Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" (Shakespeare)

Something wicked this way comes is Macbeth, the title character of Shakespeare’s study in the seductive embrace of power and a man’s descent into the dark recesses of ambition. It also suits this day, Halloween.

"Autumn's Blush"
Fleeting Seasons as seen from the Hurricane Deck Bridge, Missouri. Al Griffin Photography

For Halloween, at least in the United States, people adopt personas; they shape-shift from modest CPAs by day into predatory vampires by night, providing a perfect paradigm for a motif woven throughout Macbeth, one given expression by the witches who, in the opening scene, say, Fair is foul, and foul is fair (1.1), a description echoed by Macbeth when audiences first meet him and he observes that So foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3)The witches’ paradoxical claim that what is fair is truly foul while what is foul is actually fair describes the protagonist, Macbeth.

At first, Macbeth seems fair. He's just proven his loyalty and courage when he pushed to the center of the battle and executed the chief opponent, thereby saving Scotland from being overtaken. For his bloody skills and bravery, Macbeth earns a promotion and the King's gratitude.

The King, Duncan, and Banquo, Macbeth’s comrade on the battlefield, are unaware of Macbeth’s ambitions to be greater, to rise as high as Duncan himself. The witches and Lady Macbeth tease these ambitions into the light. First, the witches prophesy that Macbeth will become King, and second, Lady Macbeth dares Macbeth to seize the moment, to realize the prophecy by any means possible.

At first, Macbeth resists. He knows that evil deeds never remain hidden. They become known.

Macbeth also knows that evil deeds, like boomerangs, return to plague their inventors for wicked men “… but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips.” These words reveal that Macbeth understands he will set in motion the means of his own undoing, but he begins anyway.

This is a story line oft told and retold, most recently featuring Congressman Francis Underwood, protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards, a 13-episode series available for streaming. Underwood’s ambition is to become Secretary of State, but the recently elected President, whom Underwood helped succeed, declines to appoint Underwood after all. Underwood vows to exact revenge, and to this end, Underwood, while appearing to be fair, acts foul while ruining another Congressman, undermining the Vice-President of the United States to create an opportunity, manipulating and dictating to colleagues, seducing a young reporter, and neglecting his wife’s personal and professional ambitions. Thus, Underwood stirs toxins that infect all his victims, inspiring them to invent revenge plots of their own.

Like Macbeth who sloughs off the coat of goodness in favor of evil, Underwood sheds the role of public servant in favor of privateer and tyrant. Both leaders refuse to yield to moral duty, and both are very much alone in their successes. Underwood and his wife have no children, a choice made to further their careers. They have no friends--except each other--for there is no one they are unwilling to use, no one they are willing to befriend selflessly.

Macbeth acknowledges that being alone is a consequence of choosing a self-serving course from fair to foul. As his life hastens to its end, he realizes he lacks anything that would allow it to thrive: neither honor, love, obedience from his aides or army nor friends:

my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
(5.3)

"Yellow Leaves" Al Griffin Photography

Such is the end to which Walter White came. Such an end is likely for Congressman Francis Underwood, and it is an end to tales we have told ourselves since stories were first invented. We know that the fairest among us may descend into evil and that those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” House of Cards and/or Macbeth.

Writing Challenge:


Write a synopsis for a tale you’ve invented or one you’ve read featuring the paradox that fair is foul and foul is fair.