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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Re: "A Beautiful Macbeth"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0895  Saturday, 1 April 2002

[1]     From:   Philip Tomposki <
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        Date:   Friday, 29 Mar 2002 11:25:13 -0500
        Subj:   RE: "A Beautiful Macbeth"

[2]     From:   L. Swilley <
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        Date:   Sunday, 31 Mar 2002 15:09:19 -0000 (GMT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0873 'A Beautiful Macbeth'


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Philip Tomposki <
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Date:           Friday, 29 Mar 2002 11:25:13 -0500
Subject:        RE: "A Beautiful Macbeth"

Brad Berens writes:

"Alas, I missed the Oscars, but I woke up this morning wondering if it
might be possible in performance* to portray Macbeth as a textbook
schizophrenic a la John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind."

Having seen a similar interpretation (by Trinity Rep in Providence, RI),
I would recommend against it.  Although well executed, Macbeth's madness
undermined the dramatic impact of the story, since he is no longer in
control of his actions, and therefore no loner responsible for them.

In contrast to Shakespeare's other great villains, Richard III, Iago &
Edmund, Macbeth is manipulated rather than manipulating.  While the
others embrace their evil with glee, Macbeth is, at first, a reluctant
sinner.  His increasingly homicidal behavior derives from the panic of
one that is in over his head and is lashing out blindly at imagined
threats.  He is thereby both the most sympathetic and the least
interesting of the group.  Against our will, we are seduced by the
cleverness with which Richard, Iago and Edmund commit their crimes.
(Interestingly, in each of their respective plays it is the villain who
most often addresses the audience, making us reluctant
co-conspirators.)  Our sympathy for M derives from our understanding of
how bad choices (moral or otherwise) can bring us to ill fortune.
Madness undercuts this.  A mad Macbeth is like the ranting bag lady that
we pity but with whom we cannot empathize.  In addition, madness drains
the impact of the bravery with which he meets his end.  The play, in a
way, comes full circle.  It begins and ends by presenting Macbeth as a
man of great military prowess and courage.  In between, we see his moral
weakness, and while his bravery in the end does not redeem him, it does
show why he was initially regarded as a hero.  In this, Shakespeare
cleverly contrasts the distinction between physical and moral courage,
and shows how the former often blinds us.

"I specify "in performance" simply because I don't want to get carried
away with a lot of fuss and bother about how schizophrenia might be
considered an anachronistic notion for Jacobean theater, etc. etc. blah
blah blah. The whole point of this email is not that I think the TEXT
supports a diagnosis of Macbeth as schizophrenic, but that I think a
production of Macbeth might do so."

I would not be so sanguine about applying modern interpretations "in
performance".  I've seen too many productions weakened by attempts to
shoehorn contemporary concepts into classical plays.  Shakespeare's
observations often anticipate modern psychology but they are still
rooted in a Renaissance understanding of human nature.  For example,
you've cleverly identified a number of behaviors that could be
legitimately interpreted as signs of schizophrenia.  However, IMHO, this
interpretation would not work either theoretically or in performance.

Philip Tomposki

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           L. Swilley <
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Date:           Sunday, 31 Mar 2002 15:09:19 -0000 (GMT)
Subject: 13.0873 'A Beautiful Macbeth'
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0873 'A Beautiful Macbeth'

Brad Berens writes,

>...  Generally speaking, Macbeth's
> increasing paranoia is not inconsistent with schizophrenia....
> In performance, what might the impact of this sort of interpretation
> be?  Might it make Macbeth more sympathetic?  Less sympathetic?  Would
> it affect the way the audience understood the relationship between
> Macbeth and his lady?  By the time we started to think that Macbeth was
> schizophrenic would we remember that Banquo saw the witches too in 1.3?
> Would we therefore conclude that the witches couldn't *always* be
> hallucinations?

As possibly with the John Nash character in "A Beautiful Mind," the
reduction of Macbeth's character to that of a schizophrenic would turn a
tragic subject into a pitiful object, hardly as dramatically commanding
situation as that of a character who knows reality as we know it and
consciously chooses and acts well or badly based on that knowledge.

At the end of "A Beautiful Mind," Nash finally recognizes that his
beleaguering "friends" are hallucinations and abandons them - but,
dramatically speaking, should it really have required the whole length
of the film for him to reach that reasonable conclusion?  I fear the
same problem would exist in Mr. Berens' "Macbeth"; unless the
hallucinations there were temporary, the character returning immediately
after each to our common reality, we would have another pitifully mad
Ophelia, rather than the dignity of a great mind deliberately choosing
disastrously. A character without the moral responsibility of sanity is
a static figure in a play or film. "A Beautiful Mind" should have
focused on Nash's wife and the divine comedy of her constant love that
brought him out of his hell of madness.

         L. Swilley

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