime-fashion, just as in some of his earliest plays like La Cantatrice Chauve, echoing each other; often the phrases repeated are platitudes or even nonsensical, contradictory. Elements of farce develop as an aftermath of the opening battle where in Shakespeare‘s version Macbeth and Banquo show great valour: war is portrayed here as insane, with lengthy catalogues of slaughters and millions of innocent deaths, and the two ‘heroes’ make identical speeches and claims, which further undermines them. Indeed the entire train of events is absurd, for Duncan is a coward to whom no perceptible respect is due, and he and his wife are caricatures, anyway. Everything is called into question when the women appear far braver than the men, and the king spouts rambling nonsense rather than making regal speeches…

In this play the witches appear with their prophecies in the middle of the play, and their encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is much lengthier and more serious: they spend considerable time persuading Macbett that he should move against Duncan. And Lady Duncan is actually one of the witches, physically seducing Macbett at the same time. Ionesco’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that wealth, sex and power are inseparably intertwined.

Although for me the play lacks the power of Le Roi Se Meurt, it does nevertheless work, particularly because it is a re-writing, a re-conception or re-imagining of an original we know well and are very familiar with. Thus, although there are most of the events and plots of Shakespeare’s play here, and the end results of them are very similar, the words are different, the focus is different, and the thought processes of the characters are different; it’s alienation in the true Brechtian sense that unsettles the audience. It’s very much a twentieth century play. And it ends, after the death of Macbett and Macol‘s coronation, with his rehearsing the speeches of Malcolm in that very tedious interlude in Act IV of Macbeth where he tests Macduff‘s loyalty – Ionesco has translated Shakespeare’s text word for word here – except that we have the eerie impression that here, Macol really means what he is saying…

So, definitely not a tragedy – a farce if anything – deliberately absurd, very entertaining although very tricky to stage, I think. And I came away from it with all sorts of comfortable Shakespearean preconceptions shaken and stirred.


Why I don’t like Macbeth

February 10, 2018

51-Skl7FXWL._AC_US218_I’m doing my homework, ready for this year’s week of Shakespeare, which will include Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and also a Restoration Comedy by a woman writer I’d never heard of, Mary Pix. And so I’ve made myself re-read Macbeth. I say made myself, because although I’ve taught the play in school more times than I can remember, I’ve never liked the play, and still don’t. I thought it was time to reflect properly on why…

For starters, I can’t take the fantastical seriously. I know Shakespeare’s audience could and did, but witches, fairies and magic really turn me off (no, I don’t like the Dream, either!) But, a minor detail, perhaps. I can see the tragic flaw – ambition – in Macbeth, but for me the witches’ prophecies remove any autonomy of character and turn him into a plaything of fate in a way which doesn’t happen with other tragic heroes. He’s in the toils of evil forces right from the beginning of the play, before I’ve really seen anything about him that I can actually like or admire. So, when I reach the end of the play and Macduff enters bearing the tyrant’s head, there’s no feeling of pity or terror, no sense of catharsis.

And yet this time around, after not picking the play up since I retired, I found myself very struck by one thing in particular: the language. For me this is the redeeming feature of a play that I don’t like – there is so much stunningly powerful, effective, even beautiful poetic language and phrasing; the play positively drips with it, in a way that I don’t recall from other tragedies, even Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m studying in detail at the moment as I’m in the middle of writing a guide to it. The language really is the power of the play, from Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and many other characters, too. And that’s before I even consider the soliloquies…

I was reading my copy, which is the old Arden Second Series – for many, the best edition ever, though now very dated – edited by Kenneth Muir, whose lectures I had the good fortune and amazing experience of attending in my first year at university. His annotations are most interesting, and I was struck again by something that had once occurred to me: why doesn’t Banquo, who was with Macbeth when they first encountered the weird sisters, mention the prophecies to anyone after the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth’s accession? He’s clearly suspicious. Obviously Shakespeare was dealing with very sensitive subject-matter, as James I was descended from Banquo, but even so…

When I taught Macbeth, mainly for the completely unlamented SATs tests, sadly, I had to endure several grim performances of the play, none of which in any way countered my dislike of it. I’m hoping that this May the RSC will perhaps make me feel differently.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

How good is Hamlet?

