Macbeth: A New Acting Edition (2017)

The original incarnation of Macbeth may have been A Tragedie of the King of Scots, as proposed by F. G. Fleay in the early 20th century. The received text of Macbeth calls for singing and dancing by the weird sisters, increased in number from three to six in the cauldron scene (4.1), very likely a turn for children. There is non-Shakespeare material in the play but was surely revised by Shakespeare at some point in the history of the text, and first published in the Folio.

William Hunnis was appointed Master of the Children of the Chapel on November 15, 1556, two weeks after the death of Richard Edwards. C. W. Wallace records under Payments 1567-1568, “To William Hunys m[aste]r of the Children of the Q[ueen’s]: ma[jes]tes Chapple upon a warrant signed by the Counsail dated at westminster the iijde of Marche 1567 for presenting a Tragedye before her Ma[jes]tie this Shroftyde by waye of her hyghnes Rewarde…vjli xiijs iiijd [£6 13 shillings 4 pence].” This play is identified as “a Tragedie of the kinge of Scottes” in the British Museum, Harleian  MSS, 146 f. 15. Hunnis may well be the author of an Ur-Macbeth performed by his Children of the Chapel. The 3 ½ and 4-beat lines of the weird sisters are very much like his published poetry. It would have been his first play for the Children.

Scholars cite Middleton as the reviser of the Shakespeare play, pointing to the character of Hecate and the inclusion of three additional singing-dancing witches as well as songs from his play The Witch. While the texts of these songs are included in The Witch, only the titles are to be found in the Folio. That’s because, as everyone knows, songs were written on separate sheets for use by the players and in some cases not available to the typesetters. There is other evidence that Middleton made some revisions, but I find it impossible to believe that he was allowed to tamper with the master’s play. It must be remembered that at this time almost the entire King’s men repertory consisted of Shakespeare plays. But Middleton may well have been hired to revise the Ur-text later recast by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s recension must have necessitated some abridgement. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s third shortest play at 2,084 lines, and it has more broken lines, indicative of cuts, than any play in the canon. It is unusual that Duncan is murdered in Act II, where ordinarily one might expect this event to occur in Act III. From the bibliographical evidence it can be concluded that most of the abridgement affected the early part of the play. I have shortened it a bit more, simply because certain things just don’t work, though probably cutting less than a hundred lines.

There are a number of characters who appear in one or two scenes. There are only eight scenes in which new characters are not introduced, a phenomenon unique in Shakespeare. Some of these are aids to the story—Donalbain, Fleance, Macduff’s Wife, the Doctor and Gentlewoman—but others are not. Of the latter, the Bloody Sergeant is an example: Shakespeare would not send a severely wounded man to tell of victory. This scene, given the Sergeant’s mangled meter, smacks of being botched together,

Angus (I.3 and V.2) is an irrelevant character speaking less than 20 lines. It may be that his part was curtailed in the process of revision. In any case, the play is better served with Lennox taking his lines. There is, however, room for a character called Angus. The Old Man of 2.4 is another one-scene character. Like many characters in Shakespeare (Francisco and Adrian in The Tempest for example), we do not know who he is or how he relates to the other characters. I have renamed the Old Man Angus. I have replaced Ross’ “Ha, good father” with “Noble Angus.” So now the audience knows who he is, and is not surprised when they see him at the banquet, where he certainly can be, with a “Mrs. Angus.” He may now be seen as an elderly and influential thane (with white hair and beard) within Macbeth’s inner circle. The new Angus also takes the lines of the nondescript Lord of 3.6

Among the many one-scene characters are also various servants and messengers. Virtually all of these parts can be taken by Seton. Nominally he is Macbeth’s armorer who shows up in the late scenes. But I see no reason why he can’t be a household confidant, retainer, aide-de-camp, or some such office. His first appearance, therefore, would be in 1.5, after Lady Macbeth has read the letter and given her ensuing speech. Here Seton takes the lines of the Attendant.

