I was in The Scottish Play at my school about a year or so ago. Our director believed unflinchingly in the curse. He'd tell us stories of horrible things that had happened to people who uttered the Scottish King's name aloud inside the theater. We were reprimanded if we scoffed at the 'superstition'. I have heard stories of broken bones, car accidents, illnesses, terrible and bizarre bad luck befalling those who'd spoken the M. word aloud. All attributed to the utterance of that name.

You are allowed to speak the play's title during rehearsal, only if it's in one of your lines. Other than that, you must never do it. If you do, you jeopardize not only yourself, but your castmates as well.

There is a way to avert the curse if you mistakenly speak the king's name out loud. If you, like a nitwit, say the Scottish King's name, you have to immediately go outside, spin around three times, spit, swear loudly, and hope for the best.

This is what I've been taught. It's been driven into me so that now when I hear the Scottish King's name I actually flinch. Amongst the cast that I was a part of, there were some people who didn't believe in the curse. Some people were careless with words. Some people laughed aloud at the gullibility of those who believed. They spoke the M. word freely, dismissing those who insisted that they go spin, spit and swear afterward to prevent catastrophe. We were warned and warned not to say his name but some people just would not heed.

A week before the play went up, there was an electrical fire in the theater. Thankfully, nobody was inside at the time. No one was hurt, but our lights were destroyed. If I remember correctly, the fire department was never able to identify the cause of the fire. The wires were not old or faulty. It seemed that they had just spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. It ended up costing a huge amount of money to repair all the damage. The theater was unusable for the play and we had to cancel some shows. A replacement set was hastily built for us to perform with at the amphitheater across campus.

I am by no means superstitious. I don't really believe in the curse. I think it's silly superstition and nothing more. Really, I do! But through bizarre bad luck stories and my own experience, I've somehow been conditioned not to take any chances; I can never bring myself to say the play's name out loud.

Here's another thing that happened during that play. I've just remembered it and feel like sharing. I think this was on the night of our first performance. The entire amphitheater is outdoors with no roof. As the play started, a raven came and perched nearby. Beautiful bird it was. It made no noise at all, only watched all the players. During one of Lady M.'s monologues, "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements. Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here..." the raven alit and began circling over the set. It went back and perched itself on a tree after a bit, but later, I looked up and it was flying in circles near a patch of trees to the west of us as the Scottish King was speaking the line, "the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood"
Weird, eh?
It flew away during the last scene. Unlike the fire, the bird's visit felt a bit like a blessing.
Macbeth, like many of Shakespeare's plays, is based on true events. There really was a King Macbeth of Scotland, he reigned between 1040 and 1057 AD. Although he wasn't ever thane of either Glamis or Cawdor, he really was a great warrior who had to avenge his father's murder. The details are very different, but the seed of the story was there.

On the subject of "the curse" of Macbeth, the play's name is said to have been cursed by 17th Century Witches, who resented real spells appearing in the play's text. For example, in act 4, scene 1

"Round about the cauldron go;
In the poisn'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venum sleeping got.
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot"

Since its opening night in 1604, Macbeth has been notorious for both backstage and onstage accidents and deaths. One such event occurred in 1672, when Macbeth switched the fake dagger with a very real and pointy one, and subsequently killed Duncan on-stage.

This whole "curse" business just goes to show that in the theatre, as in the rest of life, bad things happen around superstitious people. You could say that I am very superstitious about superstitious people, as the catalogues of disaster they seem to command are quite extraordinary. If you meet one, I can recommend performing the cleansing ritual of spinning widdershins thrice, then applying your fist firmly to the offender's nose. Otherwise you might end up as just another statistic. On the other hand, I understand that encountering two such individuals is a good omen.

As to the play itself, I will only add that Akira Kurosawa directed a masterful Japanese adaptation, which goes by the name Throne of Blood in English.

Macbeth, "the Scottish play," was written about an historical figure, and for King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland). Shakespeare had been the court playwright of Queen Elizabeth, and wanted to retain such a position when James took the throne. You see, Banquo was King James' great-great-great-blah-blah-blah-grand-daddy. There is a pivotal scene, act 4, scene 1, which predicts not only the remaining events in the play, but also eight generations of history leading to King James ascending to the throne of England.

In this scene, Macbeth seeks out the weird sisters, and seeks further advice from them. They show him three apparitions that relate to the future events of the play, leading to Macbeth's downfall. There is a fourth apparition, however, the sisters and Hecate call up after Macbeth demands to know what will come of Banquo's children. Out comes a line of eight kings and Banquo's ghost, as described with Macbeth's narration:

Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo: down!
Thy crown does hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
A third is like the former. Filthy hags!
Why do you show me this? A fourth! Start, eyes!
What, will the crack of doom?
Another yet! A seventh! I'll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry:
Horrible sight! Now, I see, 'tis true;
For the blood-bolter'd Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his.

