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Playreading Report: Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2

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I’ve been editing Macbeth this last little while, to get it ready for our Play of the Month. We only do minimal editing: modernising spelling, punctuation, and implementing ‘shared lines’. But in Macbeth, the verse lines are often irregular; the shared lines complex; and it makes it difficult to decide how to present it. I’m sure we haven’t got it exactly right, but I hope what we’ve done is usable – and we’re always open to your suggestions of how we might improve things – you can leave a comment on any of the posts associated with a play and we’ll pick it up.

Why was Macbeth so difficult to edit? I’m sure Shaksepeare wasn’t having an ‘off day’. I suspect that he uses the irregular verse forms to express the state of mind of the characters – particularly Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

I think this is worth exploring further, and  Act 2 Scene 2, immediately after the murder of Duncan, is not a bad place to start. I read this scene with my partner, and  I think it would really come alive  for you if you played the scene with someone else. One can read Macbeth, and the other Lady Macbeth,and  one of you should look after the sound effects (knocking) and then the things said in this article will come alive for you.

First, it’s worth saying that the whole scene is in verse. Verse can tell the players how it was envisaged that the speeches would be spoken. Of course, you can play the scene the way you like to, but it should be interesting and informative to play it ‘as envisaged’, and then play it many different ways – a great way to explore different approaches to the same scene.

You’ll remember that the standard blank verse line has 10 syllables. Not all lines are standard in Act 2 Scene 2, but most are. But there are a number of short lines. Sometimes two short lines are shared (i.e. one player ends a speech with a short line, and the next player’s speech starts with a short line, and the two short lines make a ‘whole’ line of 10 or so syllables. Conventionally this means that the 2nd player should take up their cue quickly, to make the two short lines play as one line.

There are also short lines all on their own. One player has a short line and there’s no matching short line from another player. Conventionally this is taken to mean that somewhere in that line there should be a pause to make the whole line roughly equivalent to a whole line.

So, having reminded ourselves of that, let’s look at shared lines and short lines in Act Two Scene Two:

  • The first shared line is at the end of Lady M’s first speecch:
    Lady M:                  Whether they live, or die.
    Mac B: (Within):                                                   Who’s there? what ho?
    Lady M:                  Alack! I am afraid they have awaked,……
    So Macbeth (offstage) interrupts Lady M (onstage), and she fears that their murder has been interrupted.
  • The next shared line is even more interesting:
    LADY MACBETH.  Did not you speak?
    MACBETH.                                                 When?
    LADY MACBETH.                                                    Now.
    MACBETH.                                                                            As I descended?
    So one verse line is spread over four speeches. If we follow the convention, these four little speeches should be rattled off with no pauses, giving a feeling of nervous excitement.
  • And then, even more interestingly, we get two single-word short lines,
    MACBETH.              Hark!
    .                                  Who lies i’th’ second Chamber?

    Again if we follow the convention, each of those two lines: ‘Ay’, and ‘Hark!’ should be followed (or preceded) by a pause, almost as long as it takes to say a whole line.

    So what we have is four lines said together very fast, followed by two single-syllable lines with pauses.
    Rather a smart way of showing the excitement and nervousness of the two murderers.

If you’re not convinced, all I can say is try it. Get together with a partner and try this scene. Try it the way I suggest above, and then try it some other way. You may well find an even better way of playing the scene, but being aware of shared lines and short lines will affect (and dare I say, improve) your playing of the scene.

The next section of the scene continues with shared lines at nearly every change of speaker. The shared line seems to act as a ‘baton’ which is passed from player to player as if to emphasise their togetherness in the murder.

Until… their speeches are interrupted by the outside world:

Knock within.

No more shared lines between the players.  The ‘knocks’ interrupt each player’s speech, and it seems they have returned to their own worlds, their intimacy in murder destroyed by knocking.

The best way to experience this, is to play it, and then play it again. . All you need is two players, and something to knock (the knocking is important), and a willingness to try out different approaches.


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