In a 2007 essay called “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power,” the distinguished literary critic and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt tells a funny story about meeting Bill Clinton at the White House. It takes place in 1998, just a few weeks before the Monica Lewinsky scandal would wreak havoc on the remainder of Clinton’s second term. Greenblatt is among the guests at a black-tie dinner honoring then-poet laureate Robert Pinsky. In his remarks, President Clinton recalls being forced to memorize passages from Macbeth for a high school English class. When Greenblatt reaches Clinton in the line to shake hands after the speech, he hits the president with what he thinks is a zinger. “Mr. President,” says the Harvard professor, sticking out his hand, “don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looks Greenblatt in the eye and replies without hesitation, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”
With Hillary Clinton, who has a history of being compared to Lady Macbeth that goes back decades, knocking at the White House gate this fall, it would seem that Macbeth — including her husband’s clever take on it — is very much back in season. Add the fact that she is hotly pursued in her quest for power by Donald Trump, another immensely ambitious man, and you’ve got all the makings of a powerful Shakespearean drama. Will it end in tragedy? Who knows? But one thing is certain, which is that both candidates will continue to struggle with the perception that the object of their ambition is, in Bill Clinton’s memorable phrase, “ethically inadequate.”
For Ensemble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Fox, the director of this season-opening Shakespeare offering, the key to understanding Macbeth lies in an appreciation of the degree to which the protagonist is “flooded by his imagination.” Macbeth’s susceptibility to suggestion and even hallucination comes as part and parcel of his extraordinary gift for language. When he speaks of his fear that assassinating the king will not provide “the be-all and the end-all,” but will instead become an act that returns “To plague th’ inventor,” Macbeth expresses his thought of murder in words that live on as a standard English expression for something that’s the best possible choice. By yoking Macbeth’s homicidal career to some of the greatest poetry in the language, Shakespeare confounded those who seek a moral in Macbeth.
The leads in this production come highly regarded. Jamison Jones, who will play the title role, was last seen here in Ensemble’s 2008 production of Thérèse Raquin. Kathryn Meisle, who will play Lady Macbeth, was nominated for a Tony Award for best actress for her work as Elmire in a 2003 production of Tartuffe.
Despite a promised emphasis on the psychological, rather than the supernatural, side of the play, Fox does have some spooky effects planned. Advanced video projection technology will augment the sets and create realistic apparitions, lending the production a dreamlike quality. The characters will all be in contemporary dress, and the location is understood as a “war-torn desert city” rather than the more traditional Scottish countryside.
Thanks to the Léni Fund, with additional support from longtime Ensemble patron Sara Miller McCune, two practitioners from the Globe Education program of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London will be arriving as the play opens to conduct a series of workshops for teachers and students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Let’s hope they succeed in bringing some clarity to the murky ethical world of politics both in and outside castle walls — and White House gates.
Macbeth runs September 29-October 16 at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic Theater. For tickets and information, visit etcsb.org or call the box office at 965-5400.