MacBeth: A Soliloquy of Madness

The Arts


This essay is a meditation upon the production of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth, playing now on Broadway until July 14, which features a gripping Alan Cumming performing every major role. The setting is a mental hospital, sterile and minimal: a bed, a bathtub, a sink, wheelchairs doubling as thrones, a large one-way window, and three cameras, representing the three “Weird Sisters,” constantly watching the singular player. While the king’s share of “dialogue” and action is performed by Cumming himself, there are two other roles: a doctor (Jenny Stirling) and a nurse (Brendan Titley), who occasionally intrude by watching over or rushing in to sedate “the patient” during certain fits of madness. The audience shares the gaze of the Weird Sisters (who can represent the Three Fates or the Three Furies), which is projected on three large screens hanging above the stage.


MacBeth begins with “the patient” changing from his civilian clothes into his clinical clothes. He is weary and defeated as he clutches a paper sack marked “Evidence,” a prop that remains mysterious but central to the play, suggesting that we are not simply watching a creative re-telling of Shakespeare, but a mysterious doubling of the drama. The leitmotif of this performance is madness, which is always a diagnosis that presupposes a certain understanding of subjectivity and “the self.” If madness as a “losing” of the self is to be legible, we must first come to some understanding as to what a “self” is. The “madman” always throws us back on our own identities, presenting us with a mirror, however fractured that mirror may seem, into which we possibly see the truth of our own reflection.


All the mind’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts. The "actor:" the dispersion of the “self” into many roles, a shattering of the ego that remains intact, a whole that is a hole. Madness lies at both the excess and the deficiency, and it is just as insane to lock the "self" into a single “I,” some unchanging "soul" behind the flux of matter and experience, as it is to "lose" the self in a cacophony of multiple personalities. We are kings and paupers, loved and beloved, tongue and ear, the blade and the pierced bleeding flesh.


The Scottish philosopher David Hume writes that: "The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations." George Herbert Mead understands the "self" as "all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions… A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal." Walt Whitman waxes: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." The "self" is not a noun, but a verb, an activity, a plurality, a "walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hours upon the stage / And then is heard no more." I self, therefore I am, and the self without this strutting and fretting is but a candle snuffed “out, out.”


Alan Cummings
Alan Cumming in MacBeth


The Scottish actor enacts the truth of the Scottish philosopher through “that Scottish play.” Upon the stage, we see a man at war with himself, prophesying his fate, plotting his own murder, hesitating to carry out the deed, seducing and insulting himself so that he may have the gumption to proceed, burying the dagger in his own back, desublimating as he somnambulates, fleeing in fear in order to return to slay himself. A fragile body drained, his wispy hair mimics the frazzled state of his mind. Cumming as Macbeth. Cumming becoming Lady MacBeth. Cumming becoming Banquo. Cumming becoming MacDuff. Cumming becoming the Weird Sisters. Cumming becoming all, which is to say, Cumming becoming none. Cumming becoming a ghost. Imprisoned within the walls of the mental ward, within his tragic heart, an unraveling is woven: the drama of royalty, the slaughter bench of history, everything signifying nothing.


Sanity derives its roots from the Latin sanus meaning "healthy," which gives us "sanitation," connecting the sane mind to the clean mind. Here, in the sterile confines of the ward, we find this mad MacBeth, having done some dirty deed, his flesh marked like that first murderer Cain. Like Lady MacBeth, and her “damned spot,” he struggles to scrub out the cursed mark. But all these efforts are futile, resulting only in more wounds, more blood, more scars.

Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming is MacBeth (via Eileen Frater)


There are few clues of why MacBeth  committed: a neatly-folded paper bag marked "EVIDENCE,” inside a small striped sweater (accidentally shrunken, belonging to a lost child?). There are moments when the figure onstage momentarily becomes aware of the world beyond his isolated tragedy. During his fits of self-mutilation, the doctor and the orderly rush to sedate him. But this is precisely the pain: there is no “self” from which and upon which pain can be inflicted.


Three cameras, representing the Weird Sisters, are ubiquitous in their hyperreal surveillance. These digitized Fates and Furies watch the man as he dissolves. The audience’s eyes form part of the panopticon, bearing witness to his sad soliloquies. Yet, it is only in and through this network of gazes that a "self" is substantiated. The manifold truth of the "I" exists in all possible states until it is recognized by another; only then does it “collapse” into an identifiable "person." Our identities are distended, existing in the eyes of others, not in our own. The “I” cannot see itself, and the mind of the other remains a “black box” because it is just that: black, a void, a nothing, opaque precisely because wholly transparent. "There's no art / to find the mind's construction in the face," for there is no inner to decipher.


For the madman, all seems to be soliloquy. But the conversation issuing from his lonely lips yearns to be dialogue, a call from the self to another. We must remember that Narcissus was unaware the reflection in the pond was his own. He believed it to be another, and the withering away of his body and his transformation into a flower was not a retreat "into" himself, but a dispersion into nature, his reflection, the Other. It was love as Hegel describes it: "Being at home in the other." Love and madness, joy and grief, life and death—our identities only gain substance as they swing between these two poles.


Narcissus cannot be thought apart from Echo, the cursed mountain nymph who lost her own voice, and could only repeat the words of others. She follows Narcissus, pining for him, but he ignores her because he is locked in the desirous gaze of his own reflection—he only has eyes for one. As he calls out to this surface-self, Echo repeats his words in the only way she can, call out to him with his own words, creating the illusion that the image in the pond speaks, that it responds, that it loves. In this illusory circle, both Narcissus and Echo seem to appear, but are immediately effaced. The disturbed surface of the windswept pond marks the erasure of the self:  the self that loves and is mad; tastes joy and suffers grief; bearer of life and death. The self, like the agitated pond, sometimes appears concentric, uniform, and natural, but quickly becomes a tempestuous sound and fury of crests and crashes forming momentary whirlpools, around which broken sticks and fallen leaves spin and are pulled below the surface, drawn back into the primordial Nothing from which they emerged, and forward into tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming in MacBeth (via Eileen Frater)


The last line of MacBeth echoes the first, a mirror: "When shall we three meet again?” The audience sees him on stage with the doctor and the nurse, but is it they whom he addresses, or does he speak to others? At moments, ghostly figures appear on the surveillance screens. Does he then speak to a ghost? Is he addressing himself? Is he speaking to the Weird Sisters? Who are these three? What are these three? Shakespeare's ghosts are absences that permeate the play: King Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Banquo. They are the dead speaking through the living, the past haunting the present so that it cannot but flee into the future. And like these regal Nothings, the “self” is not the king sitting at the head of the banquet, but the phantasm sitting silently as it toasts with a cup o'brimming with emptiness.


Follow Eric on Twitter @eAnthamatten


Philosophy, Poetry, Theater