The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Knock Knock Who's There

In the spirit of leaving the best to second-last...


When I embarked on my Shakespearewatch, Macbeth was my favourite Shakespeare play. Largely because it’s the most exciting to watch. And, in an astonishing non-event of fulfilled expectations, it remains my favourite Shakespeare play, because it is the most exciting to watch. It is just gripping. It grabs you by the bollocks (or the ladyparts) and doesn't let go until the end.

Macbeth is, famously, quite a short play, at least in comparison to Shakespeare's other tragedies. This has led some people to think that the surviving text is 'bad' in the sense of the 'bad' quartos; that is, either a bootleg version of the text as remembered by one or more cast members or, as seems more likely, a text based on the play as revised after a process of 'previews' . Certainly whilst wading through Antony & Cleopatra and others, I get the sense that the versions we are the pre-performance 'director's cut' drafts - they even occasionally seem to show 'work in progress' as Shakespeare quills through variations of the same idea in the same speech. Whereas with Macbeth and the plays from the first half of his career - the comedies and histories - I get the sense that we have versions have been tried and tested.

With Macbeth, I'm fairly convinced it is a 'good' text i.e. with a couple of obvious exceptions everything in it was written by Shakespeare, though there are a couple of reasons to suspect that it may be not quite everything that Shakespeare wrote. The surviving text includes a couple of redundant cameos by the goddess Hecate which, even if they were not directly the work of Thomas Middleton, have almost certainly been cut-and-pasted from his play The Witches (thankfully they have not been included in the BBC production). Also, because the play is so tight, and because everyone gets to the point so quickly, and because those points are expressed so economically (with the exception of the scene in England)... The play feels like what Hamlet might be like if you took out all the bits which weren't famous or essential to the plot. It feels almost as though it has been edited by some third party - giving us just the edited highlights.

It would be churlish to complain about this, because this is one the main reasons why the play works so well - it is lean, mean and fast-paced. The 'boiling down' process that the text has been through also means that, unusually, every line counts. This isn't a play like King Lear where you could pop down the pub for half an hour during Act III and not miss a thing. It's all pushing-forward, moving-on, whilst nevertheless exploring its ideas fully and in great depth. Rather than taking 100 words to explore an idea, Macbeth will only use 20, by expressing an idea with strict economy.

Another reason why Macbeth is the dog's danglies and the bee's knees and the cat's pyjamas is because, well, it is Shakespeare at the peak of his prime. The plot generally resembles that of Richard III (though with a more doubting protagonist compared to Richard III who is a master of his conscience until the final act) - a villain usurping the throne through an act of murder, and then finding that to maintain his position, he has to kill again, and again. It also explores some of the themes from Hamlet and King Lear but with greater precision - and it is without doubt a thematic sequel to Julius Caesar (indeed, at a couple of points in the play it seems that Macbeth not only knows of the story of Caesar, but has actually seen Shakespeare's recent stage adaptation)

It also 'points the way forward' to Antony & Cleopatra, though Lady Macbeth is a far more interesting character and is given far more interesting stuff to do than Cleopatra ever gets. One thing that never gets mentioned about Macbeth is that it is an advertisement for marriage - like Fred and Rosemary, or Ian and Moira, the Macbeths commit atrocities in the context of a loving relationship. Okay, so Lady Macbeth does threaten to rip a babe from her nipple and dash its brains out - but she only has her husband's best interests at heart. He does tend to take his work home with him, but Lady M is very much a facilitator, encouraging him to meet his goals, and to pull himself together when he starts having visions of vengeful ghoulies .

Another aspect of the play I love is how funny it is. Or rather, how many of its moments of tragedy are structured and written with perfect comic timing, even though what is happening is absolutely, devastatingly bleak. The first example is Lady Macbeth's reaction to the news that Duncan has been murdered - 'Woe, alas! What, in our house!' - not so much feigned horror as social embarrassment! Similarly the scene where Macbeth keeps seeing Duncan's ghosts is a wonderful piece of farce, with the incredulous reactions of the other diners and Lady Macbeth coming up with various excuses for her husband's baffling behaviour. If only it weren't so terrifying and gruesome, it would be hilarious.

There's also the bit with the Porter that Douglas Adams liked so much. That said, I don't think the BBC production quite gets this bit right - the 'topical' gags about 'equivocators' are about 400 years out of date and the actor playing the porter - James Bolam - commits the unforgivable Shakespeare acting sin of illustrating a nob gag by doing a bent-arm gesture. I think the porter either needs to be a young idiot or, even better, a sort of mad, old, John Laurie character.

