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Staging Macbeth

Sources and character | Staging in Berlin

Macbeth's sources and character

From Joseph L. Lockett, "To Strut and Fret Upon the Stage: Theatrical Interpretation of Sources for Macbeth"

Literary and theatrical criticisms of drama, particularly of Shakespeare, have long been at odds with each other, with a rapprochement coming into sight only within the last few decades. Literary criticism tends to concentrate on plays as tissues of symbols and philosophy, to the ire of practical actors searching for clues to characterization. Theatrical criticism, on the other hand, leans more towards character analysis, the sort of psychological study sometimes leading towards nebulous theorizing like "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" Too often it leaves dramatic source material only to the minute examination of literary scholars and historians. Yet studies of sources can open a world of ideas to the dramatic artist, in either conceptions of a play as a whole or for specific character sketches.

In this paper, I plan to examine Shakespeare's primary source materials for Macbeth, including extracts from Raphael Holinshed's historical works, in light of their suggestions for practical production. The performance side of analysis will appear in examples drawn from the recent Baker Shakespeare performances of Macbeth (in which I played Banquo) and the production notebooks of Glen Byam Shaw for his 1955 production at Stratford-upon-Avon (edited by Michael Mullin and published by the University of Missouri Press in 1976 as Macbeth Onstage).


Raphael Holinshed and his predecessor historians supply the basic historical data for the story of Macbeth, and Shakespeare's modifications to that story can tell actors and directors a great deal about his possible intentions on the way the tale should be played. The most obvious change to the historical events is compression: Shakespeare's two main sources in Holinshed (Donwald's murder of King Duff when "kindled in wrath by the words of his wife" in 967 A.D. and Macbeth's usurpation around 1040 A.D.) lie over seventy years apart chronologically, and each spans several years. Yet the play itself passes in a blur and rush of realized ambition and consequent death, lasting perhaps two months. The three invasions in Holinshed, by Makdowald and his "kerns and gallowglasses," by Sueno and his Norwegians, and by Canute's Danes in revenge for Sueno's defeat, combine to one mammoth battle related in I.ii. Macbeth's ten years of beneficent rule are swallowed up in the pause between Acts II and III with no notice by any of his associates or enemies, and his seven years as a tyrant pass in a welter of short and action-filled scenes.


... it is in the minor characters that theatrical criticism of the sources proves most helpful. Small parts are often considered the most difficult for actors to play: fewer lines in the script means fewer clues around which to construct a character. The sources can provide additional clues, by either pointing out contrasts with the play or by supplying additional information or viewpoints.

I found Holinshed's Chronicles of great use during rehearsals for Baker Shakespeare's Macbeth, while I was trying to "find" Banquo. My first concept for the character was that of a serious, forthright, virtuous, slightly "stuck-up" Scottish noble who eschewed flattery. But this preliminary concept refused to fit the text: my so-called "ornithology monologue" ("This guest of summer, / The temple-haunting martlet...." (I.vi.3-4)) would not read as anything but pure flattery towards Duncan, and the annunciation scene with the witches (I.iii) always seemed to play flatly with a stern Banquo. Then I read Holinshed's Chronicles, and found traces of a different sort of thane.

Shakespeare had to be wary of how he portrayed Banquo, since the semi-legendary thane of Lochquhaber was the ancestor of King James I. But Holinshed describes Banquo's assistance in the murder of King Duncan, and that was the spark to make me realize that Banquo could be ambitious too: he had as much, or more, riding on the witches' prophecy as Macbeth. "Why, by the verities on thee made good / May they not be my oracles as well, / And set me up in hope?" (III.i. 8-10) suddenly took on new force as plotting on the part of Banquo. He might not be tempted to such dire acts as Macbeth, but could still maneuver for political position, as when my Banquo cut off Rosse (an evil schemer himself, in the Baker production) to agree with Duncan about the "temple-haunting martlet." The character as I conceived him suspected Macbeth of the murder, yet kept his peace, waiting to see how the witches' prophecy would turn out.

On reading Shaw's production notebook, I find I was not alone in my interpretation, for in the 1955 Stratford production Banquo was even more involved in the murder plot. In II.i, as Banquo encounters the seething Macbeth before the murder, Shaw's Banquo seems to guardedly agree with Macbeth with his "I shall be counsell'd." (II.i.29) At the end of III.iii, Macbeth enters to observe (and, indeed, to some extent frighten off) the fleeing Malcolm and Donalbain. Then, "as he goes into the hall he meets Banquo. Nothing is said." (Mullin, p. 109). But a look passes between the two -- a moment of complicity. Shaw even writes that "[Banquo] is the first person, I think, to suspect the truth about the murder of Duncan, but he says nothing. Why?.... I think his silence about the Witches is mostly on account of his own interest in the future of the Crown.... I don't think that it is possible to believe that he remains silent only out of friendship for Macbeth; & if it is fear that prevents him from telling the truth, & he is completely honest, then he could leave the country. Of course he is not a villain but is not a simple honest man either. He has his own particular form of ambition." (Mullin, p. 116)

