A Macbeth of Our Times
At the outset let it be said that this is not intended to be a scholarly essay – the writer is a performer, not a scholar; and the most he can hope to do, within the brief space of this article, is to present an outline of how an Indian theatre-director, working in the early twenty-first century, may approach this seventeenth-century English text, dealing with semi legendary tenth-century Scottish events. At the outset let it also be said that this brief article owes its existence to Jan Kott’s marvellous essay, ‘Hamlet of the Mid-Century’, and particularly to his assertion that each age must decide for itself how much of us there is in Shakespeare and how much of Shakespeare there is in us.
Macbeth is a play of the night – indeed, one could imagine all the essential action of the play to be taking place at night, in darkness, under the clouded gaze of a bloody moon. The darkness of Macbeth is the primal darkness of the human soul, pierced by screams of terror and bloodlust. The opening scene pitches us straight into a world that is a battlefield, haunted by inhuman apparitions who have undermined all moral certitude, so that ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’. This world is not far removed from a world governed by the equations of gratuitous terror and ‘infinite justice’ – a world we know only too well. In fact, the opening scene could be straight out of the evening news beaming into our drawing rooms, with the witches being the endlessly gabbling, endlessly analysing television journalists, reporting with hysterical glee (for such it seems) from the site of yet another terror attack, be that New York, Gaza, Lahore or Jaipur. Such a way of looking perhaps calls into question the global media’s role in the seemingly endless cycle of terror and retribution that engulfs us – to what extent are the global media mere archivists of this ritual of blood, and to what extent do they, albeit involuntarily, perpetuate it by descending like eager vultures upon each such incident of human tragedy and making a mockery of it through their endless chattering, while the blood flows and flows in the cities of this world?
Blood is the central motif of Macbeth – it forms an almost conscious presence with a malevolent will of its own, independent of those who spill it and those from whom it is spilled, ensnaring both in its torrent. The whole play, at one level, is a dance macabre – like a Tantric rite where absolution is sought through blood. Blood is the price that all the characters pay for attaining or sustaining political hegemony – the treasonous Cawdor who joins Norway, the king who sends him to the gallows, Macbeth who follows regicide with political genocide (which sends a chill down the spines of those of us in India faced with the consequences of Hindu fundamentalism in the state of Gujarat and elsewhere, and terrified at the prospect of the fundamentalists seizing power at the centre), and finally Malcolm and Macduff who come to power bathed in the tyrant’s blood, hoping that ‘the time is free’. But do they really control events, or are they controlled by the blood they shed, not realizing that their actions will never ‘trammel up the consequence’, that there will always be judgement and counter judgement – a downward spiral descending into hellish depths. The ‘damned spot’ of blood will never be out – it will unsex us, de-humanize us, and grow bloated and monstrous until it does indeed the ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’.
This is perhaps what we see when we look at the play through the lens of our desperate, blood-drowned days when all semblance of harmony is about to vanish and our very humanity has almost turned into bestiality. Yet the tyrant’s final, great soliloquy could be a lesson for the tyrants of our times, whether they sit in the White House or in the mountain caves of Central Asia; should they realize that they are but spewing idiotic tales that, in the final analysis, signify nothing. But will they? Or will they continue to be led on by daggers of the mind, while the knell tolls, and tolls for all of us, summoning us to hell?
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