Locating Macbeth At The Thresholds Of Time, Space And Spiritualism

2442 words - 10 pages

In the preface to Folie et déraison, Michel Foucault unmistakably locates madness at the
limen of cultural identity:
European man, since the beginning of the Middle Ages has had a relation to something
he calls, indiscriminately, Madness, Dementia, Insanity. … [It is] a realm, no
doubt, where what is in question is the limits rather than the identity of a culture.
(Foucault xi)
By describing madness in this way, he demonstrates his understanding of madness as a
cultural phenomenon, defined not by the analysis of a subject’s symptoms, but rather the
shared assumption that a subject is not ‘right’, does not conform to the prevailing ideological
norm. Written in the late twentieth century, his work is a treatise about the wider cultural effects
produced by a policy of confinement of the social outsider. Three centuries earlier, William
Shakespeare completed and staged what are now considered the greatest and most evil of
all his tragedies, the tragedy of Macbeth. Themes of witchcraft, infanticide, suicide and death
pervade the fabric of the play, which possibly contributes to the theatrical superstition that
surrounds its production to this day. Nevertheless, it seems curious to me the play is seldom
discussed as one that focuses on madness, when it deals with two of the most insane and depraved
characters in all of Shakespeare.
1
It seems curious to me that Shakespeare’s tragedies so often revolve around common
themes of “Madness, Dementia, Insanity,” and there is much scholarship as to how this discourse
of madness should be interpreted1, but less with particular reference to Macbeth. Curiouser
still is that Shakespeare’s Renaissance understanding of madness, as demonstrated in
his portrayal of this madness is to this day held in such high esteem, by scholars, audiences
and actors alike. What I propose and examine in this thesis is that theories of liminality, that
is, space, time and mental or spiritual states that exist upon a threshold, serve for Shakespeare
as an effective device for exploring the fabric of madness that he has woven into his dramatic
plots. These times, places or states of transition, or ‘limens’ are present in the locations,
speeches and characters of the tragedies, and crucially, I argue, are also detectable in what
could be called Shakespeare’s ‘theatrical theory’ — namely, the very way in which he constructs
and performs his dramas upon the stage. On this point, Weimann’s discussion of the
physical dimensions of Shakespeare’s stage comes closest to my thesis. For Weimann, Shakespeare’s
use of the platæa represents a liminal space which allows the actors to break with the
action and engage with the audience directly. On this platform, “the play world continues to
be frankly treated as a theatrical dimension of the real world,” (Weimann 74) in other words,
the stage serves double duty: it presents the fictional universe of the play, but that same fictional
universe is the playwright’s...

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