Thursday, September 4, 2008

To Make Stage Blood

Sure, you can buy good stage blood from the theatrical outfitters, but I prefer to make my own. Here's the recipe I fall back on:

Put 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour in a small saucepan. Measure two cups of water, then mix it into the flour by tablespoons, coming first to a thick paste, then a thin paste, and finally a viscous fluid, consistent throughout with no lumps. Bring this to a boil, stirring regularly, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will cook down to a cup or so. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

When the mixture is cool enough to handle, stir in one ounce (2 tablespoons) of red food coloring, and 1/8 teaspoon of green. The green is important; it darkens the mixture so that it doesn't look pink. It will keep for at least three days at room temperature, but may start to break down after this.

I find this is a really excellent blood to work with. It "clots" a bit on skin and looks scary-real when applied well. If you're sending someone on covered in blood, it's best to either apply directly before the entrance, or else have the actor sit perfectly still for ten or fifteen minutes to allow it to "set" a bit. It stains light fabrics especially well, but can look pinkish on colored fabric if not applied with a sufficiently heavy hand. Wet on any fabric, this blood looks awesome. It's non-toxic, of course, and washes out of clothes pretty well--better with a little bleach, if you can manage it, and you can assist this by mixing a teaspoon or so of liquid detergent into the blood before application.

The one downside is that it stains skin a bit, and so is not well-suited to actors who need to clean up backstage between scenes--not a good bet for the Macbeths, who have to look presentable by the end of the porter's scene. If I had to come up with something for that, I might try half the volume of food coloring, and see how that worked.

Why the recipe corner, my friends, after so long an absence?

Well, for the first time since 1993--and that is a piece of time, dear readers--I just stepped back on the stage, in a very small way. A small band of friends and I gave a scene from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, starring a batch of Craig's home-style stage blood. I was pleased with the reception--the quality of the gore no doubt smoothed over the rough patches in my elocution.

Life's been packed full of a lot of stuff lately, and not just my vainglorious attempt to recapture something of my youth. I hope I can share with you a little more tomorrow, but damned if it's not back on another airplane for me Saturday morning. Bear with me, a little? We've still got a lot of Middleton to talk about.

Friday, July 18, 2008

No Love for Derrida

From xkcd. Myself, I'm reading Lois Tyson's Literary Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Discuss: All organized literary theories consist of one or two good ideas, which are then taken way too far.

(Klingon, of course, most closely resonates with several of the Native American languages that linguist Marc Okrand worked with academically, with a grab-bag of grammatical oddities culled from Asian and Australian languages. Duh.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Busy Life...or Writer's Block?

Ah, me...I can't seem to make the time to write for my blog, and I want to say all these things about being very busy with work and evening commitments and all, but I just found an hour and a half to watch The King of Kong (which was glorious--Werner Herzog could have made this documentary--check it out, especially if you're of a certain age).

I have pages of notes on The Changeling, and I've done a second reading of Jonson's Sejanus (Erin: I like it, especially that fifth act, although I wonder if it would work on the stage), and...I don't know what the problem is. Stuck in the Summer doldrums, I guess.

One thing I am excited about is that I may do a bit of acting, for the first time in like 15 years...just a bit, but still. My old college theatre has given me the chance to present a little Shakespeare at their open house this August, and I've secured the commitment of the remarkable actress who was our Lady Macbeth last year to act opposite me in Act I, Scene 4 of Henry VI, Part 3--that incredible "Molehill" scene with the paper crown and all. I'll be enacting Richard, Duke of York, and she'll be doing Margaret, and it's very exciting--a chance to turn everything up to 11 and really lift the roof off the rafters.

And it's a busy schedule of theatre going, of course--I just saw a superb Merchant of Venice at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, and I'm flying to Denver on Saturday to see Henry VIII, one of the eight Shakespeare plays I haven't yet seen live on stage. There's a reasonable chance I'll be able to see the last seven by this time next year, God willing and the creek don't rise (All's Well that Ends Well, Timon of Athens, The Two Noble Kinsmen, 2 Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, and, believe it or not, King Lear).

So, at least I've mustered the energy to check in. Perhaps this will clear the psychic logjam and let me get on with the Great Middleton Experiment.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A First Look at The Changeling

(Image: Title page of the 1653 quarto edition)

That long excursion into Macbeth, now concluded, was for me both necessary and rewarding, but threw precious little light on what is supposed to be the central issue of this blog: an investigation of Middleton’s supposed greatness. It’s past time to get to the heart of the matter.

And so we turn to The Changeling, which I’ve just given a first reading.

I picked this play partly for its reputation. As Annabel Patterson says in her introduction for the Oxford Collected Works, “Like Hamlet, the play without which Shakespeare is unimaginable, it has defined Middleton’s canon around itself.” It held the stage for decades after its 1622 premiere (Pepys saw it 40 years later), and has been a popular subject of revival since the late 20th century.

