There is really only one appropriate season to teach Macbeth. Ideally, discussions and, if possible, expeditions to see this play should fall between mid-October and the end of the first week in November, because, of course, not only Halloween but All Souls' Day (November 2) and Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) are at stake. All these holidays -- as we find in Mexico's Dia de Muertos -- share Macbeth's grisly but humorous tone and atmosphere. Borges thought the play cast an unrelievedly nightmarish pall over the playgoer's senses, but, with due respect to that great Argentine author and Shakespearean, Macbeth's nightmare is not totally dark. The play is in fact punctuated by the humor of the gallows. The phrase is apt. Macbeth contains references to the GunpowderPlot to kill James I, for which twelve conspirators were hanged in 1606. On Guy Fawkes Day the English still celebrate these culprits' capture with fireworks, merriment, and ghoulish effigies of one of the ringleaders. The one conventionally comic scene in Macbeth, that of the drunken Porter, contains not-so-subtle joking references to the Jesuit priest who was tried and executed along with the plotters: he "committed treason enough for God's sake yet could not equivocate to heaven." Grim humor indeed, and perhaps hilarious to Protestant playgoers lucky enough not to have Catholic relatives undergoing interrogation. Jacobeans -- English citizens during the rule of James I -- could be callous in their laughter. But in fact, though the Porter is "comic," his jokes about various types of folks who are bound for Hell are not really all that funny. So where in the dialogue does the humor reside?
The answer may surprise some. Most of the humor in this play comes from the dialogue of Macbeth.
"Gallows" humor in tragedy was not a new thing for Shakespeare in 1606. He'd introduced the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet, and the language of Hamlet himself, which is overflowing with barbed jokes. Hamlet, however, is always trying to be funny. Either he's impressing Horatio with his wit, or, for more obscure reasons, flaunting his "antic disposition." Macbeth's dark humor is unpremeditated. It emerges uncontrollably in his impatience with servants, and erupts from him spontaneously in moments of shock. Macbeth's humor isn't part of a deliberate show. It has, at times, the character of soliloquy, as though he's speaking to himself though in the midst of conversation with others. He's forgotten they're there.
While hiring two unfortunate wretches to kill his perceived rival Banquo, Macbeth responds to one's claim, "We are men," with, "Ay, in the catalogue you go for men." In the list of various types of humans, you barely pass muster, he implies. The line is particularly funny to modern audiences, who picture a Cabelas-type brochure listing various grades of men for sale. Later in the scene, he cuts off this same man's hollow, flattering profession of subservience with the blunt "Your spirits shine through you." No more talk. The hired killers have shown what they are by accepting the bloody commission. Macbeth's in a hurry.
Blunt and sardonic: this is Macbeth's ironic style, and it's so much a part of him that it leaps forth even in passionate moments. Overcome by fear at the appearance of Banquo's Ghost, he laments that in the good old days, dead bodies stayed down. "The time has been / That when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end." What's wrong with this modern world? None of the assembled thanes besides Macbeth can see the Ghost, so his behavior seems to them crazed, and makes ludicrous Lady Macbeth's attempt to excuse it: "Sit, worthy friends. My lord is often thus." He's often screaming at invisible guests at formal dinner parties? What kind of king have they elected?
Clearly this fiendish pair can amuse us even when things are going radically wrong for them. But Macbeth's darkly comic irony is strongest at moments when he's exerting mastery (as he thinks), even when confronting frightening spectacles. In the Witches' cavern (or wherever they are) in act four, Macbeth jokes around with the apparition of the "Bloody Child" who tells him that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." "Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!," the child begins. Macbeth cuts the Child off much as he interrupted the First Murderer. "Had I three ears, I'd hear thee." I.e., wouldn't one "Macbeth!" have been sufficient?
Macbeth's grim humor is at its height at the moment of greatest pressure, when all forces are closing in on him in the play's fifth act. I pity the poor servant boy who arrives, trembling, to inform King Macbeth that an English and Scottish army is marching toward Dunsinane, but I can't help but laugh at the terms with which Macbeth reviles him. He greets the pale, quaking youth with what may be the most imaginative insult in the Shakespearean canon: "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! Where got'st thou that goose look?" Macbeth's picture-laden imagination -- of how King Duncan would look dead, of a crown dropping on his own head -- has driven him into trouble in the first place. Here, even when he's about to lose that crown, his vivid thoughts still take hold of him, as the conceit of boy as white goose extends itself to an image of geese everywhere.
SERVANT: There is ten thousand --
MACBETH: Geese, villain?
And then Macbeth's mind and tongue go full-out crazily imaginative on the boy's pale face, calling for him to man up in terms of color, suggesting that he's a jester ("patch") without his motley, and why is he so white, white, white? "Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear, / Thou lily-livered boy. What soldiers, patch? / Death of thy soul! Those linen cheeks of thine / Are counselors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?" "Whey-face"! It's almost as good "cream-faced loon." Macbeth's a twisted Petruchio.
As he marches out to be conquered, Macbeth scorns the notion that, like an honorable man of antiquity, he might kill himself rather than be captured. That's lame. "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On my own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes / Do better on them." He knows he's defeated, but is still capable of jokingly extending the play's persistent "clothing" metaphor (Macbeth as king is "dressed ... in borrowed robes"). Here Macbeth jests that sword cuts will look much more becoming on his enemies than on himself.
I have often heard audiences greeting such lines in Macbeth with a kind of surprised laughter. This is a tragedy! Why are we laughing? Does the actor have it right? The answer is, yes, he does. This, the grimly humorous, blunt, impossibly poetic murderer, is Macbeth. He's got a way with words (say "How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!"), and a lot of those words are deeply, darkly amusing. A recent headline promoting Joel Coen's new film Macbeth notes that star Denzel Washington "makes Shakespeare scary," as though making Macbeth a scary play were some novel achievement. I haven't seen the film yet, but my judgment of it will also involve the question of whether Denzel allows Macbeth to be not only scary but --- now and then -- ghoulishly funny, just like our cherished holidays of the macabre.