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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: February ::
Re: Psychotic *Macbeth*
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0120 Wednesday, 20 February 1994.
 
From:           Ron Macdonald <
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Date:           Tuesday, 15 Feb 1994 10:46:45 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 5.0118: Psycho Mac
Comment:        RE SHK 5.0118: Psycho Mac
 
Let me offer strong agreement with Lonnie Durham's protest against the
dysfunctional tragic protagonist.  The audience is, indeed, "let off the hook
by being invited to atrribute the terrors of existence to a few `abnormal'
types."  An older version, making reductive use of a distorted Aristotelianism,
identifies the hero's "flaw"-- always a moral failing-- to explain his
regrettable but, after all, wholly avoidable demise. Oedipus, you see, was
culpably angry, or proud, or guilty of one or more of the other Seven Deadly
Sins, and, by way of punishment, the gods drove him to unspeakable deeds.  And
quite right they were, too.  Luckily, forewarned is forearmed, so we can rest
easy.  And so a genuinely appalling text, one which affords an authentic
glimpse of the abyss, is neatly contained by being rendered as a sort of Attic
Poor Richard.
 
Or Poor Tom, for that matter: "Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of
plackets, thy pen from lenders' books, and defy the foul fiend" (_King Lear_,
III.iv.96-98).  Edgar as Tom 'o Bedlam suggests a regimen of clean living as a
straightforward fix for human suffering, while all around him rage catastrophic
events that resist any fix whatever. Shakespeare arranges to internalize
traditional good counsel not that we may follow it, but that we may see how
utterly impotent it is in the face of the experience the play serves up.  A
similar strategy is evident (less successfully, perhaps) in _Romeo and Juliet_,
where Friar Lawrence, who has a fresh solution every time fate provides another
twist, may be a way of internalizing in order to dismiss the attitude that
finds in tragedy missed opportunities and botched stratagems that better
handled would have avoided the deplorable mess tragic protagonist tend to make
of things.
 
There may be at least some justice (there is certainly no sense) in the
surprisingly wide-spread and durable notion that the tragedy of the young
lovers can be blamed on the Friar.  My favorite instance comes from Nancy
Mitford's character Uncle Matthew in _The Pursuit of Love_.  This is the man,
remember, who claims to have read only one book in his life, _White Fang_, and
found it so terribly good that any other would be more or less bound to let him
down.  He is taken at one point to a provincial production of _Romeo and
Juliet_ by his wife and daughter, and Fanny, a niece and the novel's narrator
reports:
                It was not a success.  He cried copiously, and went
                into a furious rage because it ended badly.  "All the
                fault of that damned padre," he kept saying on the
                way home, still wiping his eyes.  "That fella, what's
                'is name, Romeo, might have known a blasted papist
                would mess up the whole thing.  Silly old fool of
                a nurse too, I bet she was an R.C., dismal old bitch."
 
As an antidote, an observation of Stephen Booth's: "Theories of the nature of
tragedy are more important to us than theories of the nature of other things
because theories of tragedy keep us from facing tragedy itself."
 
                                    --Ron Macdonald
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