Then, too, there was this intriguing item in Jonathan Bate’s recent essay on Middleton in the Times Literary Supplement:

Two years ago, Declan Donnellan, director of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, had the inspired idea of staging a double bill of Twelfth Night and The Changeling. A steward in love with the lady of the house: play it as comedy and you have Shakespeare, as tragedy you have Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, says Malvolio: and he is when he returns as De Flores.

There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, although the steward De Flores casts a long and menacing shadow across the play. His lady, Beatrice-Joanna, certainly goes to darker places than Olivia could have: darker places than could ever be found in the Illyria of Twelfth Night. She is in love with one man, but forcibly betrothed to another. She despises her father’s steward, that creepy De Flores, but knows he’s in her thrall. With a little prompting, he would probably do anything for her. Even a murder?

That calculus leads Beatrice-Joanna down the perilous road that so many Shakespearean characters have followed: commit (or instigate) a single terrible crime, get what you want, and then you’ll be happy and everyone else will just keep playing by the rules as if nothing had happened, right?

Of course not. Crime leads to crime, death to death, with the remorseless logic of an avalanche.

It’s very, very good: dark, haunting, hard to shake out of your mind. I still have a lot of reading and thinking to do, but my first reaction is that it deserves to stand in the first rank of the non-Shakespearean tragedies of the period, to be mentioned in a breath with Tamburlaine or The White Devil.

And how does it measure up to the Shakespearean tragedies? Well, let’s save that discussion for another day. But Shakes would have had no need to be ashamed of this play, had it come from his pen.

There’s a comic subplot, too, thought to be entirely co-author William Rowley’s work—not especially well-connected to the main plot, and tending to draw scorn from modern critics for its handling of mental illness. It’s not without merit, but my first impulse is to look on it as something of a distraction. We’ll see if that changes on a closer reading.

As Samuel Pepys wrote after the 1661 production he attended at the Whitefriars, “It takes exceedingly.” And so it does. I’m looking forward to digging into this one act by act in future entries.

An annotated text of The Changeling is available at Chris Cleary’s Middleton web site. In the Oxford Collected Works, the text is edited by Douglas Bruster, and introduced by Annabel Patterson.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Revenger's Tragedy Roundup

The United Kingdom currently boasts not one, but two, productions of The Revenger's Tragedy: one in London at the National Theatre, the other in Manchester at the Royal Exchange. They're both done in modern dress, seem given to a certain degree of conceptual indulgence, and have attracted mixed reviews. I wish I had the opportunity to sample them myself, but the inconvenient location of the Atlantic Ocean makes this unlikely.

If you're interested in the press these productions have attracted, The Shakespeare Post has linked and excerpted reviews from various UK papers in two posts:

Theatre Review: Revenger's Tragedies in London and Manchester Both Alike in Blood and Excess

Theatre Review: Revenger's Tragedy Directors Need to Trust the Play's Riches

If you don't know The Shakespeare Post yet, I hope that you will drop in. It will almost certainly become one of your regular blog-stops on the Internet. The author, John D. Lawrence, astonishes with the quality and quantity of his output. And I'm not just praising him because he linked to me once, although it didn't hurt.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Some bloggers are odd feeders!

(Image: Hadrian's Wall east of Greenhead Lough, as photographed by Wikipedia user Velela.)

Imagine my happiness to hear from Lea, a Ph.D. student and blogger who is also trekking through Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, and posting her observations in her LiveJournal, "...yet I'll hammer it out." She says that the end of a semester leaves her little time for Middleton blogging, but I hope that will change, and I'll be able to crib from her insights as we both work through the book.

I'd like to mention one of her entries in particular, a discussion of Middleton and Dekker's pamphlet News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody. Most interesting reading, and I'm sure I'll start here when I want to tackle some of Middleton's non-dramatic writing. The phamplet is mostly about the plague and rich people fleeing London while the poor are left to die, but also features reflections on the new King, James I, and the unification in him of the Scottish and English crowns. Lea's analysis demands quotation:

[T]he de facto union of England and Scotland is figured as a royal wedding in which the maiden isle" surrenders "her maidenhead" to the Scottish king, the newfound permeability of the border a kind of sexual penetration (which, of course, leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Hadrian's Wall is England's hymen I am not sure how to feel about that).

I remember hiking along Hadrian's Wall, and that wasn't the first thing that came to mind. But literature is about opening our minds to new possibilities, no?

