Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most intense dramas. Its straightforward plot and its strong characterization make it appealing for actors, directors, and audiences alike. The following brief discussion looks at the various theatrical contexts of the play from Shakespeare’s time to ours.
The theatre in Elizabethan and Jacobean times was basically a courtyard, surrounded on three sides by tall raised balcony areas. Other buildings in London, specifically public houses (taverns) and bear-baiting pits, were similarly designed. In a famous contemporary engraving of London, the Globe theatre — where Macbeth was performed in 1611 — is famously confused with the Bear-baiting pit. In this context, it is interesting to note Macbeth’s lines (Act V, Scene 7) “They have tied me to a stake . . . but bear-like I must fight the course.”
At the center and to the back of the courtyard was a raised stage, above which hung a depiction of the heavens — a blue roof, fretted with golden stars. The stage contained a trapdoor through which ghosts could appear and into which the souls of the damned could disappear. At the back of the stage was a curtain leading to the actors’ dressing area — the tiring room.
The courtyard was open to the sky, so lighting was largely natural, but in some indoor theatres or palaces such as Hampton Court, where Macbeth was first performed in 1606 in front of King James I, candles were probably used to create an artistic tension between natural and “unnatural” (or artificial) light. Lady Macbeth has a candle “by her continually” in Act V, Scene 1, by which time natural light may well have already become gloomy. In fact, the numerous references to natural daylight and night-light in Macbeth make it a fascinating study for any historian of theatre.
Shakespeare’s play underwent several revisions during its lifetime. Specifically, the allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and the nature of kingship (Act IV, Scene 1) could have been added for the first performance in front of the king. What remains certain is that Macbeth has always been a highly visual and physical play: The apparitions, the references to parts of the body (hands, head), the fighting in Act V — all point to a play full of gesture and body language.
As well as stage presentations, in recent years there have been a number of film adaptations, including Macbeth by Roman Polanski (1971) and Throne of Blood by Akiro Kurosawa (1957). Despite the play’s bold outline, there are specific difficulties which any director must confront. The first of these is the role and staging of the supernatural elements of the play, specifically the Witches, the dagger, and Banquo’s ghost.
The Witches are a vital component of the play because their prophecies in Act I, Scene 3 and Act IV, Scene 1 provide Macbeth with motivation for his actions. Banquo gives a hint as to their appearance when he refers to their chapped fingers, skinny lips, and beards; they need not, however, be costumed in the traditional form of the Halloween hag. They must have the capability of vanishing. Complex stage machinery in the Elizabethan theatre could have allowed them to “fly,” but this is not necessary, because vanishing tricks can be performed in other ways, particularly by using a gauze curtain, which can be transparent or opaque depending on how it is lit. As an alternative, modern productions might also make use of visual projection or the voice-over.
The fact that the ghost of Banquo in Act III, Scene 4 has no lines means that it is frequently played in modern productions as simply a lighting effect, perhaps accompanied by a rushing of wind. This treatment reinforces Lady Macbeth’s incredulity at her husband’s reaction. She compares her husband’s belief in Banquo’s ghost with his faith in the earlier apparition of an “air-drawn dagger.” A question therefore arises: Should all such effects be played invisibly to the audience?
To do so may increase the psychological realism of the play, but it forces the audience to see Macbeth as a victim of a hallucination. Such an interpretation may be confusing: After all, the Witches are real enough, because Banquo also sees them. Perhaps we only see the apparitions we want to see. If that’s the case, we can reasonably assume that Macbeth must actually see a ghostly dagger as well as a ghostly Banquo.
The apparitions that the Witches conjure in Act IV, Scene 1 also requires careful thought: The original stage direction for the third of these refers to a king carrying a looking-glass, and modern directors have had fun with this, employing several mirrors to create an infinite regression effect, for example. A final staging problem occurs with the appearance of Birnam Wood. Merely adding leafy camouflage to helmets does run the risk of looking rather silly.
The relationship between Macbeth and his wife — in particular, the degree of responsibility which she has for the events of the play — is most important. Does her line “Unsex me here” make her chillingly asexual, or is she a heatedly sexual being a whose relationship with Macbeth is more physical than intellectual? One thing is certain: Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must be able to move with ease between states of certainty and doubt. Her descent into madness and Macbeth’s rapid swings between absolute self-knowledge and howling self-doubt are tests for any actor.