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Who Watches the Watchmen, Especially When They're on Edge? Liminal Spectatorship in Agamemnon and Macbeth.

By beginning tangentially, with citation of Romeo and Juliet, this essay on liminal phenomena does begin appropriately. When Mercutio protests that "Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze," he is also affirming his status as a theatrical performer, in a place--in representational terms, a piazza in Verona, but in presentational terms, the theatre--that is indeed a "public haunt of men" where "all eyes gaze on" him, Benvolio, Tybalt, the Capulets, et alia. (1) A histrionic show-off and no pedant, Mercutio is hardly trying to make a phenomenological or etymological point, but he nonetheless invokes the root, ancient Greek sense of "theatre" ("theatron"), as above all "a seeing place," where citizens crowd together to become not only audiences who listen, but spectators who gaze. In keeping with the sonneteering script of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio's words also deploy one of the poet's favorite loaded puns: like Sonnet 18's "eyes" that "can see" (13) or Sonnet 55's "lover's eyes" (14) where the Beloved Young Man will dwell, "Men's eyes" suggests that looking, gazing, observing, watching define an individual's very identity. (2) Mercutio seems to emphasize this point with the first person pronoun insistently repeated in his following line, "I will not budge for no man's pleasure, I." Homo sapiens sapiens is a political animal, as well as a listening, laughing, and smiling one, but our species is just as much a watching animal, especially in the theatre.

In the following pages, I aim to give some nuance to this point, and ask what kind of watching theatre spectators--from ancient Attica to early modern England and beyond--tend to practice, especially when viewing scenes of tragic, blood-spilling political violence. In tandem, I will ask: in what ways do playwrights like Aeschylus and Shakespeare call deliberate attention to "opsis," or the spectating dimension of theatre-going, and in particular, how do the scripts of Agamemnon and Macbeth connect what can be called "liminal spectatorship" to the staging of political behavior? For the purpose of this essay and the current special issue, my main focus will be on how this shared aspect of the two tragedies allows for skeptical questioning and even radical challenging of the tyrant, though with a recognition that audience members' viewpoints are themselves compromised ones. The Theatre of Dionysus was itself situated in a liminal position, on the border between the Acropolis and the lower city, and during the spring "Great Dionysia" it was dedicated to Dionysus of Eleutherae, a mountain village on the frontier between Attica and Boeotia. Imagine being one of the many thousands in attendance at the premiere of the Oresteia trilogy (plus Proteus satyr-play) in 458 BCE, enjoying the optimal sight lines as well as exceptionally fine acoustics of the space, witnessing--like Argive elders and then Athenian jury members--the suspenseful preambles to and aftermaths of lurid royal family murders, capped off by a fiercely debated trial featuring Olympian gods, chthonic Furies, and afflicted mortals. It is indeed the sort of material that would keep people on the edge of their seats! On the edge: exactly, because humans tend to be curious creatures, who need to get as close to the action as they can, to try to see and understand it as best they can. Similarly, Southwark theatres like the Rose and the Globe had stages which thrust outwards into narrow "yards," enabling both standing and seated viewers close proximity to the stage, and tantalizing near-contact with the players. In manipulation of this curiosity, the stagecraft of Aeschylus and Shakespeare is designed to insist on audiences' active gazing. At the same time, however, it also insists on their not being able to see the entire picture, as spectators become suspended "betwixt and between" partial visions of what transpires behind closed doors, and final onstage yet still uncertain revelations of what is to come in the afterlife of the show. In an essay in part 1 of this special issue, Susanne Wofford suggestively elucidates the uses of "imperfect" speech in these plays, Macbeth in particular; (3) in an analogous and even symbiotic way, I would argue that "imperfect viewing or watching" marks their dramaturgy. Thus the script and even physical staging of Agamemnon puts us in the position of Watchmen, yet Watchmen with a liminal or uncertain status, who may or may not be equivalent to the phylakes, guardian figures proposed by Plato as the leaders of the ideal Republic (Plato, Rep. V, 140, 450c). (4)

