Shakespeare · Uncategorized · Walking · Writing

Lockdown Walking in Macbeth

 

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Fuseli: Lady Macbeth sleepwalking

Walking.

Now, I may be on to something here, because everyone is talking about walking. “The coronavirus lockdown has changed my relationship to walking” says journalist Cazz Blase, for whom this new delight in perambulation is aided by the reduction in traffic.

Walking used to be something we just ‘did’; a functional necessity to get from home to work, or home to bus-stop, or home to car, or, heck, from the lounge to the toilet. But lately we’ve all (because we’ve had to) invested more time in putting one foot in front of another. And so now people are asking questions like “Can I drive to the countryside for a walk during lockdown?” (The Gainsborough Standard). It’s become an act of transgression, rebellion, a deviation from the norm (looked down on by the Mobility Police), and this once everyday practice is now bound up with questions such as “how long am I allowed to walk”, “can I walk with a friend?”, or even “Should I go for a walk during lockdown” at all?

Despite these anxieties, we’re all now celebrating the opportunity to walk at any time, in any place, and anyhow. It’s providing opportunities to escape the Lockdown Locomotion, that queue of masked zombies edging along toward the mouths of supermarkets; or given us an excuse to free ourselves from the Videodrome of Teams and Zoom where we stare blankly at the wall beyond a screen and hope that no-one has noticed that we have lapsed into unconsciousness. And now we are even being advised on “How to walk responsibly after the lockdown”  (by Cheshire Life, apparently).

However, as I was looking through the search results to provide some context to this blog on walking in Macbeth, I alighted upon this one:

“Scots most likely to take more walks during lockdown” (TFN News, the Voice of Scotland’s Third Sector).

If ever there was a headline to go with this blog, it was this one.

You see, a disease infects Macbeth. Not COVID-19, but a lethal, virulent infection, nevertheless. It is a sickness brought about by corruption, the stink of ambition, duplicity, and equivocation. It is the massaging of the truth, the hiding behind status and power in order to achieve one’s aims. It pits friend against friend and reduces the rest to a cabal of whisperers whose mouth-honour is as transparent as the ghosts of those slain by their inaction. And all this presided over by a tyrant whose hubris, faith in mad science and superstition blind him to the truth, who hunkers down in his castle with a wife obsessed with washing her hands, and who sends out his acolytes to execute his maleficent deeds so that he may keep his own hands clean whilst claiming to be on the side of God. Bent on turning the tide of mistrust, the mad King’s nemeses, gathered behind their own illusions and fabrications of reality, finally end his reign of terror, but not before his guilt and his ineptitude have turned those against him who previously thought him untouchable.

 

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The Walking Forest in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Harold Bloom calls it a play of “contamination” (1999: 524), and Macbeth is, right here, right now, a play for our time and for all time.

In previous posts, I talked about the walking continuum which pertains to the different ways we experience ‘walking’ in literature. Literary descriptions of pedestrianism occupy a position somewhere on the line between observational and experiential. The observational mode is evident in those moments when walking is a means to an end, something that links scenes together, or provides a space for narrators to describe the landscape, the events, other characters etc. The experiential mode is when the reader is invited into the sensory world of the characters: they feel the exertion of walking, the act of putting one foot in front of another. These are not mutually exclusive, of course: a writer can convey the physicality of walking at the same time as the narrative is progressed. This is different in cinematic wanderings: in film, the sensory mode is experienced by spectators through the cinematography, the movement of the camera, the acoustics on the soundtrack and so on. There is a quality of cinematography called “haptic visuality” which I describe here. This is where the sensation of touch, of feeling the world, is evoked through creative use of camera and sound.

But what about stage-plays? And, given the fact that English education compels us to study and take exams on Shakespeare’s work in which we treat them as words on a page, the text itself? As I said in a previous blog, we only have the text and a few stage directions to go on, what Roman Ingarden refers to as the haupttext and the nebentext respectively (Paul, 2014).

