Monday, November 27, 2006

King James and the witches

Somewhere between the habitual Sunday morning hangover and nipping to the local Praktika to check the price of petrol driven chainsaws, I picked up and read the 16 pages of Daemonologie I'd managed to print off.

What a surprise!

It is one of those books you know about - one referred to as having some sort of connection to Macbeth - and a possible minor source for a few bits and pieces of information - and a good excuse for Shakey to brown-tongue to his new boss.

What you don't grasp until you read it (and until recently how accessible was it? Long live the Internet and all who search it) is how close a foundation the work gives to the witches scenes - and to some fundamental elements in the character of Macbeth himself.

The first thing I noticed was in the preface – Mr Scot, the Englishman (!), who denied witches existed.

So: There was serious doubt in England – serious enough for it to be printed and for the king of Scotland to ‘name and shame’ his future subject.

A few years later, Shakespeare, loyal English subject and chief ‘poet on the payroll’ churns out, possibly for a visit of the new King’s father in law (I did read that somewhere didn’t I?) a script with more than nodding acquaintance to the published views of his patron: “Look daddy-in-law, ain’t my boss learned and ‘ingine’ (ingenious?)!”

Then, in Chapter 1 of the first book, a couple of phrases leapt out.

‘… as first wilfully deceiues them-selves, by running vnto him . . .’


‘And as to the diuelles fortelling of things to come, it is true that he knowes not all thinges future, but yet that he knowes parte, the Tragicall event of this historie declares it, . . .’

A suspicion crept on to me at this point – Macbeth could be described as wilfully deceiving himself – and he certainly runs to the devil later in the play.

And did the fortune telling idea - partly true fortune telling at that – give Shakey the idea for the ‘tragicall historie’?

So far this is only tweaks and nudges.

Then, in Chap. 2, there is the mention of two branches of sinning against ‘the holie Ghost’.

One, ‘falling backe’, the second falling back knowingly.

I suspect this is a key to Macbeth’s fall: It starts unknowingly, but quickly develops a self-knowledge that takes it beyond excusable sin.

Next comes an exploration of Magic and Necromancy. Like most people, I suspect, I hadn’t taken a lot of notice of this second word – just assumed it to be a synonym.

Not a bit of it.

As our most knowledgeable King lets us know – ‘Necromancie’ is compounded of the Greek roots meaning ‘prophecy by the dead’.

And shortly after he adds, ‘…the Witches ar servantes onelie, and slaues to the Devil; but the Necromanciers are his maisters and commanders.’

If we look over Macbeth’s relationship with the witches, it starts with him getting information from them – but later in the play he commands – and commands them to produce dead spirits to tell the future. Macbeth has gone deeper into sin than the witches themselves by this action.

Later in the same chapter there is the ‘slippery slope’ (or primrose path?) theory – you start by wanting legitimate knowledge and then get trapped to wanting to know things you shouldn’t be asking about – all for ‘blindlie glorie of themselves’.

And they become, ‘… in verie deede, bond-slaues to their mortall enemie: and their knowledge . . . is nothing increased, except in knowing evill, . . .’

And a final very telling point – ‘ … as Adams was by the eating of the forbidden tree.’

So, Macbeth is Adam! Wham, bam, thank you mam! Lady M. is Eve – and a whole ‘mythic’ significance comes clearly into focus.

Macbeth is all mankind – that is why we watch with horror his fall: It is our fall.

But what is the fruit? Knowledge. Macbeth knows too much. Ignorance truly is bliss – heavenly bliss; knowledge is the work of the Devil.

And take no comfort all you misogynists – Lady Macbeth is no more responsible than Eve in the Jacobean World Picture (He for God, she for God in him.)

In chapter 4 we get a lovely, ‘dafte wiues’ (daft wives – oh, Lordy!), which is surely a nod in the direction of what most of the audience think of witches – and partly accounts for the humour (although I would still put most of that as due to theatrical tradition) that comes through – but we shouldn’t forget – King James has made the distinction between ignorant and knowledgeable sin – Macbeth is well beyond the daft wife stage.

Chapter 4 also has reference to battles and winning – what do the witches say in the first scene?

Chapter 5 gives us a repeat, ‘…to make himselfe so to be trusted in these little thinges, that he may haue the better commoditie thereafter, to deceiue then in the end with a tricke once for all; I meane the euerlasting perdition of their soul & body.’

And Chapter 6 gives us the witches familiars – ‘a dog, a Catte, an Ape’, and repeats the ‘dead bodie’ and ‘…to giue such answers, of the euent of battels, of maters concerning the estate of commonwelths, and such like other great questions . . .’