For there remains the riddle--congruent with the recurrent riddling of Macbeth and its Wayward Sisters--classically posed by Juvenal (or someone who revised Juvenal) and more recently resumed by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" i.e., "Who watches the watchmen?" (5) And what happens when a regal Watchman is far away from the realm he is supposed to be watching over? Who among his local subjects holds him accountable for his actions? Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia at a site far away from Argos and Mycenae, and presumably in Aeschylus's version of the story, far from Clytemnestra as well. (In his later tragedy of Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides will change this scenario, making Agamemnon try, and then fail to send his wife back to Argos, before the supposed "wedding" of their daughter.) In justifying her killing of the newly returned King in his bath, Clytemnestra not only figures her deed as a retributive sacrifice--"when he was down / I struck him the third blow, in thanks and reverence / to Zeus... the prayed-for savior of the dead" (1385-87; [phrase omitted]) (6) --but she also accuses the Argive elders of political negligence, indeed of servile complacency and blatant hypocrisy: "you [would] not cross him once.... Were you not bound to hunt him then clear of this soil / for the guilt stained upon him? Yet you hear what I / have done, and lo, you are a stern judge" (1414-2; [phrase omitted]). The Elders evidently had not watched, or even worse, had turned a blind eye to Agamemnon's infanticide, yielding to their now tyrannical Watchman/Guardian's decision to kill his own daughter, in order to pursue the invasion and eventual destruction of Troy. (7) Clytemnestra's righteous contempt for the Elders extends the veiled mockery she expresses to the fearful or at least hesitant King himself, just before inviting him to tread on their household's precious crimson tapestries: she begins an eight-line effusion of flattery with the metaphor "watchdog of the fold" (896; [phrase omitted] emphasis mine). This regal watchdog has returned, but in his prevalent mood of hybris he seems unaware of the cruelly and fatally ironic fact that another watchdog, his own cousin Aegisthus, has taken his place. Or rather, he does not foresee the deadly, off-stage agon about to take place inside the palace, in which he will be mortally vanquished by that other ambiguous Watchdog character, his own wife. As in Macbeth, riddling distinguishes the speech of influential and powerful female characters: here Clytemnestra has equivocally declared that she, in her role as Guardian, is "watchdog of the house / gentle to him alone, fierce to his enemies," after she has used the ambiguously optative "may he find a wife within the house as true / as on the day he left her" (607-8; [phrase omitted]), spoken immediately before the Queens riddle that she is as unfaithful to her husband as she is capable of tempering bronze.

Cued by the ominous forebodings of the Chorus of Elders, the spectators in the Theatre of Dionysus can see this fact, indeed they know the story and this fact, but they--and we as witnessing audience members today--are helpless to act upon this vision, and this knowledge. Limited by the rules of the live theatrical game, spectators can see and know, but cannot act, or even speak and comment during the performance. Here the script itself provides accentuation, for Agamemnon's war-prize/concubine Cassandra, cursed by Apollo with unheeded prophetic vision, makes this liminal kind of paralysis all too evident. Before considering some of her speeches, however, it is vital to take a look at the Watchman character whose entry, words, and most rare vision--a physical one, of beacon fires--open the entire Oresteia.

Visible to all, there he is on the roof of the skene, in this play the palace of the Atreids, doing what he complains he has been doing for an entire year. Exactly: watching, watching, and again watching. His exhaustion prompts him to seek divine intervention: he calls out to the gods ([phrase omitted]), 1) as his first utterance, and miraculously enough, only twenty lines later, after his prayer that "there be again redemption from distress, /the flare burning from the blackness in good augury" (19-20), the gods seem to grant his wish! "Oh hail, blaze of the darkness" (22; [phrase omitted] he exults, as the yearned-for beacon light shines forth, to the excited Watchman's eyes seeming to turn night into day, signaling that Troy has been taken, that the people of Argos can dance in the streets, and that the Queen--whom the Watchman rouses with a shouted "Ho there, ho!" (24; iou iou)--can now "rise up from her bed of state with speed / to raise the rumor of gladness" (26-27; [phrase omitted]. He is so happy that he himself could do a dance on the rooftop... but no. The victory light gleaming through the darkness does not remove his sorrowful thoughts, the ones he had mentioned before, that make him "weep again the pity of this house / no longer, as once, administered in the grand way" (17-18; [phrase omitted]). His predicament is so heavy that he feels an ox upon his tongue, and thus he fulfills his long weary task as Watchman, but refuses to play the role of spokesman. He speaks briefly, allusively, only "to those who understand" (37; [phrase omitted]) of the hideous, bloodily awful truth of the Argive hearth and home, its Fury-possessed history of rivalry, deception, betrayal, cannibalism, adultery, and imminent regicide and eventual matricide. As he exits, never to be seen again in the trilogy, the Watchman admits that for those who do not know, or fail to understand the Atreids's haunted story, he will feign amnesia: "I have forgotten everything" (38; [phrase omitted]).

