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.



Secretary Peck in the chair. Other members present Ake, Bartlett, Bornemann, Cheston, Cramer, Fallon, Fisher, Friedman, Frye, Green, Griffin, Lehmann, Mabry, Madeira, O' Malley, Wheeler. Mr. Schmalzbach joined us as we began our reading of Macbeth.

Members joined in hearty praise of the Falstaffian Bard's birthday feast of last April hosted by Messrs. Friedman, Madeira, and Pope. Our hats are off to you, gentlemen!

The secretary has received two new email addresses from members; any others to be reported? Please let me know promptly if so. A reminder that notices of forthcoming meetings will be sent out only by email. If you wish to receive a telephone call as a reminder, please inform me: I will be happy to comply. Minutes too will be sent by email to those who are electronically up to date, and by regular mail to members who are still ensnared in snail status (so to speak).

We were sorry to hear that Edgar Scott, a member of very long standing, has decided to resign from the Society since he feels that he can no longer make the long drive home after dinner meetings.

We were reminded that the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival is performing Julius Caesar until mid-November at its snug home on the second floor of the Lutheran Church parish building at 21st and Sansom streets. This group will stage As You Like It next February. Next March, People's Light and Theater Company in Malvern will also stage Caesar.

The Vice Dean announced that we will read Timon of Athens as soon as we finish Macbeth. Timon is not a play that most bookstores normally have in stock, so caveat emptor. Dr. Fallon mentioned how much he has enjoyed reading over the three parts of Henry VI recently. Margaret of Anjou is a particularly vivid character' and the only Shaksperian character to appear in four of the master's plays (Richard III as well as the three Sixes).

Col. Fallon asked us why the witches tempt Macbeth, and what their powers are: murky issues. They know the future, but they cannot harm the thane. How would the play be different without them? Is Macbeth a tool of the witches' in their power' or can he make moral choices? In early scenes, Macbeth is violent but virtuous, defending his king and country against invaders (Norwegians) and traitors (Cawdor). An Elizabethan audience would presumably have thought of contemporary events: the threat of invasion by powerful Spain over many years; local Roman Catholics ready to rebel against the Protestant queen whom the pope had urged them to overthrow; and the fear of civil war when Elizabeth dies only two or three years before this play was first performed.

Act One, Scene Three: Macbeth hears the bewitching promise of royal power. The seed of ambition is planted that Lady M. will force into early flower (as the gardeners among us might say). Macbeth is horrified to realize that as soon as the witches promise him a crown, he is thinking of murdering his way to power.

1.4'Lady Macbeth speaks in soliloquy about driving the morally squeamish Mac. to seize the throne. The Lady has a prominent role in only a few scenes, the Vice Dean reminded us; but what an impact she makes on readers and audiences! Local opera lovers will think of Lauren Flanigan's riveting incarnation of Lady M. last season in Verdi's version of the tale. Dr. Fallon pointed out that Lady Macbeth asks supernatural power to take away the feminine nature that gives her protection, customary in Elizabethan culture. Why does she collapse at the end of the play after showing such explosive strength of will in earlier scenes? Members spoke up vigorously on these and other issues about Lady M. and her influence on her spouse.

1.5'Lady Macbeth undermines Macbeth's moral qualms about killing his king, his kinsman, and his benefactor. Is she in effect her husband's alter ego, putting into powerful and seductive words the suppressed tempter's voice inside his own heart?

1.7'Macbeth argues with himself about the horror of killing his trusting royal cousin and then argues with his wife about the morality of the deed. By the end of his wonderful soliloquy, he seems certain to refuse to kill; but his wife's claim that he is not a man unless he seizes power by any means necessary quickly changes the direction of his thoughts: "Can we get away with it?" is all he asks. The Vice Dean reminded us of the frequent images of vulnerable children in this play. Macbeth refers to pity as a "naked newborn babe" in his soliloquy, his Lady tells him that she would smash the head of a suckling infant at her breast rather than refuse to be man enough to seize power; later, Lady Macduff's small child is murdered before her eyes by the thugs who kill her too. An infant's head appears to horrify Macbeth when the witches show him Banquo's royal progeny.

2.1'Macbeth is again powerfully smitten by conscience, as he shrinks in horror from a bloody dagger that his imagination holds before him. But he asks the stars to hide, the heavens to turn their eyes away as he goes to kill his king, like Tarquin the rapist going to violate vulnerable goodness.


Respectfully submitted Robert G. Peck Secretary

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