Two Engaging Essays

Thomas Middleton continues to attract attention in the press. Since my last post pointing out some of the coverage of the new Oxford edition, two noted scholars have published short essays full of interesting facts and good argument:

Gary Taylor, general editor of the aforesaid Oxford Middleton, continues to trek around England in his apostolic vein, preaching the good news and waving the good book at his audiences. It was he who coined the epithet "our other Shakespeare," so you can guess that his recent piece in the Guardian, "A Mad World," will be laudatory. He focuses this time on Middleton's play The Revenger's Tragedy, which is today being produced by two (!) theatres in London. Revenger is next on my reading list after the Changeling, so I was happy to have the preview of things to come:

Revenger...audaciously rewrites Hamlet. Against the ambiguous personal madness of Hamlet Middleton set a psychotic world in which "we're all mad people, and they that we think are, are not". Hamlet, a romantic prince, confronts a single evil antagonist, the usurper Claudius. Vindice, an ordinary man, confronts a legitimate royal family, an entire court, an entire political system, violently corrupt. Hamlet disowns his own actions, asserting that he retains a secure, moral, internal identity: his crimes were performed not by Hamlet himself, but by his madness, and "Hamlet is of the party that is wronged" and "This is I, Hamlet the Dane", and "I have that within that passes show". Vindice, instead, dissolves in the vertigo of his own disguises ("Joy's a subtle elf: I think man's happiest when he forgets himself"). At the end of Shakespeare's play, "flights of angels sing" Hamlet "to his rest". Middleton lets no one imagine such an elegiac ending for Vindice, one of those "innocent villains" who discovers and demonstrates that the logic of revenge leads to terrorism and mass murder.
He goes on to say that "Middleton's achievement in The Revenger's Tragedy does not cancel Shakespeare's achievement in Hamlet," which is nice of him. Revenger is, also, one of the very few Middleton plays widely available on video, in a recent adaptation starring Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi. There's more good stuff in that article, including more on this "Shakespeare is Michaelangelo, Middleton is Carvaggio," metaphor that Taylor keeps coming back to. I know rather less about Italian painting than I do about English drama, so I'll leave that one to better minds.

Our second essay is from Jonathan Bate (CBE FRSA FRSL, as his Wikipedia page points out--Oh, to be a Briton! Such titles! Such letters!), most recently a general editor of the RSC Complete Shakespeare. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement, entitled "The Mad Worlds of Thomas Middleton," he offers an assessment both of Middleton and his new Collected Works that is generally positive, but far less revolutionary: here is a dramatist of great ability, long overdue for a reappraisal, but, ultimately, only one among several of the lesser lights of the period. There's a lot of apples on the tree, kid, but there's only one Big Apple.

I guess I've got to read the rest of those plays before weighing in on that one, but Bate's more measured praise certainly refreshes the palate after Taylors somewhat over-ripe evangelism. Bate is also quite right to stick a pin in some of the more inflated prose in the Collected Works. He rightly calls out this passage for ridicule as embodying "the critical indulgence of the late twentieth century:"

The metaphor of castration foregrounds not the literal status of censorship but its (dis)figurative status; that is, castration figures an originary (and paradoxically productive) lack rather than the loss of an originary plenitude . . . . what looks like defetishism (multiple, small differences constituting a clitoral criticism opposed to the single, big difference of a phallic criticism) from another perspective looks like fetishism masquerading as its opposite.
That from Richard Burt's essay on censorship in the Companion volume. Clitoral criticism? As Bate observes, "this kind of thing is so old-fashioned...that it makes the work seem dated even as it comes fresh from the press."

Bate defends the scholarship of the Oxford edition, however, on more important matters, such as the extent of the Middletonian canon. He endorses in particular the inclusion of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Lady's Tragedy (commonly called The Second Maiden's Tragedy), saying their attributions "come as close to settled facts as we are likely to get in this contentious field." He also pronounces Taylor's account of the many tangled texts of A Game at Chess "a scholarly tour de force."

Good essays, both, and well worth a read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Poolside Reading

The dogs, the wife, and I are unwinding with a week in St. Augustine, Florida, and the Oxford Middleton, alas, stays at home. Instead, I tucked a few choice entries from my list of "Renaissance Plays I'm Embarrassed I Haven't Read Yet" into my bag, and I'm enjoying working through them as I float around in the pool: The Alchemist, Sejanus His Fall, The White Devil (in my defense, I did see The White Devil, at the RSC's Swan in 1996). I brought The Atheist's Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi, too, but it's not looking like I'll make it that far. Ah, well. On Google Docs, I have a list of something like 80 plays from the period, non-Shakespeare, non-Middleton, that I hope to read someday. I look at that list and think, "How have I made time for Mucedorus, but not Bartholomew Fair?"

That is one mis-spent youth.

Don't know if I'll have much to say about any of them; I'm enjoying playing the sponge this week. But I do have a handful of other items that have been piling up: links and blogs and articles, and I'll see if I can pry myself away from my gin and tonic long enough to put them in a presentable form. Also--accompanying me to Florida: Middleton's The Changeling on DVD, as filmed for the BBC in the very year of my birth, and starring the incomparable Helen Mirren!

I'll be back tomorrow. Right now, my ice is melting.

Friday, June 6, 2008

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom…”

(Image: Macbeth, Banquo and the Weird Sisters, from Holinshed's Chonicles.)

Reading through Gary Taylor’s remarkable text of Macbeth and his supporting notes, I keep veering between admiration and exasperation, sometimes quickly enough to induce dizziness. He supports one item with such an overwhelming surge of evidence and such well-reasoned argument that only a fool would stand against him, like Canute ordering back the tide. Then his next point appears to be based on little more than a hunch, and bolstered by such scanty documentation that you’re afraid to breathe on it, lest it evaporate.