Each of the eight kings in this line, are kin of Banquo, the leading king, James' father, being the youngest, most recent (to James) king. When he holds up the looking glass, James, being in the seat of honor at the premier (obviously - he's the king!), would see himself at the head of this line of kings that Macbeth himself was so impressed with (and afraid of). Macbeth says the glass shows him "many more," while James would've been the only king reflected in the glass; this line hints to James' lineage retaining the throne in the generations to come, a sentiment he was sure to have appreciated.

It is told that Shakespeare did receive the patronage of King James, and I have heard evidence (via the Holy Tabernacle Church), that Shakespeare was even one of the many interpreters of the King James Version of the Bible. I'll dig that evidence up, and submit it when it's found.

Maslow in Macbeth

Maslow’s hierarchy of motives is shown in Macbeth as he progresses through the esteem needs of ambition and prestige, becoming closer to self-actualization.

Since Macbeth has already fulfilled his physiological, survival, and belonging needs, he now starts to satisfy his esteem needs, beginning with ambition and prestige. This is first shown in Act I when Macbeth realizes that all he has to make him murder Duncan is “vaulting ambition.” Throughout the play, Macbeth is continually pushed by his ambition as he tries to attain more prestige. This is what starts the chain of murders; Macbeth kills Duncan to get prestige and kills everyone else to keep his position of prestige.

As Macbeth progresses through the esteem needs, he is constantly becoming closer to self-actualization, which is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of motives. Self-actualization is realizing the truth about oneself, and Macbeth reveals more of himself as he orders the bloody killings, showing him the cold and murderous side of himself. Also, the witches’ prophesies in Act IV show him that his children will not become kings, which tells Macbeth that he will be defeated. As the guilt and worries about being found out start to weigh more heavily on him, Macbeth gets more desperate and reveals his true character as cold-hearted and doing anything to remain powerful, yet still loving, as is shown in his attempts to cure Lady Macbeth. These personality processes are responsible for Macbeth’s behavior and help him reach his highest potential of self-actualization, but his weak, power-hungry self is not entirely what he expected.

Maslow’s theories are apparent throughout the development of Macbeth’s character in this play and help in the understanding of the psychology in Macbeth.

According to George Meredith, "the true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter." In other words, the best examples of comedy lead to laughter but also contribute to the meaning of the work and contain some degree of subtle commentary. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the porter scene following Duncan's heinous slaying evokes this brand of "thoughful laughter." Although the grotesque gatekeeper character immediately prompts comedy, it also hints at a deeper significance. This "thoughtful laughter" primarily provides comic relief, but it also contributes to the meaning of the work by serving as a metaphor for the gates of hell and as a transition from the murders to the continuation of the drama in a less supernatural setting.

Macbeth's porter scene functions above all as slapstick comic relief following the slaughter of King Duncan. The grotesque, troll-like gatekeeper dissipates the tension with his drunken banter, presenting a raucous parody of Macbeth's internal torment. For example, he paints a darkly comic caricature of the suspense that now pervades the Macbeth household by making light of the sudden knocking at the gates that so startled Lady Macbeth. Yet this also serves as a paradox - the parody also furthers the tension by prolonging the time between Duncan's murder and the continuation of the plot. This scene immediately prompts laughter with both the porter's light soliloquy and the heightening of the suspense.

However, the character's drunken stupor also gives rise to one of the second act's central metaphors - the house of Macbeth as the gates of hell. His speech refers to satanic images, and he views himself as Beelzebub's gatekeeper. In this act, Shakespeare sees Castle Macbeth as the central dominion of death and corruption, evidenced by the sadistic machinations of its Lady and the bloodthirsty acts of its Master. The porter scene emphasizes the fact that all who enter the castle and stand in the way of Macbeth's ambition might as well have entered Hell, as they will certainly find a fiery demise within. While this scene elicits laughter, it also contributes to Shakespeare's condemnation of Macbeth's escapades.

Macbeth's porter scene also furthers the drama's structure. The previous deeds in Act II have all transpired in a fantasy netherworld - these shocking murders could not have occurred with Shakespeare's normal tone. The porter scene, by evoking laughter, serves as a transition from the supernatural world of murder to the more mundane realm of political plotting. The Bard accomplishes this suddenly - the trollish porter's maniacal hilarity contrasts sharply with the portentous tone of the previous scene, thereby snapping the audience back into the real world. Thus, the scene provides a dramatic transition into normality.

Shakespeare's porter scene causes "thoughtful laughter" in Macbeth because of its immediate comic tone, yet it also illuminates one of the play's central metaphors and transforms the macabre aura into a more earthly one. This scene passes George Meredith's "true test of comedy" with its blend of slapstick and meaning. Macbeth receives both a break in the incessant suspense and an expansion of Shakespeare's dramatic modus operandi. Thus, the "thoughtful laughter" prompts both exaggerated comedy and a deeper understanding of the play's symbolism.

