Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Shakspere Society of Philadelphia
Maybe not the first, but the oldest Shakespeare club in America or possibly even the world, has kept minutes for over a hundred fifty years.



Dean Wagner in the chair. Other members present Ake, Bartlett, Binnion, Cramer, Di Stefano, Dobson, Dupee, Fallon, Fisher, Griffin, Hopkinson, Mabry, Peck, Pickering, Pope, Simmons, Warden. We were glad to welcome Victoria Dawson of Washington, DC, goddaughter and guest of Bishop Bartlett, and the daughter of Giles Dawson, for many years a senior curator at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a famous Renaissance scholar of the past generation. We also welcomed Mr. Griffin's guest, local lawyer John Chesney, an Edinburgh native, an Oxford graduate, and a member of the Orpheus Club, who regaled us with a spirited and expert performance of a British music hall classic of yesteryear, "The Night I Appeared in Macbeth." He was greeted with raucous laughter and loud applause.

The Dean circulated a photocopy of a passage about the early days of the Society discovered by Mr. Rivinus in the new Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. The passage implies that our Society in its infancy was a very lightweight affair. Not so! Your scribe has read all the minutes of the meetings of our first thirty years, 1852-1882, and can assure the members that our forebears were serious, scrupulous students of the Bard throughout this period, guided as they were by two men of great scholarly accomplishment: Asa Fish, Dean from our genesis until his death in 1879, and H. H. Furness, Jr., an internationally renowned Shaksperian of that epoch. Furness became Dean on Fish's death, but was often absent; the office of Vice Dean was instituted at that time (1879), and Mr. Ashhurst, the Treasurer, was elected and took the chair at most meetings in the next few years. (Another frequent attendee from 1876 on was C. Stuart Patterson' my wife's great-grandfather! Her grandfather, CSP Jr, was elected in 1903.)

The Vice Dean reminded us that we begin reading a selected scene from Timon of Athens at our next meeting on December 10, and he praised the dramatic vigor of this play, even though it lacks great poetry. Dean emeritus Hopkinson recalled the praise won by Brian Bedford as Timon in New York a dozen years ago. The play will be performed next summer at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Two members heartily praised the recently ended performances of Julius Caesar by the Shakespeare Festival of Philadelphia at 21st and Sansom Streets. This group will stage As You Like It early next year, just in time for members to supplement our reading of the play at dinner meetings.

The Vice Dean asked us why Lady Macbeth changes as she does from the iron-willed accomplice to murder of earlier scenes to the frantic sleepwalker and suicide of the fifth act. Macbeth does not confer with her after the play's midpoint; we do not see them together after 3.4. Her focus is still completely on her husband in her sleepwalking speeches, calming and encouraging him, but distraught with fear. Is she, in one aspect, a kind of alter ego to her husband, a reflection of his anguished subconscious? Does she help to humanize the monster who seems so callous a killer in the last two acts? Many of us feel close to Macbeth, almost sympathetic with him, even at his worst. Our fellow member Alfred Harbage (your scribe's mentor) wrote years ago, "If Macbeth were other than he is, less like ourselves, he would be a less powerful symbol of our own worst potentialities and the abyss we have escaped. There is nothing of him in Cornwall or Iago." (Would that today's Shakespeare scholars wrote such clear, crisp English).

Act Five, Scene One' Lady Macbeth, asleep, jumps from topic to topic' as we all do mentally, a member remarked, especially when perturbed. We discussed her strange rhyme, "The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?" We noted the resonance of such clipped, monosyllabic language, common at moments of great emotional intensity in this play. ("She should have died hereafter." "I have supped full of horrors." "He has no children." "The time is free." "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst.") A member claimed that here the "fiendlike queen" of early scenes shows her dual nature, lingering tenderly over the memory of the murdered wife of Macduff. Others find little tenderness in the Lady at any time. Fear, perhaps, a member suggested: "Where is she now?" may suggest "Am I next?"The Vice Dean recalled the Lady's desire earlier to lose her feminine impulses to nurture and heal and feel remorse at wrongdoing. What is left now?

Macbeth, the Vice Dean declared, is now wholly a callous killer, constantly abusing his subjects rather than protecting them as Duncan did, with almost none of the pangs of conscience he felt so powerfully in earlier scenes. But his enemy Menteith memorably claims that the monster is in inner agony: "Who then shall blame/ His pestered senses to recoil and start,/ When all that is within him does condemn/ Itself for being there?"(5.2)

5.3'Macbeth urgently asks the doctor to "minister to a mind diseased" so as to restore his wife to him. But of course, he knows that there is no cure to "pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow." This great speech applies as much to the husband as to his wife. Do we have another text that renews sympathy for Macbeth? Or is he too secure in the witches' promises to win such sympathy? A member spoke of the "Sophoclean confidence" of the tragic hero whose hubris makes him cocksure that the fates are his friends. Macbeth is eager to fight his enemies; a member Bushily paraphrased, "Bring it on!" Do we admire his spirit or sneer at his machismo? Is Macbeth evil, members asked, or is that diagnosis too simple or absolute?

5.5'Macbeth cannot respond to his wife's death; after hard work to kill conscience, he has few feelings left of any kind. He remembers when he would have reacted with proper anguish to this terrible news. Now all life seems meaningless to him: a feeling not uncommon to the grief-stricken, but here linked to the moral desert that Macbeth has created as his inner landscape. Your scribe notices the collapse of the stricken man's language, as distorted and dead as his feelings: "Direness'cannot once start me." No rhythm, no metaphor, no anguish, no vision.

Members debated our responses at play's end. Oedipus, full of pride, kills, suffers, punishes himself, gains moral vision. Does Macbeth gain moral insight? He dies in action, imitating the great warrior who won fame defending his country, but he loses. Did he at least understand before he died what he had done to himself? A member saw a paradox in his own response: he "likes and respects a man who is hateful."

Members ended the reading exclaiming to each other about how lively and stimulating a discussion we had just finished of this astonishing play. Long live the Bard!

WE WILL MEET NEXT ON DECEMBER 10, THREE WEEKS HENCE, AND COMMENCE OUR READING OF TIMON OF ATHENS. We congratulate the Librarian for having laid in a bountiful supply of copies of the play for members in need!

Respectfully submitted Robert G. Peck Secretary

Originally published: Thursday, March 06, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019