One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.