Macbeth-book.jpg” data-rel=”prettyPhoto[this_page]” title=””>The Play:
Macbeth is one Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (the other being Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. It was probably performed for the first time in 1606 or 1607 , though it’s first recorded performance was in 1611. The play was written for King James (6th of Scotland, and 1st of England) who came to the throne in 1603.
Many elements of the play would 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 written a treatise on it.
The play is now known as ‘the Scottish play’ as modern actors believe it is unlucky to name. It has a long perceived history of failures, and is often though of as a play better read for its poetry than performed.
In 1606 when Macbeth was first performed, the nation was in shock as a result of the Gunpowder plot, which excited the nation as much as 9/11 has affected our times. Many of the themes of the play are influenced by the conspiracy: is it acceptable to overthrow the legal annointed king; the equivocation of the porter’s speech refers directly to the trial of Father Garnet , an ‘equivocater’, for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.
The C17 was also significantly more religious than our modern age. For an audience then, the story would be seen as Macbeth being tempted by witches, agents of the devil; Macbeth sells his soul to the devil, and in the second half of the play, his descent into despair and hell, would have a certain fascination as the consequence of selling his soul to the devil.
For a modern audience, Macbeth is a play of two halves. The first half is filled with drama: The temptation of Macbeth by the witches; the conflict between Macbeth and his wife, as she pushes him to murder the king; 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; and finally the murder of Banquo and the appearance of his ghost at the Banquet
The second half, in contrast, can appear a little boring. It starts well with the witches scene in A4S1, followed by the murder of Lady Macduff and her children. But with the shift of the scene to England, Macduff’s attempt to persuade Malcolm to go north to overthrow Macbeth, is diluted by Malcolm’s pretense of being evil himself, and the discussion of the English king’s ability to cure scrofula. Most disappointingly, we see no more of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. She appears once more, in the sleep-walking scene, He is a changed man, descending into evil and despair. The poetry is wonderful, but the drama is not.
Macbeth for 21st Century
A key issue for the director of a modern production of the play is how to re-balance the two halves of the play so they both maintain the audience’s interest.
Our own approach has been to see the two halves of the play as separate stories. The first half explores the temptation of Macbeth and his wife; their succumbing to that temptation; and their descent into evil and despair. The second half of the play shows the bonding of the opposition to Macbeth into a force that can and does overthrow the evil king.
For this approach to work, we have to persuade the audience to change focus from Macbeth in the first half, to the liberating forces of Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross. We can encourage the audience to do this with a number of ploys:
- Play the murder of Lady Macduff and her children as horrifically as possible so the audience are shocked into rejecting Macbeth.
- Follow this up by majoring on Macduff’s suffering when he learns of the murder of his family, which bonds the three men (Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross) to try to overthrow Macbeth. This probably requires some serious cutting of the scene (A4S3), particularly Malcolm’s pretence of being evil, and the discussion of the English king’s ability to cure scrofula
- 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 as members of the English army, complete with pine branches, so they became Birnam wood on its way to Dunsinane. They saw Macbeth‘s scenes in Act 5 from within the English army, and could listen to his exquisite poetry of despair in opposition to him.