Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare's Beach House, or the Green and the Blue in Macbeth

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Shakespeare's Beach House, or the Green and the Blue in Macbeth

Article excerpt

   Where I go, words carry no weight: it is best
   Then, I surrender their fascinating counsel
   To the silent dissolution of the sea,
   Which misuses nothing because it values nothing. (1)

WE GO TO THE BEACH FOR FUN, but right up against the water's edge there's no real comfort. The ceaseless spectacle of surf engages but does not reassure. It's a place to visit, not to live. We like looking because we can't stay. What fascinates is the palpable experience of boundary. A few steps away is the part of our world in which humans can't survive. A fluid body that we enjoy touching with our own mostly fluid bodies, as we dip our toes and submerge our limbs, but from which we always retreat. What's on the other side, past the watery border? What secrets does the ocean keep? What would it be like to cross over?

Shakespearean theater follows a comparable beachy logic of temporary and transformative immersion. The plays create for a brief shared time and space an imaginative world that follows its own rules. Inside the charmed circle, the boundary between "art"--things created by human ingenuity and technique--and "nature"--the physical landscape into which we are born--ceases to hold. The art-nature distinction becomes flexible, textured, and subject to poetic play and refiguring. It's like crossing over without leaving our seats. We dive in without getting wet. Sometimes this seems too easy, and Shakespeare comes to resemble a vacation property. But every beach house sees its share of storms.

The ecological humanities have been drawn to Shakespeare in part because he's the biggest fish in the Anglophone literary sea, but also because his long and living stage history provides tangible evidence of canonical texts engaging contemporary dilemmas. The current surge of ecocritical Shakespeare, however, risks seeing only the happier side of nature, a beach where the weather is always good. (2) Sustained attention to the Shakespeare's "green" should not occlude his dramatization of a harsher "blue ecology" that locates itself not in cultured pastures or even marginal forests but in the deep sea. Shakespeare's literary works can't get us all the way into this massive blue body--the most basic feature of the world ocean is that humans don't live there (3)--but they can serve as a fictive beach house, providing us with a beguiling window onto an inhuman space. The view from Shakespeare's beach house shows the void next to which we perch our fragile bodies. It locates us right at the boundary that we can only temporarily cross. Like other beach houses, it's vulnerable to coastal storms, and probably built on sand. It's a place to which we return because of (not in spite of) the disorder in front of it.

Shakespeare's dramatization of this inhuman, oceanic ecology appears in two intertwined tropes in Macbeth. The play's "green" ecology imagines Scotland as a troubled agricultural land, husbanded by King Duncan, violated by the Macbeths, and eventually renewed by Malcolm. Against this now almost-traditional ecoreading, a "blue" ecological countercurrent exposes the play's fascination with the inhospitable ocean. References to the sea teem in this landlocked drama. The bloody Captain analogizes battle to "shipwracking storms" (1.2.26); the Weird Sisters assail the merchant ship Tiger (1.3.7-26); and Macbeth himself rejects the "sure and firm-set earth" (2.1.57) for "multitudinous seas" (2.2.66). (4) Even Lady Macbeth's fantasy that water can wash away murder represents a fervent plea that the liquid element might serve human purposes. The play's blue ecology combines the Weird Sisters' inhuman perspective with the topos of the mind-stretching sea, which, as W. H. Auden observes, "misuses nothing because it values nothing." The green and blue in Macbeth represent different visions of how humans live in the natural world, with green sustainability first displaced by Macbeth's oceanic ambitions and then finally re-asserting itself after the tyrant's death. …

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