Shaped as it is by the murder of a king and the consequences (both personal and national) that follow, Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most chilling warnings about the pursuit of power and its effects. Visually, it is a play steeped in blood, described by its title character at one point as a river into which he has waded so far that he may as well carry on rather than go back to the bank from which he set out. At the same time, though, some of its worst horrors remain unseen and exist only so far as characters describe them: we never see Duncan’s body after the murder, any more than we are shown the fate of his horses, turning on themselves and eating each other in the terrible confusion that ensues when the man who kept the kingdom together is dead.
What we do see, in frightening detail, is the psychological collapse of the title character and his wife: a couple united by the desire for power and undone by the price they pay for securing it. Duncan’s murder, so easily planned and carried out, proves to be not the end of a process so much as its beginning. “Naught’s had, all’s spent,” as Lady Macbeth reflects later, “where our desire is got without content.” Her husband, having killed once, sees security only in killing again, always looking for the next threat to his insecure position and thinking that one more victim – Banquo, Fleance, Macduff – will be enough to make things safe. At the end of the play, the cycle of violence is closed when Macduff kills the usurper and (in the text if not in every production) presents his head to Malcolm prior to acclaiming Duncan’s oldest son as the new and rightful king. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, has met her end in an off-stage suicide that denies her at the last any of the play’s attention beyond a third-party incident report. So much for ambition, Shakespeare tells his audience: legitimate power is not to be seized by those who should not have it, and if they try and circumvent this rule then they are not allowed to prosper for long.
Polly Findlay’s excellent production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (now in its London residency after a season in Stratford) sets a clear time limit on the Macbeths’ reign by starting a digital countdown clock on stage once the plan to murder Duncan is in motion. The clock reaches zero at the moment Macbeth dies when, as Macduff announces, “the time is free” once again. In between those two moments the play proceeds with the pace of a thriller, as conspiracies are hatched and rivals killed. At the same time, though, the speed with which the loyal and noble soldier of the first Act descends into murderous paranoia makes you appreciate that Macbeth’s tragic fall is so vertiginous because he was already in such high status when the play began. Here, at the moment when Duncan announces that Malcolm is to be his heir, Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth takes a step forward as though in anticipation of his promotion only to stand back, abashed, once the other name is mentioned. He already had the King’s trust and gratitude, but didn’t find them to be enough once the issue of succession set blood above loyalty. As such, he plans to shed the royal blood and make his own rules, with consequences no less horrific for their being so well known.
Eccleston and Niamh Cusack are compelling as the Macbeths, by turns intoxicated by their ambition and horrified by the depths into which it plunges them. As the death toll rises in this production the Porter keeps a chalk tally on a wall at the back of the stage, only to abandon the task as the play nears its conclusion, endlessly replicating the numbers of dead not only as a result of Macbeth’s own plotting but the wider wave of terror that his reign has unleashed on Scotland, the “poor country, almost afraid to know itself.” The top-down use of violence as a political tool impacts not only those on stage, Shakespeare reminds us, but those over whom they claim to rule, the deaths we don’t see and the victims who don’t have voices.
Capturing the febrile mood of a post-Gunpowder Plot country, Macbeth has always been a play that warns of the consequences when rightful power is usurped and the state collapses without its divinely-appointed leader. Duncan’s murder is not just the extinction of a life but a rejection of a whole scheme of order. Nothing less that the Macbeths’ eradication will satisfy the play’s need for restored harmony, and Shakespeare’s deft means of having Macbeth killed by Macduff (arguably English Literature’s most famous Cesarean-section birth) allows Malcolm to assume his throne without having had to kill to get it. The cycle of violence, the audience hopes, is closed.
Findlay recognises, though, that in many respects we are living in times as troubled as Shakespeare’s original audience, disturbed by authoritarian leanings and state-sponsored terror, and as fearful for the integrity of the nation state and its populace as any 17th century playgoer. In the play’s final scene – with the clock at zero and Malcolm crowned – she raises one of the play’s unanswered questions: how will Fleance fulfill the Witches’ prophecy to Banquo, “thou shalt get kings / Though thou be none”? Here, in what should be a resolution to the turmoil of the previous two hours Fleance enters and circles the new King as the witches reappear on the balcony above the stage. “When shall we three meet again?” the trio asks, as the countdown clock accelerates back into life before stopping again at the two-hour mark. The play’s conclusion has rarely felt less secure, and perhaps more timely.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production runs at the Barbican Theatre, London, until 18th January 2019. For more details see https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/