At this time in my life I am beginning to view so much of what is happening around me through an increasingly cynical prism. As a friend is quick to point out, though, that behind every committed cynic there is a disappointed idealist wondering what happened to a world that once seemed so good and full of possibilities.
I blame Shakespeare for part of my mental dyspepsia. It all began back in university when a supercilious professor dressed down a fellow student for misspelling the bard’s name. Now after reading Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World As Stage, I find that the playwright himself spelled his own name in any number of ways including Wiim Shaksp, William Shakespe, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere, or William Shakspeare.
Even in spellings can be found the seed of ambiguity and discontent.
The question of my cynicism comes perhaps from seeing too many of Shakespeare’s tragedies and a host of his bloody histories too close together. So many of these plangent plays are set in such deep darkness that one cannot imagine watching some of the savagery in the light of a summer afternoon while stretched out on a blanket sipping a glass of wine. The action is all too often on windswept and foggy fields or in cold and darkened castles or dungeons. One can easily be swept up in the moral confusion, where evil is depicted as good and good is rendered evil.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”
Although the language can be difficult at times and foreign to our distant ears, it is also a treasure trove with a wealth of expression to give us a fresh view of our own times. After all, themes of overreaching ambition, jealousy, manipulation, corruption, revenge and even murder transcend time and distance. Some of the political skulduggery we read about on a daily basis in our own world has been reflected in parodied ways harking back to Shakespeare. Who cannot understand such twists as,
“Double, double, Toil and Trouble,
Parties burn and Nonsense bubble.”
At times, there is not enough safe ground to avoid the many hissing snakes with striking heads.
With this frame of mind, my wife Jody and I recently saw a riveting production of Macbeth. Earlier in the summer, we had heard Sir Kenneth Branagh along with other actors interviewed on his recent production in Brooklyn. In the round-table discussion, he and Alex Kingston who plays Lady Macbeth tried to make a case that the good lady is not the villain everyone likes to think she is. She might have been the mighty thane’s adored wife, but she was nonetheless overly ambitious to a fault and his co-conspirator in treachery. An innocent bystander she wasn’t nor even faintly approximated.
The production was so powerful that the haunting presence of her refused to stay behind the curtain and got in the back seat as we made our way home. Try as hard as we could, we couldn’t shake her performance. It took us time to exhale and leave this play and the main characters, especially her, behind after spending a couple of hours in the midst of the desolation and despair of a man who has sold his soul only to be confronted by the hollowness of tyrannical power. As we all know, they both lose each other and themselves in their go for it. A number of others are also piled up like cordwood along the way.
The fast-paced production was amazing in how it relentlessly captured a slice of life coated in blood and sweat and described as a tale full of sound and fury told by an idiot. One would have to be tone deaf not to see the easy parallels with our own world. Contrary to any of our desires, the play continued to unfurl and unnerve us for a couple of days. Dreams even played out by finding us suddenly falling into a wormhole and transported back in time to live in the Scottish court of Duncan or Macbeth. If there ever was a more frightening prospect, that was quite a nightmare. Of course, one doesn’t need a fanciful wormhole to enter that realm when all that is required is a TV set tuned to the evening news.
On a chilling personal note, we walked away from the play with an especially strong conviction to look deep into ourselves and sweep out any of the Macbeth that might be hiding in our own cobwebs. No mention of plots and unholy desires would preoccupy our pillow talk.
It is the cynicism, though, that stays with me. So my question is how best to confront this wolf at the door which makes me suspicious of what the form on the other side expects of me. Is the noise of everyday political life so twisted as to be totally unreliable? Is the loud hammering of Lady Macbeth urging me to march without stumbling into the darkness a form of malice that will ultimately take more than my life? Is the banal evil of those who deliberately set out to deceive us intoned in easy answers to difficult and complex questions?
For me, a trip to the theater can obviously be an illuminating but also a frightening experience. Next outing will be to see As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We all need some relief from the reality around us which is a good reminder, in the words of Ogden Nash,
“There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.”