Let me talk about one last example. It doesn’t make a big difference to our understanding of the play, but it illustrates how far Taylor is willing to go when the mood takes him. In Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo make their first appearances on the stage, and meet the Witches or Weird Sisters. Taylor has concluded that the two Thanes (see footnote) made their big entrance “on horseback” in Shakespeare’s original play, and has changed the stage directions accordingly.

How could he come to such a conclusion? It seems a fellow by the name of Simon Forman saw Macbeth at the Globe sometime around 1611, and left a written account of his impressions. He described Macbeth and Banquo as “riding through a wood” when they encounter “three women fairies or nymphs.” So, voila: horses on stage.

To call this evidence “thin” is too generous. In the first place, they are clearly not in “a wood,” but “upon the heath,” or even a “blasted” heath, to use Macbeth’s own adjective. So Forman’s phrasing is immediately cast into doubt. If, in spite of this, you want to put such credence in a literal reading of the word “riding," what should we make of the later passage, where he writes that Macbeth “contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on the way as he rode.” (Emphasis mine) More horses? Of course not: in this case, Shakespeare has taken the trouble of explaining in the dialogue why characters are not on horseback when they logically ought to be:

First Murderer:
His horses go about!

Third Murderer:
Almost a mile, but he does usually.
So all men do, from hence to the palace gate
Make it their walk.

Shakespeare usually doesn’t bother with this (perhaps all the talk of “riding” earlier on made him conscientious). It’s just an unspoken convention of the stage that there are no horses, even when the characters would have been on horseback in the “real world.” Why would this be the one scene, in all of Shakespeare’s 38 or so plays, that explicitly calls for them? Messengers, generals, Kings: all walk when they really ought to be riding. There’s even an (abortive) joust in Richard II—all without benefit of horses.

In any case, look at the rest of the scene: after the Witches/Sisters vanish, Ross and Angus enter with messages from the King. Are they on horseback too? Wouldn’t it look odd if they weren’t? If they aren’t, how do they all exit at the end of the scene: some walking, some riding? Or maybe they double up with Macbeth and Banquo? And why aren’t they still riding when they get back to Duncan in the next scene?

It just doesn’t make sense. Far, far simpler to conclude that in this scene, as in every other scene of every other play by Shakespeare, there are no horses.

Two Notes:

Banquo was a Thane too—The Thane of Lochaber. Lots of people—even people who have played Banquo—are a little confused about just what his job is, but his title is in Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Simon Forman’s “Bocke of Plaies” is a remarkable document, containing reflections on Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, and a play about Richard II that was not Shakespeare’s. It’s short and well worth reading, especially to see what he did and did not find memorable about the three Shakespeare plays. For instance, he completely neglects to mention the “statue scene” at the end of The Winter’s Tale. And there’s a passage I find completely hilarious, where he’s trying to explain the impossibly tangled plot of Cymbeline, and just gives up, ending a very long sentence with a hopeless “&c” (et cetera). Additional information at that most wonderful of Shakespeare blogs, Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"And question this most bloody piece of work, to know it further..."

(Image: From DramaTech Theatre's 2007 production of Macbeth: Gene Hullender as Macbeth, Lee Smith as a Weird Sister. Photo by Jon Drews.)

We’ve talked about the treatment of the Weird Sisters in Middleton’s adaptation of Macbeth, and, for what it’s worth, I’ve given you my opinion on those changes: negative, although granting they make a potent spectacle in the theatre. The one thing I’d add, because I don’t think I touched on this, is how much better the Hecate material reads in the “reconstructed” form in Gary Taylor’s text, compared to the drab “Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ &c.” in the First Folio and most modern texts of Macbeth. I still can’t stand the Hecate stuff, but at least I have a much better appreciation of how it would have looked and sounded and impressed an audience in the Blackfriars in 1616. I wish all editors would do something similar.

Of all the other items Taylor argues for making up Middleton’s revisions, only two strike me as having much impact artistically: the condensation of the opening battles in Act 1, Scene 2, and the cuts to the “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, in which, supposedly, Edward the Confessor originally appeared in person. Both of these changes are primarily cuts, rather than additions, and are harder to judge without the benefit of the original text. Perhaps, thinking about these things at all is the kind of exercise in imagination that says more about the writer than the subject. It seems that’s always a huge risk in Shakespeare…but, fool that I am, I rush in:

The Opening Battles

Shakespeare loved a swirling melee on the stage, but the audience of 1616 found this sort of thing “old-fashioned and ridiculous” as Taylor puts it. He mentions Ben Jonson’s sneer (in the prologue to the revised edition of Every Man in His Humor) at the absurdity of staging a battle with “three rusty swords and help of some few foot- and half-foot words.” So Middleton moved the battles against Norway, Macdonwald, and Cawdor off-stage, and glued together some bits of the dialogue to narrate the story.

