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MacBeth History

Macbeth (Shakespeare)
The story is taken from Holinshed, who copied it from the History of Scotland, by Hector Boece or Boyce, in seventeen volumes (1527). The history, written in Latin, was translated by John Bellenden (1531-1535).

The Stage History of Macbeth
Evidence suggests that Macbeth was written by command as one of the plays to be given before King James I and the King of Denmark during the latter's notable visit to England in the summer of 1606. Shakespeare's company were the King's Players, and it would be natural for them to be commanded to produce a story of Scottish history touching on the ancestry of their patron. The title role was created by the great Richard Burbage and his infamous queen by the boy-actress Edmans. The play was first printed in the Folio of 1623, where the text shows some signs of cutting and alteration. The lyrical episodes of Hecate and the witches (III, 5 and IV, 1) are thought to have been added by another playwright.

When Charles II ascended the British throne in 1660, he assigned Macbeth to William Davenant and the Duke's Company. Not content to produce the play in its original form, Davenant altered the work considerably to indulge his two favorite hobbies. The first was his desire for operatic and scenic splendor; the second, his pursuit of structural balance. The first he obtained by elaborating the witches' scenes, introducing all kinds of dancing, singing, and gibberish, some of it taken from Middleton's The Witch. The second was achieved by amplifying the role of Lady Macduff, for whom he created numerous scenes between her and her lord symmetrically opposed to the bits between Macbeth and his wicked wife. Macduff's virtuous lady inveighs to him against ambition. Lady Macbeth is given a new scene in which she is haunted by the ghost of Duncan, which induces her to try to persuade Macbeth to give up ambition and the crown. Davenant's bastardization, with Thomas Betterton in the title role, drove Shakespeare's original from the stage until 1744.

It was David Garrick who, during his management of the Drury Lane Theatre (1742-1776), revived Macbeth as written by Shakespeare, playing the title role there every season except four. Although he kept Davenant's operatic witch scenes, he omitted the spurious Lady Macduff scenes, along with her infamous murder scene (IV, 2) and the bit with the Porter (II, 3). He could not resist writing a new climactic speech for Macbeth, in which the hero-villain mentions, with his dying breath, his guilt, delusion, the witches, and horrid visions of future punishment. Garrick and his leading lady, Hannah Pritchard, introduced a natural style of acting and became famous as the tortured hero and heroine. So urgent was Garrick's delivery that in one performance when he told the First Murderer "There's blood upon thy face," the actor in question involuntarily replied, "Is there, by God?"

The next famous pair to assay these roles were John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) and his talented sister, Sarah Siddons, at Drury Lane in the season of 1784 and for many years thereafter. Siddons made an extraordinary innovation when in the sleep-walking scene she put the candle down, defying the tradition of carrying the candle throughout. J. Boaden recorded in her Memoirs (1827), "She laded the water from the imaginary ewer over her hands-bent her body to listen to the sounds presented to her fancy, and hurried to resume the taper where she had left it, that she might with all speed drag her husband to their chamber." Her delivery of several lines has become legendary: the long pause on "made themselves-air," the sudden energy on "shalt be what thou art promised," the association of "my spirits in your ear" with the spirits she has just invoked, and the downward and decisive inflection on "We fail." Siddons imagined the character as a fragile and delicate blonde who subdued Macbeth by the dual exercise of intellect and beauty, moved by the memory of her father and the babe to whom she had "given suck." She achieved every part of the role except the blonde fragility, which was beyond her stately, statuesque appearance.

William Charles Macready proved a workmanlike Macbeth in his revival of 1837, which featured new scenic effects and innovative staging. John Bull recorded his admiration of the scene in which the murder of Duncan is discovered, and the march of the army from Birnam Wood. "In the latter each man was completely screened by the immense bough he carried; and the scenic illusion by which a whole host was represented stretching away into the distance, and covered as by one leafy screen, which was removed at the same time that the soldiers in the foreground threw down theirs, had all the reality of a dioramic effect." Macready himself made memorable several moments: his imperious command to the witches-"Stay and speak," his desperate recoil from Banquo's ghost, the dropping of his truncheon on hearing that Lady Macbeth is dead, his half-drawn sword over the messenger who announces the approach of Birnam Wood, and the remarkable energy of the fight in which he died.

Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) is credited with removing the last vestiges of adaptation from Macbeth during his management of Sadler's Wells between 1844 and 1862. Unlike his contemporaries, who rearranged the play to avoid scene shifts and made drastic cuts to allow scope for spectacle, Phelps made only minor cuts and transpositions.

Charles Kean and his wife Ellen Tree staged a spectacular, long-running Macbeth at the Princess's Theatre in 1853, famed for its historically accurate scenery and costumes. Kean apparently turned in a performance considerably less ferocious than his wife's. The Leader reported, "When the witches accost him, his only expression of 'metaphysical influence' is to stand still with his eyes fixed and his mouth open ... In Charles Kean's Macbeth all tragedy has vanished; sympathy is impossible, because the mind of the criminal is hidden from us. He makes Macbeth ignoble, with perhaps a tendency towards Methodism."

The last great pair of the 19th Century were Henry Irving and Ellen Terry at the Lyceum Theatre in 1874 and later in 1889. Terry's Lady Macbeth was less fearsome than sympathetic, according to The Times. "Her matted red hair, hanging in long tresses, and her ruddy cheeks mark her as a raw-boned daughter of the North, and she wears an appropriate dress of garish green stuff embroidered with gold. There is nothing of the martial or adventurous spirit in her composition to bring her into harmony with her barbarous surroundings. On the contrary, she is a woman of warm sympathies living in the tenderest relation with her husband."

The 20th Century has seen numerous great revivals, especially Orson Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem (1936), Margaret Webster's famous production with Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson (1941) which set a standard for decades to come, and Glen Byam Shaw's Royal Shakespeare Theatre production with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (1955). Kenneth Tynan argued that in the role of Macbeth Olivier "shook hands with greatness," and proclaimed the performance "a masterpiece: not of the superficial, booming, have-a-bash kind, but the real thing, a structure of perfect forethought and proportion, lit by flashes of intuitive lightning."

A Little More Macbeth History
Origin Name: Clan MacBeth
Origin of Name: Son of life; a man of religion

The gaelic for whisky is uisge beatha which translates as `water of life'. Uisge (pronounced ooshke) means water and beatha means life. As an aside, this is the same gaelic root as Macbeth, the 'son of life'. The famous Macbeth who was King of Scots, actually had Macbeth as his Christian name, *not* his surname. [-- Brian Russell, Edinburgh]

One of the exceptions among the `Macs', the name MacBeth means not the son of any person `Beth', but `Son of Life' or a man of religion. It developed separately from the name MacBean, and has also become confused with forms of the Norman name Bethune.

Shakespeare, playing his immortal light over the old Celtic throne of Scotland, brings to focus the ruler of Moray who enforced his family claim thereon by the murder of King Duncan in 1040.

MacBeths, frequently called Beatons, held high repute and rank from the 14th century to the 17th, as physicians, and chancellors to the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Mull, sometimes also to royalty and elsewhere. [From `Scots Kith & Kin']

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Margaret Stewart-Zimmerman
May 22, 1998 - 2010