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Timelessness and evolution of morality:

Analysis of themes in drama through the ages

There is no doubt that moral values have changed considerably through the course of history. Historical documents provide us with information about events that took place in the past, but they do not give us much of an account of what people though of these events, whether they approved of disapproved of them. For this purpose we must refer to fiction, and specifically, drama. Shakespeare left us with an invaluable portrait of his generation. By reading his plays we can (with the help of imagination) see the world of sixteenth century England through the eyes of a sixteenth century individual, see what interested them, what they approved and disapproved of, what made them laugh and cry. By comparing the productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a relatively modern play by Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard, we can trace the evolution of people’s worldview. The two plays have a lot of subjects in common: war, loyalty, nobility, and they both have one female character in otherwise very masculine plays. Chronologically they are placed more than three centuries apart, and this accounts for the difference in how these subjects are presented. Although Macbeth and The White Guard are concerned with similar subjects, their productions demonstrate the shift in public opinion on matters such as war, notions of honor and nobility, as well as the role of women in society, that gradually took place from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

Both Macbeth and The White Guard are set in times of war. In Macbeth war is depicted as a heroic act and a normal pursuit of men. It is understandable since war was indeed a common occurrence in the Middle Ages. The play starts and ends with scenes of war, and war serves as a background for the entire play. We saw two productions of Macbeth and each gave us a different representation of war. The Cheek by Jowl’s production presents the audience with a subtle and psychological portrayal of the tense and hostile atmosphere in which the characters operate. The stage design is very minimalistic and conceptual; it is monochrome black and the lighting is purposefully artificially bright and surreal. Decorations and lighting do not change much throughout the play, and so the audience gets used to this tinge of eeriness. This interpretation focuses on the fact that we, the audience, do not know much about the time period in which the action takes place besides bare facts gathered from dry historical textbooks, and it is hard for us to fully recreate the setting and costumes of that time in out minds. Instead of trying to paint the picture of the sixteenth century Scotland, this production focuses on creating an overall dark, eerie, and hostile atmosphere appropriate to the mood of the play.


The Shakespeare Globe’s production takes a completely different approach. It emphasizes the physical aspect of the play, making it seem more real to the audience. The production shows a lot of blood and deaths on stage. The battle scene at the beginning of the play evolves many actors and weapons, sounds of brandishing swords and strained exclamations of the soldiers. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be a gruesome scene. Instead of mourning over their dead companions, the characters rejoice and celebrate, and the triumphant King orders to execute the Thane of Cawdor, whose body is dragged onto the stage and chained to a pole where he is left for a good quarter of an hour while the play is progressing. The director’s (Lucy Bailey) decision to include so many scenes of violence and death can be justified by creating the atmosphere of the Middle Ages when death (whether from wounds, disease or childbirth) was a part of everyday life. In both productions of Macbeth war is portrayed as a normal and even noble preoccupation of men. The persistence of war is emphasized by the leveled dynamics of the play where important events occur gradually.  The actors are always in military clothes, whether it may be simply soldiers boots in Cheek by Jowl version, or full armor in Shakespeare’s Globe. If fact, this honorable portrayal of the soldier’s courage and military professionalism is contrasted with the lawless atrocity of regicide. The murder of the King gives the play its theme and defines it as a tragedy about crime and punishment, but all other deaths that occur in the course of never ceasing war are disregarded both in the play and the production.

In The White Guard enforces a strong opinion that war is a crime against humanity. The play starts out with a seemingly peaceful scene at the Turbins’ House. The stage design emphasized the homeliness of the apartment: there is a fireplace, a carpet, comfortable furniture, and a lot of small details, such as curtains, vases, a clock, that create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Nikolai is playing the guitar on stage and singing a silly tune; everyone seems calm and happy, everyone is loved and respected. After the audience is put in this mode of happy family life, horrid things start happening. First they are not so apparent. The audience discovers from the conversation between Victor and Alexei that there is fighting outside, Elena is worried about her husband, and there is occasional sound of shells. But the audience still does not experience this first-hand, like when the original Thane of Cawdor is chained and then killed on stage in the Globe’s Macbeth.


