PBS’s “Shakespeare Uncovered” (a six part series available on DVD for $34.99) takes viewers through the whole play. Actors, producers, dancers, mime performers and a forensic psychotherapist all meet with Ethan. They assist his quest to interpret lines, scenes, character motivation and the dominant question that runs through “Macbeth”: is man free to do his will or are there predetermining supernatural events that control him?
What’s great is "Shakespeare Uncovered" tackles issues in “Macbeth” in the temporal movement of the play.
"Shakespeare Uncovered" gets rolling with Act I, sc i and the witches or the weird sisters. The purpose of the episode isn’t simply to prepare a seasoned actor for a prestigious role, but to contrast historical and literary truth.
In Shakespeare’s day, witches were a very real threat to society and the monarchy. In real life (back then) people knew who the witches were--townspeople would talk about them in alehouses and elsewhere. Witches and their powerful language were believed to possess the power to absolutely destroy a divinely ordained monarchy.
16th and 17th century western history is “plagued by the belief in the devil and its ability to topple the monarchy” Hawke is assured by historians. So Hawke visits actor at the Globe Theater in London where the witches foretell Macbeth’s future while Banquo looks on.
Hawke has already informed his viewing audience before the journey got underway that he’s always been afraid of Macbeth. And much of that has to with the witches. Rhetorical conversation about the witches and the supernatural in “Macbeth” query whether or not Macbeth, the character, is corrupted by the witches and whether or not the witches are truly evil (versus man or Macbeth being truly evil). Or are the witches nothing more than soothsayers while Macbeth is a man who chooses darkness and evil over light and goodness?
Hawke is convinced that the driving force of the supernatural turns Macbeth from a noble and decent guy into a conspiratorial murderer. Regardless, there’s more studying to do so historian Jason Champion skypes (or its internet equivalent) Hawke from Scotland’s Dunsinane Hills where the real Macbeth lived 1,000 years ago. Hawke takes in the view of Dunsinane from his tablet and declares that the hillside looks like a place where one would run into some witches. Of course, a full moon was visible in daylight.
The real Macbeth lived in Dunsinane, but he didn’t live in castle. Scotland didn’t have castles, but Dunsinane was indeed a heavily guarded fortress. In all likelihood, Duncan attacked Macbeth’s territory and Macbeth’s murder of Duncan was an absolute, yet simple, defense of Dunsinane.
In the end, Macbeth was defeated. Hawke wants to know why Shakespeare’s Macbeth is presented as an evil traitorous, murdering nihilist? Well that’s because history is written by the winners and the winners viewed Macbeth as a loser, Ethan learns. Macbeth was executed and that’s the history that Shakespeare had to work with.
Next up is Lady Macbeth who’s been portrayed in various styles over the centuries. Lady Macbeth is always aggressive and assertive. She may be physically domineering and in the case of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Lady Macbeth is sexually alluring and appealing woman in a “lusty” relationship with her husband.
And as Hawke studies Lady Macbeth with experts, they share a good laugh at the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth are one of the few, if not the only, happily married Shakespearean couple. But the question is whether or not Macbeth would have carried out his evil had she not urged him too.
As the play unfolds, Macbeth continues his murdering spree without Lady Macbeth’s knowledge. The ghost of his friend and potential foe Banquo appears at a dinner party which drives Macbeth mad. No one can see the ghost except Macbeth. It's horrifying and embarrassing so Lady Macbeth shoos off their dinner guests. In one production (presented in 2001), the couple laugh off the madness, but it’s the beginning of Lady Macbeth’s mental decline.
There’s still lingering question, however. Did Lady Macbeth make her husband a killer? And does she wield the power in that relationship?
Hawke decides that Lady Macbeth manipulated her husband in her famous speech about what it means to be a man. But Hawke also adds that the Mr. Macbeth was an “easy sell” because he’s a guy who wants to be manipulated.
Next it’s time for Ethan Hawke to act out Macbeth which requires a close study of the text. He meets with a former Shakespeare actor who has done the Macbeth role already. Hawke gets a reading and a feel for what’s happening, but like most students, Hawke is intimidated by the language and immediately disconnects when the words are incomprehensible to the 21st century ear.
Hawke then visits a forensic psychotherapist who attests to the realness of Macbeth’s behavior after the murders. The choppy language, the disconnect and the realization that he’s made a change in the universe that can’t be undone is typical of real people who murder the forensic psychotherapist says.
The psychotherapist doesn’t attest to Lady Macbeth’s infamous sleepwalking scene as an expression of guilt accomplices or real life serial killers undergo. But everyone agrees that Lady Macbeth and her husband are team and they are more than willing to move forward together.
In the final stretch of “Shakespeare Uncovered”, Hawke visits New York’s Morgan Library where Shakespeare’s folio resides in a vault. He thumbs through the original Macbeth play and gets to last page in the story which was literally on fire.
There’s a centuries old cigarette burn on the last page. The next page is the “Tragedy of Macbeth”.
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Shakespeare photo credit: wikipedia