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 is not that the tragedy Shakespeare wrote is under any illusions about the security of the “loved mansionry” it invokes: Banquo’s lines in the text are followed by the ominous stage direction: “Enter Lady Macbeth.” But the temple-haunting martlet is part of the play’s elaborate pattern of reminders of what it would be like to be at home in the world: “He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust”; “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/To make thee full of growing”; “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me”; “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”; “I drink to th’ general joy of th’whole table”; “the natural ruby of your cheeks”; “The time is free.”

With the possible exception of the last of these words—spoken when the tyrant has been defeated and beheaded—Shakespeare clearly intends each of these lines to be grimly undercut. (The entrances and exits throughout this play are fiendishly ironic.) But hopes have to have been alive in the first place to be murdered, and Goold’s production, which relentlessly conjures up Stalinist Russia of the late 1930s, steadfastly refuses to grant them even a hypothetical existence.

Did Kate Fleetwood’s jittery, nail-biting, neurotic Lady Macbeth ever know a moment of maternal tenderness? Did Patrick Stewart’s anxious, grimly wary Macbeth ever enjoy a decent night’s sleep? As Fleetwood and Stewart perform the roles, there is no strong sense of a deterioration of either personality or moral bearing over the course of the play. How could there be, for there has been nothing from which they could deteriorate? Shakespeare’s text holds open the possibility for the characters to display psychic change, but Goold must have instructed his actors to ignore this possibility, and not only by erasing any glimpses of a past happiness. Even their divergent states of unhappiness are unchanging. This Lady Macbeth does not slowly move from icily ambitious self-possession to nervous collapse: she has always been a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And this Macbeth does not progressively harden within, until the life he had once so fervently embraced comes to seem to him a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Patrick Stewart manages to suggest that he has always been only one very small step ahead of despair.


Shakespeare’s text calls for a variety of settings; as usual, he used his bare stage to move fluidly, from the castle’s outermost gate to its innermost chamber, from the army camp to the eerie heath, from Macduff’s undefended mansion at Fife to the English court of King Edward the Confessor. Goold’s production cannot entirely escape this fluidity, but the brilliantly sinister, seedy set by Anthony Ward manages to convey the sense that all spaces in the play are the same: the camp hospital is the morgue is the torture chamber is the castle keep is the witches’ cavern. Inverness, Forres, Fife, Dunsinane, and, for that matter, England are all virtually indistinguishable in their sordidness and their menace, a menace epitomized in the rear freight elevator that, as in a horror movie, repeatedly arrives bearing nightmarish cargo.

And the countryside, haunt of the witches, offers no alternative: if you manage somehow to break out of the barbed wire enclosure, you should not hope to find a sympathetic welcome from a band of freedom fighters or shelter in the hut of some honest peasants. When Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane —the soldiers holding the cut branches as camouflage —what we have witnessed, as Goold stages it, is a successful military stratagem without a hint of renewal. It is probably a good thing that the tyrant Macbeth is killed, but this production does not want you to delude yourself into thinking for a moment that there is any exit from the night kitchen.

It is not altogether clear whether Shakespeare thought there was any escape either. To be sure, he offered his company’s patron, King James, the gratifying vision of a royal line stretching out, as Macbeth bitterly puts it, “to th’ crack of doom,” but this vision, presented as a pageant by the witches, has no reassuring content, nothing even vaguely resembling a promise of peace, justice, and prosperity. The lines spoken at the close of the play by Malcolm, the victorious son of the murdered Duncan, are startling in how little they alter the tragedy’s mood:

We shall not spend a large expense of time

Before we reckon with your several loves,

And make us even with you.

This is, as anyone in the audience who has not been dozing will recognize at once, precisely what at the play’s opening King Duncan had anxiously tried to do, after his followers had saved his skin and his crown. Seating yourself on a tottering throne, you reward your friends, punish your enemies, and try to look confident. The only difference is that Duncan had done it all rather more gracefully. To “make us even with you” cannot sound altogether reassuring to Malcolm’s supporters. The new ruler goes on to promise darkly that he will begin his regime by “Producing forth the cruel ministers/Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen.” And he closes with an oddly abrupt, impersonal expression of thanks coupled with an invitation that obviously cannot be safely refused:

So, thanks to all at once, and to each one,

Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.

