Sunday, August 12, 2007

Torch Song

Tomorrow, August 13, begins the festival of Hecate, goddess of the dark moon, the crossroads, childbirth, ghosts, etc. In Italy, it's called the Festival of the Torches, because Hecate is a torch-carrier.

I first encountered Hecate while teaching Sophomore English at St. John's School (aka Rushmore). We were reading Macbeth by William Shakespeare, painstakingly, mostly trying to make out what the hell people were saying to one another. (Even in contemporary English we still have this problem, don't we? And understanding what we are saying to one another is just as hard as figuring out what the Shakespearians are saying to one another.) Everyone knows that understanding Shakespeare as a sophomore in high school is super hard. For most people out of high school, it's hard, too.

I was having a hard time teaching it, the first time, because I hadn't read it before, had not had the experience yet of making sense of it. I had to learn it along with my classes that first time, and they were good students, good teachers. I learned a lot. But the one who taught me the most about Macbeth -- what it's about, what it means -- and therefore the one who taught me a lot about life -- what it's about, what it means -- is Hecate, the crone who makes an appearance smack dab in the middle of Macbeth. And it's possible that Shakespeare didn't even write the part where she shows up; it's probable, in fact, that Thomas Middleton wrote her speech.

Her speech provides the key to the play, to understanding the motivation of the characters -- all of them -- and therefore it's her speech that teaches us about what it means to be human, which is what the play is about, generally. It's what all literature is about, generally.

Specifically in Macbeth, being human means dealing with issues of security. Hecate shows up in Act III, Sc.vii to scold the witches, who have been toying with Macbeth since the beginning of the play. She basically says to them: what the hell have you been doing? You didn't have my permission! You acted without consulting with me, and I'm the BOSS. Furthermore, the person you're messing with isn't even worth it! He's an idiot, a self-involved, spiteful, vain, insecure idiot. But! Since you've already started the process of messing with him, we're going to go ahead and finish him.... I’m going to go and get this awesome "vaporous drop" that hangs from the edge of the moon and bring it back. With it, we'll create a potion that will induce visions in him that are so intense and so fantastical, that

... distill'd by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals' chiefest enemy.

That last couplet says it all. "You all know security/is Mortal's chiefest enemy." Everything Macbeth does, he does because he's insecure. And to make it even worse -- everything he does, he does in order to become "secure."

Security, however, is antithetical to life. In life, in fact, there is no security. Those who seek it, are misguided, wasting their sweet time.

Thank you Hecate for bringing this human error to light in the middle of this amazing play.

Thank you William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, too.

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