June 1, 2016

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play, most famous play, even. The hero’s role is a target for young actors to play while they are still young enough to convince an audience. The hero is possibly a likeable hero, more so than Othello, Lear, Macbeth or Mark Antony. But I have found myself wondering a number of times whether the play is really Shakespeare’s best

A youthful hero, plus some love interest – depending on how well the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is hinted at and played. Surely Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra are in with a chance here?

Shakespeare has a lot of themes up in the air in the play: a man’s duty (or not) to revenge his father’s murder. And yet, perhaps not so relevant today? A corrupt country, full of spies and surveillance. A hero who delays action, who is indecisive – perhaps an idea that many would be able to identify with. A hero with a very complex relationship with his mother, though this is also perhaps less in the foreground since Freud went out of fashion. A play about mental states, instability and madness; a play about acting, pretending and dissembling… Certainly there is a great deal here.

And yet, I find that others of Shakespeare’s major tragedies have even more to say, move me even more deeply. Othello explores sexual jealousy and its consequences; although many of us have perhaps experienced this feeling, we have not responded in like manner. King Lear looks at the duties of children towards their parents and shows us ingratitude. Macbeth explores ambition: if we are ambitious, presumably we have not gone as far as he did, to achieve our goals? Love or infatuation in older age and the messes it can get one into: Antony and Cleopatra.

But those are only ideas, you may object: what about the characters, and their relationships, presented to us on stage? Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet and Ophelia, for me pale before the power of the entanglement of Othello and Iago, his tortured relationship with Desdemona, and the touching closeness between Emilia and Desdemona. I think there’s a closer exploration of relationships between father and children with King Lear and his daughters, and it’s counterpointed by the pairing of Edmund and Edgar. And I find the interplay between Antony and Cleopatra, between Antony and Octavius, between Cleopatra and her women all quite riveting in different ways.

Is it Hamlet’s youth that grips us, the young man with an impossible dilemma, the burden placed on his shoulders that he cannot cope with? Is it just that the play is too familiar that I feel it’s over-rated, that I feel a little jaundiced about it, in comparison with the other plays I’ve mentioned? Is it because I’m older than Hamlet and can no longer relate to his cause?

Feelings at the end of the plays: usually I feel a sense of loss at the end of Hamlet. I feel overwhelmed at the end of Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Only Macbeth leaves me uninterested.

I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this one. It nags at me, won’t go away and I’m unclear what to think. At the moment my verdict is good, but by no means the best.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.


Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…


Shakespeare: Richard III

February 6, 2015

61b1SdGL+jL._AA160_I am really relieved not to be a year older than I am, as then I would have had to study this play for O Level and I cannot imagine my love of literature would have survived it at that age. Even  now I find it astonishingly complicated; the dramatis personae seems far longer than that of any other play…

The play works because it has a central character around whom all the action revolves, and from whom it all originates: all is drawn together into a coherent whole in the way this does not happen in the Henry VI plays; in the Henry IV plays Falstaff was the real focus, and Richard II and Henry V have their eponymous characters at the centre, too. But there are just too many minor characters to keep track of, even when reading the play, where you have the names in front of you. There is also a lot of standing around and speechifying, and a lot more punning and wordplay.

Richard is an astonishing creation, in some ways foreshadowing both Macbeth and Iago. His wooing of Lady Anne, who loathes him, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. His evil plotting and gleeful gloating sometimes outdo Iago. There is no end to the factionalism and baronial infighting of the previous three plays, but Richard’s star is in the ascendant, as he becomes ever more successful at pulling the right strings.

England is truly in a sorry state by this point; a sense of great decadence and decay permeates the play; everything is sour and rotten, it seems: even the warring factions are composed of small and petty characters, who are nonetheless still able to wreak mayhem. The innocence of children and youth is no help. The sycophantic Buckingham helps Richard to the throne, and it seems he’s the only one who can’t see his own inevitable fall coming. The supreme hypocrite is ‘persuaded’ to reluctantly accept the throne in an amazing scene where we completely forget he’s there after murdering both his older brothers…

In the closing scenes as reluctantly loyal barons try to change sides, he recalls the (still unwritten!) Macbeth in his rages, madness and cruelty; there is a tiresome parade of all the ghosts he has created, in a pageant scene on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. In the end, I found it hard to avoid the feeling that Shakespeare is playing the Tudor apologist and propagandist here, as Richard descends into caricature; because they are underplayed (relatively), Iago and Macbeth in the end come across as much more sinister…

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