This summer, I have had the great good fortune to contribute to Ian Doescher‘s community reading initiative, the Shakespeare 2020 Project. A website and Facebook group support members of the public with free editions and resources as they read through the complete works over the course of the year. In August, I offered the second of two informal video introductions for Macbeth, available via YouTube.
As a bonus, I seemed to time things correctly that you can watch the sun set and room darken behind me over the course of the video – just as the world gradually darkens in the play! Read the full transcript below.
Hi y’all! My name is Elizabeth Tavares, assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama, and I am so pleased to be introducing the Scottish play for the Shakespeare 2020 Project.
Macbeth is a ghost story about governance — a cautionary tale of the psychological, environmental, and gendered consequences of wayward leadership. First performed around 1606, Londoners were experiencing a great deal of change in their world, from a new monarch to an eroding landscape. While Macbeth might balk, asking “who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root?” England had long conscripted its oaks into military service. Both Queen Elizabeth and King James had instituted legislation regulating the felling of trees. Anxious about deforestation, warships — used to simultaneously stave off Spanish invasion and conquer the New World — were made of the same reclaimed timber used to build London’s first playhouses. (Today you can visit the flagship store of the famous luxury goods emporium Liberty London, which is built from the up-cycled timbers of two such eighteenth-century vessels.) Macbeth burgeoned from a period when the Americas were understood as a quick fix for England’s resource crisis. Many productions have drawn on this theme in the play, empowering the witches as agents of nature resisting the violence of humans and giving Birnam Wood a say.
About a year ago, I had the pleasure to serve as dramaturg for a three-woman version of the Scottish play, directed by Adriana Baer and produced by Portland Center Stage. Reflecting on that last opportunity I had to work in a theatre space, before the coronavirus shutdown theatres the world over, I am reminded of some of the bones in this story that make it one of the most consistently produced plays from Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
The late sixteenth century was a period of political transition: the death of Queen Elizabeth ended the first relatively peaceful and economically prosperous reign in over two hundred years. This context provides an added complexity to the word weyard, a late medieval Scots epithet for “weird” that Macbeth gives to the three prophetic sisters he encounters following his battlefield success in the very first scene. Rather than carrying today’s negative connotation, by christening sisters as “weird” the play clarifies their role as an allegory: an embodied representation of a complex concept, which in this case might be our “vaulting ambition” (1.7) to seize control of one’s future, even if it means ranging beyond the laws of God and men. Like the queen who had reigned independent of a male consort, the sisters link positive political and communal outcomes with unconventional tactics and a feminist ethos.
The three-woman Portland production was a natural evolution in the life of the play. The cast comprised players who identify with the same gender, which was also the norm of early English theatre. The three sisters were not always played by women, however. While women were not allowed to perform onstage until the 1660s (despite participating in a wide range of offstage labors that made theatre possible), female roles were performed by “boys,” highly skilled younger male actors aged roughly in their mid-teens to mid-twenties. The Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving was celebrated for breaking with conventions that would sit oddly with us today: whereas the “old stock companies,” according to one 1890s reviewer, traditionally represented the three figures with “the Low Comedian, the Old Man, and the Old Woman of the company — generally a fairly grotesque trio,” Irving cast “three tragic actresses” to critical acclaim. The figure of the actress would go on to become the foremost muse of painters and poets in the eighteenth century, and women frequently staged amateur all-female performances in private homes.
Likewise, doubling (where one actor plays many parts in the same play) was a foundational technique of the Elizabethan repertory companies that would tour across the country with as few as eight players. Unlike today’s several-month run of a singular production in a Broadway national tour, actors traditionally performed a different play every night of the week, sometimes as many as two dozen different texts in a month. In this rotating repertory, playgoers became familiar with certain actors and found novelty in players’ ability to plumb new depths despite typecast parts.
Just as different characters haunted the bodies of actors as they moved between roles—for example, remembering Daniel Radcliff as the child star of the Harry Potter films even as he takes on serious stage drama like Equus, a play about a teen struggling with his mental health—so too were props recycled between plays. Perhaps one of the most reproduced images from this play is that of the three weird sisters over a cauldron. The earliest record of a stage cauldron comes from a set of four plays at the Rose theatre in the 1590s calling for a prop massive enough to hold a standing actor. The dialogue from Shakespeare’s 1623 folio, “Why sinks that cauldron, and what noise is this?” is not only preserved through the later 1673 quarto, but a stage direction for “cauldron sinks” was added to William Davenant’s 1674 full-scale rewrite. Thinking of the cauldron at a scale industrial rather than for the home cook unsettles the long-inherited notional tableau of hags hunched over a small pot; it suggests a much larger and more threatening object, providing a greater sense of scale attached to the sisters’ powers. The Portland production likewise envisioned women as empowered personas akin to Irving’s vision rather than the more recent Hollywood penchant to reinforce their physical “ugliness”—recovering a sense of the moral complexity of Lady Macbeth in particular.
In addition to England’s wooden desires, America also inherited James’s fixation on witch hunting, detailed in his Daemonologie (1597), a book that later fueled English religious émigrés. The play draws on some of the ideas from James as well as imports whole-sale from another play, Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, to give us the incantatory magic of act four. Like the Puritans’ infamous Salem trials, historical events that weaponized nature to police gender, Macbeth invites us to think of the wayward sisters as an embodiment of an environment resisting human degradation. Rather than focus on the specifics of a character—they aren’t “people,” so to speak, but figures designed to react to one another within the ecosystem of a play—you might instead consider how choices made by the military men of the play negatively impact not only women, but the landscape for which Scotland is so famous. Consider keeping a list of environmental images you encounter as you read: owls screeching like children, birds portending fate, and wolves alluding to the Classical myth of Romulus and Remus. To which characters or what moral decisions do they get attached? What central concerns do they activate as metaphors? How does their meaning evolve over the course of the play? Our vocabulary is dense with environmental metaphors, so resist skipping by them; what, exactly, makes a crown “fruitless,” makes a mind overrun by “scorpions”? Only by considering these images can the horror of trees walking come to roost.
Many thanks, happy reading, and stay safe everyone!
- Vin Nardizzi, Wooden Os: Shakespeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees (University of Toronto Press, 2013).
- Natasha Korda, Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
- Paul Menzer, Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History (Bloomsbury, 2015).
- London’s National Portrait Gallery gave an excellent exhibition in 2012 on the first English actresses, which included a 1775 work of three elite women represented as Macbeth’s witches.