Convincing? Middleton’s fingerprints abound in this scene: vocabulary, phrasing, imagery. Taylor’s analysis of it all is enthralling, and perfectly convincing. Particularly telling is his discussion of the stage direction “Enter…meeting a bleeding captain.” The “enter…meeting” formulation is a Middleton hallmark; Shakespeare used “enter…severally,” or “enter X at one door, Y at another.” It seems certain Middleton condensed and re-wrote this scene, and what else could he have been cutting, but one of those old-fashioned Shakespeare battles?

But is it good? Times change, and tastes change, and a big battle is the highlight of many a modern Shakespeare production. Even in this age of summer blockbusters, we’re perfectly thrilled to see those three rusty swords on the stage. And I think it’s telling that both of the productions of Macbeth I’ve worked with have seen fit to restore some kind of on-stage battle in Act I. I can’t say the scene we have is bad—it’s often quite effective—but I sure wish we had the original.

Edward the Confessor

The “England Scene,” Act 4, Scene 3, is almost always the low point of a Macbeth production: overlong and endlessly talky. Macduff’s reaction to the death of his family is heartbreaking, but comes after so much ineffective dialogue that the audience has generally nodded off by this point. And yet the scene can’t be eliminated: it is here that the revolution begins, the long march to Dunsinane and final victory. In my script, I cut this scene savagely, wondering all the time how Shakespeare had left such a dud at this critical moment in the story.

Taylor argues for a very different interlude in England, in which Edward the Confessor is not merely a vague presence off-stage, but comes on to perform healing miracles in person and anoint Malcolm as Scotland’s rightful King. In a play that started dark and has grown ever bleaker, this is the first ray of light: a sign that Good is a force in the world, and will not allow Evil to rule forever.

Why would Middleton cut this material? Partly, to give the supernatural spotlight completely to his greatly expanded witches, and partly to downplay the significance of the Catholic saint, King Edward.

Convincing? I just don’t know. Taylor’s vision for this scene does feel right…but a feeling isn’t evidence, and the evidence here is quite slim. None of those obvious Middltonian tics in the language or the stage directions, no ragged edges in the verse or sudden shifts in style. That English Doctor is odd, with his speech about Edward curing skin diseases, but far more understandable if you think of the play being performed in front of King James I—he is praising the virtue and goodness of all English monarchs, not just Edward the Confessor. The most important item Taylor produces is an account of Macbeth on the stage written around 1611—before Middleton’s revision—which mentions the play is set in the time of “Edward the Confessor” (the existing text of Macbeth mentions “Edward,” but doesn’t give him the “Confessor” tag). It’s a slender enough reed to prop up such a weighty theory. While it stirs the blood to imagine the possibility, I think the only safe course is a healthy skepticism.

But is it good? If Middleton made this change, I would find it hard to praise him for it. What a wonderful scene the original might have been!

Other Changes

Most of the remaining changes Taylor ascribes to Middleton don’t seem to make much difference to a modern audience. Most significantly, he argues that Middleton added lines to the scene between Lady Macduff and her son (everything between the two places Lady Macduff says, “How wilt thou do for a father?”), punching up the dialogue with topical references to the Overbury treason trials of 1615. It seems convincing, but we’re left with much the same scene in the end.

Of course, what we can’t see—even with Gary Taylor’s literary X-Ray Glasses—are the potentially many, many deletions from the 1606 text. Based on the length of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, as much as one quarter of the original Macbeth may have been left on the Jacobean version of the cutting-room floor. From my experience editing Macbeth for performance, I can attest that it is possible to razor out a great deal of a Shakespeare play without leaving obvious gaps. Perhaps Macbeth was always a conspicuously short text, but it seems to me that we must credit Middleton for at least some of the “tightness” and “intensity” of the play we have today.

On the whole, though, and basing my judgment on the items we can most confidently ascribe to Middleton, I have to take a dim view of the revision. I mentioned that Inga Stina-Ewbank declined to argue (in her introduction to the text) that Middleton’s changes constituted an artistic improvement, and I will make so bold as to say that she did not because they do not.

The revised Macbeth was certainly a popular success, and I don’t deny that Middleton had to pay his bills like everyone else, but I will have to keep reading to find the proof that this is “our other Shakespeare.”

Happily, that is just what I mean to do. I’m not sorry I read this remarkable treatment of Macbeth first, but I’m hungry for the real article: some genuine Thomas Middleton drama. I’m starting with The Changeling, next week, and trembling with anticipation.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Something wicked(er) this way comes...

(Image: From DramaTech Theatre’s 2007 production of Macbeth: Michelle Hendrickson, Brittany Roberts, Lee Smith as the Weird Sisters. Much closer to the original “three women fairies or nymphs” reported by Simon Forman in 1611.)

In exploring my reactions to Middleton’s alterations of Macbeth, I find my thoughts falling neatly into two boxes: one labeled “Witches,” and the other, “Everything Else.” I suppose that’s only appropriate: Gary Taylor himself notes the most significant change Middleton made was “to transform into witches the three characters who are identified as ‘weird sisters’ in Shakespeare’s chief historical source and in passages clearly written by Shakespeare.”

