an old George Carlin routine

Books For the past few years I have been fermenting a theory about the porter’s scene in Macbeth. It’s the one moment of levity in what’s otherwise a fairly depressing, bloody play but it’s hampered within our context because it's riddled with contemporary references which render most of it unintelligible to our ears, let alone funny. One of the best productions I’ve seen did away with the Shakespeare's dialogue altogether replacing it with an old George Carlin routine and I think something similar was happening when the play was originally produced and revived during Shakespeare’s lifetime. I think that each time the porter appeared he would comment on a new set of contemporary events, like a Jacobian version of The Now Show and the version that was published in the Folio was the one that the compiler’s considered to be the classic..

All of which is of course, utter rubbish with little evidential prrof and in her appraisal of Macbeth, Kathleen E. McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Sratford-Upon-Avon, highlights precisely this kind of abuse, of the play and its writer. She demonstrates that across time from the plays potential first production through to the twentieth century, the essence of Macbeth's text has been stretched and bent to fit the preoccupations of each period, from Davenport’s blanding out and subtly extraction through to the feminist interpretations of the 70s and 80s that apply readings to the text that say more about the theorists themselves than the work as a piece of theatrical drama. It’s not Shakespeare himself doesn’t cast a long shadow; it’s that the nature of his being is also manipulated to fit each new analysis as well.

Arguably the most interesting sections of the book are when McLuskie indulges in her own brand of literary criticism and strips away the play’s theatrical history to return to Macbeth in its purest form, as the text which appears in the 1623 First Folio and tracks a reader’s experience when faced with just words on a page. She demonstrates that with just the verse and stage directions to work with, the reader’s translation, born of a need to concentrate more closely on the evidence and meaning of the text is at some variance with a theatrical experience in which the material is focused through the prism of the director and actor’s interpretation. When a stage direction says that the witches disappear, in our mind’s eye that’s exactly what happens, we don’t require the suspension of disbelief required in the theatre as the three figures sneak off stage.

If nothing else, McLuskie’s book is worth reading for her evisceration of the whole process of attempting to date the play based on the aforementioned porter’s scene and the connection some have made with the gunpowder plot. As she explains, interpreting the porter’s dialogue and translating the references only offers clues for the date when that scene was written. A contemporary account by someone who watched a performance didn’t think the scene important enough to warrant a mention so for all we know it could have been a late addition or a special interpolation that has since become a staple because it was later put down on paper. Similarly the parliamentary destruction connection is probably wishful thinking by those hoping Shakespeare was using a historical situation to comment on contemporary events, Macbeth for James I. But as McLuskie demonstrates the only solid production date we have for Macbeth is the year when it was published.

Macbeth (Writers and their Words) by Kathleen E. McLuskie is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £12.99. ISBN: 978-0746308431. Review copy supplied.

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