Thus concludes our watching of the Watchman. Yet he has been watching us as well. This point comes across in any production--like Peter Hall's at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1981--which physically arranges the character's gazing so that he "sees" the beacon-fires shining beyond our heads: it is as if the semaphor-light is blazing just above the top row of the seating area. Consequently, we feel included in its field of illumination. This is a wonderfully manipulative piece of stagecraft, its accomplishment granted to an anonymous, marginal, low-status character, carrying out the orders of a "manly" woman and warning us to be on the alert. Aeschylus also gives him words capable of gaining our sympathy, as he too describes himself not only as a shepherd, getting to know the "grand processionals of all the stars of night" (4; [phrase omitted] but also as a crouched dog (3; [phrase omitted]), loyal to his king. As several commentators have noted, this Watchman would have surprised Athenian audiences, who if asked, probably would have guessed that Aegisthus himself would give the play's opening speech. They would not have expected a character whose humble status and canine aspects evoke the poignant episode of the disguised Odysseus, recognized by his faithful hunting hound Argos as he crosses the threshold into his home in Ithaka. As those familiar with the Odyssey well know, the light of Argos's eyes goes out at that very moment. The script here also invites spectators to sympathize and even identify with the Watchman by assigning him the privilege of launching the entire Oresteia trilogy. In her assessment of the dialogic "polyphony and antiphony" of classic Athenian tragedy, a public art form which can give voice to slaves, women, and other subordinate groups, Edith Hall has noted the striking fact that "often the audience's sympathies are first enlisted by female or servile characters, who appear before anyone else." (8) She also quotes the ancient tragic actor Theodoras, as cited by Aristotle, who refused to let any other actor appear on stage before he did, for according to him "an audience always takes kindly to the first voice that meets their ears." (9) The simultaneously engaging and evasive Watchman, then, is in some ways programmed to get us on his side, or at least make us see the already tense, impacted crisis in Argos from his standpoint--or more precisely, his dog-like crouching point. Even as he excitedly salutes the light shining from the beacon-fire, he hails the audience in a more Althusserian sense, interpellating the assembly in the theatre to be expectant watchers. Yet in this case, the hailing does not function to impose a hegemonic, repressive state apparatus, but rather to raise questions about the coherence and legitimacy of that same apparatus. (10)

As the Watchman himself insinuates, we too can only see or know so much, and in confused, uncertain, contradictory ways--like Macbeth, the play of Agamemnon is often a hermeneutic puzzle, replete with cryptograms, equivocations, oxymorons, amphibologies, and the like. To refer this "fair is foul and foul is fair" modality to the focus of the current issue, it might be useful to paraphrase Garcia Marquez, and imagine "The Tyrant in His Labyrinth." (11) Moreover, Aeschylus increases as well as modulates the labyrinthine scenario through an imaginative use of synesthesia, a union of the senses that here expresses both transformed perception and unstable, violent political relationships. (12) The Watchman states that he is waiting for a signal-fire "to carry out of Troy the rumor /and outcry of its capture" (9-10; [phrase omitted] the synesthetic line suggests that the flames of Troy s destruction will somehow leap across the mountains all the way to Argos, carrying with them the audible cries of the combatants. Such fires, then, are anything but simple functional signals, but rather poetic signifiers encompassing multiple dimensions of epic time and space, pointing past the events themselves to their oral narration in The Odyssey and other songs (Odyssey 8.72-82: 485-520). (13)

In short, theirs is an overdetermined transmission. That the Watchmen can hear as well as see the fires' message also transmits an invitation to recognize how theatrical spectatorship involves a poetic coordination and even altered deployment of the senses, enabling remote images and fictional stories to become visible, three-dimensional, alive, and moving. The visibility, however, can gain most resonance if it remains partial, allusive, and not overly explicit. There need not be an actual fire for us to see. Instead, the fitting design choice would be to let the synesthetic line of the Watchman stimulate our own subjective visual and auditory experiences, which thus could enable us to regard Clytemnestra's ensuing account of her contriving of the signal-fires "network" with skepticism as well as admiration. The Queen triumphantly explains to the Chorus of Elders of how she arranged for a chain of beacons to swiftly relay the breaking news of Troy's fall, but her speech contains so many ominous images and violent tropes that attentive ears will catch the portents of further violence and destruction to come: "flaming far, until it plunged at last to strike / the steep rock of Arachnus near at hand, our watchtower. /And thence there fell upon this house of Atreus' sons / the flare whose fathers mount to the Idaean beacon" (308-11; [phrase omitted]). Clytemnestra thus personifies the flames of Troy's destruction as the children of "fathers," as if the beacon-fires were living progeny destined to wreak vengeance on the very person--the Commander-in-Chief Agamemnon--that helped to light them, before their fatal return to his own house. The final, "watching" figure in the Queens account is the spider-mountain, making its entrapping, deadly associations the climax to a geography of mythic danger and destruction. This, then, is what the Watchman has been watching: a legacy but also a prolepsis of tragedy, fraught with treachery, murder, warfare, and abuses of power.

