Garry Wills’s new book is of a type that raises some general issues in addition to the particular ones addressed. Should we try to find out how writers, composers, and performers originally did it, and what they originally meant by it? Or dismissing such ambitions as futile and impossible, should we go ahead and do it our way, make it mean whatever seems best to us? These are questions, and choices are for some reason more urgent now than they used to be. Musicologists have persuaded many musicians that knowing how they originally did it, and then doing it that way, on ancient instruments or copies of them, is the only way to be authentic. The ears of listeners are increasingly attuned to vibratoless string quality, and performances that a couple of decades ago sounded authoritative can now sound vulgar.

Theatrical directors have been more willfully modern, less easily persuaded by antiquarians, perhaps because they realize that nobody could bear Shakespeare in a similar approximation of the original conditions—Elizabethan pronunciation, for instance, and authentic rhetorical gesture. But even so they seem more inclined to attend to scholarship than they were a few years back. And this must be an encouragement to historical scholars, who can now hope that their researches will have some effect on actual performance.

It seems likely that a perfect modern reproduction of an old opera or play, if it were possible, would be dull and inert, or at any rate so foreign to our cultural expectations that we could regard it only as a curiosity. The ideal arrangement would be to have a continual interplay, across the horizon of time, between what is now known of the original conditions and contexts of performance and the modern interests that have made the piece worth reviving. Such transactions do sometimes occur, perhaps especially in music, more rarely in drama. What isn’t desirable is total archaeological correctness. Behind the assumption that this should be the aim there is another assumption, namely that there is one true reading of Macbeth, or whatever play is in question, and that as scholarship comes closer and closer to finding it directors will naturally seek to project this single correct interpretation. This ambition is misplaced, not only because most directors prefer to project themselves, but also because plays cannot survive independently of what is made of them in the course of a continuous history of interpretations. Some of these interpretations are more false or improbable than others, yet they are still essential to the establishment of the prejudices that inescapably condition the attitudes even of devoted antiquarians, in whose ranks Garry Wills has now enrolled himself.

He had been thinking about Macbeth for years, he says, before an invitation from the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press to give a set of lectures provided him with an opportunity to develop and expound his views on the play. He had long been puzzled by reports of its evil reputation and had felt, with others, that the fourth and fifth acts sag badly, so that it can seem, in Wills’s oddly chosen words, “a lopsided play, dead in the most embarrassing places.” Leaving aside for the moment the weird sisters and Hecate, the major stumbling block is the long and strangely implausible scene between Malcolm and Macduff in England (IV, iii). It may be that the true raison d’être of this dragging scene is to be sought outside the play. King James had advertised his views on the character of a good ruler, rehearsed at this point in the play, and had recently resumed the practice of Edward the Confessor, as described in the same scene, of “touching” sufferers from scrofula, “the king’s evil.” This magical practice continued into the eighteenth century, when Dr. Johnson, as a scrofulous child, was “touched” by Queen Anne. Here is one topical reference that modern readers and audiences will not pick up without help from outside.

Wills decided that a fuller historical understanding of such features would show that the loss of power in the later acts is only apparent. If we will listen to his explanation of what exactly is going on in the play we’ll see that it doesn’t really sag at all. At the end of the book he “anticipates objectors” who will ask, “How are performers to make sense of so much topical allusion, time-bound politics, and all-permeating magic?” and admits that they probably can’t and won’t, but at once adds that this probability doesn’t invalidate his interpretation. This is true; but he then goes on to claim that if modern directors paid more attention to the “theological politics” of the play (as expounded by him) they might do better than it seems they can at present. This is doubtful.


Wills makes much of the theatrical superstitions associated with Macbeth, which actors still euphemistically refer to as “the Scottish play.” I had assumed that this superstition had degenerated into a custom or running joke, but to make sure I troubled a number of experienced actors with inquiries. The results were, I think, of some interest. It is still forbidden in green rooms for anybody to name the play or quote from it, something you might do inadvertently, for instance by saying you had won “golden opinions” from the reviewers. An offender is obliged to leave the room, and, in the corridor, turn thrice in a circle, and swear an oath. He or she may then be readmitted. Or if immediately on offending, a culprit remembers to quote Hamlet’s “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” he or she may stay in the room. The theater is still a magical place, in part a leftover from a pre-scientific age, and all this is pure archaic magic, like the prohibitions on having fresh flowers on the stage, wearing green, and whistling—a ban that also exists in the navy. In fact one of my informants argued that in the old days stagehands were often ex-sailors, whose superstition infected the players.

Rationalizations of this sort are common: for example, it was maintained by some I consulted that since Macbeth has a smaller cast than the other tragedies, members of touring companies were afraid of it because when it was put on they might lose their employment. It was also suggested that during the nineteenth century any flop was quickly replaced by Macbeth because the actors already knew their parts and the public loved it, so the odium properly attached to the dud play and not its replacement. Another rationalization, perhaps more acceptable, is that accidents occurring in performances of Macbeth are likely to happen mostly in the final battle scenes, when, on a dark stage further obscured by much smoke and dry ice, and probably on many levels, the exhausted Macbeth has to fight Macduff with a heavy claymore, so risking a fall or a blow. It is even suggested that Macduff, comparatively fresh, would be likely to come best out of this encounter, so critics might say it was a pity he wasn’t playing the principal role, another knock for the primo uomo.