We’ve talked about the specifics of that change already: spells, song, dance, and the superfluous character of Hecate. Taylor, in his notes, only delineates the Middletonian material; it falls to that redoubtable scholar, the late Inga-Stina Ewbank, to mount a defense of these additions on artistic grounds. She makes a game attempt, but I find her arguments ultimately unconvincing—and I note that even she is silent on the question of whether the revisions can seriously be taken to constitute an artistic improvement.

Probably the core of her argument is that Middleton’s passages “give the play a new dimension of theatrical magic,” but I would argue that this “new dimension” is at odds with what makes Macbeth such a chilling exploration of the darker places in the human soul. As she puts it, the effect is to make the drama “less focused on the moral self-destruction of Macbeth, and to shift the emphasis on to the witches as being in command, free and unbounded.” Which is exactly the problem: if Macbeth becomes nothing more than a kind of voodoo doll (as he becomes explicitly in the Orson Welles stage and film productions of the last century), why should we ultimately care? What can we take away from such a play—“stay away from witches?” If that were all there was to Macbeth, I doubt we’d still care about it.

In my own condensation of Macbeth for DramaTech Theatre’s 2007 production, I cut the witches deeply, removing not only most of Middleton’s additions, but a fair slice of Shakespeare, too (on the theory that even he “witched up” the characters, possibly to impress King James). Since the two things everyone in the audience knows from Macbeth are, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and, “Double, double, toil and trouble,” I devoted a large portion of my program notes to explaining why they wouldn’t be hearing one of those lines. I thought I’d quote from those notes in making my rebuttal:


Of all the cuts we made, perhaps the most missed will be all the witches’ rhymes and spells. So, we might as well get it out of the way up front: tonight’s production of Macbeth will be strictly cauldron-free. No eye of newt, nor tongue of frog, not even the tiniest fillet of a fenny snake.

The witches have been crowd-pleasers for four hundred years, and especially in a Halloween production of Macbeth, their cut lines are conspicuous. But our aim was to strip away those haunted-house trappings and make these characters something much bigger and more powerful, and, yes, scarier than three old crones cackling over a pot. No one in the play or in Shakespeare’s sources ever calls these beings “witches:” they, along with everyone else, call themselves “the weird sisters,” from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, or “fate.” At bottom, they are the Goddesses of Fate, the Norns, the beings who know what was, and what is, and what shall be:

“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”

“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”

“All hail, Macbeth—that shalt be King hereafter!”

As always in myth, one of the most terrible things that can happen to you is to catch a glimpse of Fate: it is too big and terrible for a human mind to process; it comes to us in seeming riddles that we interpret, foolishly, by hearing what we want and ignoring the rest. The Sisters never tell Macbeth, “You will be King tomorrow,” or, “You will be King if you kill Duncan,” but his ambition (and Lady Macbeth’s) seizes hold of the idea and his moral sense is not strong enough to win out in the end. When he returns to the Sisters and demands to see the consequences of his murder, the knowledge crushes him: a parade of kings descended not from him, but from Banquo, stretching out “to the crack of doom” (one of the monarchs in Banquo’s mirror—if you believe in the power of Prophesy—would be Queen Elizabeth the Second, sitting on the throne of Scotland nine centuries later).

Even in Shakespeare’s day, Macbeth was being “witched up” with all the haunted-house trimmings, but I think this makes the play a smaller thing. In 21st-Century America, relatively few of us are genuinely scared of Halloween witches. But who isn’t afraid of the vastness of Time, against which background we all seem so impossibly small and all our actions futile?


And that, in a nutshell, is my case against the Witches…and for the Weird Sisters, spinning their threads of destiny, not even deigning to feel contempt or pity for us mortals. Witches may be powerfully dramatic, even in this age that we flatter ourselves to call “rational”, but I’ll take the Sisters of Fate any day.

Footnote: DramaTech Theatre is the student-run theatrical company of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States,, and was my emotional and artistic home through the long years of my undergraduate experience in the 1990s. A bunch of engineers doing theatre? Quixotic, yes, but, like Quixote, capable of occasional moments of grace and wonder.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Maid's Tragedy: A Postscript

One last notable thing about The Maid's Tragedy is the inclusion of a fully-dressed marriage masque in the first act. It has room for lots of special effects, and mythological/allegorical figures like Night and Neptune and Eolus reciting tedious bombast, and is just as wretched as any other court masque you could name, though mercifully short and far easier to get through than most of Jonson’s self-important nonsense. It holds no intrinsic interest for the modern reader—doesn’t even resonate with the plot of the rest of the play, which would have been cool—but one imagines it would have been a real treat for the original audience, in a world where the masque was considered the pinnacle of high art, and invitations were an object of fierce wrangling. What redeems this indulgence—slightly—is that the play also contains the perfect dismissal of the whole masque form, offered by a nobleman as they’re preparing for the show:

Strato, thou hast some skill in Poetry. What thinkst thou of a masque? Will it be well?

