SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
William Shakespeare, The Tragedie of Macbeth. Directed by Rupert Goold. Staring Patrick Stewart, Suzanne Burden and others. Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave., London.
In three decades, roughly from the end of the reign of Elizabeth I until the celebrated trial of the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham ending in 1629, England was deeply engaged with the question of torture. It was a delicate debate, for torture had been applied with royal approbation for centuries. But the genius of the English common law was steadily at work against it. The law restricted, qualified, reduced the cases in which torture could be used. And finally, in 1628, the final blow was struck against it, when the courts and bar assembled and formally declared in response to a royal interrogatory that torture was contrary to the law and must end.
Among the great lights of the Elizabethan and early Stuart Age, there was little difference of opinion: they were against torture. They had seen the terrible damage it worked on human beings and society, and they were convinced it was an ultimate instrument of tyranny which brought corruption and putrifaction to everything it touched. As Shakespeare told us in The Merchant of Venice, torture produced confessions, but not the truth—it secured whatever the torturer wanted to hear. And as I have noted elsewhere, John Donne’s great Easter Sunday sermon of 1625, Against the Abomination of Torture, appears to have been critical in shaping popular opinion against torture. But Shakespeare’s writing, while more subtle, was no less important to the movement. Shakespeare and Donne affected the educated class in much the way that Coke influenced the lawyers. And of the works condemning torture and demonstrating its ill effects, the first place goes to Macbeth, the tale of the moral disintegration of a Man of Power.
Patrick Stewart stars as Macbeth in a major new production running at the Gielgud Theatre. This is a performance of dazzling artistry, energy and daring. It is without any doubt the definitive Macbeth performance of our generation and something that merits a special effort to see. It is also a Macbeth for our age. Director Rupert Goold and his crew have meticulously developed and brought to the fore the strong anti-torture message that sits just below the surface in the work. There can be no doubt that they are presenting Shakespeare’s sentiments, though of course when he produced the play for James I in 1603, the Bard was required to be extremely discreet in how he approached it. This new performance demonstrates the gripping modernity of the piece. The play deals in the full panoply of modern warfare—it cuts a brisk, dramatic pace; it assaults the senses with “shock and awe” (or to be a bit more clinical, in the same way prescribed by the CIA’s Kubark technique). Sensory deprivation is followed by an assault upon every sensory organ, as torrents of sound and light fill the theater.
It has been common for centuries to see in Macbeth the story of a man obsessed with ambition—whose craving for power proves his own unmaking. That is certainly so. But the work is more nuanced. It has a very strong focus on a question which is now center stage for many Americans: what can a ruler do in the interests of state security? Are all tools on the table, including the ones from “the dark side,” as Dick Cheney would say?
Shakespeare has strong and certain views on this question. He tells us that a ruler who reaches to immoral means to retain his grip on power—in particular, to targeted killings and torture—is rendered illegitimate in the process. He is a “tyrant” (and that’s the word the Bard uses, repeatedly), and the people have the right to rise up and overthrow him.
Of course, Shakespeare has to keep his political wits about him in this process. He is very clever in the historical lesson he takes to make this point. The Bard puts himself on the right side of King James I: it is a Stuart progenitor who takes down Macbeth and restores a righteous monarchy at the end of the play.
In Shakespeare’s time the killing of a monarch was the ultimate horror. It could bring chaos and mayhem to a nation, reducing it quickly to fratricidal strife. And as the age of the Tudors gave way to the Stuarts, the threat of political assassinations constantly lurked in the background. Moreover, of course, the threat was quite focused: Catholics were the suspected terrorists and assassins of the period, and the persons held in arbitrary detention, tortured on the rack and with other implements, and executed were disproportionately Catholic. This echoes in Macbeth, where the killing of the King Duncan is presented as a matter of great crisis:
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life of the building
This is one of several points when the grim violence that is the constant theme of Macbeth takes on strangely religious tones. Shakespeare is admittedly not such a religious writer, but this language is noteworthy, and it reaches to the moral core of the play.
Macbeth works diligently to cloak his regicide. He frames Duncan’s servants as the culprits. And he acts preemptively against them and others whose loyalty he doubts as he moves decisively to claim the throne. Macbeth is admired, we learn, as a daring and decisive man of arms—he is the war-king; and he thrives in the state of conflict with the world about him. His governing philosophy is simple enough, and a later autocrat framed it this way: “You’re either with us or against us.” Macbeth strikes quickly against all who fail to embrace his leadership, and blood flows freely.
A misunderstanding of fate plays a role in this play. Shakespeare introduces the “weïrd sisters” who impart key messages to Macbeth at critical points in the play, and are frequently, and plausibly, portrayed as witches. (Of course the word Shakespeare uses is the Elizabethan English rendition of the Nordic word urðr, pronounced wurd, which means fate; that’s how he would have understood it.)
This is one of the most problematic, and most cliché-ridden, aspects of Macbeth. But Goold’s rendering is brilliant. He turns the sisters into nurses, though they seem to have very strange standards for dealing with their patients. They appear to be torturing them, and the fateful messages imparted to Macbeth are extracted through persons subjected to the nurses’ coercive interrogation techniques. The message is, it seems, always what Macbeth himself imagines and wants to hear confirmed. And it proves fatally flawed; it is his unraveling. Macbeth himself appears to conduct a brutal interrogation, trying to gain information on Macduff’s plans after his flight. Still his prey is allowed to live, unlike Lady Macduff and her children. And before her murder, Shakespeare puts these prophetic words in her mouth—the hallmark of the topsy-turvy moral world that Macbeth is creating:
I have done no harm.
But I remember now
I am in this earthly world: where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly.
Indeed, throughout Macbeth the author makes of the victim on the verge of death a vehicle for the delivery of poignant truths. For the revelation that sits at the heart of the play is a simple one. What is the essential dilemma of the use of the dark arts? The ruler who uses them succumbs to their thrall. He becomes dependent upon the dark arts and is led to his personal destruction by them. Consider Banquo’s words shortly before his murder:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
Indeed, Shakespeare seems to take stock of a remarkable inventory of interrogation techniques. You might imagine that he has worked his way through SERE training. And most striking are his comments on sleep deprivation:
Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep, — the innocent sleep;
Sleep, that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Goold and his company have given us a Macbeth for the age of Bush. Indeed, it left me thinking: how easy it would be to adopt Macbeth as an edifying account of the Bush years. The pieces fall so easily into place. Only one essential transposition is needed: Laura Bush will never make a Lady Macbeth. However, we have Karl Rove.
“What’s done cannot be undone,” the Bard wrote. But the tragedy of Macbeth ends with an indignant rising to restore moral order and natural right. It’s a satisfying ending, a worthy dramatic punctuation mark. As for the tragedy of Macbush, however, neither the rising nor the restoration can safely be foretold; but more bloodshed and warfare seen to be predictably in our future.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Chances that a Soviet woman’s first pregnancy will end in abortion:
Peaceful fungus-farming ants are sometimes protected against nomadic raider ants by sedentary invader ants.
In San Antonio, a 150-pound pet tortoise knocked over a lamp, igniting a mattress fire that spread to a neighbor’s home.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."