However, my informants agreed that to say the play always fails, that somebody in the company always breaks a leg or falls ill, is excessive. In fact the play is often a great success; the very night I called Timothy West he was somewhere in Wales with a touring production, making up for the principal part, which he was playing for the fifth time, and he assured me happily that outside the theater there was a long line waiting for turned-back tickets. Even the famously disastrous Peter O’Toole version, some years ago in London, a production with which West was unhappily associated, was a success at the box office because people came to see how awful it was; so perhaps O’Toole’s fanatical observance of the ban on any naming of the piece paid off in the end. There have been many perfectly good modern productions which neither failed nor brought harm to the participants, many of them famous people of whose misfortunes we are likely to have heard. Accidents can happen during any theatrical performance and if the performance happens to be of Macbeth they are talked about in this context, with consequent emphasis on ritual counter-measures.

Mr. Wills’s reason for going on about “the Scottish play” is that he wrongly associates the superstition (which seems to be of nineteenth-century origin) with a tendency for productions to fail, a tendency he attributes to a modern incapacity to understand the play in historical terms. This failure he means to remedy.

There is no doubt that Macbeth (almost certainly written in 1606) is intimately related to contemporary events, especially to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the subsequent interrogation and trials of the Catholic plotters, the fashionable fear of witches, and probably other matters, political and theological—all of understandable concern to King James, who was to have blown up along with his entire Parliament. The unhistorical figure of Banquo figured in a Stuart myth as ancestor of the dynasty, hence the escape of Fleance and the Show of Kings, the Stuart line governing the two kingdoms and stretching out, via James and his heirs, “to the crack of doom.”

Concerning these matters many historical facts, adorned by many conjectures probable and improbable, are already on accessible record. Wills thinks it important to add more. He has much to say about “equivocation,” citing non-Shakespearean plays of the time which dwell on the word. It was even on the lips of Shakespeare’s Porter, and the ideas associated with it shape much of the action and language of Macbeth. Equivocation was the means by which Jesuit missionaries and plotters tried to avoid incriminating themselves under torture by saying what was not the truth while avoiding perjury by making various mental reservations. But they aren’t the only equivocators. The fiend, as Macbeth discovers, can also “palter with us in a double sense,” equivocate, “lie like truth”; and it was natural enough to associate the Jesuit enemy with the devil. The word or its cognates occurs seven times in Macbeth, and only three in the rest of the Shakespearean canon. Moreover the way it is used in the Scottish play leaves no doubt that the reference is topical, as it isn’t in the pre-Plot Hamlet (“we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us”).


So much, then, is familiar. But Wills wants to make the connection of the play with the Gunpowder Plot even stronger. Certain other words used at the trial of Guy Fawkes or by the king acquired, he argues, a fashionable coloration, for example “vault,” “train,” “blow.” He believes you could no more use these words in 1606 without allusion to the Plot than you could, in 1964, have spoken of a grassy knoll without directing attention to the assassination of Kennedy. There may be something in this, but Wills tends to want too much. When Macbeth remarks that “the wine of life is drawn and the mere lees/Is left this vault to brag of” we shall lose the point if we think not of a wine cellar but of the cellars under the Palace of West-minster. His “vaulting ambition” has to do with jumping or mounting, not with gunpowder and plots. Macbeth quite often uses the word “blow”—of the prospective stabbing of Duncan, of the wind—and there is nowhere, to my mind, the connotation of “explosion,” as Wills claims. “Train” in Shakespeare can mean a group of attendants (seven times in King Lear, which is close in date to Macbeth) or the train of a dress; or, as a verb, “to tempt.” Its other sense, of a fuse (“a line of gunpowder…laid so as to convey fire to a mine or charge for the purpose of exploding it,” OED) certainly occurs in the judicial proceedings, and might well have so occurred in Shakespeare, but it doesn’t, anywhere; on its one occurrence in Macbeth it means “stratagems” or “devices,” and only a determination to overstate a case could induce anybody to understand it otherwise.

An almost unavoidable fault in Shakespeare criticism is a straining after novelty. Mr. Wills needs to make new and lively observations on largely familiar issues; he has read very widely and written excitedly, but he often strains, as in the instances just given. He will create problems in order to solve them. Cleopatra, pointing to the asp, says “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast/That sucks the nurse asleep?” and Wills can see “an animal familiar sucking” because he wants as much witchcraft as possible. But a simple baby is necessary to the idea; for Cleopatra, who already has an animal sucking, would hardly bother to say that it was like an animal sucking. Wills often accuses earlier commentators of missing obvious points, but he often does so himself, or makes the obvious unobvious in order to offer a novel explanation. He wants the Porter scene to be an exhibition of conjuring, and in furthering this aim makes something new of the farmer who hanged himself on the expectation of plenty.

