Macbeth, 29 June 1889, Image 8 of 9
gradual ruin of two lives – not typical lives, nor typically linked, for Shakespeare is scarcely ever purely typical, but always creates individuals rather than types, and lets events lead his characters, rather than manufacture events to show off his characters – two lives associated with each other by common and similar, yet strangely differentiated, guilt, and destined to be more and more, and finally quite separated by the striking and quite original phenomenon of the hopeless non-success of the stronger nature in sustaining on a level of security the fortitude of the weaker nature. Observe how powerfully this is made the key of the later acts of Macbeth, by what fine gradations this original and pregnant story is told, how great is the stroke of genius which makes Lady Macbeth to the last only give evidence in her sleep of the disgust which is killing her, and then merely by a re-enacting, without articulate remorse, the crime which she instigated, and from the consequences of which she has never been able to redeem the life and the being which are more precious to her than her own. This theory and the Lyceum acting give each other mutual support. Macbeth becomes more and more saturnine, has less and less control over his outer aspect, is a readier pray to ghostly and other illusions, while Lady Macbeth slowly but surely imbibes despair – despair of the only things in all the world she cares about, her husband's strength, good credit, and contentment. Shakespeare does not wearisomely carry out this remarkable progression. He marks powerfully a stage or two it is, and then, before the dull, dark biatus of the Queen's illness, occurs the climax at which she retires from the scene. This is in the banqueting hall. Miss terry's acting at this point is full of discernment and proves how thoroughly she has merged herself in the very life and being of the sorely troubled queen she represents. Lady Macbeth's intensity in the management of her husband, and her aptitude in the management and dismissal of the guests, are so rendered as to give the utmost effect to the awful anxiety of such a situation for such a wife. Then comes a reaction in which must be read something little short of despair. When Lady Macbeth, with strong exhortations, has made her guests depart, she remains listless or hopeless on the throne, while her husband completes the rhapsodies of his horror. Presently she soothes him, but it is with as little hope as she showed when she seated herself on the throne. The hand of Nemesis is on her. Spiritually she is impervious and insensible. As a wife she has lived and loved, in her way, and struggled against the inevitable – but inevitable it is. The few remaining words are mechanical. Miss Terry utters the words, "You lack the season of all natures – sleep," not with that tone of comfort in which there is always from a wife to a husband a promise of cherishing and effectual solace, but with an ill-defined relinquishing of all grip on the practical wifehood which has been her very being till now. At last husband and wife proceed to leave the scene together. As he passes, Macbeth takes a torch from behind a pillar, but suddenly, in a paroxysm, hurls it blazing to the ground. He passionately shrouds his face in his robe as he leans rapidly forward and rests against a pillar. The Queen swiftly kneels behind him, and remains clinging to his robe with an upturned tragical, solicitous face. This is a most affecting indication of the wonderful manner in which these two fine artistes, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, have lived out and thought out the meaning of the poet, which they have so greatly helped to make clear. There must, doubtless, have been other efforts of Lady Macbeth, other paroxysms of her lord. But Shakespeare does not dwell on them. Miserable solitude of mind and being are to fall on Macbeth, and they come. Irving sins deeper and deeper into wretchedness. Every sound alarms him. His whole talk, meanwhile, is a nervous boasting of bravery, and of his charmed life, and his assured fate. Hollowness is in the tone of it, hopelessness in the aspect of the man. It is the intensely thought-out degeneracy of an able, powerful general and sovereign under the blight of combined sin and pusillanimity, and if it be argued that such a tyrant could not have reigned and held his own, go look at the history of many tyrants, and then remember the realistic, blanched, curious faces of the soldiers as they peer in at the door when Macbeth is hearing of Birnam Wood. Remember also the striking passage in which the invaders recite what they have heard of Macbeth and his forlorn condition. The whole of the last act (Act VI. In the Lyceum version) is curiously and rhythmically animated. There is a kind of martial acceleration of the action, cunningly assisted by the freshness of the scenery and a sort of atmosphere of movement. One has seen many attempts to counterfeit war on the stage, but I cannot remember previously experiencing the sensation of stir which, without hurry or confusion or bluster, without even ostentation, above all, without staginess or melodrama, is produced but these closing scenes of the Lyceum tragedy. The painters have gone to nature for their tints and their air. The manager has inspired his troops and all the characters with the exact degree of energy and alertness necessary to create a spirit-stirring illusion of a crescendo crisis in a rough, extempore campaign. As usual with anything that Irving does, you feel the reason of it when you go back to Shakespeare. Read the scene begun by Menteith – "The English power is near, led on by Malcolm." (Act VI., Scene 1, in the Lyceum Book; Act V., Scene 2, in Shakespeare.) Note the briskness of the soldierly dialogue, the blunt description of the tyrant by Angus. Observe how it not only justifies the tone of Mr. Irving's acting in his scenes, but puts the spectators in possession of the very spirit of Macbeth's country during the wane of his rule. The next scene, in which Macbeth himself appears, trying to vaunt and sinking constantly into unconfessed fear, and in which that wonderful characteristic of this thane, the profound poetry of his thought and diction, plumbs every deep of his doom, cannot but be recognized as one of the finest and most saddening renderings ever given. A swift change and we are out of doors again, in the keen air and the bright light in an opening of Birnam Wood, where every soldier hews him down a bough, and where Malcolm tells Siward that only "constrained things" are serving with Macbeth, and their "hearts absent too." Macduff advises "industrious soldiership," and we have a quickening sense that it is in the air. Another moment; back again to the hysteria of the tyrant's castle, with the "constrained things" about him with blanched, anxious faces. And now the announcement by the cry of women of the death of the Queen, and Irving's rapt delivery of the great soliloquy, "To-morrow and to-morrow, and to-morrow." The approach of Birnam wood startles him into his other mood, and Macbeth desperately flounders like a stricken eagle, scarce hoping to baffle "the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth." Once again into the open, where the combined forces of the enemy are seen, covered with their Birnam boughs and rapidly pacing on to war. Another part of the plain, and many mysterious thrilling sounds of war, especially a melodious, humming, distant war-song or slogan, the effect of which, as it rises and falls and dies away, and hums again into faint and then louder tune as the battle rages this way and that, it indescribable. Nothing has ever given me so thorough a feeling of reality in stage war.
© Image copyright The National Trust 2021