Moreover, as if to "body forth" the pattern, the same actor can double, or indeed treble, as The Watchman, Agamemnon, and Agamemnon's cousin and mortal enemy Aegisthus. This may not be quite as spectacular and suggestive as the same actor doubling as Pentheus and his mother Agave in Euripides's Bacchae, but it is worth reflecting on the effects of having a slain tyrant return a few moments later as the man who helped to slay himself (in the final tableau, Agamemnon's bloodied body on the ekkyklema can of course be played by a non-speaking actor). The point is that values, identities, and viewpoints keep shifting, and this instability is sustained by the play's treatment of vision and viewing. As she approaches its threshold, Cassandra sees the doomed palace for what it truly is, in glaring contrast to the almost comically banal identification and invitation for viewing made by the Chorus Leader: to his statement "[this is] the house of the Atreidae. If you understand / not that, I can tell you; and so much at least is true," she replies, "No, but a house that god hates, guilty within / of kindred blood shed, torture of its own, / the shambles for men's butchery, the dripping floor" (1088-92; [phrase omitted]). She goes on to express her prophetic vision in the most vehement terms, and her verbs of spectating and watching are insistent, spoken in the imperative: "No, no, see there! What is that thing that shows? / Is it some net of death?", and "See there, see there! Keep from his mate the bull" (1114-5; [phrase omitted]). Yet in keeping with the curse of Apollo--whom only the young Trojan princess can see and feel stripping off her robes--the Chorus will understand and acknowledge the truth of Cassandra's vision of past horrors--the infanticides and cannibal feast, above all--but are blind to her accurate insights into the immediate future, "I could not follow through the schemer's plan" (1253; [phrase omitted]). Again the play's spectators are caught in between, cajoled toward the recognition that while they know the entire story as well as Cassandra does, they are incapable--apparently like the Argive Elders--of changing its fatal outcome. To use J. L. Styan's terms, and apply P. D. Easterling's insights, a complicity and even collusion between actor and audience operates here. (14) I would argue, however, that this description needs adjustment in the case of Agamemnon, since the audience's would-be collaboration and identification are shown to be inconsistent, ephemeral, and ineffectual. We watch, we perceive, we have the cognitive advantage--and yet, like the Watchman, we remain on the liminal edge, as long as the drama is being staged and performed.

Still, at the very least the audience watching and listening to the Watchman of Argos is being coached to stay on the lookout for the duplicitous words and oppressive actions of real-life tyrants. Indeed this kind of heuristic warning against the danger of usurpers and abusers of executive power is widely recognized as an essential ingredient of fifth-century Athenian theatre, in tune with its status as a form of democratic expression and affirmation. (15) There is no need to attribute a self-aware and politically polemical use of proto-Brechtian critical distancing to the way in which Aeschylus presents either the Watchman or Cassandra. What is specifically pertinent, however, and what distinguishes both Aeschylus's and Shakespeare's engagement with the liminal spectator, is the exposure of the vulnerability of tyrannical power to its own mechanisms of dissimulation and repression. Iphigenia and Banquo are inconvenient ghosts in Agamemnon's and Macbeth's tyrannical machines, but the Watchman and especially the Porter are impudent misfits in them. Macbeth fears the images of Banquo's sons becoming kings, but along with more competent assassins who would succeed in killing Fleance, he also might do well to employ more trustworthy, less garrulous, and clearly more dedicated Porters than the hung-over one who finally gets up to answer the knocking at the "south entry" (2.2.67) of Macbeth's castle. To avoid judging too harshly Macbeth's vetting of employees, and to put him in context, he is living long before the time of electronic communications and video surveillance technology: he depends on live human beings to manage visitors' arrivals. He is also a high-ranking aristocrat in a Shakespeare play, where there's a good chance that briefly and uncannily some minor, subaltern character will appear, who questions and/or scrambles the codes of hegemonic authority, and may hinder or at least complicate the best-laid plans of the powerful--and in this case elaborates to the full, before an entire audience, Macbeth's brief internally felt "knock at my ribs" (1.3.138) of his fearful heart, when first articulating his thoughts of murdering his King. Compare Barnardine in Measure for Measure, the Gravediggers in Hamlet, or even the unnamed, silent "one in... armour" (5.6.27) who ultimately lures Hector to his doom in Troilus and Cressida. (16)

