Sunday, 21 July 2013

Macbeth and wildlife - SPOILER ALERT

I was inspired to write this post by the National Theatre Live production of Macbeth at the Picture House, Uckfield. As I watched Kenneth Branagh and others doing their stuff, I was struck by the number references to wildlife and the forces of nature in Shakespeare's text. The Picture House at Uckfield is going to be showing some encore performances. If you are planning on going, don't read this - it is full of SPOILERS.

The first line of the play is the stage direction:
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches.
Throughout the play, foul weather foretells foul deeds. The line introduces the scene which the three witches decide on the meeting that fires and corrupts Macbeth's ambition. They end by chanting:
all: Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.
The good King Duncan of Scotland and his thanes win a battle and they return to Macbeth's castle. The King and Banquo see swallows (called Martlets) and regard them as a symbol of the wholesome air of Macbeth's family seat and, by implication, of the Thane himself.
Banquo: This guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his lov'd mansionry that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here : no jutty, frieze, 
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird 
Hath made her pendent bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observ'd 
The air is delicate
In Sussex, we are familiar with martlets as they appear on the Sussex coat of arms.

But the the fair air of Macbeth's castle is already being corrupted by the witches' prophesy of Macbeth becoming King. Lady Macbeth had already interpreted a raven's crowing as predicting the death of the King under her roof. As Macbeth murders the King, she hears an owl shriek and rejoices because it foretells death.  Mercifully the hooting of the Tawny owls that I hear coming from Views (Williams) wood means nothing worse than an early start to a long commute.

After the murder is discovered, an old man talks to one of the King's noblemen outside Macbeth's castle.
Old Man: 'Tis unnatural, 
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
Ross: And Duncan's horses - a thing most strange and certain - 
Beautous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind
Old Man: 'Tis said they eat each other.
Ross: They did so; to the amazement of mine eyes,
Here the owl represents Macbeth and the falcon, the King. In the exchange about horses, minion means favourite and the suggestion is that the Macbeths, who had been favoured by the king, turned on him and would eventually destroy each other.

At the beginning of Act 4, the witches are once more chanting in darkness and thunder. They chant about many animals from the humble "hedge pig" to the exotic baboon - and of course the famous:
Frog hiding from 2nd Witch
2nd Witch: Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
We are privileged to have frogs living in our garden. At this time of year, bats do a very nice job of keeping insects under control as they swoop in front of our windows. I would be grateful if everyone refrained from turning them into a charm.

In his guilt, Macbeth becomes a terrible tyrant, hunting down all who may threaten him. Macduff flees Scotland. His wife asks their little boy how he might live without his father and the boy sweetly refers to living as birds do. He doesn't get the chance, because Macbeth has the whole family slaughtered. When Ray Fearon's Macduff finds out, his grief steals the show as he laments over the loss of his "pretty chickens" and calls Macbeth a "hell kite".

The nobles corner Macbeth and he fights to the bitter end:
Macbeth: They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course.
So there he is. In the course of 2 and a half electrifying hours Macbeth changes from a man whose honourable home was good enough for the fussy swallow to one who was compelled to fight to the death like a wounded bear tied to a stake.

Reference: Information about birds from the Birds theme of Shakespeare Navigators.

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