We moved on from the Porter into the rest of Act II scene iii tonight. In this scene, the murder of Duncan is discovered, Macbeth kills the guards, and Malcolm and Donalbain flee. As we finished reading, one woman said, “Hey, there’s three again!” calling our attention to Macbeth having now killed three people.
The conversation focused on interpreting Macbeth’s and Lady’s actions. “He’s actually thinking for himself and not just doing what his wife tells him to,” said one woman. “Maybe killing Duncan triggered something for him,” said another. “Maybe he liked [the thrill of getting away with something].” I suggested that maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly, still traumatized from murdering Duncan. “Maybe he is thinking clearly,” mused the first woman. “It makes sense to kill them so they can’t expose him… Why didn’t Lady Macbeth think of this?”
We pondered her actions in this scene; having some sort of fainting spell as Macbeth finishes his description of killing the guards. “I think she’s trying to distract them and shut Macbeth up,” said one woman. Another woman had a different interpretation: “Maybe she is like, ‘Oh my god, what did you just do?’” These were not the only interpretations, but they were the most popular. I reminded the group again that there are multiple ways of interpreting just about every aspect of this play. We decided to keep reading.
Act II Scene iv was a breeze – everyone got right away that Macduff is suspicious of Macbeth rather than the brothers. One woman pointed out that three crazy things happened over night, and another called attention to the Old Man’s referencing “threescore” years. We are really on top of these threes! Matt mentioned that sometimes this scene is staged in such a way that the Old Man is actually one of the witches, and most people were excited by that idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in our performance.
We began reading Act III scene i and got caught up in talking about Banquo’s monologue.
The first thing we noted was something we hadn’t noticed: that Macbeth now has three titles. There’s our number again. And then we started trying to dissect Banquo’s words.
“He wants what’s coming to him. He’s gonna chill,” said one woman. “He doesn’t know what to do… Maybe Macbeth was involved, but he doesn’t know specifically how,” said another. She continued, “Maybe he thinks it happened the way it was supposed to happen.”
“I don’t know,” said the first woman. “If my friend came to his house and just showed up dead, I’d be pretty suspicious.” Kyle mused that perhaps Banquo was having similar thoughts to Macbeth and just didn’t give in to temptation. This woman was impatient with the whole thing. She said emphatically that Macbeth should have killed Banquo right away. “Why let your competition survive? If you’re gonna do it, just do it. Don’t think about it…. If you want your position, you’re supposed to insulate your position.”
A few people brought up the friendship between Banquo and Macbeth, but some were skeptical. “I don’t think he’s his homeboy,” said one woman. “I think they’re cordial – they were friends, but now it’s about kingship. Everybody is out for each other… I feel like everyone’s out for himself. I don’t think anyone’s really friends.” Another woman agreed, saying, “They have the same drive. They both want something… I’m gonna stick around and kinda leech on.” The first woman jumped back in: “Right now I’ll listen to what you want ‘cause you’re the king. But someday I’m gonna get in.”
We circled back to the witches’ prophecies. I knew in my gut that one of the women who’s been in the group for three years was going to draw a parallel between them and Loki – I just knew it; she finds a parallel with Loki every year. And then she did. “I KNEW you were going to bring up Loki!” I said, and we all laughed. She then emphasized again that Macbeth should have killed Banquo right off the bat, and that that’s what she would have done. She paused. “I’m kinda scared talking about this stuff. I’m realizing things about myself that I never knew before. Things I would do…” That led to revisiting the idea that thoughts don’t necessarily translate to actions, but that, when Macbeth’s do, it’s the result of focusing on the positive in the prophecies and disregarding the negative (a theme that keeps coming up for us).
One person mentioned that perhaps Macbeth thought the prophecy was about to be fulfilled by Duncan visiting his castle. The woman referenced above (she was on a roll) said, “If you put yourself in these situations, you’re gonna do it.” As an example, she brought up that if you’re thinking about cheating on your significant other but really don’t want to act on it, you won’t go out to dinner with the other person or sit on the couch with them. She brought up cookies as well, saying that if you keep them in the cupboard you probably won’t eat them all, but if you put them on the table next to you, you probably will.
