There’s an old joke about a theater director so bold and full of genius that he dared to mount a production of The Merchant of Venice set in 16th-century Venice rather than 1930s Chicago or a modern-day Manhattan stock brokerage. The Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Verdi’s Macbeth was not quite that innovative: It did take place in Scotland, but the props and costumes dated from the past half-century or so. The Met’s recent nationwide broadcast of Macbeth thus showed soldiers who carried machine guns instead of bows and arrows.
Indeed, looking past the guns held sideways and a few foot soldiers wearing do rags, there is not much about the opera itself that is specific to any time or place, and the major action of the story takes place in settings that haven’t changed for centuries. People are murdered with knives in a bed or in the forest, a spontaneous battle erupts in the wilderness, a political leader tries to convince suspicious elites that everything is all right at a sumptuous banquet—all of these things happen regularly today all over the world, in much the same way they’ve always happened. The blood was fake but to me it looked like as red and gruesome as real blood looks today and presumably as red and gruesome as it looked centuries ago.
True to form, the Met put together a crack team for this quasi-modern production. Anna Netrebko shines as Lady Macbeth, and her average notes are better than the best notes of most of the rest of the cast. She carried the production more than anyone else. Zeljko Lucic made a fine Macbeth, and a particular bright spot was Joseph Calleja’s excellent and heartfelt Macduff.
I feel I can speak with authority, about both the blood and the music, because I was able to watch the opera from very close up. This was not because I had excellent tickets in the Met’s stylish Manhattan venue, but rather because I was watching a broadcast from a movie theater near my home in my provincial red-state backwater town. Besides the reclining stadium-style seats and delicious popcorn, and no line at the bathroom during intermission, the viewing experience at a broadcast offers its own pleasures, even including a slightly different interpretation of the opera itself. When Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth at a banquet, the camera is placed low near the ground, and initially far away from him, suggesting how his presence looms over Macbeth. The camera slowly pans closer and closer to Banquo, until he seems to take up the whole big screen, much like how he took up an increasing portion of Macbeth’s consciousness even after death.
As delightful as these moments are, the opera itself is the main attraction. The production did full justice to the sincerity and musicality of Verdi’s work, which manages to capture the human dilemma of Shakespeare’s famous character: that he truly has freedom of choice.
First, a little background. Verdi wrote Macbeth, which premiered in 1847, before his more well-known works Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Aida, and before his period of greatest fame. It was his first of three adaptations of Shakespeare. He worked with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave that stays quite close to Shakespeare’s plot, though Verdi’s score called for a large group of witches rather than Shakespeare’s three, probably for the sake of greater vocal sonority. However, Verdi wrote the music for the witches in three harmonic parts, with each group singing singular pronouns (“I” rather than “we”) to minimize even this small deviation from the original. The other differences between the libretto and Shakespeare are minor, and mostly involve cutting long discussions that time would not permit. It made sense that Verdi would author a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s drama, given how much he admired and revered it, writing once that “This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man.”
The composer paid meticulous attention to details that he felt would ensure the unity of the work, and attempted to connect different scenes dramatically and musically. The Macbeths, for example, usually sing in sharp keys, and the witches in flat keys. Even in this early period, he was pushing operas towards being unified artworks rather than thrown-together collections of disparate arias and duets connected clumsily by recitative. The strong narrative of Shakespeare’s play made it an excellent vehicle for this musical endeavor.
Leonard Bernstein once called Verdi’s music “sincere,” though even he had great difficulty describing what exactly was sincere about it. Isaiah Berlin, in The New Republic, wrote that “Verdi’s art… is objective, direct…. It springs from an unbroken inner unity….” Berlin thought that Verdi’s peasant origins gave him a simple psychology and an ability to identify with the great mass of humankind and
give direct expression to the eternal, major human emotions: love and hate, jealousy and fear, indignation and passion; grief, fury, mockery, cruelty, irony, fanaticism, faith—the passions that all men know. After him, this is much more rare. From Debussy onward…innocence is gone.
