Macbeth. The very mention of the title of Shakespeare's most supernatural tragedy sends shivers down the spine of all too many theatre practitioners and enthusiasts, with good reason. Since Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage of the Great Hall at Hampton Court to play the cursed tyrant on August 7, 1606, Macbeth has been dogged by freak accident after freak accident, includingaccording to traditionthat first performance, in which Hal Berridge, the young actor playing Lady Macbeth, suddenly came down with a blistering fever, which would soon be followed that evening by other mishaps (Huggett 144-45). Inexplicable, unlucky coincidences have caused theatre shutdowns, injuries and death among those who dare to produce Macbeth: fires, collapsing scenery and real swords inexplicably substituted for prop swords, as well as actor injuries, murders and suicides outside of the playhouse, to name just a few.
Indeed, there is something about the Scottish play, the Caledonian tragedy, or the comedy of Glamiscall it what you willthat sets even the least superstitious actor on edge. What gives the play this power real or imagined? Legend has it that Shakespeare borrowed his three weird sisters' incantations from actual spells, and various scholars over the years have noted that in this way, the play uneasily walks the tightrope between imitation and actual performativity, especially in early modern England, when the supernatural was taken far more seriously and witches were commonly believed to actually exist and to hold real power. Andrew Sofer takes up this mantle in regards to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for example: he writes, In a still widely illiterate culture whose oaths and promises (such as betrothal de praesenti) were considered legally binding, and where exorcisms were practiced by both Roman Catholic priests and Puritan exorcists, Elizabethans were keenly aware that words bore perlocutionary powers beyond the illocutionary intent of the speaker, and that they potentially unleashed the occult force .
[...] As also the triumph of death: or, the picture of the plague, according to the life; as it was in anno Domini 1603” as an example. In this poem, Davies personifies the bubonic plague: “He laies it on the skinnes of Yong and Old, / The mortall markes whereof therein appeare: / Here, swells a Botch, as hie as hide can hold, / And, Spots (his surer Signes) do muster there!” Furthermore, Lady Macbeth clearly understands the early modern connection between scent and disease, which I have already explained: “Here's the smell of the blood still. [...]
[...] Yet in Macbeth, which I have continued to argue is a plague play, Scotland is the plague-infested landscape, and England comes to cleanse it. Shakespeare often set his plays outside of London as a distancing technique based largely in politics, yet Scotland is not much of a distance away, especially when a Scottish king—one whom by this time Shakespeare's company was depending on for his patronage—is on the throne. At the moment I'm unsure of what to do with this. [...]
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