Promo image from Macbeth

AN UNKNOWN FEAR

By Antoni Cimolino

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 upended.

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.