Distortion, disruption, and reversal in Macbeth

In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, ill omens make their eerie presence known. At each step of Macbeth's rise to power, reality is twisted, disrupted, and reversed all about him. Natural process is disrupted by his ambition. He hardly notices. As the other characters watch their world crumble around them, he is oblivious. It is the immorality of Macbeth's actions, and his lack of goodness that changes his surroundings. His fractured vision compounds the errors and disturbs the natural order. To emphasize Macbeth's error in going against natural process, Shakespeare uses distortions, disruptions, and reversals of natural events.

A significant reversal of natural events accompanying Macbeth's actions is the transformation of day into night. When Macbeth first plans to murder the rightful king Duncan, he wishes for the world to go dark. "The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires," (I, 1, 48-51). With no light, none will be able to witness his despicable deed. Such a total darkness that he wishes for is unnatural. It is a reversal from the brightness of the day that marks the beginning of Macbeth’s fall from the place of a hero to the place of a villain.

Macbeth's internal realm, twisted and battered with strife, reflects the disorder of nature in accordance with his wish for darkness to conceal his deeds. As he is preparing to murder Duncan, strange visions occupy his thoughts. Reflectively, the world is darkened and plagued by the unnatural. Macbeth observes, "It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half-world Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse the curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates Pale Hectate’s offerings," (II, 1, 48-52). The darkness that covers half the world is a different sort from that of normal night. It is a fiendish darkness, devoid of goodness or peace. Such a setting perfectly correlates with the travesty Macbeth is about to enact.

When Macbeth commits his act of regicide, Lady Macbeth also observes a disruption in nature. While she is waiting pensively in the main hall, she worries about the success of her husband. At the moment that Macbeth murders Duncan, nature cries out through the birds. "Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it," (II, 2, 2-4). When Macbeth finally returns, he inquires about a noise. Though he is referring to the words of the guards in their sleep, Lady Macbeth is still worried about the ill omens she previously heard. "I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry," (II, 2, 14-15). As Lady Macbeth says herself, the owl disrupts the night with his harsh cry that bears ill fortune as Duncan is murdered.

The weather deeply reflects Macbeth’s incredible transgression. When the lords come to see the king in the morning, they relate to Macbeth the strange occurrences of the night before:

The night has been unruly.  Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
Lamentings heard I’ th’ air, strange screams of
death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night.  Some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (II, 3, 56-63)
The combination of storming weather and ghostly cries further emphasize the true chaos Macbeth is causing when he murders the King Duncan.

Weather also emphasizes the other-worldliness of the weïrd sisters. Their prophecy of kingship drives Macbeth to attempt a seizure of the throne. They also goad him on when he is beginning to lose confidence in his position. Whenever these sisters make their appearance, the play makes a specific note that they should be accompanied by "thunder and lightning," (I, 1, 1). The weather effects of thunder and lightening symbolize their great power. The disturbance of calm also emphasizes the weïrd sisters' unnatural presence. The sisters provide a fitting summary of the events that accompany Macbeth's ascension to and eventual fall from the throne. Their words evoke the inner distortion and corruption of Macbeth which leads to the outer reversal of natural events, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," (1, I, 10).

Normal human activities are twisted and disrupted by Macbeth’s rise to power. The feast, which in normal circumstances is a time of celebration, reverses itself into a time of mourning. As Macbeth begins a feast with his lords, he comments on the congeniality of the situation: "Both sides are even: here I’ll sit I’ th’ midst: Be large in mirth; anon we’ll drink a measure the table round," (III, 4, 11-12). The pleasant atmosphere soon dissipates, however, when Macbeth reacts to the site of Banquo's ghost. His repeated outbursts are enough to bring the feast to a screeching halt, reversing the celebration into something undesirable. Terrified by Macbeth’s raving, Lady Macbeth exclaims, "You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting, with most admired disorder," (III, 4, 109-110). The turnaround from a time of joy to a time of sorrow as a consequence of Macbeth’s guilty conscience is startling.

The greatest reversal of the play and one of the greatest examples of the twists in natural events concerns the fortunes of Scotland. When the play begins, King Duncan has successfully warded off invaders from foreign lands, maintaining the peace and prosperity of Scotland. By the end of the play, it becomes clear that Scotland's fortunes have been thoroughly reversed by the malevolence of Macbeth. When Macduff and the exiled prince Malcom meet, Macduff says, "Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if it felt with Scotland and yelled out like syllable of dolor," (IV, 3, 4-8). The whole of Scotland goes from a land blessed by a good king and victory in battle to a squalid, suffering hell.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare indicates the strangeness and horrible nature of Macbeth's actions through disruptions and reversals of events. The witches announce this pattern when they leave the stage in the first scene. The pattern continues to hold from the moment of Macbeth's contemplation of murdering King Duncan to the traitor's final downfall from the throne. All of the realms of nature from the smallest to the largest are reversed and disrupted. Everything is distorted as Macbeth twists reality to serve is over-reaching ambition. The immensity of Macbeth’s crimes becomes readily apparent to the reader through these layers of distortion. To emphasize Macbeth’s error in going against natural process, Shakespeare skillfully uses symbolic distortions, disruptions, and reversals of natural events.