These marginal, ephemeral figures tend to serve multiple purposes, beyond that of mere "comic relief," as various scholars have demonstrated with regard to Macbeth's Porter of "Hell-gate." (17) If nothing else, the domestic, unarmed Porter is a blatant foil to the warlike and ceremonial world around him. Modern productions will sometimes convey this point in strongly visual and physical terms, playing up the contrast between a MacDuff attired in formal military gear, and a sloppily, sleepily semi-dressed Porter. He is not just the bibulous agent of bathos, who modulates the resurging-flow-of-life DeQuincey famously perceived in MacDuff's knocking at the gate, but also the identifier of Macbeth's own rise and fall. The Porter charts the Thane of Glamis's doomed, overreaching ambitions, seen in the farmer hanging himself on the expectation of plenty, the hypocritical and ungodly equivocator, the thieving English tailor, and even the lecher, who is persuaded and disheartened, who stands to, but in the end does not stand to. Thus he himself could be seen as his treacherous lord's alter ego, or even his "evil genius," as Michael J.B. Allen argues with apposite cross-references to Spenser's liminal Old Genius of the Garden of Adonis, and in contrast to the good genius at the Bower of Bliss, "That is our Selfe, whom though we do not see, / Yet each doth in him selfe it well perceive to bee." (18)

Still, apart from the recent, incisive interpretation of Kurt Schreyer, (19) studies of the Porter have tended to focus on thematic and semiotic points, rather than matters of stagecraft and audience response. For example, as far as this author knows, there have not been proposals nor actual experiments to double one of the Witches as the Porter: there is certainly enough time for an actor to do so, and the maneuver would fittingly extend the Porter's self-casting as the ironically welcoming demon of the Scottish Castle-turned-Inferno. Like the Witches, he also has a fondness for rhetorical triads, which in their inevitably theological context become spoofs of the Christian Trinity. His "nose-painting, sleep and urine" (2.3.27) make a pithy tri-partite structural parallel to his preceding exempla of "farmer," "equivocator," and "tailor," with "Lechery" as the excessive, odd figure out, aptly subject to the equivocating effects of "much drink," (2.3.4, 11, 14, 30-31) ultimately personified as well as satirically miniaturized by the Porter as the male sexual organ: "it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to" (2.3.31-34). (20) Here again he resembles the Witches, traffickers in fragmentation who carry bits and pieces of human bodies with them--livers, baby's fingers, pilot's thumbs, and the like--sometimes for spectacular onstage brewing.

In addition, the script and staging of this scene manipulate audiences in a way that recalls Aeschylus's technique, similarly hailing us to be Watchmen, to be on the alert. The knocking that follows quickly upon Macbeth's murder of Duncan is incessant--and could have been almost deafening in the narrow, acoustically "juiced" space of the Globe's "wooden O"--to the point of annoyance, practically daring us to get up on stage and open the door. Regarding this "knock, knock, who's there?" routine, it is at least an uncanny coincidence that Althusser uses this same classic scenario of door-knocking as a model case for his theory of interpellation. (21) The Porter's bawdy and satirical "hell-gate" routine thus can be interpreted as an oblique, bathetic variation on the temptingly, equivocally auspicious benevolent/malevolent interpellation of Macbeth and Banquo by the Witches. Figures on the margins, these unnamed characters ambiguously usher their listeners into the future. On the surface, such "hailing" affirms the coming, usurping regime's consolidation of power, yet underneath the apparent proclamation of success, of the new Scottish states life to come, is the showing and telling of the illusory qualities of that state's very apparatus. With their beards and women's clothes, their fair foulness and foul fairness, their simultaneous affirmation and negation of good and evil, the Witches are in themselves a travesty. At the same time, as projections and incarnations of Macbeth's hopes and ambitions, they also imply that the world of human political relationships, competition, and career-making is already something of a travesty. The Porter comes and goes in even more abrupt, bizarre, and arbitrary fashion, as an intrusive stand-up comedian, as well as a revenant from Catholic medieval Mystery Plays, in an early seventeenth-century historical tragedy of bloodshed, betrayal, revenge, and psychological anguish. I concur with Kurt Schreyer's argument that "the Porter scene is a knock-knock joke at the expense of both Shakespeare's royal patron and the religious opponents of the theaters." (22) In a way, decorum-conscious critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were right to consider the Porter's rebelliously irreverent and radically ambiguous scene a spurious one.

Yet Macbeth is also a play of equivocations and amphibologies, and therefore it can follow a certain decorum even through its indecorous elements. For if the incongruous Porter is his Thane's evil genius, his symbolic twin, he is performatively linked to Macbeth through their common dereliction and perversion of duty as Watchmen/Guardians. The one falls drunk and asleep on the job, while the other, notwithstanding his Lady's accusation of his personified "hope" being drunk and somnolent, eventually kills his guest, as the double-dealing "host, / Who should against his murderer shut the door" (1.7.14-15). These two characters thus could be called "anti-Phylakes." And who is watching these delinquent Watchmen?! The answer is all too unequivocal: by implication, as watchers, eavesdroppers, and sometimes addressees of Macbeth's and the Porter's speeches, we the theatre audience conspire in Duncan's demise.

