For the Jacobean audience; the playwright; and the actors at at the premiere of Macbeth the Gunpowder Plot of the same year loomed as large in their consciousness as 9/11 does in our day. That affected the structure and content of the play: the illegitimate overthrow of kings by violent means; the Porter’s reference to Equivocators; the involvement of witches and the devil; the eventual overthrow of Macbeth.
For the modern audience, Macbeth is a play of two halves. In the first half, the excitement comes from watching Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the king, and then the consequences of his murder on their characters. We learn a lot about the ambition, the imagination, and weakness of Macbeth, and the determined strength, but lack of imagination of his wife.
After the banquet when Banquo’s ghost appears, the play changes. Unlike the other great tragedies, we become less interested in the characters of the protagonists, as he descends into despair, and she descends into madness. Instead, the play becomes centered on the overthrow of Macbeth by the heroic trio of Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross (and the handy English Army). At least, that was the approach I took with the play.
The question is how to move the focus of the audience’s attention away from Macbeth, and onto the herioic trio. A4S2 is key to achieving this. In this scene, Lady Macduff and her children are murdered by Macbeth‘s henchmen. If you play this horrifically enough, (see the picture of our murderer at the top of this post) the audience become disgusted with Macbeth, and turns against him. This with a few other touches, can make the audience glad participants in his overthrow .
The scene (A4S2), lends itself to this treatment. The scene goes through three different stages:
- The start of the scene ‘sets the scene’. Lady Macduff complains to Ross about how her husband has left her and her children to the mercy of Macbeth. Ross tries to defend Macduff’s behaviour but succeeds only in raising the fear that something terrible is about to happen.
- In a delightful central section, Lady Macbeth talks with one of her sons about his missing father. It’s key that the innocence of the child and the loving care of the mother come through strongly, to contrast with what is to come.
- In a short final section, murderers enter, and kill the son (and any other children in the scene ) as horrifically as possible, and chase Lady Macduff offstage where she can be murdered as noisily as possible.
Of course, in a production, there’s lots of possibilities to make the scene as horrific as possible. In a play-reading, that’s not so easy. Instead, the key, it seems to me, is contrast the three different emotional tones of the different sections; the rational but apologetic section with Ross; the tender scene between mother and son; and the rough murderous tones (and screams) of the murders.
Anyway, an opportunity to have some fun, so we’ve set it up as a “Let’s Play” for 3 players. Their roles, and links to the text are given below:
- Player 1: Macduff;s wife (in Highlight Text form)
- Player 2: Son (in Highlight Text Form)
- Player 3: Ross, Messenger2, Murderer (in StandardText form) and a challenge to play 3 roles in one scene, each differently!
Once you’ve played the scene once, don’t forget to play it again, changing roles!.