How nice—at least the show trials might be an edifying spectacle.

Goold underscores the grim point by having Malcolm deliver his speech while holding aloft the gory, severed head of Macbeth—in the text there is no indication that he takes it from the hands of the avenging Macduff—but Shakespeare in any case invites, or at least allows, skepticism about the new regime in Scotland. What this production does is to enlarge the skepticism until it infects virtually everything in the entire play, from its first moments to its last. As a card-carrying Shakespearean, I have called attention to the tiny detail of the temple-haunting martlet, but specialized knowledge is hardly required: in Goold’s Macbeth we quickly sense the atmosphere of Stalinist Russia, with its pervasive paranoia, its inner circles of nervous, vulpine flatterers, its interrogation chambers and extorted confessions, its public rituals of adulation braided together with opportunism, fear, and hatred. Banquo’s assassination—he is not here on a lonely walk in the country, in the company of his son, but on a crowded train—is accompanied by video projections of grainy newsreel footage meant to invoke the fate of so many of Stalin’s one-time associates.


None of this, of course, is meant to be an exact mapping of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy onto the actuarial record of Stalin’s cronies. It is meant rather to suggest the ruthless totalitarian regime that Macbeth has established, and it succeeds in conferring an intense, modern resonance on such moments as the tyrant’s tortuous explanation of why he will need to disavow the act he is hiring the murderers to do—

  and though I could

With barefaced power sweep him from my sight

And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,

For certain friends that are both his and mine,

Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall

Who I myself struck down—

or the brief glimpse of his intelligence network:


How sayst thou that Macduff denies his person

At our great bidding?


Did you send to him, sir?


I hear it by the way, but I willsend.

There’s not a one of them, but inhis house

I keep a servant fee’d.

But the Stalinist setting does something more than provide an instance of modern tyranny; it closes off the vistas of hope that might otherwise have been glimpsed in such characters as Banquo, Malcolm, and Macduff. Some monsters are manifestly worse than others, but none of the dour-faced men on the reviewing platform should inspire any trust—and the fact that the principal monster happened to want to destroy this or that person and slaughter his family does not in itself confer any moral authority on the victim.

Spread now over the entire social world of the play, we encounter the flattening that we have already remarked in the characters of Macbeth and his Lady. No doubt the lives of Sergey Kirov or Lev Kamenev, Politburo members killed by Stalin in the 1930s, had their edifying moments, but one would be a fool to dream that if only one of them, rather than the Great Father of His People, had been at the helm of the USSR it would all have been so wonderful. The setting has the effect of diminishing any serious interest one might have had in Banquo’s scruples—

Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose,

or Malcolm’s self-doubts: “The king-becoming graces,…I have no relish of them.” More tellingly, it drains away the significance of the spiritual torment that Shakespeare goes out of his way to depict in Macbeth at the play’s opening. Patrick Stewart is a viscerally powerful actor with a huge stage presence, but Goold’s conception of the play gives him almost no room to convey convincingly Macbeth’s metaphysical horror, his fear that Duncan’s virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off,

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

That tears shall drown the wind.

The tell-tale sign of the audience’s relation to this tremendous soul-sickness came—at least on the evening I saw the performance—a few minutes later when Macbeth saw the spectral dagger in the air before him, the handle toward his hand. Just as they did later at the appearance at the banquet of Banquo’s ghost, the members of the audience laughed.

What does it mean that the audience laughed at moments that are probably meant to provoke gasps of horror? It is certainly not a matter of acting skill, nor is it, I think, the simple consequence of directorial misinterpretation. Shakespeare himself manifestly saw what is potentially comic in these moments and called attention to it. He understood perfectly well that horror and laughter could, under certain circumstances, be paired and reinforce each other, though they could also pull, as they did in Patrick Stewart’s performance, in opposite directions.

