Today, Shakespeare tells us how to stay sane. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I saw Macbeth
again last night. How many Macbeths
have I seen? A dozen maybe? When I was at Fort
Monmouth in 1954, the troops did
Macbeth in pastel-dyed fatigues and
combat boots. In the '70s, Playboy
magazine produced a movie version -- a tad more
graphic than most, but still a pretty good
rendering. I've seen Verdi's opera version and
Toshiro Mifune as a samurai Macbeth in the great
Japanese movie, Throne of Blood.
Macbeth is an odd play about the
common denominator of madness. It's what we
engineers like to call robust. Robust designs stand
up when you do unexpected things to them and with
Last night's open air production, given free of
charge in a city park, stood up to summer heat and
held its audience of thousands. These weren't
theater cognoscenti but, rather, a perfect
cross-section of Houston. I'm sure many of the
people there would've had trouble paying for an
expensive pro-basketball ticket.
And the audience sat riveted until MacDuff, who'd
been from his mother's womb untimely ripped,
finally dispatched the half-mad Macbeth. And last
night, as always, I left the theater wondering
whether Macbeth had been killed by MacDuff or by
his own guilt.
It was a curious experience. I felt a thrill of
surprise as Macbeth left the witches to find he'd
been named Thane of Cawdor. Of course I knew
perfectly well the man entering from stage right
would tell him that. Yet Shakespeare manages to
summon a willing suspension of prior knowledge.
Things I noticed for the first time emerged from
the well-worn script. They always do. This time, it
was a physician telling Macbeth that his wife "is
troubled by thick-coming fancies that keep her from
her rest." "Cure her of that," cries Macbeth.
"Cans't thou not minister to a mind diseas'd; Pluck
from memory a rooted sorrow ..." The physician
replies, "Therein the patient must minister to
Shakespeare is saying just what modern
psychotherapists tell patients -- that they must
ultimately minister to themselves. His physician
reminded us that Macbeth is a play
entirely about the dark forces of the human mind.
Are those witches real, or did Macbeth dream them
up in the first flush of battlefield success? Is
there anything that so threatens our mental health
as sudden success? (God deliver me from ever
winning the lottery!)
I watched the people of Houston -- young and old,
rich and poor, struggling and successful, as they
dispersed into the sultry night air. None of us
will let ourselves be beguiled by witches today.
We've been warned to enjoy our modest successes
without chasing some monster poised to turn and
swallow us whole. In the end, this play about
insanity is a fine reminder -- that we all own the
means for staying sane.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds