Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Macbeth (BBC, 1987)

            I think that, generally speaking, two things are required to lift a low budget production to greatness – a great script and a recognition on the part of the director that they have to use every means available to them – cutting, framing, acting, music, set design, the dexterity of the camera – to bring the script to life.  One example of this is the 1987 version of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold and starring Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles.
            Let me say – A.C. Bradley, and critics who follow him, take the opinion that Shakespeare, like the novel, is principally a reading experience, more or less to be appreciated on the page.  On this view, staged, the plays are of less interest. I must energetically disagree.  As this production shows, a film can illuminate Shakespeare in incredible ways.  In this filmed version there is so much visual information serving as clarifying commentary that it is virtually impossible to take it all in even after four or five viewings. 
            Some examples – the actors cast as Macduff and Banquo – Ian Hogg and Tony Doyle – are look alikes; the gate at Inverness is used as a symbol, and in one scene the spiked bars on it are framed as a spear coming down on Duncan’s head; as Macbeth, Nicol Williamson employs three or four different voices in an effort to communicate depth psychology (one of the voices, unfortunately, sounds like Linda Blair playing the possessed girl in The Exorcist); the excellent, moody music by Carl Davis is often perfectly matched to the action on the screen in the manner of the old Hollywood studio assembly line films; a tall, prominently displayed Fleance in scenes and ways we usually do not see;  the blazing red sky behind Duncan as he asks “What bloody man is that?” and the wild, vivid orange sky behind him and the others as they arrive at Macbeth’s castle: Jane Lapotaire’s sexually charged interpretation of the “Come, you spirits” scene;  the way that Macbeth’s castle Inverness is shown with no coherent sense, just a place of cold and dark geometry, while the castle where Malcolm and Macduff have their famous scene towards the end is an inviting place of pleasant blue sky and white stone; and I could go on and on.  I guess what I mean to say is that this is a visual MACBETH aimed at an audience that is familiar  with the play already.  It might not be the best version of the work for novices. 
            Here, in the center of this piece, we’ll look at a very few scenes (merely twenty snippets from approximately the first one sixth of the presentation or so) for some visual spice and then continue after that with some more reflection.

The three witches contort, face down, on a slab of rock amidst thunder and lightning.

“What bloody man is that?”

Malcolm implores the bloody man to give his knowledge of the broil. 

The bloody captain – “And well he deserves that name”

Macduff, usually not seen until much later, is here with Duncan on the far left

Banquo and Macbeth first encounter the witches. 

Macbeth and Banquo – Macbeth makes exaggerated, startled double takes roward Banquo during the predictions.

 During Ross’ news that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. 

Brilliant – the camera starts on Macbeth’s face in isolation and slowly pans left until we can see the others in the background.

Banquo thinking as he and Macbeth kneel before Duncan.

A closeup of Banquo as everyone leaves for the meal at Inverness on the fateful night when Macbeth kills Duncan.  You can practically hear the wheels of his mind turning.

Lady Macbeth framed between two spikes.

“Too full of the milk of human kindness…”

Lapotaire plays the scene, and thus establishes the character, in a very sexual way.  Even more astonishing, then, that she would give up her sexuality (“Unsex me here”) for ambition.


“We will speak further.”

Brilliant framing – the spikes on the castle gate look like spears descending on Banquo and Duncan.

A brilliant orange sky at the gate of Inverness.

Fleance is stressed, as he will be at the very end of the film.

            Gold’s proficiency with the camera and the lining up of shots, as well as his obvious knowledge of Shakespeare (this is not the only BBC Shakespeare series he did), are paramount here.  So are the set designs by Jerry Scott, and I’d call attention to four of these in particular.  The blood red sky behind Duncan and entourage in the “What bloody man is that?” scene; the bright orange sky behind the same group as they arrive at Inverness; the cold, dark, formless look of the interior of Inverness; and the light blue sky and bright white stone of the castle where Malcolm and Macduff meet near the end of the play.  All these visual cues are excellent and thought provoking.
            There’s also some interesting degree of emphasis on Banquo here.  I’ve already mentioned his visible thought process during Duncan’s talk, but the scene that begins “Thou hast it now…” is also brilliantly done here, with Banquo upfront, addressing the camera as though it were an aside, and Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and members of the court behind him.  Too, Fleance is very prominent in early scenes, and it is a stroke of genius and interpretation to have him stand by Macbeth’s slain body - the very last  image of the production. 
            There is so much else: the last time we see Duncan alive is at the dinner table, the camera closing in on his kind, gentle countenance.  At a particularly tense moment we see Macbeth’s hands behind his back, nervously twitching.  The three witches, silent and unseen, are on hand to witness Macduff leave for Fife the morning after Duncan’s murder.  I don’t know if, in a filmed presentation, having the ghost of Banquo be represented by an empty chair is the most effective way to stage the scene but Williamson and Lapotaire ace that decision here.  The thrones – hers noticeably smaller, indicating a degree of attention in the furniture making – shown empty at the top of a staircase adorned in a brilliant red carpet, are another beautiful touch.  And the high angle shots from behind Macbeth as he sits on the throne (in one scene with the murderers he hires to off Banquo, in another with the messenger who brings the news that the forest is moving), while being an antiquated cinematic tactic, ring effectively here.  And Carl Davis’ powerful music cannot be overlooked amidst all the powerful visuals.
            Finally we might make a quick observation about Jane Lapotaire’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth, which is sexually explosive from the get go – she whispers “Come, you spirits”, caresses herself, and is almost seducing and beckoning the spirits, making sexual moans while she says “Hold!  Hold!” A most interesting decoding of the role.

            All in all: a truly top notch rendering of the play, even an eye opening one in places.

What Is MACBETH About?

What Is MACBETH About?

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          Of course, one could probably spend a lifetime trying to get to all the scholarship in existence about Macbeth – every book, every essay – and not succeed.  My own degree of reading is stuck in the novice stage at this point in time, but from what I have read I must say the work is considered by critics to contain immortal messages and eternal truths, characters larger than life, and to be dramatic art of the highest possible quality.  Doubtless this all is so, but here I am setting my sights a little lower, going in perhaps a different direction that emphasizes not so much the dialogue itself or the play’s themes or psychological insight into people but rather what the characters do; and what they do in large measure is deliver and receive messages, news bulletins and reports which, in the main, recipients do not question the veracity of and which, in the main, is true and accurate information.  Indeed, the words “report” and “news” and their synonyms appear quite often in the play.
            In most of these cases the news delivered concerns happenings that are absolutely essential to the narrative engine of the action and the drama.
Before looking at this a little more closely we might sample some snippets of criticism about the work:

            A.C. Bradley (Lectures on Shakespearean Tragedy):
            “The chief characters, built on a scale at least as large as that of Othello, seem to
attain at times an almost superhuman stature.”
            “Both are sublime, and both inspire, far more than the other tragic heroes, the feeling of awe.”

            Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human):
            “I do not know whether God created Shakespeare, but I know that Shakespeare created us to an altogether startling degree.  In relation to his perpetual audience Shakespeare is a kind of mortal god; our instruments for measuring him break when we try to apply them.”

            Mark Van Doren (Macbeth):

            “Macbeth is incomparably brilliant as it stands, and within its limits perfect.  What it does, it does with flawless force.”

            Cleanth Brooks (The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness):
            “Undoubtedly Macbeth is great, magnificently great…it is worth remembering that is this that Shakespeare, with his unshrinking clarity of vision, repeatedly sees him.”

            Marjorie Garber (Shakespeare and Modern Culture):
            “If we begin in the nineteenth century, and then move to the present day, what will be evident is the way the play of Macbeth crosses boundaries, spilling over from the stage to the street, from the past to an uncanny repetition in history and culture.  As we will see, the appearance in the twentieth and twenty first centuries of new media – including film, television, and 24/7 political journalism – has increased the rapidity and ubiquity with which this particular Shakespearean play is invoked.”