There is now no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare read this text, before writing Macbeth. There just seem to be too many connections for it to be accidental.

I am sure much of what is written by the King is common place knowledge – but the combination of ideas and expression seem to me to reverberate in the text we have of Macbeth.

And I also suspect the play went down really well with the man who had written Daemonologie.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Enter the King

(Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 2)

What would Shakespeare's audience have experienced at the very start of this scene?

Firstly, there would have been music - the entrance of a King is marked by trumpets.

These trumpets, though, are more battle alarms than ceremonial entrance music. The Elizabethan audience would know the difference.

And instead of the usual stately King’s entrance (see Olivier’s Film, Henry V) we have a rushed entrance – but, it is still ordered, it is still according to rank and the costumes make fairly clear who is more important, who less; who is noble, who a servant: Who on active service, who civilian civil servant.

If this were the start of the play, it would be confusing – to make sense of it, you need to know what is causing the rush.

But it isn't the start of the play - it follows the first, witches scene - which sets up an anticipation in the audience.

The witches dress 'out of rank', they indicate an evil force at work in this state, they show the battle and mention, - Macbeth.

The sound effects in their scene is ‘thunder and lightening’ – rumbles and crashes – the trumpet music, in comparison, is much more ordered.

Much of the second scene only makes sense (and unity) in the light of the first scene.

When the 'sergeant' enters - what does he look like? How does he 'fit in' to the rushed, but essential order and harmony of the court? - He doesn't. He is a bloody man - a phrase often laughed at as weak, but at the time of writing, pregnant with meaning.

Modern televised war, pictures edited to reduce exposure to too much horror (for political and taste considerations) doesn't begin to represent the reality of hacking away at human beings with sharp edged weapons. Try slitting a man's throat and not getting blood on your shoes.

Bullets kill much more cleanly than swords.

I remember the Peter O'Toole Macbeth - derided because it attempted to bring back the blood - but truer to the original in this respect than any other modern production (including film).

The blood screams out - the State is in danger - we can't tell what this man is - he is a soldier of some sort, an officer? Rank has become confused. To the Elizabethan mind, few things were more dangerous than rank confusion (sorry, couldn't resist the pun).

‘What,’ thinks your average 'Lizy apprentice, ‘were those words of the witches? Fair is foul, etc.' - what is rotten in this State? What is upside down?’

‘And what of Macbeth - "they" mentioned him?’

Without the first scene, the subtext is missing - and a considerable amount of the depth of meaning we get out of these scenes comes not from the words, but from the "production" – especially costume.

Shakespeare's words are only part of the work he did - he acted, and directed as well.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Witches and fine weather

The opening of Macbeth is a classic case of, "Will we ever be able to understand what Shakespeare originally intended?"

Quite frankly, the answer is no – but we can take a trip along the path in the right direction.

Let's think about one of the aspects of 'witches'.

Most people follow the argument that Shakespeare's audience would have believed in witches and therefore the opening of the play meant something much deeper to them than it does to us.

Their reaction would have been an instinctive, emotional one - as well as intellectual. They would take it much more seriously than we do.

The first thing we need to get our heads around is the nature of Evil – as personified by the witches.

Germaine Greer, in her ‘SHAKESPEARE: A Very Short Introduction’ makes a couple of interesting points about evil when she is discussing Iago:

‘The point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated, inconsistent,’ (pg. 53/54)


‘Iago’s behaviour cannot be explained in terms of personality, but rather in terms of force,’ (pg. 56).

(Before anyone goes for my throat, she does make the point that Iago is a much more complicated manifestation of Evil than the witches in Macbeth)

And Greer ties Iago to the earlier stage representation of Vice.

Several issues rise in my mind at this point – but maybe the most important is how is the Globe’s audience expecting evil to be portrayed physically on the stage?

Are they actually linking into the tradition of a comedic evil – absurd to the spectator, easily seen through? The Vice and Devils of the mystery plays? Characters played by the comedians!

In which case, our ‘wasn’t funny in those days’ isn’t strictly accurate.

And who actually acted the witches? Was it boys? What are we to make of the beards? So men! If it was the comedy actors - ? Not funny? Remember, Shakespeare has a set of around 16 male actors to use – if the witches are not played by the comedians, who is? We have the Porter – but that’s a short scene only. Some seriously under used personnel in this production.

And what about costume?

The Elizabethan ‘dress code’ was fairly strict – rules about who could wear what, uniforms (nicer word, livery, used at the time) for everyone and no problem interpreting them. What is traditional ‘witch wear’? (Not the black pointy hat for certain – incidentally has anyone ever seen a production with witches dressed in black pointy hats?).

