April 25

June 24, 2018

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare

by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Aaron Posner and Teller

A Scholar’s Perspective

Double, Double

by Stuart Sherman

In Macbeth, the witches’ most famous lines are a rhyming couplet in which doubling runs rampant:

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Clearly, they are speaking their spell over their strange brew. But it’s hard to work out what those first two words are doing there. Are they merely incantatory, hypnotic—sounds Shakespeare has chosen to produce a quadruple rhyme (two doubles, a trouble and a bubble) by couplet’s end?

Or do the doubles work more specifically, as imperatives by which the witches urge each other on: double your toil, double your trouble, and double down on both again, quadrupling our effort so that we can set this cauldron seething. A watched pot, the proverb says, never boils; the Sisters’ spell decrees that this witched pot will.

What’s in the cauldron is a potent recipe (“Eye of newt and toe of frog …”) from whose grisly ingredients, later in the scene, the Sisters will conjure speaking illusions to at once alarm and assuage Macbeth: floating head, bloodied infant, magic mirror.

What’s in the incantation—that doubled doubling—may provide the clue to a larger magic: the illusionist tactics, the deliberate doubling of audience experience and thought, which here and elsewhere remains one of the core tactics by which Shakespeare makes his theater mesh with magic.

Magic arises from the illimitable mysteries of cause and effect; to witness the effect is to surmise the cause. Whenever we watch a truly dazzling trick, we are momentarily immobilized by wonder, even as our minds sift quickly through an almost automatic sequence of impressions. Our first conviction about the effect—that it’s impossible—confronts the counterfact that we’ve just witnessed it, and promptly bifurcates into two alternate explanations: the effect is possible, if you can allow for supernatural causes deployed by the magician channeling them. Or, alternatively, the effect is possible if you accept the performer as a merely human agent, enacting ingenuities that you’re scrambling frantically to figure out (“How did he do that?”).

As denizens of the twenty-first century we tend overwhelmingly toward the second option. But Shakespeare’s first audiences were more open-minded. Watching Macbeth in 1606, they dwelt on the very edge of a cultural cusp between the belief in active, effectual fairies, witches, warlocks, angels, and magi that had suffused the centuries past, and the streamlined commitment to purely natural explanation that would emerge half a century hence in the Scientific Revolution, whose founding father, Sir Francis Bacon, was setting forth its grounding arguments (while also not writing Shakespeare’s plays) during this very decade.

In plays centered on ghosts and wonders (Hamlet and The Tempest come to mind), Shakespeare deliberately fosters a buzz-generating debate as to which explanation—the natural or the supernatural—should hold sway, among playgoers who were themselves the multi-headed manifestation of a deeply seated, richly doubled cultural world-view.

Shakespeare makes of this double-consciousness in Macbeth the stuff of mighty theater, compounding it to the point where ordinary stage magic becomes visceral horror. His audiences, for example, were long accustomed to watching dramatic night scenes unfold in broad daylight: the “wooden O” of the Globe theater opened out on to the sky; all performances took place in early afternoon; the often intense “darkness” of the night scenes derived from language, not from lighting.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare doubles down on this effect, and plays it out across a wild range of resonances. Night seeps in from every corner of the play; the language of darkness clusters so thick that its auditors could not help but register, and even savor, their entrenchment in a doubled consciousness—brightness in their actual eyes; darkness in their minds’—and the flip-trick of causation (words, not photons) that continually reenacts this bifurcation. The play’s famous paradoxical pairings render the effect even more pervasive, as when, for example, the witches’ mysterious first incantation—“Fair is foul and foul is fair”—mutates two scenes later into Macbeth’s very first spoken line: “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” And Lady Macbeth, in her formidable first soliloquy, will soon be echoing the witches also, without ever hearing or meeting them.

In those subliminal “transmissions” gleams a hint of the play’s core question. What makes the Macbeths do what they do? Is it their own appetites and ambitions? That would be the “natural,” humanagency answer. Or is it the witches’ scripting—in which case they may operate as supernatural playwrights and directors of this inexorable tragedy?

As the brilliant Oxford Shakespearean Emma Smith has argued, Macbeth poses this question at every turn, and never answers it. Instead, Shakespeare floats it over his audience like a hypnotic, immobilizing spell. When Macbeth first hears the witches’ prophesies, he confesses, in soliloquy, that they have stunned him to a standstill. Under the spell of the murder he might enact, he finds that his “function[s]” (thought, word, action) are now so “smothered in surmise / That nothing is but what is not.”

That, of course, is the effect of watching a great magic act. Or a great play. Macbeth manages to weave, out of its endless artful doublings, a single, stupendous conjuring trick, designed to induce in its audience the same trance—wonderstruck, horrific—endured by its protagonists.

“Abracadabra,” goes the hokey incantation—to which a silly love song of the 1980s added the fun half-rhyme, “I want to reach out and grab ya.” True enough. That is what magicians hope to do. And that’s what theater does too.

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