The Arena and its Shadowy Warriors: Exploring Self and System dynamics through Macbeth

All stills are from the film – The Tragedy of Macbeth

Introduction

By now, many of you may have seen “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by Joel Coen, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand – a brilliant film that does immense justice to one of the best Shakespearian plays ever. This film is aesthetically rendered in black and white noire, situated in haunting and surreal sets (designed by Stefan Dechant) using light and shadows as visuals, to complement the narration of a dark tale centered around a cast of characters who are slowly engulfed by demonic shadows.

Macbeth is not about your mono-dimensional, alpha male, battle hungry savage triggered by power, nor is he a simpleton who happens to be manipulated and aided by an equally ambitious partner. The context that envelops you as a viewer as you enter this dark tale witnessing the three weird sisters (witches) clucking over the apt moment between rain, thunder and lightning on a bloody heath to rendezvous with Macbeth. This context is not just about the the dark ages – it has many an echo and semblance to a modern world teetering towards an Arena, leaving very little choices.

Joel Coen (from the Coen Brothers and who have made brilliant movies including Fargo) makes Macbeth and lady Macbeth a lot older, darker, and complex in this narrative – the film explores the psyche of a ‘warrior’ and how this archetype manifests across its cast of characters, including the likes of Duncan the King who is slain by his host Macbeth in his own home, Macduff who battles rage and sorrow as he walks the path of avenging the death of his wife and his babies, Ross – a messenger, an opportunist with hints of duplicity but also a man who saves Banquo’s son, and Banquo – Macbeth’s friend – who is all that Macbeth is not.

All of these characters live in an unforgiving context that is marred by battles and destruction; where “fair is foul and foul is fair”. As these characters stumble and grope across this foggy and filthy ‘Arena’ that reinforces many a belief around centrality of power, survival of the fittest, all’s fair (and foul) in love and war etc. – as a viewer you are left breathless as you ponder over choices made by each character that makes them unique and human.

The central character who walks this Arena is Macbeth of course!

Part 1

Role Choices in an Arena

In the EUM framework (created by Ashok Malhotra and for more information please do visit www.eumlens.in), there is a strand or a microcosm of a universe known as the Arena – a systemic space that is energized as well as embroiled with primordial forces of creative destruction, intense battles, opportunism and expediency, chaos, and the primacy of ‘power’. You don’t have to know EUM to make sense of the blog.

In living systems that are largely arenas, and I am not being reductionist here, for there are several organizations that do mirror the quintessence of the Arena, it is easier to ignore or even deny the multiple nuances within such systems, and get carried away with stereotypical evaluations of the systems being minefields or spaces for relentless action.

Macbeth offers many more hues to the Arena!

Some of the psychological roles that embellish intense and violently shifting Arenas include:

  • The guilty warrior that considers self as unworthy for redemption and wearily continues to wreak havoc within the system
  • The paranoid warrior that embraces the butcher within, and cowardly attacks the weak and the unprotected
  • The avenging warrior that hopes for salvation through vengeance, but never achieves it
  • The courageous victim who stoically prepares for death, sensing the end coming nearer each day
  • The two-faced and sly survivor who is caught up with the prospect of living for another day, discovering that each passing day becomes more unworthy of living
  • The stony mercenary or goon for hire, with no honor; who denies self-hate and projects his or her hate on to the other
  • The wannabe heroic witness to the battle, who is insignificant to the larger scheme of things and yet yearns for substantiveness but never gets it
  • The friend who knows that he or she would be stabbed in the back or sacrificed as a pawn in the game
  • The narcissistic Bully plus Coward who would run away when challenged or violate when in power
  • The moralistic warrior that gives self the code or the license to kill and unleash mayhem, without questioning the morality of it.

All Macbeth fans would be able to put a character for each of the psychological roles described above (write to me if you have thoughts on each). The next time you walk into an organizational system that has very high arena orientation, you may want to discern the inherent differentiation between each roles.

Part 2

In search for feminine forces in an Arena?

In many ways, all arena systems are embedded into masculinity.

Macbeth provides interesting insights on how the feminine manifests within such living systems. While my earlier blog speaks of celebrating the witch within, the play and the movie underlines very significant patterns.

While it is easy to interpret the three witches as evil and dark forces, it ought to be remembered that the play was written in times when being labelled a witch meant punishment by death. William Shakespeare is pivotal to having created the ‘modern visualization’ of the witches – as Banquo sees them in Act 1 Scene 3 –

What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

As Banquo states the dynamic feminine seems to have no legitimacy within the inhabitants of the masculine Arena system. But the lines of Macbeth are most insightful for he sees them as holders of intelligence or non-arena wisdom:

Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.

Thus, the dynamic feminine is reduced to that of the Witch – to be fearful of, and yet to curry favors and seek to control it, for Arenas are difficult to predict and difficult to map.  The Warrior and the Witch is a unholy alliance serving the former as well as the latter for power and ambition.

Lady Macbeth is shown, wanting to kill her own femininity with some of the most memorable lines as well –

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

The Arena systems seem to have no space for (static / traditional) femininity either – the image of being a tender blossom is more important to persevere with so that the other stakeholders do not discern the snake within. Thus vulnerability, empathy, unconditional love, graciousness, and warmth are mere empty words that hide a crueler streak within – that of being ‘unsexed’.

Conclusion

Macbeth can be dour, dark, and gruesome – but Coen has yet been able to offer new lens of looking at a world of an Arena – where everyone is driven by power and ambition, and explore new complexities and nuances that are not as apparent.

I am told that Kurosawa and Polanski worked with Macbeth with their innovative slants – but I have not seen either of the two movies. Maqbool was very memorable and offered its own perspectives.

I think Macbeth remains relevant in times today as many of the systems around us are regressing to the Arena and the Arena alone.

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