As well as masque can be.

As masque can be?

Yes, they must commend their King, and speak in praise of the assembly, bless the bride and bridegroom, in person of some God; they are tied to rules of flattery.

Damn straight: conventional and obsequious. And Ben Jonson knew that perfectly well, whatever he told himself to get through the night.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Digression: The Maid’s Tragedy

(Image: illustration from the title page of the quarto printing)

Life has kept me away from this blog for a few days now. Mostly, I’ve been busy with an out-of-town conference, and I found the carry-on baggage restrictions less than amenable to my bringing my Full Textual Apparatus along for the ride. But it wasn’t all Sudoku in the airport bar: I thought I’d use to opportunity to caulk over one of the many, many cracks in my knowledge of the Renaissance Stage: Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy.

Why that play? Well, I own a copy, but that’s been true for like fifteen years without instilling a sense of urgency. I suppose talking about Cardenio put me in mind of it: Cardenio brings up the play George Buc (with the poetic heart of a government censor) called “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy,” and that always makes me think about how I’d never read the first. It’s anthologized and performed often enough to suggest that it’s not entirely devoid of artistic quality, and I rather enjoy Fletcher, based on what little of him I’ve read (Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, mostly). So, maybe a funny choice for someone who hasn’t even read The Alchemist for crying out loud, but there you go.

To the fan of Shakespeare, much is familiar: bodies everywhere, cross-dressing, wild and wooly plotting, platitudinous closing speech by the new authority figure (who orders everyone to carry the bodies off the stage)…yep, that’s Jacobethan drama. I’m glad to know there are some things you can count on.

But there’s that hard edge of cynicism, too, that Shakespeare seldom dabbled in: that Troilus and Cressida quality where “virtue” is a word for chumps. Newly-married Amintor, in the best scene in the play, is taken aback when his bride, Evadne, refuses to go to bed with him—has sworn, in fact, an oath that she will not. He grapples for some charming explanation:

If you have sworn to any of the Virgins
That were your old companions, to preserve
Your Maidenhead a night, it may be done
Without this means.

Oh, Amintor, you poor, dumb kid. His wife practically snorts in reply:

A Maidenhead, Amintor, at my years?

No bashful virgin, Evadne is in fact conducting a liaison with the very man who arranged her marriage: the King. He won’t (or can’t—the play isn’t clear) marry her himself, and needs a nominal husband for her, to cover any pregnancies that come along. Amintor is the patsy, the beard, the front man—and on no account is he to sample the merchandise.

I was reading this scene in my hotel room, and it just smacked me. A complete sucker-punch. We’re in the second act at this point, and there’s been no indication this is coming. Evadne—no “maid”—isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to Aspatia, a lovely young woman of good birth, who was engaged to marry Amintor before the King hatched his own scheme and ordered Amintor to call it off. She takes this badly.

The play opens after the wedding ceremony, but just prior to the evening’s celebrations. Allegedly set on the island of Rhodes, there is no attempt to capture a foreign culture beyond giving everyone strange names. One of Evadne’s brothers, Melantius, has been summoned home from the wars to attend the festivities, but he was told only that it was his friend Amintor’s wedding, not Evadne’s, and he didn’t get the memo about the last-minute change of brides. Before anyone can clear this up, he sees the jilted Aspatia and congratulates her, giving us one of the other really potent moments in the script:

Hail, maid and wife!
Thou fair Aspatia, may the holy knot
That thou hast tied today last till the hand
Of age undo’t; may’st thou bring a race
Unto Amintor that may fill the world
Successively with soldiers.

My hard fortunes
Deserve not scorn; for I was never proud
When they were good.

(Exit Aspatia.)

How now?

Awkward. That moment of understated dignity for Aspatia is, regrettably, the only one of its kind. She comes completely unglued soon enough, in really unattractive fashion: luxuriating in grief and pity, whining and wailing in front of anyone who will listen. As all the ladies are getting Evadne (un)dressed and prepared for what is supposed to be her big night, Aspatia won’t shut up:

…this should have been
My night, and all your hands been employed
In giving me a spotless offering
To young Amintor’s bed, as we are now
For you…

Yes, dear, you had a bad turn, but now you’re just behaving badly. Why don’t you beg off and go home? Ah, but she’s only gotten started:

This is the last time you shall look on me;
Ladies, farewell; as soon as I am dead,
Come all and watch one night about my hearse;
Bring each a mournful story and a tear
To offer at it when I go to earth…

Now that’s an unpleasant wedding guest. Sadly, this kind of operatic over-reaction becomes the dominant mode of the remainder of the play. The King drops in next morning to say hello, and flies into a jealous rage when Amintor plays the happy husband in public, which was the whole plan from the beginning, right? (The King is not only a lech, but a bit of a fool. Any resemblance to James I is purely coincidental.) Amintor goes crying to his new brothers-in-law, and the only discussion is about when and how they’ll kill the king. Bit harsh? Try the scene where Melantius confronts his sister and demands to have the truth from her mouth:

By thy foul self, no humane hand shall help thee,
If thou criest: When I have killed thee, as I have
Vowed to do, if thou confess not, naked
As thou hast left thine honor, will I leave thee,
That on they branded flesh the world may read
Thy black shame, and my justice; wilt thou bend yet?