Otherwise, though, this is an excellent production, one of the best and, if you like your Shakespeare done in a sort of Hinchcliffe Doctor Who style this is the one for you. It's all dark shadows, flickering torches, medieval castles and very Dudley Simpson-esque music courtesy of Carl Davis. And there's some great people in it - James Hazeldine as Malcolm, Ian Hogg as Banquo, John Woodnutt as the doctor and Jane Lapotaire as the most Lady Macbethy Lady Macbeth there's ever been. Two of the witches are played by Brenda 'Coo-ee!' Bruce and Eileen 'Oi, mind me wolfweeds' Way.

Macbeth himself is played by Nicol Williamson, who initially I wasn't sure about because he has the sort of hang-dog looks of a disappointed red setter, but he won me over in the end and at least knows that on telly you should underplay madness. ARE YOU LISTENING, JACOBI!!!

Another reason why this play is the monkey's nuts is the atmosphere, a sort of gothic, twisted, distorted looking-glass nightmare, like a black magic counterpoint to Midsummer Night’s Dream's fairy magic. Rather than fairies, we have witches. Plus ghosts (ones which aren't visible to the audience, unlike in Hamlet and, er, The Black Adder which otherwise rips Macbeth off totally). There's also a whole 'determinism' and 'predestination' thing going on with Macbeth being shown predictions about his future which he inadvertently fulfils in the process of trying to avoid them (it's all beautifully done, unlike in that REDACTED episode). And the madness - absolutely brilliantly done, totally chilling, as Macbeth transforms into a homicidal psychopath whilst his wife suffers from parasomnia and obsessive compulsive disorder. No wonder Freud used it as a case study.

But for all its supernatural trappings, the real thrill of this play is the characters, and how tightly, logically plotted Macbeth's downfall is. His downfall seems to be a consequence of meeting the witches... but even in meeting the witches he seems to have been given no free will. And that seems to be Macbeth's dilemma - he is trapped by his destiny, and even though he sees only horrors before him, he knows he has no choice but to keep walking towards them. That is what ultimately drives him insane; the foreknowledge he has been granted turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing. Because it’s not ambition that makes him murder Duncan but his desire to see the witches' prophecy fulfilled... only for their other prophecies also to become horribly true. It is a classic what-you-wish-for-will-kill you horror story, or a ghost story... the Faustian pact. The sleepwalking sequence where Lady M is transformed into a living ghost - which is shit-your-shreddies BRILLIANT - reminded me of The Fall of the House of Usher, but I suspect it was The Fall of the House of Usher copying Macbeth.

If Merry Wives was written to order for Betty, then Macbeth was written to please Jimbo. First of all, a play showing the fatal dangers of regicide is bound to be popular with a King who has been having trouble with Catholics trying to set off some French bangers in the basement of the Palace of Westminster. Plus he liked all things ghosty, and spooky, and witchy, and Scottish. And finally he had somehow got it into his head the deluded notion that he was a direct descendent of Banquo, so Shakespeare made sure that Banquo was one of the good guys in the play (which he wasn't, according to the history upon which the play is loosely based). The play may have even flouted convention and included a 'ghostly' cameo for the present reigning monarch (in the bit where the witches predict a line of great, regal descendants from Banquo ‘to the crack of doom’).

I could go on about all the other fantastic things about this play but instead - a couple of small criticisms. Firstly, Macbeth comes across as a little bit dense that he only remembers the part of the prophecy about Banquo's legacy after he has decided to become King. And, until act V, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can occasionally seem a little interchangeable in their moods - as one doubts, the other reassures. In a way this is not a criticism, as it shows how they are both complicit in the murder whilst being reluctant and are only acting as a result of being 'egged-on' by the other... but nevertheless occasionally it feels as though Shakespeare has not kept track of which one is the ‘bad’ one and which one is their unwilling collaborator.

Other than that, it's pretty much perfect. Yes, there's a longueur in Act IV where Malcolm persuades Macduff that he (Malcolm) would make a better king of Scotland than Macbeth. But other than that, it's rip-roaring high-octane entertainment.

Star Trek episode titles coined? From Macbeth we get Dagger of the Mind, All Our Yesterdays and Amok Time.

West Wing episodes title coined? The Birnam Wood.

Book titles coined? The Seeds of Time. Wyrd Sisters. By The Pricking of my Thumbs. Instruments of Darkness. But, surprisingly enough, not The Banquo Legacy.