“…Art thou but/A dagger of the mind, a false creation…?” Macbeth asks wonderingly, as he attempts and fails to clutch the fatal object; “There’s no such thing.” So too Lady Macbeth attempts to mock away her husband’s terror at the hideous sight of the murdered Banquo:

This is the very painting of your fear;

This is the air-drawn dagger which you said

Led you to Duncan. Oh, these flaws and starts,

Impostors to true fear, would well become

A woman’s story at a winter’s fire

Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself,

Why do you make such faces? When all’s done

You look but on a stool.

For the audience to join in the laughter in the way that it did meant in effect that it accepted the reassuring claim (made by Macbeth to himself or by Lady Macbeth to Macbeth) that there was nothing there—only the hallucination of a “heat-oppressèd brain.” There are limits to how reassuring this claim is: mental illness is hardly a joke, though laughing at the mentally ill has a long history. But brain-sickness is better than something else. What?

That is a question the play keeps asking, from its very first moments to its last, and it is one that surfaces repeatedly in Shakespeare’s other tragedies as well. “Do you see nothing there?” an agonized Hamlet asks his mother, and she replies, “Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.” When he insists that he sees his father, “in his habit as he lived,” his mother offers a psychological explanation:

This the very coinage of your brain.

This bodiless creation ecstasy

Is very cunning in.

The alternative is that there is something out there, something that a character in a Shakespearean comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, terms “an unknown fear.”

Macbeth famously begins with this unknown fear: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” chant the weird sisters, “Hover through the fog and filthy air.” “The charm’s wound up,” the ghastly creatures intone, just as Macbeth makes his first entrance, echoing the words he has not heard: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” What “charm”? And what is the meaning of the uncanny echo? The play is at once utterly insistent and utterly withholding: some horrible supernatural power seems to be omnipresent and yet maddeningly elusive. “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags,” Macbeth demands, “What is’t you do?” They answer: “A deed without a name.” And when he insists on further answers, they give him prophecies that sound like stupendous, otherworldly assurances—“none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” and “Until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him”—only to be disclosed as cheap verbal tricks.

Shakespeare, then, deliberately situated his tragedy in a queasy betwixt-and-between world, where the metaphysical forces in which everyone professed to believe were simultaneously affirmed and negated. The effect is to capture a culture undergoing an unsteady, uncertain process of demystification, a culture where, as Macbeth puts it to himself, “nothing is/But what is not.”

Like most modern stagings of the play, Goold’s production wants as little to do with this in-between world as possible. When Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth asks the “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex” her, she is telling us something that has to do with psychiatry, not priestcraft. (Hence in the sleepwalking scene, the actor Byron Jennings, playing the doctor as an absurd buffoon, had to throw away the line “More needs she the divine than the physician.”) In this Macbeth there are no convincing intimations of the demonic, the predestined, the sacred, or the damned. The most frightening character in the play is not Hecate, the goddess of the witches, but the coarse, violent, drunken porter. Supernaturalism is replaced by Stalinism, with the consequences at which we have already glanced.

But what should any contemporary production of the play—one performed outside the Bible Belt—do? What can a modern director make of Macbeth’s supernatural elements? The answer is not, I think, a miming of religiosity, in an attempt to recover what has been slowly receding since the early seventeenth century. Even in its original moment—the play was probably first performed in 1606—Shakespeare’s tragedy did not depend upon robust, unquestioned faith, but rather upon the uneasy negotiation with beliefs that were decaying, vanishing “as breath into the wind.” In the wake of the Enlightenment, it is no longer possible to conduct that negotiation in the same terms, even in the make-believe realm of the theater.

