Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson

Tarot

Happy February, everybody! Well done on making it through January, the worst month of the year! Now we’ve just got another month of winter left before March arrives, bringing with it spring and cherry blossoms and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Studio Ghibli festival at E Street and all good things in the world. This year March heralds even more good news than usual, because our production of Macbeth begins then! We start rehearsals today and so, as is my wont, I will now begin sharing play-adjacent and contextual blog posts to whet your appetite for the show.

There’s a lot going on in Macbeth. It is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it also happens to be the shortest (possibly because we are missing parts of the play). It is also one of the most explicitly magical, which as you might imagine is of great interest to me. Part of the magic in this play, and also the inciting action of the story, is in the prophecies that Macbeth and Banquo receive from a trio of witches at the top of the show: that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s descendents shall reign though he does not. Macbeth later demands (and, surprisingly, receives) additional prophecies later in the show when he somehow tracks down the witches in Act 4, unintentionally revealing the seeds of his own destruction to those with the knowledge to read their auguries. Macbeth, to his woe, cannot interpret even the most straightforward of prophecies and leaves himself wide open for his tragic demise. But hopefully, once you finish this blog post, you will be able to read these signs for yourself and plan accordingly, should you receive any prophecies in the future.

Roll the Bones Gabor Hearthstone

Roll the Bones, from Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne. Original art by Gabor Szikszai

There are two prevailing arguments on the nature of prophecies: either they are objective truth, or they bring themselves about by the hearing of them. In practical terms there is little difference, except that it gives people a chance to argue about it, as Macbeth director Hannah Todd and I have done at literally every opportunity: I am of the opinion that they are objectively true, whether they are heard or not, while Hannah maintains that once the subject of a prophecy hears it they set into motion a series of events that will lead to its fulfillment. Unfortunately the realities of storytelling mean that in order for a prophecy to exist in the world of a story the audience and at least one other character must ‘hear’ it. And due to the linear nature of time we can only ever see one path from prophecy-dictated to prophecy-fulfilled. It is therefore impossible for us to know which theory is correct. [mine -KH] Conveniently for us, though, the arcane and unknowable rules governing fortune-telling are not relevant for understanding those rules from a practical/narrative perspective, so this will all be helpful no matter what theory you believe.

This is going to sound obvious but it is a good place to start and is worth really hammering home. Prophecies must happen. It is impossible for a prophecy to not come to pass, regardless of the mechanism by which it does so. Once a prophecy is made it cannot not happen. It is information about the future that the characters KNOW to be true, unless they heard it from Cassandra, in which case it is no less true but they refuse to believe it. Prophecies are not ‘likely’ or ’probable’ or any of that equivocating garbage, they are The Truth. And that is a hell of a thing for a character in a story to know. It is one thing for us to sit on our genre-savvy high horses and posit that of course Harry Potter will kill Voldemort, because that is what the heroes of YA fantasy do. It is another thing entirely for Harry Potter himself to wrap his head around the prophecy and understand that the outcome WILL BE and MUST BE and CANNOT BE OTHER THAN one of them killing the other.

The Department of Mysteries.jpg

Chapter illustration for “The Department of Mysteries”, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Art by Mary Grandpre.

The argument can be made that this ruins the story, especially when the prophecy is more final than ‘one of you will die’. Predictability is the enemy of excitement, and prophecies are nothing if not predictable. It’s why you read the last page of the book last. Merlin knows the entire time that he will be imprisoned in a tree by Nimue and it saps every adventure he goes on beforehand of any tension, because we know he has to survive and make it to that tree. This is what makes prequels bad; there are no stakes. Everyone you already knew will live and, most likely, most of the new characters will die.

If properly used, however, their inherent inevitability can play a key role in a prophecy’s value, despite this narrative risk. The Greeks, as I’m sure you remember, were especially partial to prophecies, serving as reminders of the inexorable will of the gods. The Curse of Oedipus comes part and parcel with not one but two fatal prophecies; that Laius’ son (Oedipus) would kill him and marry his wife, and that the sons of Oedipus (Polyneices and Eteocles) would kill each other. In both of these situations the victim of the prophecy knew the prophecy in advance, but not the manner in which it would be fulfilled, and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about defying the gods. Laius, knowing the prophecy, sent his son out into the wilderness to die, and believed he had beaten the gods at their own game and was therefore invulnerable. It must, therefore, have come as a tremendous shock when he was murdered in the open road. By contrast, Eteocles is fully aware that he must kill, and be killed by, his brother Polyneices, so he consciously arranges for their single combat during the defense of Thebes. Knowing as he did that circumstances would eventually align such that they killed each other, he chooses to accept his fate and meet death in a manner of his own choosing. Attempting to subvert a prophecy either, depending on what theory you buy into, leads directly to the prophecy being fulfilled OR forces the universe to construct a more and more elaborate series of events in order to bring it about, Final Destination-style. There is no running from your fate.