“But he didn’t set it up,” Kyle said. “He didn’t invite him over.” We talked about that for a minute. “Well, okay,” I pondered aloud. “So if the situation just comes up, does that make you any less culpable? Does what comes before the action change the quality of the action?” There was no clear answer.
“What a man thinks genuinely, he does. Usually,” said this same woman. Matt then asked if maybe Macbeth says no to Lady Macbeth initially in a way that leaves space for her to push him to do it. Many of us recognized that from our own lives. “When I’m arguing with [my ex-husband], and he’s going on and on and on, and I just say, ‘Okay,’ he changes his mind,” said one woman. We talked about how universal that is and wondered what it says about the couple’s relationship. Has Lady always made the decisions, or is this the first time? We’re divided on that.
Tonight began with one of our new members pulling me aside. She’s left early a few times and has sometimes been rather quiet, and, while she enjoys Shakespeare and feels that she’s getting a lot out of it, she didn’t want to disrespect the facilitators or the other inmates, or to take up a spot that could be filled by someone else, so she was thinking about leaving the group. I listened and then said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m not going to try to talk you into anything, but can I share my perspective with you?” She nodded. I said that there have been people in the group over the years who have definitely been disruptive and disrespectful – some so much so that they had to be removed from the group. “But that’s not you,” I said. “It’s okay to leave if you’re upset. You’re being respectful when you do that – you’re making sure that whatever you’re dealing with doesn’t create drama for everyone else.” She hadn’t thought of it that way. She said that she’s also considering joining a different group in January that would conflict with ours. I let her know that, from my perspective, she’s welcome to stay and make the decision later. She thanked me for saying all of that and said she would still like to speak to the ensemble to make sure they knew how she felt, and so they could decide whether or not she could stay. She had to step away but said she’d come back shortly.
We continued with Act III scene i, at first focusing on Macbeth’s soliloquy regarding the need to have Banquo killed. One woman said that she thought the sudden plotting showed a lack of fore-thought. I asked if perhaps Macbeth was exhibiting signs of paranoia. One woman believes this is a manifestation of the evil presence that’s settled on the castle. Another woman spoke up, challenging me: “I don’t think it’s paranoia. I think it’s logical to be threatened by his mere existence.” She’s got a great point.
The woman who’d spoken to me before we began then came back. We waited for an opening, and then I nodded to her. She shared with the group what she’d shared with me. “So… I leave it up to you whether I should stay or go,” she said. Immediately, six women said, “Stay!” A number of them then shared reasons why she hasn’t been a disruption or disrespectful, why they wanted her to stay, why she should stay for herself, and they welcomed her to make her decision about the other program closer to when it will begin. “If you’re getting something out of this, you should stay as long as you want,” said one woman. The woman who’d been thinking about leaving thanked everyone, said she had to go just then, but that she’d see us on Tuesday.
We then returned to the play and read through Macbeth’s interactions with the Murderers. One woman who was in the ensemble last year said, “I’m sorry, but I just keep seeing parallels with him and Richard.” We said that she shouldn’t be sorry! It’s great. We talked about how a big difference between Macbeth and Richard III is that Macbeth has some compunctions about killing people. Or at least he does at first.
“He was all upset about killing somebody, and now he’s a gangster,” said one woman. “He’s trying to convince himself [not to murder Banquo] – he doesn’t really want to do it,” said someone else. “But now he’s keeping his hands clean,” said another woman. “’You make up your mind about this,’ [he says to the Murderers] – so he can keep a clear conscience.”
“Wait,” said another woman. “Isn’t he doing to them what Lady Macbeth was doing to him in the beginning?” Most of us hadn’t thought of that, but she’s absolutely right. She also thinks he’s starting to lose it.
We then read and talked about Macbeth’s interaction with Lady Macbeth in Act III scene ii. “Now he’s this crazed, psychotic killer, and she’s the one trying to calm him down!” said one woman. “She created a monster!” said another.
We decided that, for Tuesday’s meeting, everyone would choose a piece of the play that they’re interested in exploring on its feet. But then one new member asked if we could put Act III scene i on its feet, saying, “I learn better when I see it or do it.” She offered her scene partners some advice about trying to follow the stage directions, and I encouraged them to take it slow and try to connect with one another.