Berlin’s opinion is not universally shared, but I can see something in it. Debussy wrote such beautiful music, but it is limited in its expressive possibilities. He could write something subtle and sweet about the reflection of moonlight in a lake, but can anyone imagine Debussy or his impressionist contemporaries writing something about a gruesome murder born of envy, lust, and rage? Verdi, maybe because he was “direct” or “sincere” or “true” or “grandiose,” was not shy to write crashing chords and barn-storming, shouting arias and narrate murders exactly as they happened. His spirit and emotional directness seem ideal for adapting a drama of directness and action like Macbeth. Indeed, it is the decision to act—dramatically, decisively, and at the cost of a life—upon which the story turns.
My favorite musical moments in this production were the pauses. This is not to say that the orchestra played poorly—quite the opposite. After conductor Fabio Luisi’s orchestra got started on a phrase, they were not shy to continue what they started, crescendoing energetically and even speeding up to get to the climax. But always, before the phrase began, Luisi was willing to hold a fermata or delay the start of a new section just the slightest moment longer than one was expecting. In the tense pause before the beginning of an important phrase, one could feel all the unrealized potential of what was about to happen. But as the wait grew longer, one began to wonder whether it would happen at all.
The strategy of holding long pauses before intensely driven phrases could be reasonable for any music. But it seems especially appropriate for Macbeth. After embarking on a murderous task, Macbeth, warrior that he is, has the physical courage to see it through to its dramatic end, just like the orchestra saw each phrase through to its end. But just before undertaking each new murder, Macbeth always pauses, at the moment when the murder is still only potential, and agonizes about whether he should do it at all. In Macbeth’s reflective pauses, like the orchestra’s, we feel the greatest dramatic tension and witness the most interesting moments of the opera.
Seeing the falling-domino tragic consequences of Macbeth’s murders is like watching a violent car crash unfold in a movie—everything is governed by the laws of physics and therefore essentially predetermined, and it’s hard to resist watching just to see the kinetics and explosions. But the really interesting thing is that before the crash started it wasn’t predetermined. The driver made some free choice that set it all into motion.
G.K. Chesterton, for his part, agreed that the exploration of free will was the most important element of Macbeth. He said that Macbeth was the “one supreme drama” because of its
strong sense of… liberty…the idea that the best man can be as bad as he chooses. You may call Othello a victim of chance. You may call Hamlet a victim of temperament. You cannot call Macbeth anything but a victim of Macbeth.
If an audience member is convinced by Chesterton’s notion that Macbeth is a victim only of himself and his poor choices, he might feel despondent to think that his own decisions have caused a great portion of his own misery. Few of us have committed murder, but which of us has not freely made some terrible decision and been forced to deal with its awful consequences with the knowledge that we alone are to blame? At the same time, if Chesterton is right that “the best man can be as bad as he chooses,” then there would seem to be a natural corollary that the worst man can be as good as he chooses. At any point before the forest marched against Macbeth to kill him, he could have changed course and ceased his wickedness.
Believers in free will like Chesterton must think that it is the same for each of us—regardless of our past mistakes, we are all free to choose good things from the infinite possibilities in front of us. Even if one eschews moralistic distinctions between good and evil, there is a staggering range of possibility for the possessor of free will, from productivity to laziness, introversion to sociality, gentleness to forcefulness, hot-bloodedness to cold detachment, and so on. Regardless of circumstance and chance, one is always completely free to think, to feel, to work, to play, to start a business, to travel the world, to steal a kiss, to see an opera, or to kill the king. To be really convinced by Macbeth that we can rise as high or sink as low as we wish is to become open to a breathtaking range of personal possibilities.
Though I am not usually a fan of modern, anachronistic settings of the classics, the modern setting and costumes of this production help make the theme of free will more vivid and real for the audience. It is easy to think of the distant past of a millennium ago as dead—a book that’s already been written. Seeing Macbeth and his wife wearing our day’s fashions reminds us, as Paul Beston recently wrote, that “people in the past didn’t live in the past. They lived in the present, just like we do, making it up as they went.” When the Macbeths are wearing modern clothes, we can identify with them better, and more easily imagine what we would do in their places. Identifying with a murderer like Macbeth sounds macabre, but maybe Chesterton’s Father Brown was right when he said that “No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be.”
