Yet Again

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Author: Max Beerbohm

`Macbeth and the Witches’ a Painting by Corot, in the Hertford House Collection

Look! Across the plain yonder, those three figures, dark and gaunt against the sky.... Who are they? What are they? One of them is pointing with rigid arm towards the gnarled trees that from the hillside stretch out their storm-broken boughs and ragged leaves against the sky. Shifting thither, my eye discerns through the shadows two horsemen, riding slowly down the incline. Hush! I hold up a warning finger to my companion, lest he move. On what strange and secret tryst have we stumbled? They must not know they are observed. Could we creep closer up to them? Nay, the plain is so silent: they would hear us; and so barren: they would surely see us. Here, under cover of this rock, we can crouch and watch them.... We discern now more clearly those three expectants. One of them has a cloak of faded blue; it is fluttering in the wind. Women or men are they? Scarcely human they seem: inauspicious beings from some world of shadows, magically arisen through that platform of broken rock whereon they stand. The air around, even the fair sky above, is fraught by them with I know not what of subtle bale. One would say they had been waiting here for many days, motionless, eager but not impatient, knowing that at this hour the two horsemen would come. And we—it is strange—have we not ere now beheld them waiting? In some waking dream, surely, we have seen them, and now dimly recognise them. And the two horsemen, forcing their steeds down the slope—them, too, we have seen, even so. The light through a break in the trees faintly reveals them to us. They are accoutred in black armour. They seem not to be yet aware of the weird figures confronting them across the plain. But the horses, with some sharper instinct, are aware and afraid, straining, quivering. One of them throws back its head, but dares not whinny. As though under some evil spell, all nature seems to be holding its breath. Stealthily, noiselessly, I turn the leaves of my catalogue... `Macbeth and the Witches.’ Why, of course!

Of the two horsemen, which is Macbeth, which Banquo? Though we peer intently, we cannot in those distant shadows distinguish which is he that shall be king hereafter, which is he that shall merely beget kings. It is mainly in virtue of this very vagueness and mystery of manner that the picture is so impressive. An illustration should stir our fancy, leaving it scope and freedom. Most illustrations, being definite, do but affront us. Usually, Shakespeare is illustrated by some Englishman overawed by the poet’s repute, and incapable of treating him, as did Corot, vaguely and offhand. Shakespeare expressed himself through human and superhuman characters; therefore in England none but a painter of figures would dare illustrate him. Had Corot been an Englishman, this landscape would have had nothing to do with Shakespeare. Luckily, as an alien, he was untrammelled by piety to the poet. He could turn Shakespeare to his own account. In this picture, obviously, he was creating, and only in a secondary sense illustrating. For him the landscape was the thing. Indeed, the five little figures may have been inserted by him as an afterthought, to point and balance the composition. Vaguely he remembered hearing of Macbeth, or reading it in some translation. Ce Sac-espe`re...un beau talent...ne’ romantique. Hugo he would not have attempted to illustrate. But Sac-espe`re—why not? And so the little figures came upon the canvas, dim sketches. Charles Lamb disliked theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s plays, because of the constraint thus laid on his imagination. But in the theatre, at least, we are diverted by movement, recompensed by the sound of the poet’s words and (may be) by human intelligence interpreting his thoughts; whereas from a definite painting of Shakespearean figures we get nothing but an equivalent for the mimes’ appearance: nothing but the painter’s bare notion (probably quite incongruous with our notion) of what these figures ought to look like. Take Macbeth as an instance. From a definite painting of him what do we get? At worst, the impression of a kilted man with a red beard and red knees, brandishing a claymore. At best, a sombre barbarian doing nothing in particular. In either case, all the atmosphere, all the character, all the poetry, all that makes Macbeth live for us, is lost utterly. If these definite illustrations of Shakespeare’s human figures affront us, how much worse is it when an artist tries his hand at the figures that are superhuman! Imagine an English illustrator’s projection of the weird sisters—with long grey beards duly growing on their chins, and belike one of them duly holding in her hand a pilot’s thumb. It is because Corot had no reverence for Shakespeare’s text—because he was able to create in his own way, with scarcely a thought of Shakespeare, an independent masterpiece—that this picture is worthy of its theme. The largeness of the landscape in proportion to the figures seems to show us the tragedy in its essential relation to the universe. We see the heath lying under infinity, under true sky and winds. No hint of the theatre is there. All is as the poet may have conceived it in his soul. And for us Corot’s brush-work fills the place of Shakespeare’s music. Time has tessellated the surface of the canvas; but beauty, intangible and immortal, dwells in its depths safely—dwells there even as it dwells in the works of Shakespeare, though the folios be foxed and seared.

The longer we gaze, the more surely does the picture illude us and enthral us, steeping us in that tragedy of `the fruitless crown and barren sceptre.’ We forget all else, watching the unkind witches as they await him whom they shall undo, driving him to deeds he dreams not of, and beguiling him, at length, to his doom. Against `the set of sun’ they stand forth, while he who shall be king hereafter, with the comrade whom he shall murder, rides down to them, guileless of aught that shall be. Privy to his fate, we experience a strange compassion. Anon the fateful colloquy will begin. `All hail, Macbeth’ the unearthly voices will be crying across the heath. Can nothing be done? Can we stand quietly here while... Nay, hush! We are powerless. These witches, if we tried to thwart them, would swiftly blast us. There are things with which no mortal must meddle. There are things which no mortal must behold. Come away!

So, casting one last backward look across the heath, we, under cover of the rock, steal fearfully away across the parquet floor of the gallery.

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Chicago: Max Beerbohm, "`Macbeth and the Witches’ a Painting by Corot, in the Hertford House Collection," Yet Again, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Yet Again Original Sources, accessed October 2, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VERSCW18Q1B154.

MLA: Beerbohm, Max. "`Macbeth and the Witches’ a Painting by Corot, in the Hertford House Collection." Yet Again, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Yet Again, Original Sources. 2 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VERSCW18Q1B154.

Harvard: Beerbohm, M, '`Macbeth and the Witches’ a Painting by Corot, in the Hertford House Collection' in Yet Again, trans. . cited in , Yet Again. Original Sources, retrieved 2 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3VERSCW18Q1B154.