Women’s clothes – yes (mentioned in the text).

What social class? – Real witches could come as easily from the middle classes as from the poor (Pendle witch trials a little later in the century).

I suspect (or rather speculate) Macbeth’s witches are actually going to dress ‘outside the regulations’: Which would speak volumes to his audience – these are a force for disruption, a force against stability, for chaos.

Which brings me back to Germaine Greer’s point – Evil is a force.

Modern Western Society lives indoors. Natural forces are diluted in our day to day existence – wind, rain, sun and snow barely affect us. The occasional disaster might break through, but it is just that, a disaster, a special occasion – and it takes only days to get back to the electricity, the shelter and the Internet.

In several of Shakespeare’s plays nature is present as unchallengable power – Titania’s speech in Act 2 of A Midsummer Nights Dream being one notable example sometimes cut in modern productions as unintelligible.

In this opening scene, natural forces are summoned into the audience’s imagination – thunder, lightening and rain: Crop destruction, hunger, starvation, ruin to an Elizabethan.

The performance most likely had sound effects – rolling cannon balls for the thunder – possibly battleground noises and trumpets. War and weather – what bigger forces are there – and what have these witches got to do with it? Are they in control?

If we put all of this together we get a very complicated set of meanings.

The witches are not reducible to a single meaning.

Yes, they are “Evil” – but they are also stage representations of evil linking into a tradition – funny, absurd and disruptive. All the World’s a Stage – and a play is what you are watching.

These are not witches, these are actors pretending to be witches: But the world is only an illusion – so what is the truth?Macbeth is a play about the struggle for Macbeth’s soul.

According to Greer, we have to meet the witches, his tempters, before we meet him – and we have to know what they are, what their nature is – she says they have the power of fallen angels – but the fallen angels as presented in popular mediaeval drama, the imps of Satan. ( Pg. 68/69)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Reflections after a Lost Crown

End of a bottle - and distinctly dis-con-bobulated: Tooth had to be totally removed - cracked all the way up.

No pain (for first time in a visit to the dentist) but there is now a gap in the front of my mouth and I make the oddest noises when I try to speak. The "th" sound is distinctly silly, and 's' and 'r' (which was always a problem) are way out of line.

My smile is that of a punch-drunk boxer.

The cost is not small either - a quarter of my official monthly wage!

Enough to drive a man to drink - except it feels strange going down - a warm 'bloody' senstation in the gap as the alcohol passes over the raw flesh.

Eating is odd too - bringing the teeth together results in cutting the swollen gum.

Sans eyes, Sans teeth, Sans everything.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

You Are What You Wear

In the words of a Genesis song:

Old man says, "You are what you wear" - wear well.

Certainly, in Shakespeare's England, you were what you wore: And Shakespeare makes use of this (overtly and covertly) in his plays.

In the modern Western World, we have lost 'the meaning’ clothes had attached to them in Elizabethan and Stuart England. There is a superficial understanding in some contexts - we can recognise the Queen of England on state occasions for example - she will wear one of her crowns - preferably with a big diamond in it - and a set of gowns somewhat out of date - made of materials distinctly politically incorrect (like dead animal).

But is there any difference between what a Prince wears or a Premiership footballer (soccer) visiting the sick in hospital? In the UK, both are exceptionally wealthy men, both will be wearing custom-made, designer suits.

Take a photograph of the Queen of England on any but a state occasion, remove the head (whoops, bit of republican sympathy there) and tell me what identifies her as Queen.

We can determine, to a certain degree, wealth by clothing - although with some fashion trends that is difficult. The people in Shakespeare's audience could recognise rank, and status, as well as wealth. Occupation was also much easier to 'see'.

This isn't simply blue-collar/white-collar social class, it is much deeper.

Let's look at a couple of examples of how Shakespeare overtly uses his audience's ability to distinguish and interpret role and give meaning through clothing.

The opening scene of Julius Caesar provides a prime example.

In Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the crowd that comes onto the stage would have been wearing Elizabethan 'Sunday Best' - perhaps with a band of material over that to indicate they were Romans.

What would the audience have instantly seen? - Ordinary working men dressed out of work-clothes and therefore celebrating either a Religious day, or a special occasion. By their behaviour we can assume they would not have been dressed in Puritan Black, nor in wealthy materials like silks - which were reserved for a better rank of people. What the audience wouldn't see would be the occupations of the men - which on a working day would have been apparent - nor the relative ranks - who was a master craftsman, who a journeyman, who still an apprentice?

