Jai Courtney as Macbeth

Feature | Stepped in blood

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Macbeth is widely considered Shakespeare’s most popular play; a bloodthirsty and timeless tale about the price of ambition.

The story of a soldier in 11th century Scotland has been adapted and reimagined innumerable times, often by the world’s most prolific actors and directors, with parallels drawn, and then redrawn, between Macbeth and history’s greatest dictators.

At its core, the story of Macbeth explores themes of free will in contest with the notion of fate; ambition overriding the responsibility of duty; violence, betrayal and political machinations, and perhaps above all else, the power of the psyche and its capacity to destroy a human being from the inside out.

Dr David McInnis, the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at Melbourne University, believes that ‘in our contemporary world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the power of rhetoric and the rhetoric that comes with power have never been more important.’

Macbeth acts upon the witches’ riddling prophecies without pausing to ascertain the veracity of what he hears. The witches’ divinations ring true for our current political climate, he says. Party promises are broken and agendas are designed to mislead, rather than inform of a more modest but genuine plan. The witches’ use of equivocation, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, seems particularly pertinent to current political spin.

Shakespeare was politically judicious and wrote Macbeth during the Gunpowder plot of November 1605 – a notorious act of terrorism where Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up Parliament House and assassinate King James I. In the following years, all citizens were required to take oaths of allegiance to the King. One of the virtues of Shakespeare’s writing, however, is his resistance to topicality, a literary choice that has made Shakespearean tragedies relevant centuries later. ‘Shakespeare deliberately avoids overt topicality and attends instead to underlying themes and motivations,’ McInnis says. ‘The result is a play that stands the test of time and can offer fresh insights into political power-play and violent ambition.’

The notion of a ruthless despot led by self-gain may be the oldest and most common story in global politics. Director Simon Phillips believes the appeal in Macbeth’s character boils down to the fact he commits a series of crimes knowing them to be wrong. Macbeth grapples with his conscience initially, before disintegrating into a leader without scruples, led completely insane. ‘[Macbeth and Lady Macbeth] reap the rewards or the consequences of their actions. And here we have the fascination of watching people do something that they know to be wrong. They know it’s wrong even as they are doing it. Watching that come unstuck, with the added juice of seemingly impossible premonitions in Macbeth, makes for great drama.’

Macbeth is a Christian play, and more universally, a moral play, McInnis says. Macduff morphs into a Christ-like character, while Macbeth takes on full satanic qualities by the play’s end. ‘Macduff urges Malcolm, Banquo and others to “rise up and walk like sprites” from “your graves”, and from that point on, Macbeth is consistently characterised as “devilish”, a “hell-hound” and “the brightest of fallen angels” (i.e. Lucifer).’

Macbeth is a play with underlying concerns that can be transplanted from Jacobean London, to gangland Melbourne and back to the historic Scottish highlands with ease. It’s a play that defies time and geography and begs us to ask the question – can we ever expect to live in a world without war, and without the violence that ensues when our conscious is abandoned?

Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.

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