Something Wicked: James Shapiro on Macbeth
"If you’re interested in political succession, political maneuvering, what brings a tyrant to power, what forces are needed to depose him, what makes a good marriage... you should read this play."
Superstitious actors may dread the mere mention of the word “Macbeth,” but Shakespeare’s Scottish play has exercised a magnetic pull on dramatists, readers, and audiences for 400 years. With a new film version directed by Joel Cohen now showing in theaters, and a stage production starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga arriving on Broadway this spring, Macbeth’s allure has never been greater. To find out why, Richard Hurowitz, The Octavian Report’s publisher, turned to James Shapiro, one of the world’s top Shakespeare experts. Shapiro is a professor at Columbia University, serves on the board of directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is the author of several books, including Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future.
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Octavian Report: What makes Macbeth great?
James Shapiro: One of the things that make talking about the play hard is that everybody was force-fed Macbeth in the 10th grade. So I don’t have cherished memories of high school Shakespeare. Yet the history of this play, from its origins in the spring of 1606 until today, is really extraordinary; indeed that story may be as compelling as the storyline contained within Macbeth itself. What I’m referring to is its production history, what’s been written about it, the controversies it has generated, and the ways in which people think certain things about the play that miss what it was actually about in its own time, and what it’s about today.
OR: Which is what?
Shapiro: Well, the play was written in the aftermath of a foiled terrorist attack, the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. That plot almost decapitated the leadership of England by killing King James I and his family. Had it succeeded, Parliament would’ve been blown up, and 30,000 Londoners would’ve died, probably Shakespeare included. But the plot failed, and Shakespeare sat down and wrote a play about the killing of a Scottish king (and remember, James was Scottish). It’s a play written for an audience that was struggling with evil, an evil that would have destroyed their government and tipped the country into civil war. Shakespeare explored all that, at the time when those responsible for the Gunpowder Plot were still being interrogated, tortured, and publicly executed.
That background gives the play a kind of energy and drive that I think no other Shakespeare play has. All of Shakespeare’s tragedies straddle the domestic and the political: Hamlet deals both with the prince and his family and with the larger political story of Denmark and Norway. But Macbeth stars a compelling couple, maybe the best and most successful married couple in all of Shakespeare. It also has a lot of politics, obviously. You can zoom in on one or the other.
OR: What was the story based on?
Shapiro: Shakespeare’s reading in Holinshed’s Chronicles and other accounts of Scottish history. But again, it was a daring choice to write about Scottish history when you had a Scottish monarch on the English throne. James VI of Scotland had been become England’s king just three years earlier. It wasn’t a successful regime, and it was coming under pressure, so Shakespeare had to walk a careful line. His company had put on a play about an assassination attempt on the actual King James a few years earlier, and after only two sold-out productions, the show was pulled by the government and doesn’t survive. So the story of the killing of a Scottish king was a hot-button issue.
OR: It’s a very short play, right?
Shapiro: Yes, and thank God it’s not one of those four-hour marathons like Cymbeline or Richard III. But Shakespeare didn’t write it this short. The only text that has any authority comes from the 1623 First Folio. By the time Macbeth reached that wonderful volume, however, it had been revised by the playwright Thomas Middleton, who cut it by maybe a third and added the Hecate scenes, a couple of songs, and tilted the play towards the supernatural, which was in vogue a decade after Shakespeare first wrote it. So what we have today is not unadulterated Shakespeare, but what happens when a manuscript becomes a printed text after years of theater practice.
OR: How does the supernatural figure in Macbeth?
Shapiro: The witches begin the play, and raise its main problem, one that critics and productions have wrestled with ever since: is Macbeth a man who chooses a dark path, or is he a man whose decision to kill Duncan—his king, his kinsman, and house guest—is put into his head by the witches or by his wife? If we decide it’s the latter, you tilt the play from one in which the hero has free will to one in which he doesn’t, and just succumbs to the forces of darkness.
A lot of productions have tilted in that direction, most famously the all-Black production that Orson Welles directed at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem in 1936, which was all about the witches and Hecate and stripped away any notion of Macbeth having any freedom to decide, “Am I going to kill this guy or not?”
OR: Macbeth is not a very sympathetic hero, is he? He goes on such a killing spree.
Shapiro: That killing spree can be darker or lighter. When Roman Polanski filmed Macbeth in 1971, right after his wife and friends were murdered by followers of Charles Manson, he poured on the blood. When his collaborators said, “Gee, I don’t know if we need that much,” he said, “You weren’t in my house last summer. I know about blood.”
This is a play about a bloody murderer. On the other hand, Shakespeare gives him some of the most extraordinary poetry in our language. He’s a thinking man. He’s wrestling with hard questions. He’s not a Saddam Hussein: a thoughtless, brutal, sadistic killer. Yes, he does have Macduff’s wife, family, and household killed. But in the hands of a brilliant actor, we forget for a moment that Macbeth is a coldblooded killer.