This gives a sense of disorder and Saturnalia from the instant the men are sighted. It also helps explain what happens when to two 'magistrates' come on - they see the disorder and react against it. Under their token Toga, the Elizabethan would have seen a very different rank of person. Richer materials would be worn, possibly some indication of office - a mayoral chain for example - gentleman certainly, possibly knights. The way the workmen respond, taking this in mind, indicates a very dangerous state of affairs - and the Elizabethan would have seen it as a danger to the status quo - foreshadowing the civil strife to come.

If a modern production chooses to dress these characters in 'Roman' costume, we loose all sense of this distinction and danger - we cannot interpret Roman costume in the same way. If we dress 'modern' we still have to find some way of packing into the clothes meanings we don't normally identify.

Another opening, with a similar 'packing-in' of meaning, is that to Romeo and Juliet.

After the Prologue, two servants enter. How does Shakespeare show they are servants? - They wear livery.

The very concept of livery is strange to us - but was essential to Shakespeare. On the entry of the new King, James, to London, Mr William Shakespeare and some of his fellow actors were issued with a quantity of red-dyed, woollen cloth - to make the livery of the King of England. Shakespeare marched in procession, carrying the awning over the head of the King, as he entered under specially constructed arches.

The new livery was a step up for Shakespeare and his fellow actors - they had become 'The King's Men'! They had worn livery before - it protected them when they moved about the country - it marked them as the servants of 'The Admiral' and then 'The Chancellor' - each liveery different - each not just saying, I am a servant, but my Lord is so and so, my Lord is 'this important', my Lord is the King of England - so leave me alone.

I do not know how often Shakespeare wore his livery - I suspect quite a lot - especially at court - but many lowlier servants wore theirs all the time, and may higher officials also.

When the Capulet and the Montague servants appear on stage - all this meaning is carried with their clothing - and when the fight starts, in rush more people dressed out of livery - working people, ordinary people, then in comes the 'Princes' livery - and woe betide anyone ignoring that.

I have to say at this point how good the Baz Lurhmann version is in this respect - we do get the sense of difference (through design) between the fighting parties - and the police uniforms work well to identify, ‘The State’. Contrast this with the 'traditional, Renaissance set, Zefferellie version - and you see how so much is lost in the 'authentic' costuming - we do not understand the connotations of livery instinctively (and that is part of the point - intellectually I can add it, but I don't feel it at first sight).

A final point here might be to contrast the two ‘designs’ of Friar Lawrence – Milo O’Shea as the traditional brown robed priest vs. Peter Prothero’s tattooed bruiser! I know which I think is closer to the spirit of an increasingly Protestant England with growing suspicions of Catholic infiltration and invasion.

The History plays are perhaps the most difficult for us to come to contemporary terms with – but some thought given to the workings of the costumes and the props on Shakespeare’s stage does help.

Henry IV, part 2 contains the remarkable scene of young Hal ‘trying on’ the crown – to us, “So what?”

But the crown is much more than an indication of political Kingship – it is a divine symbol – to rightfully assume the crown is to be elected of God. It would ‘shock’ the audience – as it shocks Hal’s father. We can never understand the meaning, or get the same impact from the simple action of taking the crown.

When he does acquire the crown and become Henry V, he changes role, becoming no longer a Prince, but KING – which is also very difficult for modern audiences to understand. Hal never had any moral authority, Henry V does.

Just as an actor changes character with costume changes (something Bottom and his colleagues didn’t understand) so too, the man changes with the costume. Shakespeare and his actor friends went from being the servants of a nobleman to being the ‘National Theatre’, and the red cloth showed that – embodied the status.

In what is most likely Shakespeare’s first History play, Henry VI, Part 2, we have the character of Gloucester, Uncle to the Young King and Lord Protector of England. He is known as Lord Protector by the black staff he carries – it is the symbol of his office – he makes his entrance, with the King in the first scene carrying it. When he loses the office, the staff goes too – he is denuded, becoming a naked, vulnerable human being again: Prospero breaks his staff and his power goes at the end of the Tempest and the same thing happens – denudation and change.

Shakespeare must have given up his livery when he left the Kings men to return to Stratford-upon-Avon, his wife and children.

The fact that so much meaning has been lost to us, leaves great empty spaces in the text – and, more importantly, in the performance of a Shakespeare work.

To attempt to recreate the original ‘performances’ is a non-starter – we do not view the world the way they did then – we cannot understand their performances.

The empty spaces have to be filled though – and that is why Shakespeare, when performed well, is so contemporary – it has to be filled with design and direction which fits today’s worlds.