I recently reread The Tragedy of Macbeth for my class in Shakespearean Drama, and just for good measure I watched the stunning PBS production with Patrick Stewart broadcast earlier this month. Do me a favor and read this excerpt from Lady Macbeth’s Act I soliloquy in which she taunts her husband’s resolve about killing the king and assuming the throne as they planned. To drive home her point, she illustrates in graphic detail that she would kill her own infant before she went back on their pact:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Whew. Putting aside the obvious dearth of maternal instinct in the speaker, the cadence and heart-stabbing poetry of Shakespeare’s writing illuminates his brilliant talent, especially in light of the fact that in today’s disaffected texting terms, Macbeth’s response might be AYTMTB (and you’re telling me this because?) Thine eyes see that as not so gripping, eh Brutus? How about this passage from Juliet’s famous balcony scene with Romeo:
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
Maybe if Romeo had hopped on his horse and looked down at his BlackBerry to find C U L8R HUGZ instead, he’d have just kept riding on to his friend-with-benefits gal pal’s house for a booty call and a Corona. I guess the point I’m going for here is that so much of history’s memorable literature has the effect of making the era in which it was written seem more exciting or romantic or intriguing than our own. One part of our brain reminds us that half the women back then died in childbirth and the plague took everyone else, but another part calls out fromThe Merchant of Venice in Portia’s dulcet tones:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
A product of my times, it’s hard for me to read that passage without imagining Meryl Streep delivering it. But not only is she not the right age for the part, she isn’t even the right gender. In Shakespeare’s time, the female roles were performed on stage by young boys. So like the plague, it could always be worse. It could be Justin Bieber.
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