In the company of Banquo, King Duncan arrives in great good spirits at the castle of his principal thane Macbeth to whose dauntless military prowess he owes the survival of his reign. Duncan knows nothing of the “weird sisters” who have prophesied that Macbeth will be king and Banquo the begetter of kings; and he has no intimation either of the disturbing thoughts that have been stirring in Macbeth’s mind or the still more disturbing thoughts that have been welling up in the mind of Macbeth’s ambitious wife. Scotland at last seems to be at peace, and its ruler is in the mood to enjoy himself, almost as if he were a tourist: “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” he remarks to Banquo. Echoing the king’s pleasure, Banquo calls attention to the little birds—swallows or house-martins —that are nesting everywhere:
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heavens’ breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantagebut this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;
Where they most breed and haunt I have observed
The air is delicate.
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, Macbeth moves at a feverish pace, but it makes room for this lingering, cinematic gaze. The birds, “temple-haunting” because they frequently nest in the walls of ancient cathedrals, here are roosting in the castle’s nooks and crannies. But this is no temple of peace. Soon enough a “guest of summer”—the king himself—will be murdered in his bed; Scotland’s “procreant cradle” will give way to slaughtered children; and the delicate air, the sweet-scented breath of heaven, will thicken and grow rank with the stench of blood and offal. This moment at the castle gate is the last glimpse of the sweetness, calm, and fertility that the Macbeths will destroy forever.
But in Rupert Goold’s stylish production of Macbeth, originally mounted for the Chichester Theatre in England and then moved with great success to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and to Broadway, even this brief pause is too long: Goold cuts the last four lines and resituates the arrival of Duncan and Banquo to the castle’s interior—what looks like a basement kitchen—where they come upon the staff preparing the evening’s banquet. The “temple-haunting martlet” still makes an appearance, but only as a dead bird that Banquo, smiling inanely, calls attention to as he lifts it up from the pile of foodstuff being readied for the oven. And the audience immediately recognizes that the knife-wielding kitchen servants are none other than the witches whom they have first encountered as efficiently murderous nurses in the opening scene’s battlefield hospital.
There is quiet wit in this small detail of the bird—the king and Banquo are themselves dead ducks—and those who know the play extremely well can take particular pleasure at the in-joke. But it comes at a price: Goold’s cut marks his production’s complete erasure, from the beginning and without a trace, of a benignant existence worth cherishing. It…
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