The usual explanation of this entrant into hell is that some wicked farmers were thought to hoard grain in order to sell it at a higher price in time of dearth; when it became evident that there would be no famine this farmer could not face the loss entailed by selling in a time of plenty and hanged himself. But for Wills the farmer, like the other candidates for hell, is a double of the Jesuit Father Garnet, who had expected his mission to produce a future harvest of souls. “He hanged himself in the sense that he came to England on a desperate mission and knew he would be hanged if he were caught… The Jesuits liked to cite scriptural passages that called priests…harvesters of souls.” This is surely desperately unobvious, and so is the argument that Shakespeare made Duncan amiably imperceptive in order to flatter James I on his acumen in discovering the Plot. When Duncan, let down by one of his thanes, remarks that “there’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face,” he is citing a proverb as old as Juvenal. (Admittedly there was, as so often, another directly contradictory proverb.) Duncan is not meant to look stupid, and the accuracy of his remark is emphasized by his immediate, trusting welcome to Macbeth (which is the point of having him make the remark in the first place).

Wills’s method, then, is to go to any length to strengthen the topical reference of the play. The question whether “fair is foul” and “fair and foul” were picked up from a Gunpowder Plot sermon by Lancelot Andrewes is in itself not without interest, but it is surely less interesting than the way in which these obscure paradoxes, strikingly placed in the opening moments of the action, set the tone for a great deal of complex equivocal seesawing in the poetry that follows. Wills’s discussion of the great soliloquy “If it were done when ’tis done” argues for some doubtful changes in punctuation and for newly strained interpretations of the sightless couriers, the naked babe, and so on; again, some of this is interesting as well as dubious, but there is no evident attention paid to the wild power of the lines as a whole.

The king’s interest in witches and witchcraft is well attested, and Wills has much to say about this element in the play. Macbeth is said to become a witch in the course of the action, Lady Macbeth not (though she clearly invites demonic possession). Witchcraft, dangerous to the king, connects easily enough with the Plot, and Wills stresses this relationship, placing it deep in the fabric of the play and using it to take the “sag” out of the last two acts. He thinks there was a conjuring scene in the original version, and that it was replaced later by the spurious Hecate material. This argument is made with characteristically cavalier certainty: Barnabe Barnes, in another play of 1606, has such a scene, and this shows that Shakespeare also had one. The Porter, as I’ve already remarked, is a conjurer, summoning the demonic Garnet under various names. Macbeth is conjuring to the very end, tied to his stake not so much to be baited like a bear, the comparison he himself seems to be offering, as to be confined in a conjuror’s circle. Directors are urged to take note of these circles and conjurations.

Wills is of course right to insist that modern audiences need to grasp that the witches of Shakespeare are not mere theatrical devices; they belonged to an epoch of magic that was far from having expired. Even though Davenant, in his Restoration version of Shakespeare’s play, made the weird sisters pantomime figures, flying around on wires, the old magical habit lingered; the great scientific revolution was underway, yet it was possible for a man as rational as Joseph Glanvill to be a Fellow of the Royal Society and still defend belief in witchcraft. But the weird sisters are a problem for modern audiences, and mere historical information about seventeenth-century witch lore will hardly solve it. If they work in Macbeth it is not because we think of them as having bodies of air or mist, or as having the power to influence (though not to command) men’s minds, or as capable of defying time and space, and so forth, but because of what they say in their equivocating poetry. Unfortunately this does not seem to concern Wills. What he prefers is the far-fetched interpretation. For instance, his argument that in Hecate’s lines “And you all know security/Is mortals’ chiefest enemy,” “security” has the sense of a bond or diabolical bargain, when it much more plausibly has the familiar old sense of “culpable absence of anxiety.” He is willing, for the sake of his demonological theses, to tell directors the witches must say “hover through the fog and filthy air” without considering how very odd that way of speaking the line would be.

It may be that this apparent indifference to the verse is what most vitiates the book. The weight of Macbeth’s topical references may obscure some of its aspects for modern audiences, but its verse has an idiosyncratic power that preserves it, a boldness equal to, yet differing from that of the near contemporary Antony and Cleopatra—feliciter audax, in the good old phrase of Coleridge. Consider the extraordinary soliloquy of Lady Macbeth near the beginning:

Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly
That wouldst thou holily;

or the astonishing speech of reproach to her faltering husband: “Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?/And wakes it now to look so green and pale/At what it did so freely?”

It is the unexampled boldness of the language that is so striking. Hope as a garment becomes Hope as a drunk passing out and waking with a hang-over. Discussing a play which uses language like that as if it was a routine topical piece by Barnabe Barnes or Thomas Dekker is not going to take the sag out of it, or convince directors and their audiences that what they need is more information about the Gunpowder Plot, Jesuits, and witchcraft. Finding something new, true, and useful to say about Shakespeare is a task so formidable that one can only wonder why so many keen and eager spirits compete for the privilege of attempting it.

This Issue

February 16, 1995