Even in the brilliant treasury of Shakespeare’s work, Macbeth
is a dark gem that stands alone. It is perhaps his greatest love story – one in
which a couple destroy themselves, each for the sake of the other. A love story
soaked in blood.
The setting for this love story is an unlikely one –
eleventh-century Scotland – harsh, northern and clan-based. Rebellion and
betrayal begin the play, to be followed by regicide, slaughter and tyranny.
Nature is at its centre, not only in the rich poetic imagery of birds, animals,
stones and trees. The natural rhythm of time is dictated by the sun’s rise and
set; day and night are at the play’s dark heart.
We have set our production, as Shakespeare has, in the
eleventh century – a time well before electricity. And we have suggested a
natural landscape. In such a time and place, dark and light held a power not
only over the seasons but also over people’s lives. Shadows brought mystery and
fear. In Macbeth, Shakespeare enters the
shadow where “light thickens” and where “the crow makes wing to the rooky
wood.” He creates a world where values are inverted or confused, in which “fair
is foul and foul is fair.” In this love story, “all is the fear and nothing is
the love”; fear is mentioned three times more often in Macbeth
than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays. When the word love
is spoken, it is usually connected to murder. In this profoundly ambiguous
world, the characters struggle to find their bearings.
The play uncovers the murderer to himself; in a larger
sense, it is about the discovery of the soul. It is also a brilliant
psychological study of the effects of traumatic stress – but it doesn’t stop
there. More than any other Shakespeare play, Macbeth
explores a malevolent world of the supernatural. This is the land of fear.
Within this shadow, our belief in a natural, scientific and humanistic world is
The modern mind may feel some discomfort with the fact that
Shakespeare, arguably our greatest writer, filled his plays with ghosts, evil
spirits and magic. “His was a superstitious age,” we say to reassure ourselves.
Yet Shakespeare’s work is permeated not with credulous belief but rather with
skepticism. And it is this same skepticism that seemed to tell him that human
understanding will always have limits. As the Lord Lafeu says in All’s
Well That Ends Well, in referring to scientists (then known as natural
philosophers): “They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical
persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence
is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming
knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.”
Shakespeare’s time, like our own, was filled with violence
fuelled by religious clashes and political ambition. It seems that to be human
is to know violence. Why? It is impossible to know for certain. But I suspect
that Shakespeare’s dark gem will fascinate us for years to come.