The woman who read Macbeth has been in the group for a couple of years, and she’s always thrown herself into whatever she’s done with a lot of showmanship, but something about this scene really clicked for her. We were totally drawn in from the first moments of her soliloquy. She absolutely nailed the language and clearly connected with the emotion of the scene. When she finished, we erupted in applause and praise. I actually threw my book on the floor and said, “[Name]! What just happened?!” Another woman said, “You were really feeling it, huh?”
She smiled, a little embarrassed but clearly pleased. “I don’t know… I wasn’t really feeling it until the dogs… I really connected with that for some reason. Like, he’s not different than any other dog. He’s just a f**king dog.”
“You had it before then,” another woman said immediately. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess we were feeling it before you were feeling it. Your work was so solid, your grasp of the language was so powerful… You’ve worked really hard at that over the years, and it shows. You drew us all right in.”
“I guess I can relate to Macbeth,” she said. “I’ve been stabbed in the back trying to do the most for everyone… And I’ve got a vindictive way of thinking.” She described some of the – admittedly creative – ways in which she’s gotten back at people in her life. “I don’t do well with people trying to screw me over or take advantage of the people I care about.”
“So you really connect with this character,” someone said. “Yeah…” she paused. “If it weren’t so many lines, I would maybe consider it.”
“Do it!!!” a bunch of us exclaimed. “You guys,” she said jokingly, “I quit every day.” But we all encouraged her to explore this further. “Don’t shut any doors because you think you can’t do it,” I said. “Remember that we’ve always been able to cut everyone’s lines down to the point that they’re comfortable. If you feel a connection to this character, don’t make any bones about it. Go for it. Even if you’re not cast, take the time to explore in rehearsal.” Everyone agreed. “If you’re connecting with this character, there’s a reason,” I said. “Sometimes the character chooses you.”
As we circled up for our final Ring exercise, she said quietly to me that this just isn’t something she’d considered before. “Well, I’ve actually been wanting to talk with you about this,” I said. “Can we chat for a minute before we leave?”
We stood apart a bit as everyone left. I said again that she shouldn’t count herself out for this part – that I think she’s ready for it. “Really?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied. “You’ve grown so much over the past two years, and you could totally handle this now.” She asked what I meant. “Well, during Othello, you were really nervous, right?” She nodded. “Kind of wishy washy? You weren’t sure you’d follow through. We weren’t sure you’d follow through! But you did. You showed up for every performance, and you proved to all of us that you could do it. And then last year, you became a leader in the group.”
She was shocked that I’d described her as a leader. “Are you kidding?” I said. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrote in my notes about you encouraging others, uplifting them, comforting them, and being the first one to jump in when people needed it. You saved a couple of very nervous actors in a scene when they were forgetting their lines, and you were right there when one of them started crying back stage. Not only that, but you’re a team player. You were totally willing to cut your lines on the fly if it looked like we were running out of time, and then you taped one of your monologues inside your hat so you’d have it there if we did have time.” She smiled. “So you’re a team player and a leader,” I said, “And that’s really important in a major role like this. And, yeah, you joke about quitting every day. But the point is that you never do. You always come back. And you know what it takes to want to quit and keep coming back. We need anchor members in those roles. And you’re an anchor member. And a really good actor!”
She had completely lit up by then and seemed more eager to explore the possibility of playing Macbeth. “It just feels so good to say those lines,” she said. She talked about trauma from her childhood that is difficult for her to deal with, along with the challenges of her life behind bars. She described feeling a sense of catharsis through playing the character. “That’s great, and it’s a really common thing,” I said, “It can feel really, really good. And if you end up cast in a role like this, we can keep that going while keeping you safe from experiencing any more trauma. You just need to think about whether or not you’re comfortable with that. I’m confident that we can keep you safe, but I’m not you – I can’t make that decision.”
“You get me, though,” she said quickly. “I can open up to you more than I can to most people. Really, to anyone. You get me right here,” she said, tapping her forehead. “You’ve really helped me.”
“That is such an honor,” I said. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to help. You do really great work in here. I love being a part of it.”
She left, assuring me that she’d continue to mull this over. I truly have been hoping that this would be the year when she’d dive into a role that has more guts. I’ve got all my fingers crossed that it happens for her if she’s ready.