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Introduction to Macbeth

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Introduction

The Play

Macbeth is widely considered as one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), and was probably performed for the first time in 1606 or 1607. It’s first recorded production was in 1611. King James (6th of Scotland and 1st of England) came to the throne in 1603, and Macbeth contains many elements to appeal to the new king: it was a Scottish story; Banquo was an ancestor of the Stuarts; the king was interested in witchcraft and had published a treatise on it.

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Macbeth is also ‘the Scottish play’ which actors believe is unlucky to name. It has a long perceived history of production failures, and is sometimes seen as a play that is better read for its poetry than seen in performance.

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Context

The Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot had shocked the nation in 1605, leading to more discussion of the right to overthrow an appointed king, and an interest in ‘equivocation’ (see the Porter’s speech in A2S4) resulting from the trial in March 1606 of Father Garnet for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. This conspiracy had as much interest to audiences of the day as 9/11 has for members of a modern audience, and it significantly affects the play, and seventeenth-century responses to it.

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For that audience, the witches are manifestations of the devil; Macbeth sells his soul to the devil, and the second half of the play sees his decline into hell.

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Plot

For a modern audience, Macbeth is a play of two halves. The first half of the play is filled with drama:

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The witches tempt Macbeth with the possibility of greater glory and even kingship after his victory over the Norwegians and Scottish rebels, re-awakening thoughts of becoming king by fair means or foul, already explored by Macbeth and his wife.

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The conflict between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as she pushes him to murder the king

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The excitement of the murder itself and the fear of discovery when Macduff and Lennox arrive the next morning, interwoven with the grimly comic imaginings of the Porter.

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The murder of Banquo and the appearance of his ghost at the Banquet.

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These elements all combine to give the first half an excess of drama, one might say.

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For a modern audience, the second half (assuming the interval takes place at the end of Act 3) can, dare one say it, be a little boring.

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It starts with a bang, with Macbeth re-visiting the witches, though the masque-like appearance of Banquo’s descendants can pall a little if not handled well. The murder of Lady Macduff and her children continues the drama, but then things quieten down with the shift of scene to England to see Macduff arrive to persuade Malcolm to come back to Scotland to overthrow Macbeth.

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The scene has a number of problems for a modern audience: Malcolm’s test of Macduff by pretending to be an evil man, unfit to reign, seems a little disingenuous to say the least; and the discussion of the English king’s ability to cure scrofula seems irrelevant to the plot. It may have been fascinating for King James, but not today.

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Most disappointingly, we see no more of the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. She appears once, in the sleep-walking scene, but not with Macbeth. He is a changed man, descending into evil and despair. In the second half of the play, the poetry may be wonderful, but the drama is not.

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Thoughts on 21st century productions

This contrast between the first and second halves is well-recognised in the modern tradition. Many actors give their all in the first half and resign themselves to a less successful second half. Laurence Olivier, in one of the few recognised successes of the 20th Century, down-played the first half in order to bring it into balance with the second half.

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Another approach is to see the two halves of the play as separate stories: the first half telling of the temptation of Macbeth and his wife; their succumbing to that temptation; and their descent into evil and eventually despair; the second half as the bonding of the opposition to Macbeth into a force that can and does overthrow the unacceptable king.

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This does require the audience to be willing to change direction. As Hitchcock demonstrated in Psycho, an audience likes to identify with the hero (or heroine) throughout the story. The murder of the heroine of Psycho in the shower, confuses the audiences, as they re-orient themselves to identify with a new hero.

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Perhaps we can encourage the audience to change allegiance in the second half of Macbeth with a number of ploys:

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Play the murder of Lady Macduff and her children as horrifically as possible so the audience are shocked into rejecting Macbeth.

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Play A4S3 (Macduff with Malcolm and Ross in England) as the bonding of the three men who will overthow Macbeth, bonded by the suffering of Macduff on the news of the deaths of his family. This probably requires some fairly substantial cutting of the scene, particularly most of the portion where Malcolm pretends to evil; and the discussion of the king’s ability to cure scrofula.

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Play Act 5 with the audience ‘in opposition’ to Macbeth. (In a promenade performance of the play, we achieved this by co-opting the audience into the English Army, and making them carry pine branches – they were Dunsinane wood on the way to Birnam, and the overthrow of Macbeth, and listened to his exquisite poetry of despair in opposition to him.)

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However the director approaches the play, there can be little doubt that a successful production requires the re-balancing of the first and second half in whatever way the director can find to do so.

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Let’s play!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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