So where does walking and Macbeth fit into this? Like today’s on-going tragedy, the character’s wanderings embody notions of transgression, and of fear, but also rebellion. Walking in Macbeth is destructive, secretive, and linked to sinister acts. It is a symbol of the dissolution of the world.

As I wrote in my last blog, the wanderings of Shakespeare’s characters was often linked to deception and secrecy, and Macbeth’s walk to kill Duncan drips with this, and this feeling continues throughout the play. As they walk through the courtyard of Macbeth’s castle in Act 2 Scene 1, Banquo feels the weight of the times upon his conscience:

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep; merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose
(Act 2 Scene 1: 6-9)

It is a scene filled with suspicion, and Banquo’s walking at night contributes to the atmosphere. When he hears a noise, he draws his sword. Why would he do such a thing in the castle of his friend?

Our first explicit introduction to the act of walking occurs during Macbeth’s soliloquy prior to killing Duncan. As he treads the corridors of his castle, his brain wracked with the horror of what he is about to do and haunted by visions of daggers and blood, he becomes aware of the steps he is taking, steps that direct him inexorably towards his terrible destiny:

Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
(Act 2, Scene 1: 56-59)

Macbeth feels the physicality of walking here: the solidity of the ground beneath his feet a contrast to the chaos in his head and the intangibility of the dagger. The stones beneath him are personified: they can hear and talk, and he fears they will betray him. It is ironic that at this moment in the play, Macbeth is acutely aware of surveillance, albeit psychological. However, that which we call ‘conscience’ is not some natural phenomenon, but one that is planted there by the discourses of power that we experience in our own lives (see Michel Foucault on this in Discipline and Punish). During this brief, but structurally and narratively significant walk, Macbeth is hinting at a power that he too will deploy during his own reign of oppression: as he admits in Act 3 scene IV, Macbeth has eyes in every court, in every house (131, 132).

The connection between walking and a surveillance ‘lockdown culture’ is made explicit in Act 3. In the eye of Macbeth’s violent storm of oppression, Lennox mocks the coincidences of those who walk and their terrible fate:

And the right-valiant Banquo walk’d too late;
Whom, you may say, if’t please you, Fleance kill’d,
For Fleance fled: men must not walk too late.
(Act 3 Scene 6: 3-8)

Walking is against the rules, and Lennox warns that one should not wander when and where one is not supposed to, for it leaves the wanderer vulnerable to the forces of evil. But who can trust these  King’s men, so hasty are they to switch sides and exchange one manifestation of power for another? (See Roman Polanski’s film adaptation which is particularly effective at representing the hypocrisy of the time-serving Thanes.) Interestingly, whilst walking is linked to death, during the scene when Banquo is murdered, running away (‘fly’) is to do with self-preservation, preparation or recuperation (as echoed by Macbeth when he tells the “false Thanes” to “fly” [5.3, line 7]).

Later on, in Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff urges Malcolm and Banquo to “walk like sprites” to look on the murdered King and in the last blog I talked about the ideas prevalent at the time of the links between the supernatural and walking. Most entrances in Shakespeare’s plays are conducted on foot (especially those on the stage), but the opening to Macbeth is indeed portentous, with the appearance of the three weird sisters immediately exposing their plans to meet with Macbeth. Indeed, in Act 1 Scene 3 when they recount their tales of deadly mischief, could they not be examples of the walking-morts whose narratives of woe were designed to ensnare men into proffering money (although they were often themselves robbed)? The three witches carry rich and fantastic stories to Macbeth and to Banquo for which, ostensibly, they receive no reward, although they are at pains to impress their masters.  And it is in the impact they have upon Macbeth, and to a much lesser extent Banquo, that they meet renown.

In Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, these numerous connotations of walking all come together in a sequence which testifies to walking as a signifier of death, of the supernatural, of secrecy, of evil and, of course, of contamination. Her midnight rambles are notorious even as the scene begins, with the Doctor admitting that he has “two nights watched” with the Lady Macbeth’s gentlewoman. Walking is something of an event, and no less enmeshed with the theme of observation that accompanies its presence throughout the play. In her walking, Lady Macbeth replays and re-enacts the events of the play, her dialogue a stream of consciousness, avant la (modernist) lettre, that captures the highlights (or lowlights) reel of her guilt and regret. She is trapped in a cycle of despair for which her “slumbery agitation” offers no respite and the gentlewoman’s report on her Lady’s nocturnal habits illuminates the purposeful and cyclical nature of her actions. Psychoanalysis refers to this as “repetition compulsion”

Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma … Freud thought that the aim of repetition was to gain mastery, but clinical experience has shown that this rarely happens; instead, repetition causes further suffering for the victims or for people in their surroundings. (van de Kolk, 1989)

Lady Macbeth’s language is the language of dreams, unstructured fragments that dart back and forth between symbols of the waking life, merging with her imperative “to bed, to bed” which provokes her to repeat the actions again with no hope of escaping the cycle of trauma other than in death.

The Doctor’s science cannot explain the somnambulist’s behaviour which is, at the very least, ambiguous: “I have known,” he admits, “those which have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds” as if walking when one should not ought to be punishable by eternal damnation. Instead, she needs “the divine [rather] than the physician” (5.1: 64). Once again, walking is linked to disease, of the mind but also of society:

Foul whisperings are abroad; unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets

                                                     (Act 5 Scene 1: 61-3)

During Lady Macbeth’s lockdown, somnambulance provides her with a guise under which she can masquerade as an actor. It also allows her to walk at night which carries particularly negative connotations for women, and something that others, as noted above, were unable to do. Watching her wanderings, her observers can re-live vicariously the tragedy of the play, but also learn of the futility of walking as a means of escaping the conscience and the mind’s troubles, something that the Romantics in particular would argue against.

This notion of walking an act of masquerade reaches its conclusion at the moment when Macbeth’s hears the news of his wife’s death:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more
(Act 5 Scene 5: 23-25)

In that first example of walking we looked at, on his journey to kill Duncan, Macbeth emphasised the duplicity of walking, and how it exposes the ambulant to surveillance. Now, walking is itself an act of pretence signalling he futility of life itself. Ultimately, it is “life” itself. The walker becomes a “shadow” that is directionless, “strut[ting]” and “fret[ting]” in a confused attempt to recite its own lines, just as Lady Macbeth did in her somnambulism. It is apt that at the nadir of his existential crisis, Macbeth evokes walking as a metaphor for the irrelevance of life and its disappearance into the great void of history.

Despite the connections between walking and evil, Macbeth is a play about the hubris of men (and women) and whilst we cannot ignore the spiritual and supernatural influence of the witches, it is Macbeth who murders Duncan, and orders the killing of Banquo, Lady Macduff and her children. Walking is a physical and tactile interaction with space; it is the body engaging with the world and if that world is saturated with the evil of men, then the contagion of the world enters the body through this interaction. The demons walk with us. They are beside us. But they are not the supernatural bodies of witches, ghosts and ghouls. They are the whispers of conscience, of pride, of hubris, of ambition and greed that provoke this wandering act.

References:

Bloom, H. (1999) Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Paul, J. Gavin. (2014) Shakespeare and the Imprint of Performance

Van der Kolk (1989) The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism. Available at: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/Compulsion_to_Repeat.pdf

5 thoughts on “Lockdown Walking in Macbeth

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and reiterating why Shakespeare is so relevant today. Not that I doubt its relevance, but the students always do. I thought I should let you know I am starting this text with Year 10 today. And, as you have written such an engaging post, I am starting my lesson with your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and expertise.

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    1. That’s a lovely comment to leave, Ms Barnes. Do let me know how that goes! I’d love to receive some feedback from pupils, and to see how you use this in your classroom.
      Best wishes,
      Lance

      Like

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