The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth

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Henry Fusili, The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, 1781-1784

One of the most pervasive theater superstitions is that a curse was placed on the name of one of Shakespeare's plays. If you ever say the name backstage, you're doomed to be mobbed by angry, shrill-voiced actors who will insist on dragging you out of the building to dispel the hex. Oh yeah, and something bad will happen during the performance. Actors have suffered everything from minor inconveniences to severe injuries, like when Charleton Heston's pants apparently caught on fire during a 1953 production. How you "accidentally" soak someone's tights in kerosene, I'll never know. The play is, of course, Macbeth, semi-affectionately referred to as "The Scottish Play" by many superstitious actors. (This might be stretching the assignment a bit, but, darn it, there are at least a dozen movie versions.)

The eerie, sinister qualities of the play make it a perfect fit for Henry Fuseli's work. Fuseli, born in Switzerland, is most famous for his creepy erotic revenge fantasy The Nightmare, and he frequently painted and sketched scenes from Shakespeare's works. His painting style was described as slapdash at best; one former student wrote that since he was "very nearsighted, and too vain to wear glasses… sometimes… he would put a hideous smear of Prussian blue in his flesh, and then, perhaps, discovering his mistake, take a bit of red to deaden it…then turn round to me, and say, 'By Gode, dat's a fine purple! it's vary like Corregio, by Gode!'" The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth depicts Macbeth's wife as she wanders through the halls of the castle, tormented by the phantom smell of blood on her hands. Her face, starkly lit by the candle in her hand, reveals anguish and horror, complimented by the billowing of her dress and hair. The two figures cowering in the back, a doctor and an unnamed noblewoman, rear back in uncomprehending fear. Macbeth deals with the occult, with the price of ambition, and with the darkest parts of human nature. Fuseli, who, frankly, was a conceited and petty man, captures this shadowy, sinister atmosphere perfectly.

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