Yet Banquo need not always be a stern Scot. Holinshed describes how, after encountering the witches, it "was reputed at the first but some vaine fantasticall illusion by Mackbeth and Banquho, insomuch that Banquho would call Mackbeth in jest, king of Scotland; and Mackbeth againe would call him in sport likewise, the father of manie kings," and "the same night after... Banquho jested with [Macbeth]." These descriptions solved the significant problem for Pab Schwendimann (who played Macbeth) and me of how to interpret the characters' lines after the witches disappearance in I.iii: should we be entirely believing or absolutely incredulous, or some mixture of the two? On first encountering the witches, my Banquo was scornful -- "Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate." (I.iii.60-1) Pab's Macbeth was more trusting, already partly under the influence of the witch's wound-up "charm," interested but still doubtful. The witches' mysterious disappearance forced a more serious note, but we soon fell to jesting, giving a comic motivation to lines such as "Your children shall be kings. / You shall be king!" (I.iii.86-7). Not until the arrival of Rosse and Angus and their news of Cawdor's death were we forced to realize that the witches might have spoken truth. Sources for the play thus provided motivations and subtext for a difficult acting passage, proving theatrically practical as well as literarily interesting.

The full text of this article can be viewed at http://www.io.com/~jlockett/Grist/English/macbethsources.html

Quotes from Glen Byam Shaw's production notebooks are taken from Macbeth Onstage: An Annotated Facsimile of Glen Byam Shaw's 1955 Promptbook, edited by Michael Mullin, copyright 1976 by University of Missouri Press.

Macbeth in Berlin

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1319 Thursday, 29 June 2000.
From: Peter Webster 7lt;Mappamundi@aol.com>
Date: Wednesday, 28 Jun 2000 12:34:29 EDT
Subject: Hamlet at the Berliner Ensemble

Saturday, June 24 [2000], I saw Hamlet, in German, as presented by the Berliner Ensemble. Direction and adaptation was by Achim Freyer, from a translation by August Wilhelm Schlegel.

The production was envisioned as a grotesque fever-dream. The stage was absolutely bare: naked brick, grating and catwalks, lighting fixtures and speakers in full view. There was an outlined infantile skull with a crown la Basquiat spray painted on the upstage wall. There were scraps, unidentifiable detritus on the stage-floor. There was an unidentifiable mass way upstage by the skull-and-crown. The theatre's fleshly German-Baroque opulence with its overweight naked people writhing about was chilled by two strips of cold blue neon tubing on either side of the proscenium. A drum rolled, then accelerated to a thudding tattoo, two muffled figures poked out from either side of the proscenium, blew fire from their mouths across the stage at each other, the lights blazed, dimmed, and we were off. The ten-foot high image of a woman with streaming black hair and an exposed, mutilated blue breast and a corpse-white baby floating in front of here at womb-height came down center. She was supported by two muffled figures with African/Terrorist face coverings. The baby's head moved, shockingly alive: the head of the actor supporting the woman on his shoulders. . . .

The premise of a fever-dream worked well, mostly, as did the extraordinary doubling:

Die Nacht/Horatio/Queen in the Play Within/Hooded Figure--same actress
Gertrude/Ophelia/Hooded Figure--same actress
Voltemand/Guildenstern/Fortinbras--same actor
Polonius/1st Gravedigger--same actor
Bernardo/Laertes/Lucianus in the Play Within/2nd Gravedigger/Hooded Figure--same actor
Marcellus/Rozencrans/Osric/Fortinbras's Sergeant--same actor
Hamlet/Claudius/The Ghost--same actor
King in the Play Within/Priest--same actress
Hooded Figure/The Baby--same actor . . .

The production took advantage of the strong German traditions of ridicule, extreme sexuality in all forms, ghosts, absurdity, cruel comedy and chilling moral instruction. Think Brueghel on steroids, think Beckmann, think what Bosch dared not paint because it was too real (the Ghost's words on what he will not tell of what he has seen in the country from whose bourn, etc).

Many of the scenes were presented as Hamlet thinking the response the other character would make: stream of consciousness from an absurdly aware, intelligent and inefficient man. Hamlet was an actor who was big, round, and tubby in the middle: this man had never grown up - he lived in an intense world of his own into which this living night of hell had seeped so strongly as to dye his whole life black and vivid red.

Particularly striking: The Ghost was never seen. The scraps of paper, leaves, just blew about the stage when ever he was present. The Ghost possessed Hamlet and spoke the entire scene, call and response.

Claudius praying: Claudius kneels in prayer, bows his head, the actor playing Hamlet slips out of his own costume and appears "behind himself" arms raised to strike, as three hooded/masked figures approach slowly at the prospect of blood and recede as Hamlet talks his way out of action. The actor than thrust his head into himself and stood up as Claudius. Stunning. . . .

The Closet Scene: Claudius hides in full view behind a piece of molding he holds up. Hamlet stabs him through this molding, and Polonius "bleeds" earth as he staggers across the stage to die, SR. The opposing figures of Old Hamlet and Claudius appear in the DR and DL entrances: full-sized statues in full armor, with life-masks made from the face of the actor playing Hamlet.

Hamlet's scene with Claudius et all after killing Polonius: Hamlet enters with an unraveling rag-doll trailing dirt and plays the whole scene by himself, all parts, as a feverish call and response in the mind and ends by flinging the rag-doll into the inner above. . . .

Hamlet was treated as a character in his own story/dream: "minor" characters carried as much weight and all worked together to build this even-tempered, cool, strangely moving production. . . .

Shakespeare is alive and well on stages every minute of the day.

Peter Webster

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This page last updated on 28 December 2006. © Michael Best, 2006.