Throughout the entirety of MacBeth, Shakespeare works in a cunning and subtle ‘bird theme’. Often birds are used to represent a sequence of events, or characters from the play; we meet this time and time again. I think that you’ll see what I mean after reading the following points, on the more obvious examples in the play.

Act 4, Scene 2; almost this entire scene is taken up by Lady MacDuff and her son talking about, and comparing themselves to different types of birds. He, as a child calls himself a “thrush”, this is an obvious reference to his size, as he is still small in stature, much like the thrush is in comparison with other birds. The thrush is a very quick bird, which matches the young MacDuff’s quick wit. He says that he is like a Thrush in the way that he will “do with what he gets”, his mother then warns him of all of the dangers a small bird must face to survive, appropriate as MacDuff had become MacBeth’s enemy, and even as they spoke assassins were riding to kill them both.

Earlier in Act 2, Scene 4, some people are talking about all of the strange things that have been occurring in the world since MacBeth murdered the King. The Old Man says, “On Tuesday last, a falcon towering in her pride of place was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed”. This is a reversal in nature, and in those times that is exactly what the murder of a king by anyone’s hand but God’s would have seemed like- a reversal in all things natural. Duncan (the former King of Scotland) is represented by the falcon, such a noble bird to be killed by a mere owl, the owl represents MacBeth, who was once a loyal and trust worthy servant to the King.
This is the more obvious translation of this passage, however I have another theory as to what it may mean. The falcon, though a noble bird is surely out ranked by a few other birds? The falcon is referred to as “she”, so I think that it might represent Lady MacBeth, with the mousing owl still as MacBeth himself. The owl’s act of killing the falcon could represent Lady MacBeth’s loss on power over MacBeth as he declines into madness.

All through the play birds are used, ravens, eagles, falcons, sparrows, owls, usually to represent a person, but sometimes for pure dramatic effect. For example Act 2, Scene 2 “an owl shrieks” in the middle of Lady MacBeth’s speech. Birds are never put on the side of good or evil; they are merely neutral bystanders, much like the rest of nature. No living birds are mentioned when the three witches are on stage, the only reference to one is a part of their potion, a “howlet’s wing” is used in the infamous “[Hubble-Bubblepotion.

William Shakespeare uses this ‘bird theme to good effect throughout the play, creating subtle comparisons with what is happening to the characters in the play to what is happening with birds in the wild.

Please note that anything in Italics is taken from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, thank-you.

Double, Double: Paradox in Macbeth


By August 7, 1606, the day on which some historians claim Macbeth was first performed, William Shakespeare’s two tetralogies of English history plays were by some estimates already seven years behind him. A new king had come from the north in 1603 to unify the crowns of England and Scotland, an accession that gave Shakespeare, then halfway through his career, a new patron and new politics to negotiate. A long-standing reading of Macbeth rests upon the foundation of its ultimate patronage and the scene of its first performance—for King James I himself and the visiting King Christian IV of Denmark. Many critics have long read the play as if not specifically commissioned by then certainly intended as a compliment to the King, and a complement to his political and spiritual tracts. Further analysis, however, reveals significant disruptions in what Alan Sinfield terms this "Jamesian Reading."

As with his other histories, Shakespeare took his characters and plot largely from contemporary chronicles, including Holinshed’s. In it, we see the plot largely as we recognize it from the play, with some notable exceptions. The essential characters are there, including the witches (whose prophecies Shakespeare took almost verbatim), Macbeth, Duncan, Banquo, Fleance, and MacDuff. Holinshed puts Duncan down as overly kind and condemns Macbeth as overly cruel, and in a nod to Machiavellian politics suggests that "the mean vertue betwixt these two extremities" (207) might have made a very decent king.

Neither of their histories—Holinshed's nor Shakespeare's--is particularly accurate or all encompassing. King Duncan reigned from 1034-1040, Macbeth for another seventeen years after that. Duncan’s reign was characterized by rebellion and warfare; Macbeth’s was stable enough to allow him a trip to Rome. Duncan died not in his bed, but on the battlefield near Elgin, defending his crown from the combined forces of Macbeth and Thorfinn, the Jarl of Orkney, and it was Duncan’s son Malcolm, as opposed to MacDuff, who ultimately killed Macbeth—possibly in single combat, and almost certainly miles away from Dunsinane. Importantly, however, Shakespeare does include in his version of events the military aid lent to Malcolm under the Earl of Northumberland. Such a selective portrayal of history, especially in the scenes dedicated to singing the praises of England’s then King Edward I and the dramatic reduction of Macbeth's reign to an apparently brief temporal eruption in an otherwise stable successive line attest to James' influence over the play in favor of his own political agenda: emphasizing the "rightness" of Stuart rule and the ancient political and military union of England and Scotland, which he symbolically if not popularly embodied.

