Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Clean, Well-Lighted Tragedy

Reading "Macbeth" of course makes me think of other Shakespearean tragedies, particularly "Hamlet." "Hamlet" dates from 1601, the year Shakespeare's father died, the year Essex unsuccessfully rebeled against Elizabeth, a year in which the succession to the English crown was on the minds of a great many nervous people. "Hamlet" is a dark, dense and claustrophobic play. Yet it's interesting to note that while a lot of corpses pile up onstage, it's not a particularly gory play. Most of the murders are committed with poison, after all.

"Macbeth," on the other hand, is a bloody play indeed (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are covered in blood during one memorable scene, and the images of blood on the hands continues through the rest of the play) but it's set often out-of-doors and the characters don't come across as prisoners to their environment. "Macbeth" has three grotesque witches but their scenes confront and amaze, rather than back us into a corner the way the ghost of Hamlet's father does. For a tragedy, "Macbeth" is, for want of a better phrase, an open and airy thing.

"Macbeth" was written several years after "Hamlet", with a couple of comedies and a run of tragedies ("Othello" and "King Lear") coming in between. None of Shakespeare's tragedies is as gloomy and closed-in as "Hamlet"; "King Lear" takes on madness and harrowing loneliness as major themes but even it fails to imprison the reader the way the Dane's tale does. It's got nothing to do with the ghost of Hamlet's father, either. It's in the language, "Hamlet" being full of eyes and ears and spying and prisons and evil portents and graveyards. "Hamlet" always makes me feel boxed in.

I keep making attempts to describe the difference I'm feeling between "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" in terms of level of claustrophobia and it must--it absolutely must--be in the prose, because there's nothing else but prose in the plays. Though maybe it's not; maybe it's in the action. Macbeth and his wife are murdering in secret, but they do it in full view of the audience. There's no question as to what they're doing, or why. "Hamlet" is, on the other hand, a sort of detective story, where we're not really sure who's telling the truth or who is allied to whom. Those things are all made clear to us in "Macbeth." Every character is onstage as himself, and while the story is more overtly brutal, it's also less murky than that of "Hamlet." It's a clean, well-lighted sort of play. Maybe it's that Macbeth is a happier guy than Hamlet Junior, and Hamlet's moods of moroseness color all the action in his story. I don't know. I think it's deeper than that. I wonder about the mood the author was in when he wrote "Hamlet." But I don't want to go looking into that, because I want to compare the works themselves, not speculate about Dead Billy S.

This is all a hash, an unorganized and poorly thought out stab at something I can't articulate. Tone, maybe, is the thing I should talk about. Well, I'll think about this some more.


  1. There is something suspended about Hamlet, the threat and the violence hangs about us, unseen, whereas in Macbeth, violence and danger is out in the open for all to me Hamlet has always been a sort of melancholy thriller, and Macbeth, definitely all-out horror.

    I don't know if I make any sense.

  2. Yeah, "suspended" is good. You never know from where death will come in "Hamlet." "Macbeth" is wall-to-wall violence, but it's all right there in front of you. Scene by scene you see Macbeth's worry increase and his killing frenzy ratchet upwards. Somehow, in comparison, "Hamlet" seems less honest.

    "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" --Macbeth