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Macbeth: Fair Is Foul and Foul Is Fair

By Michael Flachmann
From Midsummer Magazine, 1996

 

Written early in the reign of James I (1603 1625), Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a typical “Jacobean” tragedy in many important respects. Referred to superstitiously by actors as “the Scottish play,” the script commemorates James’s national heritage by depicting events during the years 1040 to 1057 in his native Scotland. The play also celebrates the ruler’s intense interest in witchcraft and magic, which was recorded in a book he wrote in 1597 entitled Demonology. Further topical allusions to the king include all the passages in the script mentioning sleeplessness, which are relevant since James was a well-known insomniac.

The most memorable references to Jacobean England in the play, however, are those which chronicle events of the notorious Gunpowder Plot--a conspiracy by Catholic sympathizers to blow up the Parliament building and all the heads of state on November 5, 1605, approximately one year before Shakespeare’s play was written. On that date, Guy Fawkes and his band of Jesuit-sponsored papists smuggled an immense amount of gunpowder into a vault under the Parliament, which would have killed everyone in the building in a fiery cataclysm had the king not detected the explosives prior to their detonation. According to a recent book by Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), James claimed to have discovered the plan by “inspiration” from God, who wished to save England from Rome’s “Popish plot.” Through popular mythology following the event, Jesuits were branded as “equivocators” who had tried to attack both England and the Reformation through a perverse use not only of gunpowder (“the devil’s invention”), but also of the very nature of language, which they employed in double and triple entendre to hide from the king and his court their fiendish intentions.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare’s play reflects these topical Jacobean events through its word choice, plot, and themes in an intriguing blend of Scottish history, contemporary political events, and authorial creativity. The language of the play, for example, includes a litany of references to the Gunpowder Plot that would have been familiar to all the king’s loyal subjects in 1605. Such terms as “vault,” “mine,” “blow,” “devils,” “fuse,” “powder,” “confusion,” “corpses,” “spirits,” and “combustion” set up a linguistic landscape through which Macbeth and the witches kill a king and take over his throne in a mirror image of the aborted Popish plot during James’s reign. Similarly, the play’s riddling prophesies mimic the ease with which Jesuits equivocated between truth and falsehood, good and evil. If fair is foul and foul is fair, the deaths of King James and his entire Parliament would have seemed “fair” indeed to the Romish conspirators, though “foul” to anyone in the English nation.

In this summer’s Utah Shakespeare Festival production of the play, director Robert Cohen has sought to capitalize on the Jacobean origins of Macbeth by placing its action in the early seventeenth century. Scenic Designer Dan Robinson’s elegant, refined set dominated by the open timbers, painted ceilings, and grotesque Tarot images of affluent Scottish castles has created a sophisticated dramatic universe in which the evil of Macbeth stands in stark contrast to its opulent, polished surroundings. By focusing their production upon the time the play was written rather than upon the chronology of its eleventh-century source material, the director and his designers have created a world not unlike our own where we are more susceptible to moral depravity because it lurks innocently behind the thin veneer of civilization. Macbeth and his lady are not barbarians living within a primitive, medieval era; instead, they are refined, successful aristocrats whose degenerate ambition seems savagely out of place in this modern Jacobean milieu.

Set within its updated seventeenth-century context, many of the play’s principal themes take on fresh clarity within this sophisticated environment. The tragedy’s powerful oxymorons, for example, attain renewed emphasis through the marked distinction between Macbeth’s brutality and the polished, cultured society which has nurtured it. In a world which is both “fair” and “foul” at the same time, a number of other important opposites stand out in stark contrast to each other—including dark/light, sin/grace, salvation/damnation, discord/concord, desire/performance, good/evil, angel/devil, and heaven/hell—all of which help to characterize a play which was itself suspended precariously between the extremes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Similarly, Dean Mogle’s exquisite early Jacobean costume designs—including ruffs, high collars, and a slightly looser silhouette than previous Elizabethan styles—delineate a society in which sumptuous and colorful courtly clothing masks the depravity within many of the principal characters. “Mock the time with fairest show,” Macbeth warns his wife prior to the killing of Duncan; “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.82 83). A further important clothing motif can be seen in all the ill-fitting garment images in the play. Usurping a great king’s throne, Macbeth has literally and figuratively stepped into clothes that are too big for him. As Angus says toward the end of the play, Macbeth feels his title “Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (5.2.21 22). These and other prominent clothing images in the script take on a new emphasis in the Utah production’s seventeenth-century costuming that would not have been so apparent in a more traditional medieval setting for the play.

Other important themes likewise find renewed definition within this production’s more modern world. The sexual inversion, for instance, in which Macbeth gradually takes on more “womanly” characteristics while his wife assumes the dominant male role, seems somehow more appropriate in this post-medieval, pre-feminist updated society, while all the references to fathers and sons telescope reality from the eleventh century to the Jacobean era through the witches’ pageant of successive kings. This same time travel is also evident in Macbeth’s oft-stated desire to see into the future so that he can control his own fate. In addition to his reliance upon the witches’ prophesies, Macbeth has a number of other moments in the play during which he looks forward in time. Having been named thane of Cawdor in act 1 scene 3, he exclaims in an aside about the kingship that “the greatest is behind” (117); and later, in act 5 scene 5, informed by Seyton that his wife is dead, he replies that “She should have died hereafter” (17). In fact, his entire “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech which follows is an ironic realization that all his attempts to forecast and control the future have been in vain. Similar references to sickness and medicine, the divine right of kings, sexual energy, pregnancy, blood, death, omens, beast imagery, innocence, the corruptions of power, the loss of faith, and knowing one’s “place” in society all likewise gain renewed strength through director Robert Cohen’s decision to update his production to Jacobean Scotland.

In the final analysis, this movement forward in time brings the play several steps closer to our own world, which makes Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century script of an eleventh-century historical story more accessible and meaningful than other more traditional productions of the play. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are like us in their ambition, love of power, and desire to manipulate their own future. Consequently, the “newness” of the set and costumes invites us into a world very like our own, where evil is seductive and believable, yet reprehensible nonetheless.

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