According to Alan Sinfield, "it is often assumed that Macbeth is engaged in the same project as King James…rendering persuasive the ideology of the Absolutist state" ("Macbeth: history, ideology and intellectuals," 66). This ideology is dependent on the legitimacy of a king, and the distinction between a right lawful king and a tyrant. James recorded his understanding of that distinction in his Basilicon Doron, published in 1599 as a handbook on effective leadership. It came with the following dedication: "To Henrie: my dearest sonne and natural successor." The concept of "natural" is crucial to Jacobean political ideology, intimately tied to the divine ordination of kings James believed in and wanted to promote. In James' philosophy, a rightful king, ordained by God, comes to the throne via natural succession—in this instance a coded phrase for primogeniture. A tyrant comes to the throne by other, unnatural means. They may have identical policies on governance, suppressing or oppressing with equal force, but the naturally succeeding monarch has God’s approval and hence can be no tyrant.

Therefore, it is Macbeth’s accession by regicide that earns him the unfortunate appellation, rather than his qualities as a ruler. Shakespeare consistently posits Macbeth and his rule as an isolated eruption, outside of nature, right, and time. His claim to the throne, legitimate according to the system of tanistry that defined the tradition of succession in Scotland until controversially and bloodily set aside by Malcolm II in favor of Duncan, is never mentioned by Shakespeare, though history had not forgotten it. The system, whereby the king would name the strongest of his subjects "Tanist," or presumptive heir, regardless of familial relation, was only finally obliterated by legal decree during James' reign. Historically, Macbeth’s claim was at least equal to if not stronger than Malcolm’s, given Duncan’s dependency on the former to crush the ongoing rebellion and defeat a Norse force of invasion. To acknowledge it in the drama, however, would have contradicted the overall thematic concern of establishing the House of Stuart as legitimate, natural, and ordained for rule by God.

The "unnatural" surrounds Macbeth, particularly, as Grace Tiffany notes in "Macbeth, Paternity, and the Anglicization of James I," in the form of unnatural, childless women. Lady Macbeth’s child by another marriage, Lulach, is hinted at, but her anti-maternal language overwhelms the possibility of seeing her as a mother. She calls upon the Gods to "unsex" her, and to "take her milk for gall" in I.v, and in I.vii speaks of dashing out her baby’s brains. The witches, who along with Lady Macbeth lead Macbeth to his fall, are yet even more unnatural creatures. Under their influence and due to his own unnatural ambition, Macbeth falls out of synch with the natural order of time, demonstrated in II.ii by his inability to sleep. He refers to sleep as "the death of each day’s life," and "great nature’s second course." In V.i, the attending physician refers to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking as “a great perturbation of nature."

Given the political context of the early 17th Century English succession crisis occasioned by Elizabeth’s childlessness, as well as the violent turmoil that soon followed it in the form of the Gunpowder Plot, James I would have desired to distance himself and his house from any such notions of monarchical instability. The Jamesian reading focuses on two major scenes constructed toward that end: the Banquet (III.iv) and Kings’ Progression (IV.i). Both contain overt references to James and the Jacobean political agenda; so overt, in the opinion of George Williams in "Macbeth, King James’ Play," that they "severely strain the coherence of the play" (13). One might expect the ghost of Duncan to appear at the Banquet over Banquo’s, but this play, as the constant reiteration of prophecy demonstrates, is about the future of the monarchy, not its past. Banquo’s descendants are meant for the throne, and it is to Banquo and Fleance that James I traced his lineage. Historians now suggest that Banquo never existed as anything more than a mythological figure of Stuart ancestry, enhanced and traded upon by Stuart monarchs to extend their royal heritage farther back than the 14th Century. His presence is therefore requisite in Macbeth according to the Jamesian reading, but problematic to its dramatic construction. His neutrality in Duncan’s death and his own unceremonious murder reduce his character and Fleance’s to little more than unfulfilled plot devices, intrusions of the Stuart myth on the action of the play, for unlike every other prophecy of the witches, the coming of Banquo’s line to the Scottish throne goes unfulfilled onstage. Further sacrifice of dramatic continuity to Jacobean political propagandizing occurs in IV.i, when the progression of only eight Stuart monarchs undoes some of the work accomplished by installing the Banquo myth. Outside of that immediate context, however, the scene does serve as a visual demonstration of the "ancient" stability of the house and its ability to provide uninterrupted succession, culminating in James I, whose face would have been reflected in the mirror held by the Eighth King. The twofold balls and treble scepters were emblems of his house.

Taking into account the apparently close alliance of the play’s themes and morality to the project of James Basilicon Doron, as well as the very visible presence of James I and his supposed ancestry within the play itself, it becomes clear how a Jamesian reading of Macbeth makes a great deal of sense not only on a textual level but when set against the real historical circumstances of its composition and performance. There are, however, significant disruptions of that interpretation within the identical text; disruptions that suggest a tacit criticism of or disagreement with the ideology the play seems to support. Alan Sinfield, for example, notes that while "absolutist ideology declared that even tyrannical monarchs must not be resisted" (67), Shakespeare clearly could not allow Macbeth to triumph. The play answers regicide with regicide; not exactly the course of action James I would like to have seen portrayed. One can perhaps dismiss this as a necessity of dramatic convention, or argue that the importance of punishing Macbeth the usurper outweighed the underlying contradiction of killing Macbeth the king; but further complications are far more difficult to overlook.