This quote from Caroline F.E. Spurgeon’s amazing book Shakespeare’s Imagery, while not specifically about the Scottish play, is also illustrative of the overall point:
            “No one could read Shakespeare closely for years without being reduced to a condition of complete humility…”

            Derivation in criticism is widespread and desirable, of course, but what is on the page – literally the print on the paper – is often more largely revealing of the author’s intentions.  Shakespeare’s stage directions are minimal to non existent (especially when compared to, say, Eugene O’Neill’s), so we may frequently want to look at different productions of the same play to help us gauge perhaps what the meaning or intention was.  I’ve studied four versions of Macbeth on DVD carefully enough to be fully convinced that my claim above about what the play is at least partially about - which is, again, the delivery of news and reports – is accurate.
            In what follows below I’ll present twenty examples from the drama to support the observation and comment briefly.
             Act 1, Scene 2 - Here the bloody man delivers a report – and Duncan actually says “He can report” – about Macbeth’s bravery and courage. 
            A word about this – Duncan seems to be excessively trusting.  Perhaps this is why he is habitually betrayed by people like Cawdor and Macbeth.  It seems a trifle odd to me that, for instance, he is relying on the contingency of a chance, accidental meeting with a wounded soldier for information about how his own army is performing.  Wouldn’t the king have an extensive network of spies and scouts?
            Act 1, Scene 2 – Ross arrives to report of Macbeth’s bravery versus Norway.  Again, Duncan appears to be relying on complete happenstance for this important information.  He doesn’t even recognize Ross, one of his own thanes!
            Act 1, Scene 3 – Here the three witches report to each other.  Largely irrelevant.
            Act 1, Scene 4 – Here Malcolm brings news to Duncan of Cawdor’s execution.  The scene is important because it stresses Duncan’s na├»ve consciousness.  He mentions his “absolute trust” in Cawdor – he is about to place the same in Macbeth, with a worse result. 
            Act 1, Scene 5 – Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth fills her in on the prophecies of the witches and their subsequent coming true.  It’s important to note that the witches’ predictions early on are given full credence while, later on, the importance of their later ones is perhaps not fully appreciated by Macbeth.
            Act 1, Scene 5 – The servant brings Lady Macbeth the news that Duncan will visit that night.  Notice that in this brief conversation both “tidings” and “news” appear, thus strengthening the theme.
            Act 1, Scene 7 - “How now!  What news?”
            Act 2, Scene 2 – Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth the killing of Duncan
            Act 3, Scene 1 – Macbeth reveals (to the audience) through his dialogue with the hired murderers that he has reported news of Banquo’s wrongdoings against the murderers to them, the murderers.  This is the one place where we might wonder if the news report in question is true or not.  It may not be – Banquo does not appear to have been the type for malicious foul play. 
            Act 3, Scene 4 – The Murderer brings the news of Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth.

            Act 3, Scene 6 – The unnamed LORD reports to Lennox that Malcolm and Macduff are in England seeking the aid of Edward.
            Act 4, Scene 1 – The apparitions deliver predictions which we may consider news by this point in the play, though I acknowledge this characterization might be questioned.
            Act 4, Scene 1 – Lennox reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England.
            Act 4, Scene 2 - The messenger arrives to advise Lady Macduff to flee.
            Act 4, Scene 3 – Ross brings Macduff the dreadful news.
            Act 5, Scene 2 – Caithness provides Mentieth will military intelligence.
            Act 5, Scene 3 – “Bring me no more reports.”
            Act 5, Scene 5 - Seyton gives the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
            Act 5, Scene 5 – The messenger reports that Birnam Wood is moving.
            Act 5, Scene 8 – Macduff gives the news that he is not of woman born.