Monday, October 4, 2010

The Scottish Play

One summer when I was in high school I went with a group of friends to a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Richard III. Richard III is one of Shakespeare's longer plays, and it got to be kind of late and we were all a little sleepy by the time Richard was being visited by the ghosts of all the people he had had put to death. Then we heard the sound of a motorcycle. It crossed the park, ripping up the grass, and began to circle the stage and the audience, fading in and out as the actor playing Richard struggled to make himself heard. It was pitch dark except for a few lights on the stage and an array of floodlights on the hill behind us. The motorcyle returned, and we heard wild cries and laughter. It was at the top of the hill now, and I remember turning and seeing the cyclist silhouetted by the lights, standing up on the pedals with his fist raised towards the stage. We heard him shout: "Hail, Satan...Hail, Satan!"
Then he turned and zoomed down the other side of the hill, fading back into the night.

Well, such scenes can happen only once in a lifetime. I don't expect, when I go to see Macbeth next week, that it will be interrupted by a Satanist on a motorcycle, though I can always hope. Anyway, in preparation for it I've been going over certain key parts of the Macbeth with my son so he can follow it when we go see it. I had forgotten how gruesome it is. Two appearance by witches, Banquo's ghost, the murder of Macduff's family, and someone's head being carried onstage. I'd also forgotten that Macbeth is the source of such familar quotes as:

"By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes."

"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well."

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

And, of course:

"Out, damned spot!"

One of the best books I've read about Shakespeare is Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Shakespeare. (There are also companion volumes on Jane Austen and Dickens.) Not exactly biography, and not exactly criticism, these books focus on the relationship between the reader and favorite authors, teasing out what makes Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens seem like old friends. If you haven't read it, go look for it.

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