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  • Macbeth and Regimes of Reading in Francoist Spain1
  • Keith Gregor (bio)

In The Noise of Time, his fictionalized third-person account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich and his troubled relation to Soviet power, Julian Barnes records the composer's attitude to Shakespeare and to what Shakespeare may have signified to a tyrant like Stalin. The tyrant's fear of seeing his own reflection in plays like Hamlet and Macbeth was, Shostakovich observes, what lay behind the banning of their performance in Russia. But this does not detract from a certain naiveté on Shakespeare's part. After all, he notes, Shakespeare's despots "had doubts, bad dreams, pangs of conscience, guilt. They saw the spirits of those they had killed rising in front of them. But in real life, under real terror, what guilty conscience? What bad dreams? That was all sentimentality, false optimism, a hope that the world would be as we wanted it to be, rather than as it was."2 Modulating this view in later life, as the "noise of time" sweeps over him and the ruthless Stalin is replaced by the less murderous, though no less vindictive, Khrushchev, the composer acknowledges that Shakespeare had probably got it about right, had indeed been truthful, but only "for his own times":

In the world's younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not any more. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant's skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.3

Barnes's/Shostakovich's evolutionary view of the tyrant's conscience as exemplified by Soviet Russia helps clarify the issues I wish to raise here: the usefulness of a play like Macbeth in dissecting modern, post-Jacobean [End Page 141] tyranny and its relation to the regimes of reading such tyrannies inevitably put in place. My examples will not be from Stalinist Russia, where the play was indeed banned for a time,4 but from Francoist Spain, where, strikingly, it was not.

Since the politicization of Shakespeare studies in the 1980s, few critics doubt that Shakespeare's concern was the exposure of tyranny in all its forms. Already in the 1970s, V. Aravindakshan could reflect on an abiding and at times implacably realistic concern in Shakespeare with the nature and consequences of tyranny:

From the beginning to the end there is the same preoccupation with the nightmarish doings and happenings in the "cunning passages and contrived corridors" in high places: the same story of dethronements, usurpations, banishments and assassinations. In comedies, tragedies and histories, and in all the phases or stages of his career, Shakespeare points his finger at the struggle for power. In some of the more important works he strips this struggle of all mythology and shows it in its pure state.5

Behind this finger-pointing is what, more recently, Mary Ann McGrail suggests was Shakespeare's assimilation of the ideas of thinkers like Aristotle, for whom "tyranny [is] always the worst of all possible political regimes," but also, contradictorily, Machiavelli, who claimed that "disguised tyranny [is] potentially the best possible regime."6 In plays such as Macbeth, Richard III, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, she argues, the author can be seen deliberately dramatizing these ideas to produce his chief artistic result: a psychological profile of their tyrannical protagonists. "What tyranny does to the state qua state … is not important," Shakespeare seems to say, "but is best understood by looking within the disordered mind and passions of the tyrant himself."7 For twentieth-century subscriptions to this viewpoint she finds examples in the work of writers like Orwell and Solzhenitsyn; and there are glimpses of it in what Barnes presents as Shostakovich's reflections on Stalin—though here "passion" is replaced by the dispassionate curbing of all forms of artistic...


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