The role of free will (versus chance or predetermination) in affecting the outcomes of our lives has been debated for centuries. In the realm of policy, a TAI article recently discussed the degree of control that chance and choice have over economic outcomes and the implications for tax policy. If wealth is a matter of chance entirely, maybe we should tax income and wealth much more. If it is a matter of free will and choice entirely, maybe we should tax them much less. If alcoholism and drug addiction and obesity are truly diseases just like cancer or tuberculosis whose spread is entirely due to chance, it would imply optimal health policy and insurance programs quite different from those that we would pursue if we attributed those ills entirely to choice. If committing a crime is not under the control of the criminal, but only his genes or astrological chart or hormones or predestination, we should build prisons and sentence criminals very differently than we do now under the prevailing assumption that criminals have exercised some choice in committing their crimes.
And indeed, one might argue over the existence of free will within Macbeth itself. After all, the witches at the very beginning of the story already know that Macbeth will be king and that Banquo will sire a long line of future kings. They know that no man “born of woman” can defeat Macbeth and that a forest will march against him. If they knew these things already at the beginning, how can it be said that Macbeth made them happen? On the other hand, if these things were already certainties, why did the witches bother to seek Macbeth out and tell him about them? Their conversation among themselves reveals that they delight in causing harm to others, in taking revenge, and in seeing people’s ruin. Their prophesy to Macbeth was (I believe) meant to be self-fulfilling, to nudge him toward seizing the throne at a great personal cost, just as would delight the witches. Even Macbeth recognizes that his supposed destiny to be king still leaves him the choice of whether to deliberately make it happen, saying in Shakespeare’s original:
If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.
In some parallel universe where Macbeth did not commit murder, there is no reason why all of the witches’ prophesies could not have been fulfilled with peaceful transfers of power and clear consciences for the Macbeth couple. But that is not the course they choose.
Again, we can draw an analogy to policy and political science. Macbeth’s murders were a way to both ensure and hasten an imagined blissful future. Another term for realizing a hypothetical utopian future is to “immanentize the eschaton,” a phrase used by political philosopher Eric Voegelin and later popularized by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Since then, it’s remained popular despite if not because of its abstruseness; there is even a Wikipedia article about it, not to mention plenty of punditry.) In Macbeth’s case, his personal eschaton is kingship, which he wants to hurry into existence. Voegelin understood the utopian political movements of the 20th century like Communism and Nazism as motivated by a belief in an eschaton—a divine paradise on earth that would end all disorder and misery. Like Macbeth, the Communists thought that their paradisiacal eschaton was inevitable, but also like Macbeth, they thought it would be worth it to hasten its arrival with the blood of countless innocents. The leaders of ISIS apparently also believe strongly in an eschaton and their own role in actualizing and hastening it. Looking through the past hundred years of history, it is difficult to find serious eschaton-immanentizers who have avoided Macbeth’s end: blood, misery, shame, and death.
Macbeth is not a didactic guide to the political science of the past century any more than it is a guide to the neuroscience of free will or the philosophy of leadership. The intellectual value of drama, to say nothing of its emotional or aesthetic value, lies in its ability to provide a fresh and concrete perspective on abstruse ideas. When studying something like neuroscience and free will, one can get caught up in thorny details about the chemical interactions of neurons and the quantum entanglement of electrons and millisecond timing differences in lab experiments. Before getting lost in all these details, or whatever other little details one is immersed in in one’s life, one should see Macbeth and get a compelling human-level perspective on free will and much else besides. The empirical science is always changing and always will. The remarkable thing about Macbeth is that it can provide food for thought more than 400 years after its debut. There is no reason to suppose that it will not be helping intellectuals think through difficult problems 400 years from now, with costumes that we wouldn’t recognize today but blood just as red.