Phrases in common everyday usage coined? Be-all-and-end-all. A charmed life. Come what may. Crack of doom. Infirm of purpose. Milk of human kindness. One fell swoop. A sorry sight. There's no such thing. What's done is done.

And - best of all - it is the source of the opening line of the most famous joke in history: Knock knock. Who's There?

(though of course in this instance, and in many others, it's quite possible that the Bard with the Beard's usage is merely the first surviving example of phrases which were already common currency.)

Words coined? Fitful. Multitudinous. Stealthy. Unreal. Vulnerable. Barefaced. Dauntless.

Famous quotes? Come on, this is f*cking Macbeth! The whole play is one famous quote. My Oxford concise dictionary of Quotations has practically the whole play in it! But here's some biggies:

"When shall we three meet again?"
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair"
"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly"
"Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself"
"There's daggers in men's smiles"
"Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would'"
"Is this a dagger which I see before me?"
"The attempt and not the deed confounds"
"[Drink] provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance"
"Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble"
"Eye of newt and toe of frog"
"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes"
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
"All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand"
"Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"
"Foul whisperings are abroad"

and of course the incredibly famous speech that goes:

MACBETH: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, 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, signifying nothing."

Though, of course, it doesn't feature the famous line 'Lead on, Macduff'. That's one of those things that was never said like Beam Me Up Scotty and Elementary, My Dear Watson and Not A Lot Of People Know That. The actual line is

MACBETH: "I throw my warlike shield! Lay on, Macduff!
Come and have a go - if you think you're hard enough!"

It also doesn't contain the phrase 'spectre at the feast', though I'm pretty sure that phrase is a reference to Macbeth.


Act I

Hoots mon and see you Jimmy! Let the winds blow high and the winds blow low, down the street in my kilt I go! We're in bonnie bonnie Scotland, where King Duncan has been kicking the shit out of Norway with the help of brave Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor has turned traitor so King Duncan decides Macbeth should replace him and be the new Thane of Cawdor.

Meanwhile, Macbeth is taking the high road through the glen with his chum Banquo. They happen across three witches who make some predictions. Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor! Macbeth will be King! And Banquo's sons shall become kings! Macbeth quite likes the sound of the first two thirds of this... particularly when he and Banquo arrive at King Duncan's palace and learn that the first part of the prediction has already come true. They enjoy a wee dram to celebrate.

Macbeth is still not sure what to do though, even when King Duncan nominates his son Malcolm as his heir. Macbeth sends a letter home telling his wife about the prophecy, and when he arrives, she is gagging for a shag, writhing all over the bed and whatnot. She uses her feminine wiles to persuade Macbeth he should murder the king - who is on his way over to stay the night. She will get his guards drunk, while Macbeth shall do the deed, using the guards' dirks to make it look like they did it.

Act II

Well ah would walk five hundred miles and ah would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles! No sooner has the bell donged midnight than Macbeth starts having doubts again. He has a vision of a ghostly dagger... then resolves to do the bloody deed, enters the King's bedchamber, and hacks him into rissoles. And deep-fries him, of course. Because he’s SCOTTISH.

Macbeth emerges, covered in blood, and his wife helpfully points out that he has already f*cked up because he forgot to put the bloody knives back in the guards' hands to make it look like they did it, the fool! Macbeth is in shock and doesn't want to go back into the bedchamber so Lady M tut-tuts, mutters 'If you want a job doing, do it yourself' and heads off into the bedchamber herself, emerging with blood-soaked hands - but no problem, it washes off with water. She then goes to bed.

Macbeth is left alone, first with his thoughts, and then with a porter who makes endless jokes about impotence. Then Macduff turns up - Macduff is a mate of King Duncan's, a sort of lord or laird or something. He pops into the King's bedroom to arouse him - I mean to wake him up! - only to discover him all stiff wide-eyed and gory.

Macduff cries murder, and Macbeth runs off to investigate. Lady Macbeth turns up, pretending to have just woken up, and when she hears of the murder she pretends to be appalled that it should have happened in her house - the shame! Macbeth re-enters, saying that he found the murder weapons, that the guards obviously did it, and he's just killed them both for their crimes. Case closed. Macduff starts asking awkward questions so Lady M 'faints' and has to be carried out.

Learning of the murder, King Duncan's sons fear for their safety, believing 'We're all dooomed!' and do a bunk. Donalbain goes to Ireland (we never hear of him again so don't bother remembering him) and Malcolm goes to England.

Macduff is kind of like Hermack in The Space Pirates, in that given a series of clues pointing in one direction, he will immediately leap to the equal and opposite conclusion. So when he hears that Malcolm has run off the England, he immediately concludes that means that Malcolm probably did commit the murder. Almost certainly. Makes sense, doesn't it?