The presence and meaning of equivocation, detailed by the Porter in scene II.iii and crucial to the unfolding of the witches’ prophecies, create an underlying framework of the entire play that implies a thematic current contrary to the Jacobean agenda. The progression of the Stuart kings, for example, is meant to demonstrate stability and the natural order—but it is conjured by the unnatural witches with whom James, according to the reading in his name, would not have wanted his house associated. The scene also contains another glaring historical omission that could, depending on one’s interpretation, severely compromise the Jamesian reading. James was the ninth Stuart on the Scottish throne, but he appears in mirror of the eight; the scene is one monarch short of a full house. The missing sovereign is Mary, Queen of Scots, an example of absolutism gone murderously wrong, but also the rightful heir. Mary embarrassingly disrupted the distinction between lawful king and tyrant that James wished to illustrate and exemplify. This might explain her absence, but that absence is entirely too conspicuous in the context of the scene. She would not have been as easily forgotten by contemporary audiences as Macbeth’s seventeen years on the throne (reduced to almost nothing by the play) or Banquo’s complicity in the plot according to Holinshed (also effaced for the negative taint it would have on James). In the Basilicon Doron, James says to his son to "look…especialie the bookes of the Kings, and Chronicles, wherewith ye ought to be familiarlie acquaynted: for there will ye see your selfe (as in a mirrour) either among the Catalogues of the good or evill Kings." Shakespeare offers the catalogue and mirror, but takes no definitive stance on good or evil.

The final, and arguably critical, disruption to the Jamesian reading is the role of MacDuff in defeating Macbeth. MacDuff is the essential figure of equivocation in the play, the solution to the witches’ riddle of how Macbeth could be killed by no man of woman born. That riddle, in turn, depends on the circumstances of MacDuff’s birth—not natural, as one would expect of the agent of Scotland’s return to order, but unnatural, and like Macbeth, out of synch with time. The emphasis of Macbeth on natural order and the rights attached to birth as the defining elements of lawful goodness ultimately and irreconcilably contrasts with the unfolding and resolution of its plot. The unnatural may serve the powers of good as well as the natural, challenging James’ defense of absolutism as based on natural birthright.

The problem of equivocation raises interesting questions regarding the purpose and function of the play in Jacobean England. Giving interpretative primacy to the flaws in the Jamesian reading, and presuming their ready comprehension by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, exposes the author to at least some appreciable level of personal and political risk, especially given his patronage and the fact that the king definitely saw, and may have commissioned, the play. Alternately, those flaws, when displayed in the context of the carnivalesque atmosphere of the playhouses, may have functioned as part of their larger political strategy of subversion and containment. Excluding major differences between the Court and Bankside versions of the play, the latter seems the most reasonable conclusion, but requires a longer project to defend.


Works Cited

Holinshed, Raphael. Shakespeare's Holinshed; the Chronicle and the plays compared. Ed. W. G. Boswell-Stone. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.

James I, King of England 1566-1625. The Basilicon Doron of King James VI. Ed. James Craigie. London: W. Blackwood & sons ltd., 1950.

Sinfield, Alan. "Macbeth: History, Ideology, and Intellectuals." Critical Quarterly 28, no. 1- 2 (1986 Spring-Summer): p. 63-77.

Tiffany, Grace. "Macbeth, Paternity, and the Anglicization of James I." Studies in the Humanities 23, no. 2 (December 1996): p.148-62.

Valbuena, Olga. "To 'venture in the rebels' fight': History and Equivocation in Macbeth." Renaissance Papers (1994): p. 105-22.

Williams, George. "Macbeth: King James’s Play." South Atlantic Review 47, no. 2 (May1982): p. 12-21.

Last Wednesday evening I took a trip to Brooklyn and left my world.

A friend and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Paul Harvey Theater and saw the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Macbeth.

Just to get this out of the way: that was one of the (and possibly the) best production(s) of Shakespeare I have ever seen. I feel that I have to node it. The problem is where to put the review? The play itself is not the same as a production of the play. Indeed, given that the few performances of this that remain are entirely sold out, it's likely that this may be something very few other noders if any ever get to see. Rarity in this digital age, it (so far) is not something that can be just downloaded or Netflixed and watched. So, then, does a review even have a point?

I don't know. I just know that I'm still openmouthed, two days later, when I spend any time thinking about the show. So I have to node it. (Note: at the recommendation of administration, I have requested this be moved to Macbeth from its original daylog location, and been firmly told that the review of world-class theatre does, in fact, always have a point. I stand corrected.)

The Production

I have some small background from long ago in technical theater. As a result, probably the first thing I see is the set and lighting design. I never worked in sound, so although I'll notice extremely good, very interesting or abysmally bad sound work, I won't really register good, solid production work.

