In January 2013, I held my breath and sent Ken Branagh the draft of my Springboard Shakespeare: Macbeth. With his production planned for the Manchester International Festival in July that year, I hoped he might flip through it.
I was called a week later. He had been reading everything he could lay his hands on about this dark play, and apparently so much of what I'd said in my book matched his ideas. Would I consider writing something for the production's programme?
The following is the text they printed, part of which I adapted from my Springboard Shakespeare series...
The be-all and end-all
Actor and writer Ben Crystal sheds a 21st-century light on the darkness of the Scottish Play
Macbeth: image-famous for witches, a floating dagger, and the midnight murder of a Scottish king.
Beyond these, it’s a blood-soaked play with unspeakable brutality – throat-slitting, decapitation, the killing of an innocent mother and child (nothing less than horrific), the murder of people while they sleep, the splitting of someone from stomach to jawbone with a sword, and a few other deaths that make the on- and off-stage body count at least a dozen.
There are bloody ghosts, witches, and figures from the Greek underworld, all ideas that would have brought terror to the minds of Shakespeare’s audience. Characters hallucinate, are drugged, and are so terrified of their leader that they flee from their home and country. Some are so opposed to the dictator-like, tyrannical killing of innocents that they raise an army and go to war.
Pixies, faeries & ghosts
For Shakespeare’s audience at the Globe in 1606, the presence of witches and the main plotline of killing a king were topical as well as terrifying. Macbeth was first performed in a period of persecution now known as the European Witch Craze, during which many women (and men) were put under trial and executed under suspicion of witchcraft.
In 1603, the Scottish King James VI acceded the English throne as King James I. A few years earlier, he had written a book about witches. And in 1605, a few months before Macbeth was first performed, he survived an assassination attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. (Indeed, the word ‘assassination’ was coined by Shakespeare for this play. As I say, topical.)
The King or Queen was officially considered to be God’s voice on Earth and the removal of the rightful monarch meant anarchy, that the skies would darken and fall. Superstition was so powerful that the existence of pixies, faeries and ghosts were a commonly held belief, while an equally religious world thought earthquakes were the punishing Hand of God. Written in that fearful time, this is a play that asked questions about political and social instability: about how far someone will go for power, and what that can cost...
Macbeth and the canon
As he did for many of his plays, Shakespeare took the basic plot for Macbeth from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Britain. The second edition of Chronicles appeared in 1587, around the time Shakespeare came to London to begin his theatrical career.
In some respects, the play is a re-run of his earlier Richard III (written c.1592) and Julius Caesar (c.1599): the first half features a slow build-up towards the murder of the rightful leader, with the second half concentrating on the emotional and psychological fallout of such actions. It’s a structure that has inspired many imitations on stage and screen; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, for instance, follows a similar path.
Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale followed – titanic works, each exploring the fall of a good man, but from a slightly different angle each time. Othello suffers at the hands of another, Lear is foolish, and Leontes (in The Winter’s Tale) is susceptible to jealousy, as we all are. However, like Richard III before him, Macbeth becomes a tyrant, a killer of innocents.
Macbeth is an incredible character. He experiences a rocket-rise to absolute power via murder, then plummets into absolute disaster, a roller-coaster ride turned runaway train. He’s the loyal soldier who embraces his inner darkness, reaching a point of near-insanity through megalomania, paranoia and greed, and who swings from uncertain weakness to a Superman-like conviction of invincibility.
If Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings had taken the Ring and Arwen had turned to Mordor, he would have become Macbeth, and she, Lady. Macbeth, essentially, takes the Ring. Whatever his actual years, he doesn’t seem to have acquired the wisdom that usually comes with age to see past the Witches’ equivocation; instead, he believes the Witches and is terrified by Banquo’s Ghost. He becomes paranoid to the point of excluding everyone from his side, apart from a character called Seyton (pronounced, like the devil, ‘Satan’).
In the second half of the play, Macbeth feels like a man with nothing left to lose. However, pity for him is often reignited during his final encounter with Macduff, as all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. He makes for a great and dramatic figure: someone who’s profoundly aware he’s trapped in a downward spiral and decides to plunge headlong down anyway.
Lady Macbeth is different. We watch as she embraces her own darkness and see her being left far behind her husband, having encouraged him to engage with his own inner demons, before losing her mind in a living waking-dream.
Macbeth is a tragedy driven forward not by a solitary figure but a married couple. Some productions have made the Macbeths an overtly sexual couple, while others have tried to suggest that their strength – or ensuing disintegration – comes from having lost a baby. They only have a few scenes together, but in that time, we need to believe they’re a couple in a strong relationship, that they could plot and carry out a murder together.
MACBetH Does MURDeR sLeeP
I like Macbeth. He’s a weird animal, the character of a warrior with a very poetic heart. The verse Shakespeare wrote for him is muscular and erratic, and its imagery is incredibly powerful. From the terrifying:
O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.
To the child-like rhyming:
I will not be afraid of Death and Bane
Till Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane.
To the near-suicidal:
I ’gin to be a-weary of the Sun
And wish th’estate o’th world were now undone.
To elegiac reflection:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
There’s a hauntingly tragic moment when, having murdered Duncan, Macbeth tells his wife:
Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder Sleep’...