The first act is entirely dedicated to domestic scenes, only vaguely suggesting of the terror that is taking place on the other side the bright windows of the Turbins’ House. It makes subsequent scenes seem all the more appalling. First we get a shot of needlessly large, impersonal, bare and cold headquarters of the Ukrainian Army that is so contrasting with the neatness and coziness of the Turbin’s House; then even a worse picture of Petlyura’s barracks, earthy and filthy, with low ceiling, no conveniences and a pack of beastly men. When a Cossack is killed by an alarming gunshot, it makes the audience’s insides clench. In contrast, when Alexei is killed by a relatively unimpressive explosion in the next scene, the audience is even more shocked and distressed by the fact of his absolutely unexpected, inexplicable, and pointless death. The audience knew him as an intellectual, a brother, a man in funny pants, eating and drinking with his family and friends at a dinner table, and not as an army man. In the production the contrast between the domestic scenes of the first act and the setting of the gymnasium where Alexei dies stresses that there is no sense and no justification in him to die in the realm that is so different from his ordinary life. Later Nikolai comes back home nearly dead, unable to speak – not necessarily from the wounds, but from the shock of witnessing his brothers death and we may guess other murders and crimes on the streets. In The White Guard war is viewed as disruption of normal life, annihilation of humane ideals.


Another thing that changed dramatically over the last four centuries is the concept of honor. The social structure of the sixteenth century classified all who were born into aristocratic families as noblemen, or “gentlemen”. It was assumed that the nobility possessed all the praised qualities of a man just from the fact of their birth. Sometimes, but not always this was true and noblemen acted accordingly to their status and the ideals of chivalry: they were loyal to their master and their Lady, devoted warriors, good Christians, brave and honest men. Shakespeare’s Macbeth exploits this stereotype of knightly behavior in the characters of Banquo and later Macduff. Banquo’s nobility is expressed in his loyalty to the King, lack of envy for Macbeth’s appointment as Thane of Cawdor for the same deed which he took equal part in, and his strength in refusing to believe the Witches’ prophecy about his sons be Kings – or, to be more precise, for resisting the temptation to take his destiny into his own hands, like Macbeth did.


The character of Banquo is portrayed in both productions as a good-hearted, calm, and almost down-to-earth man. Such an image corresponds with to Christian belief in submission to one’s fate, abandoning of ambitions and passions. Macduff is another example of a nobleman. Ross calls Macduff a “noble, wise, judicious” (IV.II.16) man, while his own wife calls him a traitor in front of his own son for “leaving his babes,/his mansion, and his titles” (IV.II.6-7). Lady Macduff’s definition of a traitor is “one that swears and lies” (IV.II.47). But the audience realizes that she wrongly accuses her husband of betrayal, because he has a sufficient cause for leaving: he left to fight for the restoration of the lawful royal dynasty of his master – an act worthy of a noble man, indeed. Nevertheless, Lady Macduff’s account, besides expressing a wife’s frustration with her husband, gives us important information about what constitutes being a nobleman and that is, upholding his title. The audience can see that from the way Macduff carries himself on stage with his upright posture, his skilled use of sword. Moreover, the actors who play Macduff are always very physically fit, emphasizing his good warrior’s qualities as an important part of being a sixteenth century standard of a noble man.


The unjust social structure of Shakespeare’s times was so deeply imbedded in people’s minds that they though it natural that some people had inherent nobility, even God’s grace in them, while others were unredeemably coarse. This notion had been challenged by the time when Bulgakov wrote The White Guard. In this play the idea of nobility is not based upon ancestry, but rather on personal moral qualities. A perfect example of a modern noble man is Alexei. Although Alexei has some sort of aristocratic background, he does not show his superiority, he treats everyone, from the crest-beholder Talberg to caretaker Maxim with equal respect. Just like Larion, Alexei is not “a man of the sword”, but “a man of the word” (28). He is an educated and well brought-up man, an intellectual and a philanthropist. His portrayal in the production is far from being warrior-like; on the contrary, the actor chosen for this role (Daniel Flynn) is not very tall, but of rather fragile complexion and timid manner. He talks quietly and calmly, weighing out his words and trying not to take sides or express strong opinions. Only when he drinks at the dinner table does he voice his real opinion about the state of things concerning the war and future. This is the main difference that sets him apart from Shakespeare’s heroes. He does not wish to fight to prove his nobility or honor. As a rational man, he does not use the empty word “honor” to encourage his soldiers to fight for a vague, decaying ideal. His honor is represented by self-respect, his loyalty in staying true to his own beliefs. Alexei’s character shows the product of the evolution of a nobleman, from a knight to an intellectual. 