Turn around every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you're never coming round. Banquo remembers the prophecy and starts to get suspicious about Macbeth... and starts to worry that Macbeth will want him killed, so the part of the prophecy about the Banquo legacy won't come true. He decides to f*ck off, aye right an' no mistake.

True enough, Macbeth has finally remembered that part of the prophecy and instructs a couple of dodgy types to 'do in' Banquo. He's not happy about this and regrets all the killings, but his wife tells him to get a bloody grip on himself man.

The dodgy types do kill Banquo, but - much to Macbeth's annoyance - Banquo's son, Fleance, f*cks off (also never to be heard of again). Macbeth is starting to get a bit 'evil mastermind' here so he makes sure the murderers are, in turn, murdered so they can't start pointing any fingers. But the thought of Banquo's son being alive is preying on his mind. But never mind that - lunch!

At dinner, the table has been set and the Macbeths are having various friends over. However, Macbeth is just about to sit down to his haggis when he starts seeing the ghost of Banquo. No-one else can see it - not even the audience or the viewer at home - but Macbeth starts talking to it as though it is there. Lady M does her best to cover her husband's erratic behaviour, putting it down to work-related stress. No longer able to see Banquo, Macbeth plays along with his wife's story - until the ghost comes back. The various friends decide that perhaps the polite thing to do now would be to f*ck off and never come back.

Macbeth realises that he needs to kill some more people, but first he must consult with the ladies who got him into this trouble in the first place, the witches. Meanwhile, down in England, Duncan and Macduff have arrived and are petitioning the English king, King Edward (who is not actually in this play) to go to war to free Scotland from the villainous yoke of Macbeth.

Act IV

I was not looking for Linda, but Linda found me hiding away on the slow train home. Macbeth consults with the Witches. They give him some more short-range forecasts - to beware of Macduff. But then they reassure him that he can never be killed 'by a man of a woman born' and that he can never be defeated unless Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane hill. Clearly this can never happen, so Macbeth cheers up and feels that, on the whole, life's not so bad.

But then there are some more apparitions - kings descended from Banquo! This freaks Macbeth out... and when the witches have gone, he learns about Macduff f*cking off to England and leading an army against him. He has a wee dram, then decides what's to be done. More killing, mainly.

Sure enough, at the home of Lady Macduff and children, Lady Macduff is wondering where her husband has recently f*cked off to when there's a knock at the door and, yes, it's Macbeth's henchmen. They kill her children and then her. It's fab.

Cut to England where Malcolm and Macduff are having a meeting. Malcolm is trying to convince Macduff that he (Malcolm) is King of Scotland material. 'But I borrow money and never give it back, I treat women badly, I drink far too much and I'm prone to getting into fights at the slightest provocation'. 'You sound a bit over-qualified to me,' says Macduff.

Malcolm and Macduff prepare their army to do battle in Scotland and don their ceremonial orange fighting-beards!

Act V

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeell you know you make me want to shout! Click my fingers etc. At Dunsinane castle (that's where the Macbeths live) Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking and obsessing about seeing spots of blood on her hands which she can't scrub off. A lady-in-waiting calls a doctor to cure her, but he realises that only god can help her now.

Outside, and a short way down the hill, the English soldiers decide to use some foliage from Birnam Wood as camouflage on their way up to Dunsinane, in order to make their numbers appear greater. So Birnam Wood will come to Dunsinane...

There's a bloody battle. Lots of claymores, sporrans, bagpipes and bits of semi-digested haggis flying about the place.

Macbeth receives the bad news about the battle, and his wife going mad (and killing herself). If it's not one thing, it's another. Macbeth, however, knows that these things come in threes... and who should walk in but General Seyward's son, Eric.

Macbeth remembers the part of the prophecy that he cannae be killed by a man of a woman born, and sure enough, he despatches Seyward's son with ease. However then Macduff strolls in, and as they lock swords, Macduff mentions that he wasn't 'of a woman born' - he was delivered by caesarean section. 'Oh shit', says Macbeth, 'I had nae thought of that' as their swordfight takes them off the stage and up into the castle battlements. It's all very exciting, but now, unfortunately, it's off-stage.

Enter Malcolm and the rest of his clan, and Macduff returns carrying Macbeth's severed head. He hands Malcolm the crown from the head and Macduff is made the new King of Scotland which entitles him to all the deep-fried Mars Bars he can eat.

The BBC production can be viewed here.

Next up, the FINAL Shakespearewatch: Hamlet

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