One of the first things you can analyze about a Shakespeare production is the choice of sets. The original stagings at The Globe Theatre were, if history is to be believed, minimally built and propped, eschewing realism for production flexibility. As Shakespeare migrated to film, however, increasingly realistic (or even location) sets came into use as the technology made this possible. Modern theater productions, with their access to advanced staging technology, have a dizzying choice of styles. Some shows remain minimalist; others make clever use of a limited number of detailed sets, and some become interpretive - using scenery and props deliberately different from those which Shakespeare and his troupe would have had.

There are a few reasons a show might go the interpretive route. One is that the adaptation of the show to a 'new' or 'non-period' production is, in itself, one of the dimensions in which modern productions of Shakespeare can differentiate themselves without changing the actual text of the play. Sets and costumes can be used to evoke particular sets of imagery and ideas in the audience; in fact, mere hints, when done skillfully, can serve as 'shorthand' for entire realms of transposition.

This is the path that Rupert Goold appears to have taken. When you file into the theater to be seated, the set is visible, with no curtains. The Paul Harvey theater has a low stage, with seating rising from the stage and the front seats on a level with the performer's floor. For this show, a single room has been constructed on the stage. But even before that is clear, I have to talk about the lights.

The entire height of the stage area, reaching all the way to the arch of the proscenium, is bared. The walls of the room at the bottom extend upwards to infinity, painted matte black to deaden them out of view, but no curtains or drops are used. As a result, the room that the stage contains would normally soar upwards, an open cathedral-like space.

Instead, hanging down to almost head height by cables, are a dozen or so shaded lamps, reminiscent of 1940s hanging lights. The theme, indeed, is one of the early middle 20th century, with grimy white tiled walls and, at the back of the stage, a doorway barred by sliding gates in the style of an early elevator. An industrial looking refrigerator looms against the back wall, a primitive-looking television set atop it, a call button for the elevator bracketed to the wall next to it. Across the stage, around the corner of the wall and past the doorway, there is a large metal work table (almost a counter) and an old-fashioned steam radiator sits against the tiled wall nearly at the stage left border. The walls end both stage left and stage right in a blank space where doors would quite conceivably be in this notional room.

The lights, though - the lights take this soaring space, and by hanging the illumination down to such a low level, coupled with the height of the tiled walls, manage to instantly convert this airy room into a basement.

It's definitely a basement.

it might be a basement kitchen, or even bathroom, but it's a service room. At the front of the stage, displaced to the left, is a sink. It is a period sink, porcelain, deep, with two faucets; it rests on a spindly metal frame. The important thing to note about the sink, however, is that the back of it (which faces the audience) is unfinished; the edges are rough, and we can see the plumbing passing through it to the faucets. By this simple and subtle touch, the entire swath of air between the audience and the actors is transformed from open space into a definite wall - albeit one which is invisible to us. You can see the mirror half of the room which isn't there, just because the sink is so obviously mounted to this nonexistent barrier - the roughness of its back shows that.

And with that simple shortcut, a huge open space is transformed into a tiled basement.

Not just any tiled basement, though. There are all manner of cues, from the size and style of the tiles to the radiator, that evoke all the movies we've seen of World War II Britain or even buildings in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s to 1960s. The fact that we know that Macbeth is set in Scotland pulls up the file of associations with the U.K. and wartime, however.

The opening of the show is violent, loud, and begins with warfare - and warfare involving artillery, with no doubt. The television lights to show us uniformed figures dodging through ruins - and Macbeth and Banquo come through the elevator entrance onto stage, wearing BDUs, carrying heavy packs, and with slung AK-47s.

What?

Yep. Definitely AK-47s.

Oh-kay then.

Over the rest of the show, this space will become a kitchen, a torture chamber, a villa, a piano bar, a morgue, a hospital, a formal dining room, and even a train - all without making any change to the space itself other than the presence and dressing of two wheeled tables, themselves transformed from dining surface to kitchen counter to gurney.

Brilliant.


The Cast and Acting

The first person onto the stage is perhaps the most well-known; Macbeth, in this production, is played by Patrick Stewart, with all his considerable skill. I have to say, though, that my two favorite moments of the show were both made so by acting, not tech - and neither involves Mr. Stewart. The assassination of Banquo is done on a train - and the train is created by the cast sitting in lines, at an angle opposite that which the tables are always placed (to emphasize the difference) and all in unison swaying as lights and sound are used to bring the train to life. It's a simple scene, but it's done amazingly well.

The second, and one of the best single pieces of a performance, is when Ross arrives in England to meet Macduff and Malcolm - there to tell Macduff that his family has been murdered by Macbeth. The few minutes of this scene were absolutely exquisitely done. Michael Feast (Macduff) shone.

I'm not a huge theater fan, but I loves me some Shakespeare. Always have. I have an informal gradient in my head for judging what 'level' of Shakespeare I'm watching, and it goes like this.

At the lowest end of the spectrum, there's the 'reading' Shakespeare, where no matter what tech magic or staging and blocking wizardry, the show feels like two or more people reciting their lines in predetermined order, around a table. If there is any emotional content, it is individual; there is no emotional interaction.

