I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

Hey folks. Tonight is opening night, we’ve gotten through our previews, so I think it’s time for us to talk about something a little more serious, but relevant and necessary to understand for this show. Unfortunately not everything can be ghosts and magic and basketball; sometimes I have to provide more concrete context. And sometimes that context isn’t about something fun or old-timey, but is instead a dangerous and insidious real world problem that gave us an anchor point for the concept of this production. A problem like, for example, toxic masculinity. That’s right, I’m going to talk about the pernicious influence of masculinity on men, and the way that it impacts and can be identified in Macbeth, for 1500 words. If you’d rather not engage with this topic, first of all I don’t blame you, and second, why don’t you read this piece about acknowledging artifice on stage that I wrote a few years ago, and pretend we’re talking about that instead. It’ll still be relevant and it WON’T be a bummer!

Since you’re alive and Online in this, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, I’m certain you’re at the least aware of toxic masculinity. But in the interest of clarity it is helpful to define our terms anyway. Toxic, or hegemonic, masculinity is a restrictive and dangerous understanding of what it means to be a man, typified by the deadening of any emotion but anger, the demonstration of sexual prowess, an all-but-solipsistic view of the world, the necessity of being a dominant figure in the world around you, and the willingness, if not open eagerness, to impose that dominance through physical violence. It is also referred to as hegemonic masculinity, since (as a casual look at our society will no doubt demonstrate) it is and long has been the dominant force in the Western world. Ceaselessly upheld by just about every institution in existence, it is ubiquitous to the point that it has until recently been invisible, “just the way things worked”.

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

A necessary aspect of this culture is the denigration of those who do not fall into this carefully curated vision of manliness and a need to rebuke or correct them for their transgressions, preferably through the application of the aforementioned violence. Any such rejection of the values of toxic masculinity is regarded as what you might call gender treason, an admission of personal weakness, and an existential threat to the concept of manhood. It is, as you see, an extraordinarily fragile worldview, requiring near-constant external affirmation and outright antagonism towards other beliefs. For our purposes there are three main facets of toxic masculinity to consider: the death of feeling, self-policing, and its performative nature. Fortunately we are observing this through the lens of Macbeth and not that of Titus Andronicus, so I do not have to engage in this blog with the truly monstrous sexual violence that comes part and parcel with a need to dominate your surroundings, a hypersensitivity to perceived slights, and the arrogance of unacknowledged privilege.

[Side note: As a straight white cis man it seems to me that I am either the best or the worst person to talk about this subject, but since I’m the one whose job it is to write these blogs let’s defer to my lived experience in it instead of disqualifying me for my potential for blind spots. -KH]

Of all these aspects of toxicity, the murder of emotion is the one most harmful to the men themselves, as well as the aspect that can be most clearly observed in the character of Macbeth. Acknowledging feelings, and sharing those feelings with friends and loved ones, is feminine, and therefore weak. A real man doesn’t expose their weaknesses, and he ESPECIALLY doesn’t complain about how he’s feeling. The strong man is strong enough to bear any torment. And if he isn’t he suffers in silence, until he can take his revenge, because anger is the only acceptable emotion. This puts an often-unbearable weight on men to pretend they have no feelings, until either they’ve successfully killed their emotional sides, find a way to convert any emotion into rage, or snap and commit suicide.

Macbeth gives us a wonderful pair of examples of this attitude late in the show, from Macbeth and Macduff. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth responds with his most famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which gives us a peek into the nihilism, desolation, and apparent death wish that now make up his psyche. Macbeth’s soul has been so consumed by his desire for domination and strength that he cannot summon up a tear or a sweet word for his wife and partner. Gone is the passionate lover, the loyal retainer, the man who joked with his friend Banquo; all replaced by a brief candle, lighting the way to dusty death. By contrast, Macduff makes no secret of the terrible depths of his emotion when he learns of HIS wife’s death, and when he is enjoined to “Dispute it like a man” by Malcolm, Macduff counters that a real man can, will, and must embrace his feelings. This exchange is riddled with Malcolm’s repeated insistence that Macduff man up, pull himself together, and use his grief to fuel his rage. There has been no hint at any point elsewhere in the play that Macduff is weak, but this display of emotion so upsets and discomfits Malcom that he demands, over and over, that Macduff stop crying and “[l]et grief convert to anger.”

This could not be a more perfect example of the self-policing that men do. It is very important to note that there is no outside observer setting or enforcing these standards, nor a biological imperative driving men to execute these masculine traits, despite what its proponents may lead you to believe. Baby boys aren’t born with a need to impose dominance on their surroundings. All of these attitudes and behaviors are learned from, and enforced by, other men. I regularly refer to masculinity as a Death Cult, and while there is no Messianic figure extolling these ‘virtues’ from on high, there is certainly a cultlike internal enforcement of these values between men. Look shortly before the banquet scene, when Macbeth recruits a “Murtherer”, whatever that is, to do his dirty work for him. Macbeth is able to provoke the assassin into action by calling his manliness into question, noting that there are as many different kinds of ‘men’ as there are dogs, and taunting him into proving his masculinity.

Macbeth Assassin

L-R: Dylan Fleming as Murderer, Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

And the fact that this taunt works on the killer proves that, because it is entirely self-policed and self-defined, how performative toxic masculinity of necessity has to be. It’s a race to the bottom in an echo chamber, where every man assumes they are being judged by every other man and they must demonstrate their bona fides to each other at all times, lest they be outed and ridiculed, at best, for not being real men. It is the sort of thing that, in our society, leads men to feign interest in sports instead of poetry, or drink brown liquor instead of fruit-heavy cocktails, or wear nothing but utilitarian earth tones. And it is the sort of thing that Macbeth proves time and again. When Siward refuses to mourn his son’s death because he died fighting, he is performing his manliness. When Macbeth would rather die than be taken captive and be forced to kneel before Malcolm, he is performing his manliness. When he is frightened by the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, Macbeth angrily lists his credentials, all the things he isn’t afraid of, as evidence that this apparition is hideous enough to even frighten a MAN.

This show also clearly demonstrates that belief in the cult is not limited to men. Women can and often do buy in to the rules that men are expected to abide by. In that banquet scene it is not one of the male guests, but rather Lady M who calls Macbeth on being “quite unmann’d in folly”, and when he gets cold feet before the murder she is there to coax him into manly action. Lady Macbeth is so on board with this conception of masculinity that she openly laments her misfortune in being a woman, and wishes she were a man, or at the least, “unsex[ed]”, so that she would be allowed to seize the power that her husband apparently struggles with. As a woman she feels these aggressive, ambitious thoughts, but instead of accepting them as part of her personality she wishes she were a man, so those thoughts would be not only acceptable, but normal.

Lady M.jpg

Raven Bonniwell as Lady Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 Production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

This is obviously a tiny, TINY primer on the pervasive danger of toxic masculinity. I have skipped over a lot of the inherent privileges and ALL of the sexual violence that is arguably its most appalling feature. And because I was viewing it through an inherently violent play I left most of the potential for physical violence to be inferred, instead of addressing it directly. But regardless I hope that this will help you interpret the toxic conceptions of masculinity that pervade not only our play, but the world we live in as a whole. If you want to see all of this play out on stage, tickets are available now! We are sold out for the rest of this weekend but the show runs until the end of the month!

Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson


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.