It never changes. Every time I even think of-let alone read or watch-the penultimate scene of Macbeth, I don’t just sit up, I stand up. I’ll stand right up in a theater-I have no problem with the violation of decorum in public places.

I know Macbeth is guilty of heinous crimes. I know, as he does, that he deserves his fate. I know he is the most despicable of men, a faithful general and friend-a true hero turned traitor, murderer…psychopath. I know he has sold his soul and become a greedy, power hungry madman. And yet…

I rise to my feet in respect, whether at home alone in my office, or in a theater in one of the world’s great cities. When Macduff reveals his prophetic magical protection of being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb,” Macbeth at first acknowledges his cowardice. And then the old soldier in him, the noble though fallen inner man shines through, and he says for all time: I WILL NOT YIELD.

Macbeth

Though the line, “Lay on, Macduff” has become caricatured in many contexts, no one can ever minimize or demean the power of Macbeth’s assertion, “Yet I will try the last.”

With blood on his hands, doomed to die, he still draws his sword and calls upon the courage that made him the leader and warrior that has been his life. I get out of my seat and want to plunge into the page and the scene-because I want to help him. Despite his crimes, I want him to somehow triumph.

Hamlet, near the end, says, “We defy augury,” and goes on to fence to his appointed death. But my sympathy isn’t so much with him. I appreciate his predicament, but he seems a dithery sop to me-death is an easy way out. He’s a prince and fencing is something he learned indoors.

Macbeth wants to live. A Captain of Men, he’s seen the blood of combat and survived. He is in fact a professional murderer. Confronted by the same dark magic that had earlier protected him, he draws his sword one final time. I think I’m not alone in hoping against hope that somehow he will prevail.

The moment is a great triumph for Shakespeare. The fact that he could produce such remarkable comedy alongside this bewitched darkness is beyond saying. But to create a villain of Macbeth’s complexity-in this, his shortest tragedy-leaves me standing.

Richard III, Iago, Edmund-are all great villains that any actor of substance would kill for to play. (Richard Burton said, “Any actor given the chance to play Richard III who doesn’t take it, should be immediately executed.”)

But there is an undefeated humanity to Macbeth, and I long to join him…to bring Macduff’s head back on stage and not his.

I count this one of the finest, truest moments in fictionalized Western Civilization. There is Christ on the Cross, anguishing in vinegar and blood-but he had his Father’s many mansions to look forward to, and knew all along he was the sacrificial Lamb. Socrates? He knew the payment for the gadfly is hemlock. Odysseus? He would’ve run away. Macbeth draws his sword and says for all of us, YET I WILL TRY THE LAST.

The only moment to compare is early in Paradise Lost, when Satan sits brooding amongst his monsters and the exiled gods, and speaks with disturbing calm about “What reinforcement we may gain from hope…if not, what resolution from despair.”

Think about that…when the fallen angel of the morning star-a lieutenant to Eternity-speaks to monsters of “resolution from despair.” The vanquished ministers of vengeance and pursuit…under house arrest in Pandemonium, debating rebellion by either covert guile or open war against the tyranny of Heaven.

This is a moment in artistic civilization…not Mr. Darcy.

But oh, for Jane Austen, relative to her disciples today. Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.

I’m now very tired of warm fuzzy characters. I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. I’m tired of the miserly boredom of figures as real and thin as toilet paper that get flapped in the published breeze just because someone is well connected and lives in Brooklyn.

The WitchesAnd I’m sick to nausea of fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal with-like fodder from a bad Disney movie.

Macbeth, the warlord, met witches. Shakespeare always brought out all the tricks. But still, there is that final moment, when he draws his sword-and transcends gender, race and class in the doing. I WILL NOT YIELD. Though prophecy and fate be against me, he says…bring it on.

Makes me want to climb on stage.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

9 responses to “And Let the Darkness Be Our Own”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Favorite line in a really long time and one I anticipate searching for opportunities to appropriate:

    “Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.”

    Anitheroes and/or sympathetic villains are my absolute favorite characters in literature. Always.

    The writing of characters who are flawed but in uncomplicated ways, characters who–unsurprisingly, given that it’s no real feat–overcome their pairing of stripes and plaids (or whatever snoozy crime) or more surprisingly, don’t manage to overcome it, just affirms to me that we are ever more and further a culture less interested in the way things are and more interested in a sort of glaze-eyed escapism.

    Love Paradise Lost. *sigh*

  2. Matt says:

    Man, I love a good anti-hero. The guy who doesn’t give a crap about being noble or honorable, and just gets shit done. That’s my kind of bastard, right there.

    And a well-drawn villain is often the most iconic part of any great drama. Macbeth. Darth Vader. The Daleks. Col. Hans Landa. Etc.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a production of Macbeth, but now I’m going to have to seek one out. I love Richard III, though (especially that Ian McKellan-directed film version), and even though he’s a wretched, cold-blooded murderer, always find myself rooting for him to find that horse he’s looking for there towards the end.

    Also: I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. Ouch. And yet, so very, very true.

  3. JSBreukelaar says:

    Love this: ‘Fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal….’ eeerrggh!
    If you love the big M—and as Mrs Seinfeld says—what’s not to like, have you seen Kurosawa’s adaptation, Throne of Blood?
    Nice piece.

  4. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks, JSB. Love Throne of of Blood.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      A couple of days ago I wrote a comment here, Kris, with a link in it. Maybe the link thing has been tightened up — I waited for the comment to show, and it never did.

      In mid-September, I saw a stage adaptation of Throne of Blood at the Ashland (OR) Shakespeare festival.

      It was astonishing – spectacular, moving – and all on a stage.

      Google “Throne of Blood” + Ashland and you’ll get to it.

      It’s going to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall.

  5. seb doubinsky says:

    Evil is live.

  6. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Don, Throne of Blood at Ashland sounds amazing. I haven’t been to Ashland in years, but I remember a Macbeth production there that was terrific.

  7. Simon J. Green says:

    When I was in high school, we studied Macbeth. I loved it too. I rooted for him, even though I knew that, really, we’re not supposed to. When we had to write an essay about ambition in relation to the King, I deviated from the prescribed arguments and said that Macbeth’s weakness was not ambition, but the inability to see that ambition through to the very end. The chinks in his armour fundamentally weaken his resolve, and even though he dies fighting, he may well have won if he’d simply given himself wholly and completely to his ambition. To the dark side. I was just a kid, but to this day it pisses me off that I was given low marks for that essay, simply because it wasn’t along the lines of what we’d discussed in class. As a result, however, Macbeth has left an indelible mark on my mind, as a great script; a fascinating exploration of that thing that drives all great people to soaring success or spectacular failure; and as a little lesson in working under the man. Thanks for your post above. You reminded me of Macbeth, and now I’m going to go watch Polanski’s version.

  8. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Glad you enjoyed this, Simon. Thanks for sharing your high school story. I had a similar incident when I wrote about Willy Loman’s wife Linda as the real tragic figure in Death of a Salesman. It wasn’t part of the program, the agenda. It’s sad when teachers at the crucial stage of education can’t nurture more lateral interpretations, and in fact often squelch them. I’m very fond of Polanski’s Macbeth.

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