Allow us to introduce the wonderful Alissa Mesibov, our fellow Shakespeare adorer and Dramaturg. What is a Dramaturg you may ask? Well when devising new work her input as our Dramaturg is irreplaceable.
Alissa is our go to woman for suggesting or vetting our literary references and helped us to sow together the narrative for Curtain’d Sleep, giving justice to our two leading ladies. Even though the Pacific Ocean keeps us from Shakespeare debates over coffee, she is a vital member of the creative team and we have asked her to give an insight into both Lady Macbeth and Ophelia’s descent into madness in Curtain’d Sleep. We hope you enjoy this first guest blog post …
“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”
(Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1)
Curtain’d Sleep presented the opportunity to explore Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, two of my favorite Shakespeare characters, from multiple perspectives. It excited me that the minds of Lady Macbeth and Ophelia would finally receive the attention that they so deserve. That is why I immediately said “yes” to working on this piece when Jamie and Kat offered the opportunity to me on Halloween day of 2015.
Hamlet, one of the core texts that inspired Curtain’d Sleep, is consistently praised as having the perfect story architecture. I read it in my second year of high school, and I could not stand it it. Yes, it has an incredible plot arc; yes, it has intriguing characters; and yes, the dialogue is no less than absolutely beautiful. What I could not get around was Shakespeare’s treatment of Ophelia. She is perfectly sane one moment, and then a raving lunatic the next. We certainly got to see Hamlet’s slow loss of his senses, so why couldn’t Shakespeare spare a moment for the character who is far more a victim of her circumstances than Hamlet could ever be?
The men in Ophelia’s life are the ones that she trusts, respects and obeys, even though it teaches her to not trust herself. Ophelia speaks of her faith in Hamlet’s feelings for her when she says “he hath importuned me with love/In honorable fashion,” but all those close to her, namely Laertes, Polonius, and even Hamlet himself quash that faith (Hamlet 1.3.109-110). As Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet are each removed from her life by travel, death, and argument, she is left to make her own choices, and since she has been rendered unable to trust her own individual thoughts and observations, compiled with the grief for her father’s untimely death, her mind breaks into apparent madness.
This entire process happens over the course of acts one through four, and yet her mind is perfectly in tact in act three, scene one. In her next appearance in act four, she is singing nonsensically and barely responsive to those around her.
If Ophelia’s madness was the product of her treatment by those around her, then Lady Macbeth’s madness was just the opposite. Yet, her madness is treated similarly to Ophelia’s. Before Macbeth found the will to murder, Lady Macbeth prayed to Pagan spirits to “make thick my blood/ Stop up the access to and passage to remorse,” (Macbeth 1.5.44-45). Whether by chance or because of her prayers, it worked, because Lady Macbeth has what doctors of the time would diagnose as a guilt of conscience, one of several Elizabethan causes of general madness. In her madness, she focused so much on trying to distance herself from blood in her famous line, “Out damned spot out, I say,” (Macbeth 1.5.31). Ironically, it was thought that only blood that can save someone in her condition, in that guilt of conscience could “not be cured by any thing but by the blood of Christ,” according to Elizabethan scholar Paul H. Kocher.
It could be argued that Lady Macbeth’s madness is spread out over all five acts of the play. Despite this, she, like Ophelia, is presented as sane (if murderous) one scene, and then is completely mad in the final act.
Curtain’d Sleep gave these incredible women the time and space to examine their thoughts and circumstances. So while their madness may remain swept under the metaphorical rug in the original plays, working on Curtain’d Sleep for the past year and a half has finally put my high school anger at the treatment of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth to rest.
Alissa is a New York-based arts manager who has worked in fundraising for institutions such as The Public Theater and The Joyce Theater. She has been putting her undergraduate dramaturgy degree to work with Entita since 2013.
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