Fruitless crowns and barren scepters

“Macbeth” continues to taunt us with the prospect that there is no meaning.

Greg Corradini

Human actions are inextricably bound to moral codes.

Society rests squarely on the principle of ethical clarity. The moral value of certain actions has always been a determinant of laws and codes of conduct. Even so, what happens when our world of moral parameters implodes?

This weekend, the University Mainstage Theater resurrects the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s dark tragedy “Macbeth” and muddies the continuum of action, consequence and moral conduct.

Macbeth (Nicholas Harazin) is a respected general in King Duncan’s Scottish army. Early in the play, a bloodied captain reminds Duncan (Matt Wagner) of Macbeth’s prowess on the battlefield. To reward Macbeth’s valor the king names him Thane of Cawdor.

Meanwhile, a plotting trio of witches (Emily Hansen, Kelsey Olson, Allison Lange) halts Macbeth and Banquo’s (Scott Gilbert) progress homeward to reveal a series of predictions.

The witches tell Macbeth that not only will he be known as Thane of Cawdor but in time as King of Scotland. The latter prediction tempts an unspoken ambition of Macbeth.

Reinforced by the supernatural predictions, Lady Macbeth (Sarafina Planer) spurs her husband’s ambition further with her homicidal persuasions. Together they plot to murder Duncan.

Macbeth murders the king and usurps the throne but at the cost of an ever-growing skepticism among the other Scottish noblemen and Duncan’s exiled sons Malcom (Robin Everson) and Donalbain (Thomas Rupp).

Betrayals abound and Macbeth’s suspicions result in an ongoing series of killings. The ruthless murder of Banquo sets off an upheaval of the natural order. Disorder evolves when Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth at the banquet and the sun disappears until the end of Macbeth’s reign.

Some of Shakespeare’s other plays, such as “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” are renowned for their supernatural and fairytale elements.

In “Macbeth,” however, the supernatural contributes to a much larger portion of the characters’ motives and the moral universe they inhabit.

These forces, embodied by the witches and their commander, Hecate (Alison Forbes), can easily be written off as merely sinister. But a closer examination reveals that even their manipulation is not what it seems.

The witches have the foreknowledge of Macbeth’s rise to power and ultimate destruction. The assumption then is that they determine all aspects of Macbeth’s fate. However, their ability to predict his end does not mean that they are the means of its inevitable execution. Macbeth, in the end, is the only one who can choose otherwise. And yet, despite his open avowals that his actions are wrong, something impels him toward doom. If the witches cannot be held responsible, the greater question is: What is this world of mindless ruination?

The darkness of “Macbeth” can be attributed in part to its refusal to impose moral clarity on Macbeth’s actions. It is easy to ask why Macbeth chooses as he does over and over again. However, Alenxandra Wolska, professor and director of the University’s production, reiterates that this is not a play about why Macbeth does what he does.

Instead, Wolska and the cast dramatically focus their attention on Macbeth’s universe. In the production materials, Wolska said, “For me it’s really a study of the world, and I would like the audience to be invited into it rather than follow the plot and judge the characters Ö and to understand something of the conditions necessary to create a universe with void at the heart of action. It’s a study of emptiness and existential condition rather than a psychological study or a simple telling of a dramatic and compelling plot.”

In “Macbeth,” as in the tragedy “Oedipus Rex,” the viewer, as well as the protagonist, is privy to prophecy. For the audience, the tragic element lies in watching those seeds of prediction take root and grow throughout the play until their horrible evolution is complete. Getting there is half the fun.

The difference, however, is that Oedipus tries at all costs to avoid his tragic situation once he learns of the oracle’s foreboding. His decisions try to counteract what the audience knows is inevitable.

Dramaturge Matt Wagner’s suggestions in the play’s production notes lead us to see “Macbeth” as a comment on the nothingness of human action.

“The question the play raises then is: What is the nature of this void that consumes everything, everyone? What creates it, what feeds it? The readiest answer that the play offers is mindless action. It matters not what we do, so long as we do,” Wagner said.

Indeed, throughout the play Macbeth is aware of the moral implications involved in killing the king and his friends. However, their implicit wrong does not impede him from committing those actions.

“If th’ assassination,” Macbeth says, “Could trammel up the consequence and catch / With his surcease success: that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all-here, / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases / Bloody instructions, which being taught, return / To th’ inventor.”