Friday 29 June 2012

The meanings of "MacBeth"

 - -  Ethan Hawke movingly offers insights into "MacBeth" in BBC's "Shakespeare Uncovered" series. I would recommend viewing it on IPlayer - for its serious approach.

Hawke admirably tries to deeply examine the psychology of the motivation for the murder of Duncan and measure of the witches' influence. Memorably , the programme shows real-life Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, with the blasted heath: they are indeed very eerie places.

Outside the Christian framework, the modern analysis cannot do justice to witches, fortune-tellers and ghosts.  Until the Enlightenment, there were terrible witch hunts against "witches" across Europe, which Christianity roundly rejects and condemns as pagan. Witch hunts were common in pre-Christian times. Those without morality, in burning a witch or "heretic", would wrongly cite Scriture in claiming that they were "saving the soul by destroying the body".

Christians viewing "MacBeth" in the 16th century would have known that fortune-telling (in Macbeth), giving credence to ghosts (in Hamlet) and talking with witches (in Macbeth) were forbidden by the Church and viewed as "consulting with the Devil". Such practices are still forbidden to Christians - but the wider population may not be aware of that.

King Saul in the Bible forces the Witch of Endor to raise the spirit of Samuel. Shakespeare surely drew a lot of the atmosphere on "the blasted heath" from this chilling story. Of course, Saul was punished for dabbling with the occult.

Shakespeare may have intended the ghost of Banquo, who appears at a royal dinner party visible to Macbeth, as "raised" by the witches, rather than a hallucination. The witches are certainly actively evil in their practices against MacBeth e.g. in their mocking prophecies:  "No man born of woman"...shall kill MacBeth and "MacBeth will not be vanquished till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsiname..."

In its understanding of Macbeth, the secular modern mind attains to the basic Christian understanding that we are capable of great evil and that Macbeth is "like us". However, Shakespeare's audience, literate in the Bible and the catechism already knew that "we are all sinners".

Therefore, their challenge was not "We should be aware that we are all capable of what Macbeth did!"


"How might an admired human being, once a "hero", be influenced to treason by fiends in the form of witches, a fiend in the form of his wife and by their own ambition?"

I think in "MacBeth", Shakespeare was re-packaging the story of the madly ambitious Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex, favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who staged a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 and was executed for it.  He had been lauded and spoilt by her, as a military leader (as MacBeth had been by King Duncan). Inspite of this, he betrayed her: a blood relative. Who influenced him to such disloyal madness?

Was Shakespeare suggesting that Essex's wife, Frances Walsingham was a secret Lady Macbeth, or at least that "Essex plus Frances", like "MacBeth plus Lady MacBeth" had been dangerous to the anointed Monarch and to the divinely-ordained State?

Frances Walsingham's several marriages to eligible men suggest that she was an alluring woman, "a lady of great beauty and fascination". Early portraits show her to have been rather attractive. Her childhood had been tainted by the experience of the St Batholomew Day massacre in Paris, a bloodbath, ordered by Lady Macbeth-like, Catherine of Medici. She was chosen as a very young wife, by "ideal" Philip Sidney, whose career Elizabeth did not smile upon, and was with him, at his untimely death for Queen and Country.

As a widow, she attracted handsome Robert Devereaux who bought Englefield House (see photos) just to woo and marry her and together, they had eight children. After his death, The Essex properties were forfeit to the Crown and Frances lost her marriage portion. She promptly married the even more presentable Earl of Clanricarde, whom aged Elizabeth 1st sought as an admirer and became a Catholic, which shocked the Court because both Sidney and Essex had led the Protestant factions at Court. So there was something opaque, in Frances, hidden to people who knew her, that could suddenly shift, in questions of deep loyality, and shock people....  Elizabeth gave them both South Frith in Kent, enabling them to build a Jacobean house which still stands (see photos).

Frances and Robert's son became a key military leader against the King during The Civil War, so her views are likely to have been "Republican". She may have felt that her loyal Calvinist father, spymaster Walsingham, did not receive the rewards he deserved from Queen Elizabeth for his staunch defence of her and the Protestant realm.

Frances Walsingham is buried in Tonbridge Church, according to The Dictionary of National Biography. Oddly, there is no marker, or grand tombstone. Robert Devereux is buried in the Chapel of St Peter's Vincula in The Tower of London - as a traitor.

Prince William is descended from both of them through his mother. MacBeth's royal descendants, on the other hand, are "cut off" - as noted by the Bard.

Further information
Englefield House - home of the Essex's - refers to Frances as:  a "lady of great beauty and fascination". The house is in private hands.
Practical outward reasons for the Essex rebellion

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