Angels and Ministers of Grace

Macbeth: Banquet Scene by George Romney

Other scholars point pragmatically to the many violent swordfights and smoky special effects the plays contain, but Hamlet and the history plays are equally full of swordplay and walking ghosts. In fact, skeptical theater historians argue that just as many actors have come to grief during the swordfights in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. They also point out that theatrical troupes, always operating on the cusp of financial ruin, frequently pull out the crowd-pleasing Macbeth as a last resort when they need some ready cash. Not surprisingly, the Scottish Play is then the last play a company performs before going under. Other pragmatic theories suggest that the play’s popularity results in longer-than-usual runs, during which time, according to the laws of probability, something is bound to go wrong.

Huggett suggests that Macbeth alone of all Shakespeare’s plays presents an atmosphere of menace and gloom unrelieved by any virtuous characters (like Hamlet’s Horatio or Othello’s Desdemona) at all, but the same could be said of the cynical tragicomedies of John Ford and Thomas Middleton.

I believe the curse has roots that are both deeper and multi-sourced. Theater is, as I’ve noted, a ritual art with deep connections to shamanic practice. The actor calls powerful forces into being with the use of her body, voice, and mind. She literally transcends time, pulling the thoughts and words of long-dead writers from the page and embodying them. A good actor, of course, is able to convincingly portray any emotion or action regardless of his personal state of mind at the time, but it seems reasonable that, if an actor rehearses, prepares, and performs a role convinced — for whatever reason — that he is calling particular forces into being, he will make himself a conduit for whatever energies he invokes. This is not to blame the victim — no actor deserves to be skewered onstage or to literally break a leg — but actors know all too well that they are tempting fate every time they walk onto a stage. In most cases, the worst an actor is likely to suffer is personal embarrassment.

In rare, cases, however, the price for invoking the power of Fate is far more deadly. The three “witches” in Macbeth are not actually witches at all, but embodiments of the Three Fates of Greek mythology. No other drama in English has dared to give the Fates faces and voices. Macbeth calls them the “weird sisters,” which is a version of “wyrd,” the Anglo-Saxon word for Fate. They are also associated in the play with their leader, Hecate, herself a personification of the Triple Goddess, the triune maiden, mother and crone, who themselves are another way of picturing Klotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the Moirae who spin, measure and cut the human thread of life. The Fates are also sisters to the Eumenides, ironically called by all who fear them the Kindly Ones (and like the Scottish Play, they are not to be named!) — the terrible Furies who hunt down kin-slayers.

The Fates by A.H. Payne,
after a painting by Michaelangelo

Macbeth, when he meets the three “witches,” meets all these figures in one. His great tragedy is that he believes himself immune to the law of fate, but in drama, at least, all murderers must face the consequences of their deeds. He has murdered his own king, a crime worse than kin-slaying, so he therefore brings the wrath of the Furies upon himself. Most horribly, he insults the Triple goddess in a number of ways: he breaks the line of primogeniture by murdering a king and taking the throne from his sons; he also orders the murders of not one but two sets of parents and children; and he believes and boasts of the witches’ prophecy that he cannot be killed by any man “of woman born.” The Furies have the last laugh, however, when they send Duncan, a man “untimely ripp’d” from his mother’s womb (by Caesarian) , to finally face down Macbeth.

No other play in English has the Fates personally preside over their own workings. Small wonder that no other play in English inspires such fear in those who, like Macbeth, take on a role perhaps too great for any human to fill. Many folk fear witches, devils, and Fate, but only actors are ever expected to take on their forms. The shape-shifting faery Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — one of the first, but by no means the last, actor-characters Shakespeare wrote — assures his audience as his fellow-fairies bless the stage, that no real spirits have been called down:

If these shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream

— A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
Epilogue,1-6

His later counterpart, the master-director Prospero, similarly acknowledges the dangers of theatrical illusion, as he prepares to reject his magical profession and re-enter the “real” world:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud–capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, yea, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

— The Tempest, 5.1.167-175

Both these characters acknowledge, at the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s career, that the stage is a unique space. It calls into being unseen powers and gives unseen beings “a local habitation and a name.” As such, it presents the danger of contagion both to those who are on it and those who watch it — a danger so great, in fact, that both Prospero and Puck take great pains to assure us that we can — that we must protect ourselves by remembering that stage illusions are only dreams.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
by John Singer Sargent

The tremendous irony of dramatic art is that, the more complete the illusion of reality, the more powerful the emotional and spiritual experience that is created. Actors, knowing that to create such a paradox is to perpetually — and beautifully — disturb the numinous fabric of reality, comfort and strengthen themselves with a rich tapestry of oral traditions and personal rituals. They are referred to as “theatrical superstitions,” but they are more properly part of the complex spiritual world of the professional theater, which is itself a descendent of our oldest and most sacred rituals.