Some aspects of Shakespeare's great political tragedy "Macbeth," director Melia Bensussen writes in her notes to the current production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., "resonated... with our cultural moment."
Would that 'moment' be the one when our current Usurper sells out his country's interests, alliances, values, and national pride to the two-bit totalitarian gangster who currently runs the long-running catastrophe generally known as Russia?
"I thought about what moves and frightens us as contemporary audiences," Bensussen writes, and cites "how Macbeth's ambition, and belief in his imagination, lead to his destruction."
She quotes the estimable literary critic Harold Bloom: "(The Macbeths) delight in their wickedness... Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
Since 2016 there has been only one dominating influence on our 'cultural moment.' I won't say the name of the devil, but you know who I mean.
What else can be meant by the 'cultural moment'? Me-too? The sins exposed there don't appear to have a precursor in this play since the only woman who matters, Lady Macbeth, is more actor than victim. You can see the "delight" Bloom speaks of in Bensussen's direction when Lady M. laughs in the course of her encouragement of her husband to murder and usurp. To throw caution to the winds and have the 'courage' to risk all for the prize of royal power, and be ruthless in obtaining it.
They're playing the game of houses (or "Game of Thrones" as the TV series called it). Among other contenders for the Scottish crown we must count the head (Duncan's) currently wearing the crown, whose necked is saved by Macbeth's defeat of the rebels. Banquo, Macbeth's comrade in arms, is another rival. When we first meet Macbeth, he is triumphant in a just cause and likable. A furiously competent warrior, he takes pains to share the credit for the victory with Banquo.
But Banquo must be eliminated because of the witches' prophecy. Though he will not become king himself, they prophesy, his descendants will. Our hero-villain naturally prefers his heirs to sit on the throne (even though he doesn't appear to have any).
Other threats to his power include Duncan's son Malcolm. Suspecting correctly that he's a likely target of the conspiracy that murdered his father, he flees the castle before the Macbeths can take a run at him. Then there's Macduff. Though he evinces no appetite for the game of thrones power, simply because he is a name, a power center that might some day ally with Macbeth's enemies gathering across the border in England, the logic of tyranny says he must be eliminated.
Ask any tyrant in our own season.
Ask North Korea's Kim. Ask Putin why the oligarchs must be cut down to size before they become too popular or influential. Ask the Chinese Communist Party why no religious groups may operate in their country, no dissenters question their policies.
Unlike history's more famous tyrants, Shakespeare's Macbeth has something they don't -- a conscience. An unavoidable capacity to experience, to feel, the reality of what he's doing. After he has Banquo murdered, Banquo's ghost ("in his blood") turns up at the dinner table.
Macbeth's pathetic breakdown at the appearance of this ghost is black humor. Bensussen's production plays it for all that it's worth -- and then some; running the entire scene through twice. First with Banquo's ghostly appearance viewed by the audience. A second time with no 'ghost' on stage; the way, that is, the other guests would have perceived the occasion of Macbeth's mad-guilty ravings.
The word the play's scholars use for this inconvenient capacity in a ruthless usurper is "imagination." Bensussen writes, "Macbeth too strongly believes in his own imagination..."
He can, clearly, imagine himself king. But he can't help seeing the cost.
To go back to that quote from Bloom: "Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse."
Those last few words nail it. It's not enough to kill Macduff; you must kill his wife and children as well. No potential enemy can be left alive.
Just as, to take a current instance, it is not enough to deny refuge to frightened people fleeing a threat to their lives. You must separate them from their children when you throw them in jail. That will show them. They won't try coming here again.
But Macbeth, as I see it, chooses the path he does because he convinces himself that 'destiny' accords with his own desire for the crown.
And, of course, the three witches help with that convincing. "Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" they greet him, before Macbeth has learned that Duncan has bestowed this title on him -- and "All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!"
But the witches are (as they do again in a later scene), "equivocating" -- to use a term of moment. Shakespeare's moment that is. In the aftermath of the infamous "Gunpowder Plot," a terrorist plot to destroy King James I and the leadership of England's Protestant government, investigators faced the pernicious doctrine of "Equivocation."
The doctrine taught that it was morally lawful to swear to civil authorities that you are telling the truth, but also to hold back essential information if you have good reason to that accords with your religious faith. So if the sheriff asks you, "Did you hide a priest last night?" you can swear that you did not, because actually it was your son or your wife that hid him. And because, as a believer in the old religion -- Roman Catholicism -- you believe God's law smiles on this deed of withholding truth for a higher cause, rather than forbids it.
This is why the word shows up in Shakespeare's play and why the director of this "Shakespeare & Company" production has her actors emphasize it so strongly that it becomes a laugh line.
The witches equivocate to Macbeth by withholding the whole truth with a clear intention to mislead when they tell him that he has nothing to fear until "Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane" -- an apparent impossibility. Until, in a fashion, it happens. And also when they tell Macbeth that he need fear "no man of woman born."
Macbeth hears what he wishes to hear instead of considering the source and maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's a fitting fate for a once good man turned tyrant, and hollowed out morally as a result. Duncan's son Malcolm, -- born by Caesarean -- will run him through in the end.
That's why I missed seeing these telling scenes with the proverbial three witches in this "Shakespeare & Company" production. Bunsussen's show gave us only bare snippets of these encounters, and the three witches were economized to one. This RIFing also cheapens the historic context, since James I, England's new Stuart ruler, was a famous hunter of witches.
We may not have witches or witch-hunters among us today (though 'witch-hunt' is daily thrown about), but our world has no shortage of 'strongmen' who lust after power. And find confirmation of their greatness everywhere.
The omission of the witch scenes also slights the historical context because Shakespeare's play connects "Macbeth" to his own day by pointing out that England's new Scottish king is among Banquo's many descendants. The point is made by a daring device as the witches show Macbeth a charmed mirror in which he glimpses portraits of the long line of Banquo's descendants on his country's throne -- including new boy on the throne Jimmy (or 'Hamish') Stuart.
Macbeth is after all "the Scottish play." It's doubtful that this theme for a play would have occurred to Shakespeare if the throne of England had not recently passed to a Scottish king.
And revealing a play's connection to its own time helps connect it to our time as well -- because the through-stories in human history are always the same. Shakespeare's time had dynasties, powerful lords, and rule by tyrants called kings or queens.
We have dynastic families, billionaires -- our last election featured the wife of a former President against a tax-evading oligarch -- and an endless parade of celebrity egos who believe they're hearing destiny's call to greatness.
Not for nothing did the Constitutional framers create a governmental structure pitted with restraints on power. I questioned the need for so many of these myself when our gentle Duncan sat in the White House and suffered political impotence by a thousand cuts.
Now, however, we see how easy it is when a monster sits on the throne, surrounded by liars, thieves and toadies, to ignore all restraints simply by denying the claims of reason and fact and moral decency.
Maybe that's what Bloom meant when he wrote "Shakespeare sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
Today the Great Equivocator sits on the throne and tells us that what he told the foreign dictator yesterday is not what he meant to say. Today he will say something different that plays better at home.
His sycophants and enablers will rally around and say, "Yes, boss. Yes, boss."
History echoes in all our present moments. Will no one rid us of this turbulent beast?