That it not to say that prophecies cannot be manipulated, though, if you are savvy enough. It is wise to pay exact attention to the language used in prophecies, because they are as literal as can be, and they reward close readings. This is the same method by which faeries so easily escape contracts and wish-givers grant ironic rewards, but it can have more serious consequences as well. When the Witch-King of Angmar issued his challenges to Earnur, last king of Gondor, he did so secure in the knowledge that “not by the hand of man will he fall.” This prophecy kept him safe for almost a thousand years, until he was blindsided by some unexpected combatants at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This example is interestingly complicated by the fact that that setting has two different meanings of “man”, i.e. the Race of Man or the male gender. And as the eventual fall of the Witch-King involves both a non-human male AND a human woman, the exact nature of that prophecy remains unclear.

Eowyn Witch King

From The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003. L-R: Miranda Otto as Eowyn, Lawrence Makoare as the Witch-King.

Which is a perfect segue into my next point: this sort of interpretation cuts both ways. The Jedi Council okays the training of Anakin Skywalker because he is prophesied to “bring balance” to the Force. But they, blinded by their arrogance, fail to consider that the balance he brings might break bad for them. [This sentence brought to you by the letter B! -ed.] It is STILL not clear exactly what sort of balance the Curse of the Skywalkers is meant to bring to the Force, as the saga isn’t complete yet, but obviously it started with the fall of the Jedi Order, which is probably not what they had in mind. A prophecy may be a useful tool, but it is also a dangerous one, and it is never more dangerous than when its wielder thinks they understand it.

There is a reason I have referred to prophecies twice in the context of curses. By and large, if you are the subject OR object of a prophecy, it is bad news. In every story I have mentioned in this essay thus far, the only character for whom things have gone not horribly by the end was Harry Potter, and even he got his parents killed because he MIGHT have been the Chosen One. Macbeth thinks he has been given a boon by the witches when he receives his prophecy, but in reality it drives an otherwise honorable and loyal man to regicide, paranoia, and child-slaughter.

Come and track that descent into madness and death with us at the show! We open on the 6th of March and run until the 30th, and tickets are available even as we speak. Until then, try to avoid learning what will happen to you in the future, no matter how tempting that sorcerer’s offer sounds. It will not go the way you think.

Theatre is a Team Sport

 

Hey everybody! How’s it going? Good to see you again!

If I seem uncharacteristically cheery and upbeat today, that is only because I am. Some wonderful, glorious, beautiful things are happening right now, and they have put a bounce in my step and a sparkle in my eye. For one thing it is cherry blossom season, the prettiest and best season in DC, because it means our city is finally warming up and it will be tolerable to be outside for like 2 months until DC’s miserable sticky bastard of a summer ruins everything. Second, we are three weeks deep into rehearsals for our wonderful, smart, fun, deep, complex production of Henry V that has got me almost giddy with anticipation. And finally, we are in the final week of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament! March Madness! Basketball Christmas! My favorite three weeks of the year!

“Hey, wait a minute,” I hear you mutter. “Keith, you’re a nerd. You talk about nerd stuff all the time. You lectured us for like 3000 words about where a Chinese story came from and you use pictures of Magic cards and CHUDs in your blog posts. You aren’t supposed to like basketball.” My initial response to that is GO! GONZAGA! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A! Moreover, I don’t appreciate your disappointed judgmental tone, nor the implication that because I like a given thing I am automatically pigeonholed and my interests and personality predetermined.

Final Four

GO ZAGS!

But hear me out, oddly confrontational figments of my imagination used to construct this blog, because I have here some reasons that I (and you) can enjoy both, besides us being adults and being in charge of our own interests. Perhaps sports and theatre have something in common. David Mamet himself used the arc of a satisfying game to illustrate the nature of a well-crafted narrative, in his book Three Uses of the Knife, so there must be something there. Let’s see if I can convince you that theatre, especially We Happy Few-style theatre, is more like basketball than you might expect.