Already in 1846 Giuseppe Verdi, in his passionately humanist admiration for Shakespeare, conceived one possible answer: he shifted the focus of the whole drama to Lady Macbeth and created an opera that centers on the demonic intensity of her desire for power and her erotic domination of her husband. Verdi has almost no interest in the religious dimension of the story: the trumpet-tongued angels or the eye of heaven peeping “through the blanket of the dark” entirely disappear. But Lady Macbeth’s astonishing aria, upon receiving her husband’s letter—“Vieni! T’affretta!“—conveys a sexualized delirium that fills the stage, taking the place of both the divine and the demonic. The deep fantasy of power is hers, in Verdi’s vision, not her husband’s, and one of the opera’s greatest moments comes with lines that were taken from Macbeth—“Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood”—and given to her: “La luce langue.” In Shakespeare’s play these lines are part of Macbeth’s ongoing struggle to suppress his moral sensitivity:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day….

But in Verdi’s opera, they are part of his wife’s ecstasy: “Oh, lust for the throne,” she sings, “Oh, sceptre, you are mine at last! Every mortal desire is silenced and satisfied in you.”

For a few weeks this spring it was possible for audiences to shuttle between the Macbeth directed by Rupert Goold and the Macbeth directed by Adrian Noble and conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. In the opera, as in the stage production, the witches have lost their supernatural aura: Noble presents them as an oddly jaunty chorus of World War II–era British moms, wearing white socks and clutching large handbags. But the pitch of sexual excitement in Verdi’s music, even with the relatively weak libretto written for him by Francesco Maria Piave, entirely filled the hole left by the shriveling of the metaphysical. And where the Stalinist setting of the stage version left no room for political hope, Noble’s modern war setting allowed a moving Banquo (sung magnificently by the German bass René Pape) and a magnificent Act 4 chorus of refugees singing plaintively of their “patria oppressa.”

Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth also attempted to posit sexual excitement as a substitute for spiritual horror, but this excitement was conveyed not through the soaring cadences of Verdi’s music but through such gestures as his grabbing at his wife’s crotch when he tells her to bear men-children only. It is as if the director believed that the language of Shakespeare’s play was not entirely adequate to a frenzied erotic explanation —after all, Macbeth is not Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra—and, accordingly, his interpretation of the murderer and his wife retreated quickly to a depressed and depressing domesticity. Lady Macbeth appears in an apron, a piece of cake is taken away from young Fleance and put back in the fridge, and Macbeth goes about making and eating a sandwich while he arranges for the assassination of Banquo.

As a piece of stage business the sandwich was at once annoying and brilliant: annoying because the audience had to listen to Stewart talking with his mouth full and brilliant because it conveyed a vulgarity and shallowness that was finally more convincing in this production than Stalinism or sexual excitement or metaphysical dread. For this interpretation, too, Shakespeare, in his limitless aesthetic generosity, provided a textual foundation. There is a moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the ridiculous Bottom, magically transformed into an ass, does not marvel at his metamorphosis but merely remarks that “I could munch your good dry oats.” Macbeth is the only other play by Shakespeare in which the word “munch” appears, here in the mouth of one of the witches:

A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,

And munched, and munched, and munched. “Give me,” quoth I.

Stewart’s Macbeth is incapable of spiritual agony, but as a strikingly thoughtless criminal he is perhaps more suited to our time and place. Munching on his sandwich as he orders the murder of his friend, he is the apostle of shallowness. He had been rattled, to be sure, by the magnitude of king-killing, but he has by now completely accepted what his wife has offered him: not sexual ecstasy but willed stupidity:

A little water clears us of this deed.

How easy is it then!

He has succeeding in “seeling” his moral vision—sewing his eyelids shut, as falconers did to tame their jittery birds—so that even the most spectacular signs and wonders leave him indifferent. “Where we lay,” Lennox reports in the morning after the king’s assassination,

Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,

Lamentings heard i’th’ air, strange screams of death,

And prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion and confused events

New-hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird

Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth

Was feverous and did shake.

Macbeth’s four-word response was, as Stewart spoke the line, eloquent in its genuine emptiness: “‘Twas a rough night.”

Every age has the heroes and villains it deserves, and Shakespeare inevitably provides the necessary materials. What we have deserved, this production suggests, is a former war hero’s fatal, perversely elected shallowness.