Ascension, election, or murder
By Jessica Ullian
The abiding fame of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s celebrated play about the corrupt general who hatches a deadly plot to ascend to the throne of Scotland, is rooted in a complex brew of history and witchery, according to CAS English Professor William Carroll. The play debuted in the early 17th century as a commentary on King James I of England and the questions surrounding his right to the throne, establishing Macbeth’s popularity as a compelling political drama. The character of Macbeth adds to the intrigue, says Carroll — he is at once engaging and withdrawn, often concealing as much as he reveals. And the play’s images, from the opening witches’ incantation to Lady Macbeth’s mad compulsion to cleanse the blood from her hands, are lurid enough to rival the bloodshed in many modern-day forms of entertainment.
“It’s the sensationalism of the play,” says Carroll, a noted Shakespeare scholar. “You could call it Kill Duncan, Volume 1.”
Carroll will examine these issues in this year’s University Lecture, Macbeth and the Show of Kings, which he will deliver on Thursday, April 28, at the Tsai Performance Center. He chose Macbeth partly because “it seemed to be a topic that would be accessible to a lot of people,” he says — he could allude to various characters and scenes knowing the audience would have a general idea of the plot. But Carroll, the president of the Shakespeare Association of America, also had more scholarly reasons for selecting Macbeth: the play’s portrayal of the rites and politics surrounding succession to the throne provide a detailed commentary on historical events at the time.
“It seems to be reflecting a lot of the issues of the time about how one becomes king,” says Carroll, “through ascension, or election, or murder.”
When exploring Macbeth, the history behind the play makes an interesting subtext: a few years before it was written, in approximately 1606, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England amid questions about whether he was the legitimate heir to the throne, explains Carroll. The speculation about his legitimacy continued for years after James became king, and provided an opportunity for several playwrights of the time, Shakespeare among them, to examine the situation. Setting the play in Scotland rather than in England provided a very thin veil for the commentary. “The strategy of playwrights in this period was to talk about contemporary issues by staging their plays somewhere else,” says Carroll. “It was very popular.”
The barbarism of the play was also a draw for the English audience at the time: the play’s depiction of Scotland’s nobles as deranged, power-hungry brutes conformed to the British image of Scots as uncivilized barbarians. The irony, says Carroll, was that England was now led by a Scottish king. “It certainly was talking about the dreadful Scots,” he says of the play, “but they were now us.”
Added intrigue is provided through the revelatory nature of the title character — like Hamlet, Macbeth is given so many complex and important soliloquies that he seems to be revealing all of his inner thoughts. The tendency makes the character “particularly engaging,” says Carroll, especially as he pours out his guilt over the planned, and eventually completed, murder of Duncan. But his actions, as well as his own fall towards insanity, show how much of Macbeth’s character remains concealed even as he seems to tell the audience everything.
Royal succession — and the tragedy that often accompanies it — is the subject of a critical text that Carroll is currently writing; these are just two of the themes he has explored in his decades as a Shakespeare scholar. He joined the Boston University faculty in 1972, and has previously published books on Shakespeare’s language, metamorphoses in his comedies, and representations of poverty throughout the plays. In addition to the book on succession, he is currently working on a new edition of Love’s Labours Lost and a novella about Macbeth.
His interest in Shakespeare is easily sustained, he says; like the playwright’s description of Cleopatra, the plays themselves show “an infinite variety” and his perceptions and ideas about them continue to evolve. The challenge for Carroll, the winner of the 1980 Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching and an Outstanding Teaching Award in the CAS Honors Program, is helping students overcome their intimidation, and understand that the rewards outweigh the difficulties. The language, the characters, the endlessly fascinating plots, and the piercing historical observations are all supplemented by an “unfailing sense of what worked on the stage,” says Carroll. “He sort of had the alchemical touch.”
Macbeth, he says, which has retained its popularity for 400 years, is evidence of that. And while Carroll admits that the process of learning Shakespeare can be daunting, the lasting themes that make a 17th-century play relevant in the 21st demonstrate why it is a worthwhile endeavor.
“Shakespeare has become the single most important writer in the canon of Western literature,” he says. “And when you get it right, he’s the best.”