Michael Gerson

It is a disturbing experience to watch your own brother, your flesh and blood, dabble in the occult, become consumed by ambition and then descend by stages into murder. And the last straw was when he ordered the slaughter of those children.

But it was even harder for my younger brother Christopher to play Macbeth 13 times at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn., giving sympathetic life to a moral monster, under seven layers of Scottish armor while carrying a 20-pound spear. It is a tribute to his skill that when Macbeth's head was finally brought on stage in a bloody sack, it did not feel like justice done but like the departure of the play's vital, lawless center.

Every summer, the church of Shakespeare holds services called festivals in Alabama, Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, Hampton Roads and nearly every place with cultural ambitions. There is Shakespeare by the Sea in Redondo Beach, Calif., Shakespeare on the Green in Wilmington, N.C., Shakespeare on the Sound in Norwalk, Conn., and Shakespeare Under the Stars in Wimberley, Tex. And the worshipers are fervent and knowledgeable; an actor at the Winona festival was distracted one night by an older woman in the second row who mouthed the entire play along with the production.

Some of this attraction is the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare's words -- the tumble of ideas and images that yield more meaning on the 10th hearing than on the first. But the amazing achievement of the plays, as critic Harold Bloom and others point out, is when characters such as Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth transcend the words they speak and come to life -- transformed into what the poet Shelley called "forms more real than living man." Other playwrights use characters as mouthpieces for their own wit or philosophy. Shakespeare's greatest characters seem to possess the spark of their own identity. They have somehow escaped the cage of the author's intentions.

These fictional but living characters have influenced politics and history. Abraham Lincoln was obsessed by Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, once writing, "I think nothing equals 'Macbeth.' " There is something eerie about his brooding on the examples of leaders driven by ambition, cursed by fate and destined for a violent end. After visiting a fallen Richmond in 1865, on his river trip back to Washington, Lincoln read aloud a passage from "Macbeth" about Duncan's assassination: "Treason has done his worst; nor steel, nor poison / Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing / Can touch him further." Moved by the words, he read them over again.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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