NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.
There is an oft repeated cliché that plays are meant to be performed on a stage, not dissected in a classroom. Like so many clichés, there’s more than a grain of truth to this idea. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. His plays are filled with intrigue, betrayal and bloodshed and these features come to life more fully embodied in the flesh, rather than read on a page.
Yet an either / or debate pitting performance and close reading of the text against each other misses the point entirely. Students should both study the play and see the play! So the question really becomes, in what order?
Your experience of a play undoubtedly matters. The emotions you feel as the drama unfolds should not be ignored or discarded or dismissed. In fact, one of the most common examination questions on the Shakespearean play asks you to trace your fluctuating levels of sympathy for the central characters, so tune in to your human visceral response as Lady Macbeth imagines dashing her child’s brains out on the flagstone; as Macbeth cries out in horror “full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife”; and as Lady Macduff so piteously begs for mercy as her killers advance. As the tension rises and the stakes become ever higher; as their mental state unravels and ultimately things fall apart because the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. You should feel adrenaline coursing through your veins.
But, like it or not, sometimes the Shakespearean language is a road block to this level of connection. For many students, seeing the play ‘blind’ is an exercise in futility.
So let’s consider the other option: you study the play first, then you go see it performed.
This works well for two reasons. First of all, you know what the hell is going on! When you hear that Macbeth “unseamed” some bugger “from the nave ‘to the chops”, you have the mental image of him slicing someone open already hideously clear in your mind. You can bask in the dramatic irony of Lady Macbeth being addressed as an “honoured hostess” even as she plots Duncan’s murder and almost cringe at her confident assertion that “a little water clears us of this deed” because you are aware of her imminent psychological collapse. Knowing the play in advance deepens your experience of seeing it performed, even if it does admittedly deprive you of the tense anticipation of wondering what will happen next.
Secondly, you can disagree with the way the actors interpret the characters. They may play a character or scene differently to how you imagined it in your mind’s eye. This feeling, the feeling ‘that’s not how I’d play that scene’ is incredibly powerful and extremely valuable in clarifying your interpretation of both the characters and the play itself. Conversely, if you see the play before you study it, the version of each character presented to you by the actors is very difficult to dislodge from your mind. Their interpretation becomes the ‘truth’ of the character and may shut down debate, which is the last thing you want! Ultimately you are searching for the version of each character that makes the most sense to you personally, even if others might disagree.
Once upon a time, seeing three different versions of the play before sitting the exam was pretty difficult, but nowadays with youtube at your fingertips, theatre companies like Second Age and Cyclone Rep performing the leaving cert play annually and many different film versions to choose from, this isn’t such a tall order anymore.
So how does this help you to prepare for the exams?
It helps a lot, if you know what to do! Select a scene. It could be the Banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, or Macbeth’s famous soliloquy “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Go to youtube and compare the different levels of sympathy you feel depending on who’s delivering the lines. Re-watch pivotal scenes until you know which version fits your sense of how that scene should be performed. Now you know how you would play that character if you were acting in the play. Ultimately what you view as the ‘truth’ of that character should become clearer in your mind.
Let me illustrate with an example. Last summer, I saw Joseph Millson play Macbeth in the Globe in London. He’s about 40 but he looks younger. He’s tall, very good looking and has a commanding physical presence on stage. He interpreted Macbeth as an ambitious power-hungry noble, determined to prove his manliness to his wife. However, he rarely gave us any convincing glimpse of the “milk of human kindness” in his personality. He showed remorse for the murder of Duncan but his horror hinged on madness and his determination not to get caught was emphasised far more than any self-loathing. Hence, when he delivered his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, I found it hard to connect emotionally to his despair because I had never fully connected to him emotionally in the early scenes of the play. I was frankly quite glad when he was eventually defeated by Macduff.
I’ve also seen Patrick Stewart’s BBC version of Macbeth from 2010. His Macbeth is older, in his late 50’s at least and there is an insecurity to his character, a desperation to prove to his glamorous yet ruthless young wife that she has not made a mistake in marrying a man so much older than her. His pitiful panic, confusion and palpable fear following the murder of Duncan is profoundly disturbing for the audience, as is his gradual transformation from puppet in his wife’s schemes to a cold hearted murderer. When he delivers his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, he is looking down upon her dead body and his utter contempt for life is frightening to behold. His portrayal of Macbeth is edgy and unsettling, filling the audience with conflicting emotions as we are torn between sympathy and disgust in a film which plays havoc with our emotions and leaves us utterly exhausted by the end.
Finally, I recently saw Macbeth performed in a classroom in our school by Cyclone Rep Theatre Company, with Marcus Bale in the central role. He plays a Macbeth slightly younger than his wife, who is eager to please and quite easily manipulated. His immediate remorse is heartfelt and his transformation never feels fully complete despite the horrific deeds he engineers. Thus when he delivers his soliloquy, there is pain as well as numb despair as he observes that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. His interpretation of Macbeth was, for me, the most authentic of the three.
Seeing each of these performances allowed me to clarify that it is the human face of Macbeth’s character, despite his disturbing embrace of evil, that makes me choke back tears every time I hear that soliloquy. This perhaps says as much about me as it does about the play; about my blind determination to believe ultimately in the goodness of human nature, despite all the evidence to the contrary this play presents.
I believe it also helps to experience live theatre in a really intimate space. Film versions are always observed at one remove, and the Globe is a large open air space with the stage on high, which places the actors at a certain distance. By contrast, having the actors pacing the floor so close you could reach out and touch them really heightens the drama and establishes a connection to the characters that youtube can never provide!