At the same time, we might not be able to bear the sight of the deed and its aftermath, had the playwright chose to do what he does in tragedies like Hamlet and Othello, where we are taken into bedchambers to behold bloody murders. In this case, such gazing might turn us to stone, for as Macduff asserts in his exhortation to his fellow Thanes, "Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight / With a new Gorgon. Do not bid me speak--/ See, and then speak yourselves" (2.3.71-73). A strange image of death indeed: the blood-spattered Duncan is momentarily transformed into a Medusa's head, but one that instead of petrifying the beholder into silence, enables speech, and even consequent action. This unconventional troping of the Gorgon suits this truly uncanny play of riddles and oxymorons, where "fair is foul, and foul is fair" (1.1.9) deeds have no names, woods move up high hills, and male avengers are not born of women. In short, the play enacts the vision of a "nation miserable... /With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptred" (4.3.103-4). Even the devout mother of Malcolm takes part in the oxymoronic fabric of the script, as Macduff recalls that in her piety, she "died every day she lived" (4.3.111). Tyrants would seem to turn things upside down and wayward, a point also made by Macduff when he ironically beseeches Scotland to "bleed, bleed," and invites Macbeth, personified as "Tyranny," to "lay thou thy basis sure, / For goodness dare not check thee" (4.3.31-33). Synesthesia aptly returns, at the moment when Macbeth the tyrant denies his fear--"I have almost forgot the taste of fears" (5.5.9)--in stark and pithy contrast to his elaborate poetic usage of the trope, mixing sound, sight, and movement during his monologue of conscience-stricken, soul-searching doubt and crisis much earlier in the play:
                     his [Duncan's] virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. (1.7.18-25)

Here Macbeth's own acute, synesthetic vision imagines an excess of vision, a universal witnessing of the damned "horrid deed" that will cause a mournful flooding of the skies themselves--and yes, echoes of "hover through the fog and filthy air" (1.1.10) can be heard, in this nearly hallucinatory passage.

In Macbeth, then, what we see is not very often what we get: spectatorship slides from liminality into blurring, mystifying confusion. After all, the medieval-style Porter at "hell-gate," who in a kind of synesthesia envisioned "some of all professions" (2.3.18) with every new, increasingly loud round of knocking, had prepared his audience to see a repeat performance of Christ's Harrowing of Hell... and all that they witnessed was the irritated arrival of Macduff and Lennox. The staging of "opsis" in this tragedy, as Weird and Wayward as its Three Sisters, moves toward grotesque reduction, and a mocking, even ludicrous distortion of identities: decapitation and display on a pole does await Macbeth, but it is doubtful if he becomes a "pharmakon" like Pentheus in The Bacchae. After we hear him meditating upon the meaninglessness of life, figured as "a poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" (5.5.23-24), we see him pursued on the battlefield, where he feels he is tied "to a stake; I cannot fly, / But bear-like I must fight the course" (5.7.1-2). From the bear-baiting arena he then moves to another theatrical frame of reference--"Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword?" (5.8.1-2), recalling the tyrannicides Cassius and Brutus of Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar--before his final diminution and flattening into a two-dimensional, caricatured shadow of himself. As Macduff mockingly taunts, "live to be the show and gaze o'th time. /We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, / Painted upon a pole, and underwrit, / 'Here may you see the tyrant.'" (5.8.24-27). With this vision of extreme reduction and public humiliation, Macbeth the tyrannos turns into less than a poor player strutting and fretting on a stage. He shrinks into the status of a theatrical prop, to be gazed upon at some fairgrounds-like sideshow, or more close to home, to be gazed upon in the next and final scene of the play itself. If a production follows Holinshed's account, "th'usurper's cursed head" (5.9.21) does stand upon a pole, carried in by Macduff. Macbeth the duplicitous Watchman thus becomes some thing to be pointed at, an "unreal mockery" now (3.4.105). He has been turned into a "strange image[] of death" (1.3.98) the object of the gaze, after having been the gazer himself, who had wanted to behold horrid "sights" (4.1.154), including an armed head, and a "spirit of Banquo" whose "crown does sear mine eyeballs" (4.1.111-12).