OR: You talk about the soliloquies. Do you rank these at the top of Shakespeare’s?
Shapiro: I do, in part because of my experience working with theater companies. I remember working on a production with the Public Theater that went to prisons. There was a terrific actor playing Macbeth whose version of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”—the speech Macbeth delivers after hearing news of his wife’s death—was so dark, so nihilistic. We begged him to ratchet it back because it would’ve depressed even the prisoners in the audience. It’s not just the beauty of the language, but the depth of the sentiments expressed and the ways in which Macbeth looks back, especially at the end of the play, on a life poorly lived—I think that appeals to many of us who are counting fewer days ahead than we can count from our past.
OR: Can you talk a little bit about Lady Macbeth? You call the Macbeths the most successful couple in Shakespeare. To what end? They kill a lot of people.
Shapiro: Yes, but it’s something they’re good at together. I think that for the first couple of centuries of production history, Lady Macbeth was probably staged as purely villainous, in cahoots with the witches, and a malevolent force that acts on her otherwise nice-guy husband. But then in 1785, Sarah Siddons took on the role and made her into a maternal, sympathetic character, and that choice has influenced every actor who’s played the part since. Now when you watch Francis McDormand play Lady Macbeth in the Joel Cohen film that just came out, you can see that she’s a devoted wife.
She’s also ambitious; you can plug in the feminist values of the moment. If you’re successful at doing that, you make Lady Macbeth, whose hands are as bloody as her husband’s, into a sympathetic figure.
But everything that we’re really talking about here is paradoxical. How can a bloodthirsty Macbeth or his wife be seen as sympathetic? Well, Shakespeare puts enough into the text to allow great actors to make us identify with people who, were we reading about them in the tabloids, we would think of as pure evil.
OR: What do you make of the character of Banquo?
Shapiro: There are any number of characters in the play—Banquo is one, Ross is another—who are mercurial. We don’t know what motivates them. Directors love to expand and contract these roles in order to fit an artistic vision.
I tend not to have fixed views of any of these characters. I take the long view and try to keep in my head the 400-year tradition of how this play has been staged.
OR: Has Macbeth always been one of the core Shakespeare plays, or are there times when it has resonated more or less?
Shapiro: I think because of its appeal to star actors, it was phenomenally successful in the 18th and 19th century, an age when superstar actors emerged. In the 20th century, it was still a star vehicle and something that every schoolboy and schoolgirl read, so audiences brought a degree of familiarity with them.
But I think that its value in our time is shifting away from a geopolitical way of thinking about it, or thinking about it in terms of evil, to thinking more about it in terms of identity politics. A lot of productions right now are wrestling with issues of gender and of race in particular. It’s always a kind of Rorschach test of what your culture is struggling with at the moment. I would say that if you’re an investor in Shakespeare’s plays right now, this is a buy rather than a hold or a sell. We’re going to see a lot more productions of Macbeth and conversations about it in the coming months and years. It’s always been a way of allowing us to articulate the issues we are struggling with as a society at the moment, which is why you should never ever cancel Shakespeare.
OR: What do you think are the best film versions?
Shapiro: The best for me is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. For some reason, Shakespeare on film is better in a foreign language. And Kurosawa just saw things in the play. His Macbeth character is shot with arrows at the end. It is a brilliant, probably the most brilliant, way to end that play, rather than with the question of succession, as Shakespeare does.
The other great film version is Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, which is in Hindi. I find it difficult to watch the version Orson Welles filmed in 1948, and Polanski’s is even more difficult. If I were recommending anything, it would be filmed versions of stage productions. The great one that I missed starred Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, two of the greatest actors of their day. You can get a video of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, who are equally formidable.
Certainly the Joel Cohen film, for all its flaws, has some brilliant direction and attention to language. But I’ve also seen student productions that just blew me away.
OR: What was your favorite production?
Shapiro: Probably the version with Sher and Walter, because they’re actors that I know, that I’ve worked with, and that I have tremendous admiration for. But there are other productions that I value for the incredible prowess of the actors. Simon Russell Beale is one of my favorite Shakespeare actors. He played Macbeth at the Almeida Theater in London, and watching him, I felt like an Olympic judge at each critical moment. Is he going to do a 9.5, a 9.8, or a 10? He just nailed every tough transition.
OR: Why should someone read or see Macbeth today?
Shapiro: If you’re not interested in politics, if you’re not interested in marriage, if you’re not interested in where evil comes from, if you’re not interested in what makes potentially good people do bad things, then there’s no reason to read this play.
If you are interested in any of those things, however—if you’re interested in political succession, political maneuvering, what brings a tyrant to power, what forces are needed to depose him, what makes a good marriage, what ruins a good marriage—you should read this play. It was written when Shakespeare was at the height of his power. He’d just written Hamlet and Othello and King Lear. Now he’s writing as great a tragedy as Lear. It deals with a different set of issues, but those issues are the same ones any right-thinking person is going to be dealing with today—in their lives and their thinking about society.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.