He’s describing the medical condition of insomnia – a term that isn’t recorded in English until 1623, when ‘insomnie’ was defined as ‘watching; want of power to sleepe’. Oddly enough, bearing in mind what happens to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the four stages of the rare condition called fatal familial insomnia are now known to be as follows:
1 – Up to four months of sleeplessness; panic attacks, phobias and paranoia.
2 – Around five months of severe panic attacks and hallucinations.
3 – For up to three months, a complete inability to sleep followed by rapid weight loss.
4 – Over the next six months: dementia, a lack of physical or verbal response to others, and eventually death.
Other symptoms of long-term sleep loss include menopause in women and impotence in men. Both are fascinating possible character choices, especially considering Lady Macbeth’s reference to losing a child. She lambasts Macbeth’s manliness, prompting him to respond, ‘I dare do all that may become a man’, and, after seeing Banquo’s Ghost, his proclamation that ‘I am a man again’.
Shakespeare writes prose, a theatrical reflection of everyday speech, and he writes poetry, organising a character’s speech into rhythmical lines of verse. He uses this verse to direct his actors, bringing out the traits of their characters through the type of lines they speak.
In Macbeth, the distinction between prose and verse, and between different kinds of verse, has a hugely dramatic role. Most of the characters in Macbeth speak in verse – only 6.5 per cent of the lines in the play are prose. The play has this rhythm pounding through it like a heartbeat, albeit an irregular one that changes its pace. Drops of earthy base prose are scattered throughout, stopping and starting the rhythms like a jazz trumpeter improvising.
We hear the Porter, the Scottish Doctor and Lady Macbeth’s Waiting-gentlewoman speak in prose, as well as Lady Macduff and her Son; the Witches, too, from time to time. Prose, closest to everyday speech, is the medium that Shakespeare’s lower-class characters normally use.
The Scottish noblemen and the Witches both speak in verse, but they do so in very different ways. The noblemen use the form of verse that was most popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime: iambic pentameter. This is a rhythmical line with ten syllables, made up of five (‘penta-’) stronger beats and five weaker ones, with the stronger beat every second syllable: de-DUM (known as an ‘iambic’ rhythm).
Iambic pentameter is the type of verse closest in rhythm to spoken English, and its weak-strong beat pushes the speaker towards the more important syllables in a line. We hear it when we first see Macbeth, who says to Banquo:
So foul and fair a day I have not seen
This length of line of can be easily said with one intake of breath, and the regular heartbeat-like rhythm makes it easy to commit to memory.
The less-than-human characters are different. When Shakespeare breaks from that iambic rhythm, he’s telling us, aurally, that there’s something different about the characters, or that what they’re saying is especially important. The Witches speak in short lines of four DUM-de beats, a type of verse called trochaic tetrameter. We hear it in the opening lines of the play:
When shall we three meet again
In thunder lightning or in rain
This rhythm, so different from the rhythm of everyday speech, is a very subtle but effective way of making the characters seem even more other-worldly than they would if Shakespeare had written their speeches in prose or regular iambic pentameter. The repeated four-beat lines convey a hypnotic sound that drums into our ears. The effect is especially noticeable later in the play, as the Witches concoct their spells...
Comedy and tragedy
As well as being one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, Macbeth is also one of the darkest. It’s often played as a tragedy with little to no comedy; even the main ‘comic’ part, the Porter, can be played as a dark, tragic demon-figure. But as with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s an inherent balance of comedy and tragedy written in.
He knew, as the classic image of theatre (the ‘persona’ mask) implies, that comedy and tragedy work best next to each other. Balance is key: if you make an audience laugh, it’ll be easier to make them cry, and vice versa. So don’t be surprised if this production delivers unexpected laughs, or if it has a black comedy focus, instead of feeling like a ‘pure’ tragedy.
Themes… and variations
When the drunken Porter shows up to open the castle gate, he speaks of an ‘equivocator’, someone who intentionally misuses one word for another to deceive the listener. At the time of Macbeth’s first performances, equivocation was on the minds of Shakespeare and his audience. Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged in May 1606 for his part in Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. At his trial, he was famously discovered to have sworn evidence to be true that he knew in his mind was false – so trying to equivocate his way out of guilt. The idea of equivocation underpins the play. The prophecies the witches give to Macbeth seem to be straightforward but turn out to have a double meaning – lies masquerading as truths – and eventually doom him.
Shakespeare’s works are often discussed thematically, but such discussions don’t tell the whole story. It’s characters that make themes, not themes that make characters. Underneath the speeches are characters that think and feel like any living person. And that’s the starting point.
Shakespeare didn’t set out to write a play about a particular theme. Macbeth doesn’t reach for the crown to explore the theme of ambition. He simply is ambitious, and therefore we read that theme into the play. Similarly, Lady Macbeth is a strong woman, so it’s also a play about feminism. It can equally be read as a play about the current conflicts around the world, democracy or any number of other subjects. The marvellous thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that we can use them to reflect or refract virtually any modern political or sociological theme: freely channelling ideologies through his writing as if he wrote his plays to be sponges, sucking up whatever part of life we bring to them.
Ben Crystal is an actor and the author/co-author of several books on Shakespeare, including SpringboardShakespeare: Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare) and Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard (Icon Books). He Tweets at @bencrystal