The Lady with blood on her hands

There is a wonderful moment in the 1987 film, Withnail And I, where portly, randy Uncle Monty shares a glass of good wine with the scurrulous Withnail and the increasingly unsettled ‘I’. Do we ever learn his name?

Monty has designs on I. And I can see why. I is Paul McGann at his most winsome, filled out by a clever script to make one cry with laughter. A veritable Adonis, Monty is putty in the young man’s hands.

But poor I is terrified. and his college mate and Monty’s nephew, Withnail, a drunken sot of fairytale proportions, is no help. He is using his friend as currency in a deal to get his hands on the keys of Monty’s holiday cottage.

Anyhow, there they are in his louche bachelor boudoir, sipping sherry, and Monty proclaims with tragic pomposity: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and – quite reasonably  – says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.’ ”

Monty and The Dane are a very long way apart. I is a lot closer to Hamlet, and just as on edge. But poor Monty, what dreams he cherished, back then in the days when he must have trod the boards as a young  thespian.

Anyhow, to paraphrase Monty: It is rather sad when one day, one wakes up and realises that one will never actually get to play the lady with blood on her hands.

Lady Macbeth. A study in how power can unhinge one and part one forever from one’s moral framework, she was not Shakespeare’s invention. At the very least, she appeared in two historical accounts in a very well received history book, Holinshead’s Chronicles, published in two parts in 1577 and 1587. There she was variously called Donwald’s wife, or Gruald of Scotland.

They think Shakespeare used these histories, and brought his fairy dust to bear on the personalities they sketched. Lady Macbeth: the one who chose ruthlessness and a search for power above traditional virtues. No good came of it. But what a compelling anti-muse she is. Her last appearance should be in verse, if most of his main characters are anything to go by, but Shakespeare withdraws the privilege, for the balance of her mind is disturbed as she sleepwalks a hidden anguish.

Oh, to play her. just once.

Many of us love one Shakespeare character above others. Portia, or Olivia, Hamlet, or Caliban, or Shylock. I wonder if Shakespeare, who saw all colours and all textures of human quality, might hand you the script and say: there. perform it now. Perform your beloved character for just us two.

Who would you be?

(Contains strong language and sundry bigotry)

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27 thoughts on “The Lady with blood on her hands

  1. “No good came of it”, such a quintessential English saying meaning all bloody hell broke loose.

    Oh I love the understatement that only the English can really achieve.

    Me, I think the fairy queen. After all I never fall in love with the wrong men.

  2. In 1966 I worked as a stage hand at Chichester Festival Theatre, during my summer vacation from Portsmouth Art School. One of my tasks was to open a sliding door on a balcony, some 10ft above the stage, allowing Macbeth to throw a stuntman down onto the stage before commencing his speech. My lasting memory is clinging onto the interior of the sliding door as Macbeth ( played by John Clements), mistaking me for the stunt man who should have been where I was standing, tried to throw me down onto the stage. In the end, the stunt man had to rush out through the now open doors and throw himself off the balcony, like some mediaeval kamikaze pilot, which allowed Macbeth to release his grasp and carry on acting 🙂

  3. What a great question! I’m sure I haven’t given this enough thought, but I love Twelfth Night, and am intrigued with Viola/Cesario. Don’t think too deeply about that choice, it’s just interesting. 🙂 For many years I was just enthralled with Olivia Hussey in the De Laurentiis movie version of Romeo and Juliet. When the movie came out I was a teen, and thought she was so gorgeous. I somehow identified with that character for the drama/melodrama, and didn’t seem to question that the characters were doomed! Shakespeare has someone for everyone!

  4. I absolutely love Lady Macbeth as well as Desdamona from Othello..but I would love to play Iago! In college we had to do a scene from a Shakespeare play and we chose Othello, but switched out the males to play females and so I got to play Othello. I really wanted to do Iago, but I was chosen for Othello, and I kicked but if I must say.
    Great story

  5. Milton and I are seeing three Shakespeare plays in the months ahead, including Lincoln Center’s staging of MacBeth as well as two UK productions starring Mark Rylance that have crossed the pond to Broadway. I am also ushering Romeo and Juliet off-Broadway later this month. As for my favorite Shakespeare character, ask me again after I see Mark Rylance on the boards. He’s one of my all-time favorite stage actors.

  6. I guess it might be Desdamona or Antipholus of Ephesus. The latter was one of my favorites and I was able to partake at Stratford. We have a new gig here where on certain nights individuals get together with scripts and perform. If the play calls for another part, they call from the audience. On some nights, a play is announced and you just show up to either get a part or watch. There’s wine too but this type of interactive theater is really catchy.

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