LONDON, UK (WHTM) — On this day in 1611, Macbeth was performed for the first time (on record) at Shakespeare’s base of operations, the Globe Theater in London. A fellow by the name of Simon Foreman attended the performance, and took many notes, which made their way into his book The Bocke of Plaies and Notes therof.” (Keep Simon in mind, we’ll be getting back to him.)
The play, however, was written much earlier, around 1606, and was performed before the Court of King James I in August or December of that year. There may have been other performances between then and 1611, but we just don’t know.
Shakespeare’s primary source for the “Scottish Play” was Raphael Holinshed’s highly popular Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1587. The Bard took some liberties with the historical account of King Macbeth, primarily due to the current political situation. In history, Banquo aided MacBeth in the overthrow of King Duncan. For the play, however, Banquo, and later Banquo’s family, are Macbeth’s adversaries. The reason? Banquo was part of King James’ family tree, and portraying him as a party to regicide would probably not have gone down well with the current monarch.
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Now, back to the Globe, the play, Simon Foreman, and his book. The detailed notes Foreman took to reveal the play he saw and the play we have today are quite different. Foreman’s version of the play was longer, and some of the scenes were arranged differently.
Shakespeare himself probably didn’t make the changes. Most likely they happened after his death in 1616. The suspected “editor” was a playwright named Thomas Middleton. He did a lot of work for the Globe’s acting troupe, the King’s Players, and they may have called on him to “modernize” their old warhorse for hip new audiences. One addition is definitely his-cues for two songs in the stage directions that are a direct lift from Middleton’s play The Witch. There was new material added, and old material cut, and the resulting play is almost 30% shorter than the average Shakespearian tragedy. And, tragedy indeed, this is the version that appeared in the legendary “First Folio” printed in 1623. No other versions exist for comparison; we’re stuck with what we have. We’ll just have to make do…
Macbeth is sometimes called a cursed play. The story has it that the night before-or perhaps the day of-the first performance, the boy who was to play Lady Macbeth (boys played all the female roles at the time, just so you know) suddenly took ill and died. Shakespeare himself had to perform the role. (One assumes he shaved.) Since then all sorts of accidents, injuries, and deaths have happened related to the play. Amongst British (and other) thespians, the superstition has grown that its bad luck to say “Macbeth” (unless you’re actually performing the play, of course.) It’s often referred to as “the Scottish play” just to avoid saying the M word. If, perchance, you commit the faux pas of actually saying “Macbeth” you must leave the room, turn around three times, spit, knock on the door three times and beg to be readmitted to undo the curse.
Macbeth (and Shakespeare in general) has frequently been adapted for TV, radio, and of course, movies. People can spend a lot of time, and spill a lot of ink, arguing about which movie adaptation of Macbeth is best. My personal favorite? A version of Macbeth which contains not a single line of the bard’s poetry, because it’s all in Japanese. In 1957 legendary director Akira Kurosawa filmed a version of the play called Throne of Blood, with Toshiro Mifune as Macbeth (or General Washizu). Kurosawa, unrestricted by the need to directly translate Shakespeare’s language, crafted a cinema masterpiece that drills down into the real tragedy of the story, of a hero who becomes a villain without ever realizing or understanding it. Everything’s different, and yet the same. Check it out sometime.