The climactic "show of eight kings" (4.1s.d.) staged by the Witches to "grieve his heart" (4.1.109) itself illuminates the ambivalent psycho-dynamics of spectatorship for the apprehensive tyrant, which in turn could also afflict those who watch him. "Why do you show me this?," he asks, "Start, eyes!" (4.1.115) and "I'lll see no more" (4.1.117), he exclaims, but at the same time he cannot stop looking at the prophetic apparitions. The show is ghastly and ephemeral, yet it is simultaneously irresistible and revelatory. Not for the first time in the play, the audience is lured into identification and even collusion with the tormented protagonist. (23) What is revealed above all by the Witches' play-within-the-play, or better pseudo-masque-within-the-play, and what this bizarre masque truly signifies, is that it signifies nothing. Fittingly, their apparently three-dimensional riddle, like a hologram, is a hollow one.

At the heart of tyranny lies emptiness. Macduff may proclaim that the "time is free" (5.9.21), as he displays the Scottish tyrants Gorgon-like head, but while we can potentially enjoy gazing upon this bloody fragment even as it provokes revulsion, we also can recognize how such an item is only a painted wooden/cloth/papier mache theatrical property. Macbeth "th'usurper's cursed head" (5.9.21) is not the thing itself, but a strange image, a description which could apply just as well to Macduff's words. For what does a sound-bite like "the time is free" actually mean? A good number of post-Vietnam, post-Cold, and now post-Gulf War critics have emphasized how the supposed liberation and benign transformations of Scotland ominously repeat gestures of beheading (of the traitor Macdonwald), of "Hailing" and coronation (of Macbeth, and at Scone), and of politically expedient granting of titles (Malcolm's naming of his Thanes as Earls recalling his father Duncan's promise of "signs of nobleness" to "all deservers" (1.4.41-42)) made earlier in the play. (24) In short, the cycle of internecine violence, like the Weird Sisters themselves, may lurk close to the edges of the play's conclusion. Shakespeare had closely read and applied Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, and therefore certainly knew that the historical Donalbain did bloodily supplant his brother Malcolm as king; many informed members of his audience were also aware of this fact, or at least regarded Scotland as a country of frequent regicide. Thus Macduff's and Malcolm's closing proclamations of freedom and justice still call for a skeptical view, by spectators made aware of their own equivocal, uncertain, and liminal positioning with respect to past and present violence, political conflicts, and horrific brutality.

Finally, there is the other liminal condition to consider, that of the audience's borderline status between worlds inside and outside of theatrical representation. Could we look unflinchingly on dismembered real bodies, at the victims of battles lost and won, in our own contemporary world? What is the difference between seeing a tyrant's painted head on a pole, or masked, motionless actors on an ekkyklema playing the bloodied carcasses of a tyrannical king and his captured concubine, and seeing similar sights in real life? In response to these questions, I conclude with less tangential citation of a modern text, namely Seamus Heaney's poem "Mycenae Lookout" on The Oresteia, and in particular its Watchman character. In the first person, he declares:
Up on my elbows, gazing, biding time
In my outpost on the roof... What was to come
Out of that ten years' wait that was the war
Flawed the black mirror of my frozen stare.
If a god of justice had reached down from heaven
For a strong beam to hang his scale-pans on
He would have found me tensed and ready-made.
I balanced between destiny and dread
And saw it coming, clouds bloodshot with the red
Of victory fires, the raw wound of that dawn
Igniting and erupting, bearing down
Like lava on a fleeing population...
Up on my elbows, head back, shutting out
The agony of Clytemnestra's love-shout
That rose through the palace like the yell of troops
Hurled by King Agamemnon from the ships.

These are the concluding lines of the first section of Heaney's poem, before the second section shifts to a third person account of Cassandra, written in two-to-four syllable-lined tercets:
No such thing
as innocent

Her soiled vest,
her little breasts,
her clipped, devast-

ated, scabbed
punk head,
the char-eyed

famine gawk--
she looked

And simple. (25)

This, then, could be the final challenge, and anagnorisis: to take responsibility for our viewing, to realize that rarely if ever can we be "innocent bystanders." As we watch the watchmen, we also need to resist the media tyranny that tends to package killing and warfare as mere spectacle, and to desensitize us to real-life violence, pain, and suffering. For the Watchman of Agamemnon and the Porter of Macbeth also perform the task of prodding us to ask the question of what we would do if we found ourselves, like the Chorus of Argive Elders, or the Scottish King's subjects, at the edges of our tyrannical rulers' blood-soaked and blood-haunted residences.


New York University--Florence


(1) William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. Jill Levenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.1.49-54.

(2) William Shakespeare, "18" ["Shall I compare thee to a summers day?"], in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed. (New York: Norton, 2012), 1:1172-73; William Shakespeare, "55" ["Not marble nor the gilded monuments"], in Greenblatt, Norton Anthology oj English Literature, 1:1175-76.

