Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson

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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.

STAR WARS? From the Screen to the Page to the Bar

Hello, Constant Readers, and welcome to a Very Special installment of the We Happy Few Blog. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you not to get in cars with strangers or do hard drugs or play with guns (although…don’t). I won’t even lecture you about the dangers of drinking, because that would be both extremely hypocritical of me and directly contrary to what I wanted to talk to you about. No, I wanted to tell you all about a little staged reading we did for our friends at Eat the Rich last night, in celebration of Star Wars Day and their week-long Star Wars party, complete with a themed menu and (if I may say) excellent drinks.

Shakespeare Star Wars

That’s right.  Ian Doescher was crazy enough to adapt Star Wars into Shakespearean language a couple years back, and we were crazy enough to read a portion of it (the cantina scene, for obvious reasons), because, let’s be real, it would be hard to keep us away from something as nerdy as this. The primary reason for all of this was mostly just that it was fun and silly, and despite my best efforts people want to have fun and be silly sometimes.  But there’s at least a little bit of unpacking that we can do with this, and since it is my job to overanalyze and suck the joy out everything I touch, let’s get into it!

The key for us to remember here is that part of We Happy Few’s mission is to play around with classic texts and discover new and interesting things that we can do with or learn from them by approaching them from a different direction.  As you will all recall, our definition of “classic” is intentionally obscure, because while we want to explore what makes old stories great we don’t want to be stuck only telling Shakespeare and the Greeks. Those are good stories, GREAT stories, but they aren’t the only stories. So we loosen our definition a little. Star Wars might not be as old as Hamlet or The Iliad, nor as critically acclaimed as Long Day’s Journey into Night or The Crucible, but there is no denying that it is both a classic of American film and one of the most important science fiction films ever created.

star wars poster 1

L-R: (back row) Ted E. Bear as Chewbacca, Bob Pike as Han Solo, Raven Bonniwell as Luke Skywalker, Kerry McGee as Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (front row) Kiernan McGowan as R2-D2 and C-3PO, Tori Boutin as Greedo and Stormtrooper

The interesting thing about Star Wars occupying such a significant spot in the pantheon of cinema and storytelling is that it isn’t a particularly innovative story. Other, better writers than me have written at great length about how Star Wars follows Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey like Campbell himself wrote it as an example of how to execute the Hero’s Journey, so I will spare you the blow-by-blow of how perfectly Obi-Wan slots in as the Mentor or the way that each film so well encapsulates both a miniature Journey AND serves as a portion of a larger Journey spanning the entire trilogy (I assure you if you would like to follow up on that there are countless thinkpieces here on the Onlines for you to peruse). Lucas and co. took the bare bones of a story, the foundational tools of the concept of Storytelling, and they wrapped it in their own words and vision and images and ideas. The bones are still there and they are what makes the story work, but that isn’t what makes it the best science fiction movie ever made; it was the craftsmanship.

Star Wars Homestead Burned

From Star Wars, 1977, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

In similar fashion (and this is actually one of my favorite things about Shakespeare) almost every play he ever wrote was plagiarized from based on another, older story.  Pore through the index of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae or Holinshed’s Chronicles and you will see names like Lier, Kymbeline, and MacBeth. Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon, and Pericles were all famous names and stories to the Romans. An Italian novelist by the name of Matteo Bandetto wrote something called Guilietta e Romeo some 50 years before Shakespeare wrote his own, suspiciously similarly-named play.  Boccaccio’s Decameron is riddled with the plots of comedies and tragedies alike, and there are countless other plays in English and Italian from the previous century filled with twins, mistaken identities, crossdressing, shipwrecks and all the elements we now associate with Shakespearean comedies. Why did Shakespeare’s version succeed where all those other interpretations failed? He was a better writer than they were. We don’t read Shakespeare for the story, we read him for the poetry. Without the poetry Romeo and Juliet is as hackneyed a story as they come, and no one would tolerate Hamlet’s whining vacillation if he didn’t articulate it so beautifully. The plot isn’t the important part; what matters is how we tell it. We remember Shakespeare for bringing those basic stories to vibrant and beautiful life, just as we remember Star Wars for creating a thoroughly believable and livable universe and characters out of the most basic building blocks of storytelling.

Which, of course, brings me back to the reading we did last night, of Doescher’s retelling of Star Wars in the language of Shakespeare. If what I just spent the last thousand words going on about is accurate (and it is) then that reading would represent the perfect marriage of the world-building of Star Wars with the poetry of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, supported by the unshakable storytelling core of the Monomyth and brought to glorious life by our crack team of performers. In theory, by the numbers, it should be the most spectacular, memorable work of fiction ever conceived!  Was it?

Death Star KersplodeNo. It was silly and it was fun, which was the point. Doescher isn’t Shakespeare, nor does he claim to be. He put them together because they are two things that he enjoyed and he thought it would be fun to put them together.  We read it for the same reason (and also because Eat the Rich asked us to). Not everything has to be deathly serious and utterly committed to artistic integrity and literary theory, or so I have been reminded at my last performance review.  Sometimes things can be fun.

Speaking of fun, I strongly encourage all of you reading to check out Eat The Rich’s Star Wars Celebration, going on this whole week (including tonight and tomorrow!)  You should absolutely go tonight, and maybe for a little while tomorrow, before you come to OUR FUNDRAISING EVENT, conveniently located nearby just a few blocks from Eat the Rich! I hope to see you there!

May the Force be with you,

Keith Hock