I think this scheme works well throughout until we come to the servant of 5.3. This new Seton cannot be a “cream-faced loon” whom the devil may damn black. Political Correctness be damned, I cut these lines nevertheless as well as Macbeth’s next speech in which he continues to expostulate on the idea that the servant’s countenance is white with fear. I have also given Seton the part of the mysterious, unnamed 3rd Murderer. The part of Seton is now significantly enlarged and he thus gains in importance, no small consideration for the actor of the role.

The English Doctor appears to have walked in from another play. He sings the praises of Edward the Confessor who has no relevance to the play. His character and miraculous cures are extolled because he is an ancestor of King James who is sitting in the audience. I have excised the English Doctor.

I have cut Macbeth’s battle with Young Siward, a scene which makes the usurper’s combat with Macduff anticlimactic. I have also cut Menteith and Caithness and divided their lines between Lennox and Ross.

Some scenes have evidently disappeared in the revision process. For example, at I.7.47 Lady Macbeth makes a taunting reference to an occasion on which her husband first broached the subject of Duncan’s murder. She is comparing his behavior then with his behavior now. There’s no doubt that this conversation took place but no such scene now exists. Moreover, it appears that the original intention was to have Lady Macbeth murder Duncan herself, which she would have done had the sleeping king not reminded her of her father. Her invocation and subsequent colloquy with Macbeth makes that abundantly clear. Nothing can be done about the missing scene but I believe the role should be played with that in mind.

I have interpolated a scene, actually a dumb-show. The Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Macbett is the source of the idea which I think is a good one. It accomplishes two things. First, it adds some spectacle, and secondly it displays more of the blood in which Macbeth is “steeped.” The new scene is simply a procession with the corpse of Duncan covered with a bloody sheet following the scene of his murder.

There is a well-known problem in the cauldron scene. As the show of eight kings  begins, Macbeth says of the first apparition “Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo.” When the eighth appears he says “the blood-boltered Banquo smiles upon me.”  There is obviously a mistake here likely due to hasty revision. Since the last apparition is clearly Banquo, the first must be Duncan. So “Duncan” should be substituted for “Banquo” in the opening line.

It is a theatre superstition that one should not utter the title Macbeth. Instead, the work is referred to as “the Scottish play.” There is a reason for this: While there have been great performances in the title role throughout theatrical history, the play as a whole is always doomed to failure. There’s a reason for that too: No one seems to know what to do with the weird sisters. In the Stacy Keach production in Washington, D.C., the sisters sat in a tree. Excuse me? In the production set in the American Indian Southwest I witnessed many years ago at Stratford, Ontario, with Ian Hogg in the title role, the sisters were a species of shaman. While this concept was markedly better than the tree, it aroused no fear. At the very least the sisters should cause some queasiness and make the spectators uncomfortable.

Forgive me if I toot my horn a bit. At the same time I have to admit I solved the problem posed by the sisters purely by accident. In my 1972 Boston production, with reviews with headlines such as “Spooky and Stunning,” the sisters were described as “baby-killing, broom-riding hags.” I won’t say how I accomplished this because I hope to do Macbeth again, though with a totally different concept. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I will say, however, in order to arrive at a workable solution one has to understand the mind-set of the average Elizabethan.

Producers normally present Macbeth in two acts. Since the sisters have such a profound impact on Macbeth, and consequently the play, I decided to put more focus on them by beginning and ending each act with a sisters scene. The play opens with the sisters and the first act now concludes with the Hecate scene which is always cut. However, I only used a bit of it, lines 1-10 and 20-21 with a grand exit for Hecate.

In order for the second act to begin with the cauldron scene, a great act opener (minus Hecate, song, and dance), I transposed 3.5 and 3.6. At the end of the play Macbeth’s severed head is exhibited prior to Malcolm’s concluding speech. Great irony can be had if the sisters, who have been lurking about the periphery in the shadows, each in turn holding the head, repeat to it the same titled greetings they gave Macbeth in 1.3.

This new edition of Macbeth is leaner, cleaner, and meaner than the extant Folio text.