(3) Susanne L. Wofford, "Origin Stories of Fear and Tyranny: Blood and Dismemberment in Macbeth (with a Glance at the Oresteia)," in "The Tyrant's Fear: Part I," ed. Silvia Bigliazzi, special issue, Comparative Drama 51, no. 4 (2017): 506-17.

(4) Plato, The Republic and Other Works (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 139-40.

(5) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1986-87). The famous phrase appears in Juvenal, Satires, 6. 346-48, with ironic reference to keeping watch over marital fidelity. The more political implications of the question, especially with regard to potential tyrants, may stem from Plato, Rep. 3.403e, and have come to prevail in popular discourse to this day. They certainly pertain to George Orwell's influential 1984, with its all-watching "Big Brother," who evades being watched by his subjects.

(6) Quotations of the Greek text of the Agamemnon are from Aeschylus, Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae, ed. Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). Translations of Agamemnon are from Richmond Lattimore, trans., Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 3rd ed., ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), vol. 2: Aeschylus II.

(7) As Anton Bierl notes in the first part of this special issue of Comparative Drama, the eventual tyrannical regime established by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is as much a continuation as a replacement of the tyranny instantiated by Agamemnon, at the moment of his sacrificing his daughter for political ends. This infanticide not only defies family obligations, but it discredits Agamemnon as a basileus, the king and supposed protector of his people. See Anton Bierl, "Klylaimestra Tyrannos: Fear and Tyranny in Aeschylus's Oresteia (with a Brief Comparison with Macbeth)" in Silvia Bigliazzi, "The Tyrant's Fear: Part I."

(,s) Edith Hall, "The Sociology of Athenian Tragedy," in Patricia 1). Easterling ed., The Cambridge Companion to Creek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 119.

(9) Ibid.

(10) On the theory of "interpellation" or "hailing" of political subjects by the "Ideological State Apparatus" (ISA), see the chapter "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127-86.

(11) See the elegiac yet often critical portrayal of the South American general and political leader/hero Simon Bolivar in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth: A Novel (New York: Knoopf, 2004) first published as El general en su laberinto (Mexico D.F.: Editorial Diana, 1989).

(12) I would like to thank Seth Schein for alerting me to the crucial importance of synesthesia in the Watchman's opening speech.

(13) Peter von der Miihll, ed., Homeri Odyssea (Stuttgart - Leipsic: Teubner, 1993).

(14) J. L. Styan, Drama, Stage, and Audience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 153; Patricia D. Easterling, "Form and Performance," in Easterling, Cambridge Companion, 166-68.

(15) Simon Goldhill, "The Audience of Athenian Tragedy," in Easterling, Cambridge Companion, 54-68.

(16) William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. David Bevington, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser., rev. ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

(17) Michael J.B. Allen, "Shakespeare's Genial Porter," English Literary Renaissance 4, no. 3 (1974): 326-36; John B. Harcourt, "I pray you, remember the porter," Shakespeare Quarterly 12, no. 4 (1961): 393-402; Kurt A. Schreyer, Shakespeare's Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Glynne Wickham, "Hell-Castle and Its Door-Keeper," Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 68-74.

(18) Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, ed. Thomas P. Roche Jr and C. Patrick O' Donnell Jr (1978; repr., Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003), 2.12.47; Allen, "Shakespeare's Genial Porter."

(19) See Kurt A. Schreyer, "'Here's a Knocking Indeed!': Macbeth and The Harrowing of Hell," chap. 5 in Shakespeare's Medieval Craft.

(20) William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). All references to William Shakespeare's Macbeth are to this edition.

(21) Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 8-10.

(22) Schreyer, Shakespeare's Medieval Craft, 153.

(23) On this key point, see Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason in their introduction to their edition of Macbeth, 2-5. For consideration of the play in relation to problems of vision and understanding of what is represented on stage, see Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(24) Harry Berger, Jr., "The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation," English Literary History 47, no. 1 (1980): 1-31; Harry Berger, Jr. (1982), "Text Against Performance: The Example of Macbeth," Genre 15:49-79. Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); Rebecca Lemon, Treason by Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007); Steven Mullaney, "Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason in Renaissance England," English Literary History 47, no. 1 (1980): 32-47; Arthur Kinnney, Lies Like Truth: Shakespeare, Macbeth, and the Cultural Moment (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001); Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 2004).

(25) These quotations are taken from Seamus Heaney, Mycenae Lookout, "I. The Watchman's War" and "2. Cassandra," in Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998): 387-90.

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Author:Nicholson, Eric
Publication:Comparative Drama
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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