First of all, they are both spectator activities, performances meant to be watched, appreciated, and analyzed by an audience. We do them to entertain and inspire our fans, and fans come to be entertained and inspired. They are also both physical activities, harnessing the human body and spirit and putting it on display. They both take a lot, lot, lot of practice, drilling scenes and lines and plays and basic fundamental actions until they no longer take thought but are automatic muscle memory reactions. And you need to get to that level of automatic repetition, because once you run into an adversary or ESPECIALLY an audience, all your careful plans will go flying out the window. Your opponent is going to do their level best (and they have been practicing at least as hard as you) to prevent you from doing whatever you’re trying to do, but a crowd will throw you off your game just by not liking you. You will feel the weight of their displeasure bearing down on you, whether you’re trying to hit a key free throw or land “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. Even if they don’t hate you, just the pressure of thousands of eyes on you, watching and judging and analyzing your every move, can easily rattle even a veteran. A crowd has real energy and can absolutely sway a performance. Just ask Chris Webber:

 

But perhaps the biggest similarity between the two, as you may have guessed from the title of this blog, is teamwork. Theatre is obviously a collaborative endeavor, just like basketball or lacrosse or any other team sport. The only difference is that in sports, you are cooperating with one set of people and competing with another set, while in theatre you are ALL cooperating to put on a performance [if you feel you are competing while you are on stage I urge you to find a less toxic company to work with -KH]. I am in my heart of hearts a collaborator and only get competitive when it comes to trivia, which is why I chose theatre over lacrosse after a year and a half in college and I now spend my spare time as the Literary Director of a theatre company and not playing in rec leagues down at the Y, but I spent enough time being truly awful at lacrosse on a team of the most supportive people in the entire world to know that you need and will find at least as much camaraderie as killer instinct on the court.

Basketball isn’t the MOST collaborative of team sports (for my money that title goes to the hyper-specialized football) but it is the one I love the most, and it is the one that is happening right now, so it’s what I’m gonna talk about. It is also the one that expects the most out of each individual player. Football and to a somewhat lesser extent baseball are dominated by players who excel at a single position and do little or nothing else; football has a number of single-use positions, including two different kinds of kickers (2!), and in baseball it is understood that your pitchers will be an automatic out when they are at bat. Hockey, soccer, and lacrosse divide the field into sections and have players that generally only play in one. Defenders and attackmen/strikers/forwards rarely cross into or involve themselves in the opposite section, and while goalies CAN leave their goals it is ill-advised for them to do so. In all of these sports there are long stretches of time where many of the players will be standing around, watching their teammates play and waiting for their opportunity to do something.

But in basketball, both because of the size of the team and the quickness with which the game is played, everyone plays both sides of the court on every possession. A player who is visionary on offense but a liability on defense is an incomplete player, and a lockdown defender who can’t shoot lets the other team ignore him on offense and basically play five-on-four. This is not to say that a player must be perfect at everything, nor that there are players who are better at one than the other, but unlike in many other sports you really gotta know what you’re doing all over the court. And while basketball has perhaps the most room for heroics by a single player, due to the small team size, playing hero ball is seldom the recipe for success. Look at Markelle Fultz, the number-1 recruit out of high school this year, who led the Washington Huskies to an ASTOUNDING 9-22 season. Or, if you think that was a fluke, ask Ben Simmons, the number-1 college recruit the year before, who led his Louisiana State Tigers to a 10-21 season. Both of these teams had the best player in the country, both will probably be the #1 picks in the draft (Simmons already was last year and Fultz is likely to be this year) but neither of them could lead their teams to win even a third of the time, and both got their head coaches fired at the end of the season. If the cogs don’t fit together, it doesn’t matter that one of them is made of gold.

Go Go Power Rangers

Go Go Power Rangers!

As you should expect from me by this point, what I am talking about is both true in general and specifically relevant for what we are working on. Not to tell tales out of school, but our conception of Henry V (and the whole We Happy Few ethos) takes very seriously the idea of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For all my emphasis on ‘Great Man’ history in my History Lesson post, we will be spending a lot less time with Henry, and a lot more time with his army, when we bring the show to the stage next month. Exactly how we manage that…you’ll have to come see the show to find out. Tickets are available now!

Until next time,

Go Zags

PS The next blog post I write will actually be about the play, I swear.