Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why Great Art Is Great, Using Shakespeare's Macbeth As An Example

The Power Of Great Art
A work of art is great 
it is compelling 
but not because 
it has a clear meaning -- 
since it is often understood
by other cultures
and other generations

See the gallery of 30 pictures from Shakespeare's Macbeth 
created during the years 1768-2012 at the bottom of this blog.

This blog is about the human experience of time. So in this article I will cover what, in a sense, is timeless in the human world.

When I was in college, getting my degree in English, teacher after teacher would explain why a work of art was great. With a tone of certainty they would list all the reasons.

In the 1960s Freudian interpretations were popular and many literary works were seen through a psychological perspective. This approach was often so heavy handed we all learned the joking phrase, "Well, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Others interpreted works with a Jungian or symbolic slant. When I was in the honors program for creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, we were told that Eudora Welty had once been asked if the sudden appearance of marble cake in one of her short stories was a reference to the yin-yang symbol, the two complimentary sides of life. Her reply was simple, "I just like marble cake." 

In my senior year I became quite irritated with academic explanations. Teachers taught a work of art was great because it involved universal themes, archetypes, fundamental conflicts etc. -- all of which were true, of course, but something basic was missing. It took me years to understand just what that was.

I began by thinking in reverse. Suppose I wrote a novel that had all the elements a great novel must have, would that mean that my novel was great? Of course not. Very few works of art seem to grab us and hold our attention decade after decade, century after century. So there had to be something more -- and quite fundamental.    

There are no facts, only interpretations.

I now believe a work of art is great because, in a sense, it cannot be explained for all time. A work of art is like raw experience or raw nature.
What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 
~ Plato ~
Thomas De Quincey said in 1823 that Shakespeare's plays
were a "phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers."

Each generation -- and also different cultures -- find they are fascinated by a particular story or music or imagery or poetry, but each may see it quite differently from the way it was seen originally. And each will interpret it through their own particular prism. 

This is to be expected. The view point of each is different. Yet great art contains a timeless core that is compelling no matter how much a culture changes and no matter what the era.
A work of art is great because
it can be seen differently
and still retain its power.

I believe great literature should be taught not only with today's understanding, but also with an historical perspective that includes various interpretations from the past. This method would allow students to consider different approaches and as a result think in greater depth about the meaning of a work.


To make my point, I researched a number of images from performances of Shakespeare's Macbeth. For 400 years this play has held our attention, and today seems more popular than ever. The following pictures are in chronological order. In them you will see a wide variety of interpretations starting in the 1700s right up to a few years ago. In addition you will notice that Macbeth has been performed in the non-English-speaking world as well. 

You can find these pictures and many more at: 

To find out more about each individual picture below, click on LINK.

I found these images on so that I could publish them in this blog without any copyright problems, but these pictures are just the tip of the iceberg as this play has been performed by hundreds of theater groups over that last four centuries.
In addition to theater productions there have been 24 films made since 1908:

From the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623

1768 England -- Painting of famous actors as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth   LINK

1786 London, England -- Painting of two famous actors as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth   LINK

1784 England -- Painting of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking   LINK

1785 England -- Engraving of the witches   LINK

1786 England -- Engraving of Macbeth seeing the witches  LINK 

1812 England -- Painting of famous actors as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth  LINK

1824 England -- Watercolor of the witches   LINK

1832 England -- Colored engraving of Lady Macbeth   LINK

1838 England -- Famous actor playing Macduff   LINK

1855 Boston, United States -- Boston Theater   LINK

1888 London, England -- Photo of a famous actress as Lady Macbeth   LINK

1933 Harlem, New York, NY -- Voodoo Macbeth   LINK

1948 Film, Orson Welles as Macbeth    LINK

Contemporary high school production, United States -- Macbeth with the witches   LINK

2005 United States -- Processed photo of Lady Macbeth   LINK

 Non-English Speaking Productions and Images 
 of Macbeth 
 in chronological order 

1787 Berlin, Germany -- Painting of a famous actor as Macbeth    LINK

1819.Italy -- A ballet performance with a Frenchman as Macbeth   LINK

1850 Italy -- Poster for Verdi's opera based on Macbeth   LINK

1855 -- Macbeth and Banquo come upon the witches, painting by a French painter    LINK

1855 -- Ghost of Banquo, painting by a French painter   LINK

1892 France -- Painting of Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth 
in a French language production    LINK

 1916 Prague, Czechoslovakia -- Photo of a famous Czech actress as Lady Macbeth    LINK

1933 Poland -- Pastel of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth  LINK

1930s Azerbaijani actor playing Macbeth   LINK

1945 Berlin, Germany -- Photo of two famous actors (in the year of Germany's defeat)   LINK

2009 Slovenia -- Photo during performance of Lady Macbeth   LINK

2012 Tunisia -- Photo during performance   LINK


While today there are perhaps seven different standard ways to interpret Macbeth, there are many other variations. 

I have seen a film performance in which Macbeth was a member of the mob (Men of Respect)  and also read about Macbeth depicted as a VP in a corporation as was done in 2015 in Bend, Oregon.

From the Japanese film, a Samurai version entitled Throne of Blood, to a low-budget film adaption called Teenage Gang Debs which involved a  girl who got her biker lover to kill the head of the gang and so take over, there have been many interpretations.

Nevertheless there is still plenty of room for other ways to present this play. For example, the marriage of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth was called by Harold Bloom "the best marriage in Shakespeare." So the focus and tragedy of the play could be the dissolution of a marriage rather than simply the fall of an ambitious man. 

I am sure there are many other possible interpretations. In the future there will probably be many more that I cannot imagine. 

And that's why this is a great work of art.