In both plays all the main characters are male, except for one female figure. In Macbeth and The White Guard women embody to very different archetypes. The text of Macbeth presents a slightly different picture of Lady Macbeth than either of the productions, but both interpretations are important for understanding the image of women in Shakespeare’s era and how modern directors “correct” it according to the modern cultural expectations and our notions of the past. In the times of Shakespeare women were disempowered and blamed for all sins (similarly to Jews), starting from lying, to lust, to practicing witchcraft. Association of women with witches has something to do with men’s fear of female charm, capabilities of their body, and differences in their mindset. The character of Lady Macbeth is created based on these preconceptions from Shakespearean England: she is seductive, cunning, ambitious, ruthless and treacherous. She not only drives Macbeth to committing a sin, she plots the details of the murder and even drugs the King’s attendants. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is the antithesis of traditional female image, a witch created to scare men.


This is not at all the case in modern stage versions of the tragedy.  In both productions Lady Macbeth’s responsibility for the King’s murder is diminished. Instead the productions focus on women’s weakness. This is especially seen in the Globe’s production, where Lady Macbeth is torn between her natural frailty and her desire for strength and power, which she thinks she can achieves by “unsexing” herself, e.g. assuming male qualities. The actress Laura Rogers is quite a delicate woman with a high-pitched voice and naïve eyes. In Roger’s interpretation Lady Macbeth is nervous, almost shaking with timid excitement when she is reading the letter; she is equally uncertain when addressing Macbeth (while we would think that a wife cannot be afraid of her husband) and one time he even exerts violence on her. In both productions the love between Lady Macbeth and her husband is primarily shown in the form of physical passion. Therefore, in Lucy Bailey’s production Lady Macbeth, being disempowered and objectified, wants to become a man, not only for the purpose of being resolute, but also to be respected and have control over her own life. This interpretation is based on the modern knowledge of the restrictions that were laid upon women in Shakespeare’s England.


Elena, on the other hand, represents a traditional female ideal and she enjoys all the benefits of emancipation. She is kind, loving, and caring, dignified and virtuous. She lives—and blooms—in the world of men: her beautiful and elegant dresses, natural grace and good bearing make her a flower, a star among the uniform mass of men. Despite her softness, she has authority over them, especially when they are inside her house: she makes sure they do not fight with each other, keep the house safe and neat. Her “boys”, as she calls the men who surround her, all become noble knights in her presence. She inspires them to being better human beings, unlike Lady Macbeth who inspires her husband to become a murderer. Unlike Lady Macbeth, who uses sexual allure to influence her husband, Elena deliberately restrains from using her female charm, although she has practical reasons for doing so, especially with Leonid being so eager to protect her from all this fear and confusion, if only she submit to him. The actress shows Elena’s proper behavior around men by keeping physical distance away from them. Justine Mitchell’s manner of speech and demeanor on stage shows Elena’s independence from men. She is respected and praised by everyone; Elena has power over men without even wanting it. In their eyes she is “the lovely, the wondrous and delirious, the eternally feminine Elena Vasilievna” (24).

In the example of productions of Macbeth and The White Guard the audience can see the changes in cultural norms that occurred in the past four centuries. War that used to be a suitable and dignified occupation for a nobleman has turned into a horrifying, inhumane, unjustified and unrestrained act of aggression. The image of a nobleman who fights in battles for titles and honors is replaced by an intellectual who does not feel the desire to prove his importance by means of violence or respected lineage. Women have acquired power and respect. The plays convey these changes better that any other means: they not only show quite self-explanatory events (Alexei disbanding his soldiers), but also the reaction of the characters to these events (their reluctance to leave, a reminiscent desire to protect the monarchy and their honor), as well as the audience’s reaction (realization of futility of such behavior). A lot of the times the audience’s reaction can be predicted by the author and therefore anticipated in the text, and therefore by reading and watching the play centuries after it was written, we can learn a lot about Shakespeare’s or Bulgakov’s contemporary audiences. It is an invaluable resource in learning about the past.

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