One step up is (pardon my own purely descriptive labeling) is the amateur level. In a production of this quality, the actors are, in fact, reacting to each other in a comprehensible (if not necessarily believable) fashion. Usually, this means they have at the least managed to work in plausible stage motion, and are able to work on their stance, blocking and body language while also delivering lines.

Moving up again, there is a 'professional' production. In this, all the elements finally appear and are interactive - line delivery, stance and motion, and technical elements. I should be convinced that I'm looking at a group of people, all working together; and I should have at least a notion of the scene they're trying to convey to me, as separate from the actual people and props on the stage. I might not buy it totally, but I should be able to get a picture of it, and it shouldn't have any noticeably dissonant elements.

After this, there are two ways that the production can attempt to lift the whole thing up a level. One is to appropriate a particular time and/or place in which to set the production; this might be the original setting of the play, or it might be some other time period and venue. If it is using the original setting of the play, then the technical production (sets, costume) and the secondary acting (language, accents if necessary) will matter a great deal. The process of 'transporting me' into the scene will depend heavily on how well these are done, because I don't have a 'picture' of Shakespeare's Scotland in my head. The original play is more notional than representative. If a production has exceptional work in these 'convincing' areas, then it will rise to the level of 'excellent Shakespeare.' It will transport me successfully.

There is another way to lift the production further, and that is to give it a unique flavor. This is even more difficult; in addition to just convincing me that I'm watching a scene in a known setting, a production may attempt to make a point by creating its own particular flavor. This is extremely hard to do; the actors are now tasked with not only making me believe that they are real people talking to each other about real things, but they have to convince me that they are in fact part of a self-consistent world that I have no direct cues for. The best fiction creates a believable world; the best and more ambitious fiction creates believable but unreal worlds, managing to make believability trump realism.

This production made a specific choice, as far as I can tell, to set the production in an unreal but describable alternate Scotland. It is Scotland; but it has some modern technology (e.g. assault rifles and pistols, televisions and EKG machines and refrigerators). It is not our Scotland, though; and the ways it differs are what are fascinating. There is a flavor of fascism, not a specific regime, but fascism as it is known by the modern news viewer. The AK-47, weapon of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. The 'wartime' set, applicable to either wartime Scotland or Cold War Eastern Bloc, again. The costumes involve uniforms, and there are three major types - and what they are is informative.

In the initial scene, where Macbeth is returning from fighting an external invader (a 'legitimate war') - he and Banquo are wearing outfits which (other than their weapons) are very close representations of U.S. World War Two gear. Immediately upon returning to their homes, they change into formal uniforms. The serving soldiers remain in a formal but gray/green outfit, reminiscent of the Soviet Army; the nobles however (especially the royals) change into a jet-black uniform strongly evocative of the Gestapo.

At one point in the show, there is dance; the initial dance is a very German almost-polka, but some of the participants break into Cossack kick-dance. Again, 'Nazi' and 'Stalin' come to the fore.

What truly lifts this Macbeth, for me, though, is that in almost every case where I was most strongly pulled in I was pulled in by the actors, and by their interaction.

Completely pulled in.

I learned things about Macbeth (the play) that i hadn't known. At least five or six times I had to smother an 'Ohhhh.....' watching them. This show hit a level I have only seen once or twice - exquisite acting not just rising above the technical hinting, but incorporating it and making it absolutely integral to the end product.


Fun Bits

Food is all over this production. Mr. Stewart, showing his chops, delivers his 'briefing' to his assassins while making a sandwich late at night in the kitchen. He builds us up to wondering is he going to actually eat that? How will he do it without interrupting flow? Then, because he can, he does eat the sandwich, and he does actually finish a critical line while talking with his mouth full. Just to show us that he knew what he was doing, and yes, it would be funny. But he does it without losing the character of Macbeth - who is a man going mad (not driven mad) but going mad, poisoned by ambition.

In the middle of the play, at the interval, we see Act III scene IV, which ends with the ghost of Banquo appearing to Macbeth at dinner. Macbeth cringes from the ghost, causing consternation among his guests; just prior to the ghost's appearance, he sees three of his serving girls move past him with daggers clutched behind their backs.

Immediately following the interval, that scene is redone, with Macbeth's whispered asides to his assassin completely replayed by the actors, but at twice the speed - and in silence. And this time, although Macbeth returns to the table, the girls have no daggers, and the ghost does not appear to us the audience - but he flinches, this replay showing us the scene from his guests' point of view. It's very, very well done.

During the assassination of Banquo on the train, as soon as the deed is done, all the various other passengers huddling in their seats rise and remove overcoats - and are revealed as the main cast, moving into set for their next scene. It's a simple trick to save time and cast members, here deliberately shown us, and again, it hammers home the elegance with which the play is being staged.


The Show

Damn, it was good.



Addendum: This production has been released on video as part of the Great Performances series, and can be found here. Note that the sets and staging are different from the stage performance, modified for video; however, the cast (and their acting) is the same.

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