This is, of course, perfectly disgusting, and it marked the moment in the play at which I stopped caring about much of anyone. But, in the forthrightly misogynistic world of the Maid’s Tragedy, this little talking-to was just what Evadne needed. She collapses in tears and resolves to sin no more. More than that: while the boys are cooking up some cockamamie plot to get control of the harbor fort, Evadne ties the King to her bed at their next encounter and stabs him. (In the last chuckle of the play, the King thinks it’s some kind of sex game at first. He finds it less charming when he learns the name of the game is “regicide.”)

Now it’s time for those bodies to start piling up, and what’s left of characterization, plot, poetry, all get shoved aside to make room for the blood and thunder. Remember Aspatia? She dresses up like her brother, seeks out Amintor, and challenges him to a duel—which she deliberately loses, so she can spend the remainder of the play gasping and expiring on the floor with as much melodrama as she can muster. By now, she’s grown so tiresome that I’m imploring Amintor to give her one more good stab and get it over with. In the middle of this, Evadne comes in to show her husband how she’s reformed her morals by progressing from adulteress to murderer, and Amintor demonstrates how the poetry has utterly collapsed at this point:

There is presage of some important thing
About thee, which it seems thy tongue hath lost:
Thy hands are bloody, and thou hast a knife.

Evadne explains how she has killed her lover, and now wants Amintor to give her another chance. Amintor has to leave the room for a minute to do the math on that one. As soon as he is gone, she takes a page from Aspatia’s book and offers proof of her love by killing herself with that aforementioned knife. Naturally, Amintor comes back on stage at that moment, thinking perhaps that with some counseling and a willingness to change and grow, they can make this work, but it’s too late. Evadne dies. Aspatia comes to just long enough to reveal her true identity, and dies. Amintor decides that death must be in fashion and rounds things out by killing himself.

Nothing left to do but mop up the mess. The new King (the former King’s brother) comes on with everyone else who’s still breathing, and Melantius tries to kill himself, but they wrestle his sword away from him. Melantius is almost—almost—a Miles Gloriosus figure, always blustering and whipping out his rapier, never actually doing anything. You can’t really read him as satire; just as you can’t read the play as satire, though it might work better that way. It’s all too earnest, too moralizing, even under that patina of cynicism. If Beaumont and Fletcher had had the courage of their lack of convictions, they might have made a better play: something genuinely dark and troubling. But they want to wallow in the filth and yet, ultimately, be above it, and like so many other writers who wanted to both have their cake and eat it, they get neither.

So, The Maid’s Tragedy: neglected masterpiece? No. Some good moments, one really good scene, but it falls apart badly after Act II, and ends up about as empty as any summer blockbuster at the multiplex. But I am glad that I’ve finally read the “First Maiden’s Tragedy,” and I’m ready for Middleton to bring on the Second.

I hope he makes a better job of it…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Curious History of Cardenio...

I have to give a shout-out to Jeffrey Gantz for his excellent treatment of the whole vexed question of Cardenio, so often tagged as "Shakespeare's Lost Play," in The Phoenix. A Boston company is mounting a new play inspired by...well, lots of stuff, including Theobald's play Double Falsehood and material from Don Quixote.

Gantz recounts the entire history of the search for Cardenio, and brings a healthy scepticism to the table. I am always a bit surprised at how willing people are to accept the idea of Cardenio as a Shakespeare collaboration, when all we have to support that are two exceptionally dubious attributions well after the fact. (Attribution one is from bookseller Humphrey Mosely, and is worthless. Attribution two is from theatre impressario Louis Theobald, who was obliged to climb down when he printed Double Falsehood.)

There is even a Middleton connection, thanks to an eccentric book published by handwriting analyst Charles Hamilton in the 1990's: he examined the manuscript of the play I guess we're supposed to call The Lady's Tragedy now, but has traditionally been referred to as The Second Maiden's Tragedy, and pronounced it Shakespeare's long-lost Cardenio--even though it's not the right story from Quixote and everyone else believes Middleton wrote it. No one took that attribution seriously except for the odd company looing to stage a curiousity; Gantz calls Hamilton's book "dismally argued." I agree--I'm no expert, but it seems to me that Hamilton managed to convince himself that the English "secretary hand" was the same thing as "Shakespeare's handwriting."

I'll come back to The Lady's Tragedy in the fullness of time, as it is naturally included in the lavish new Middleton. I haven't read it before, but it seems to get a lot of praise--not from Gantz, who pronounces it "neither very good nor very Shakespearean." I'll give him the latter, but hope he's wrong on the former.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Anatomy of an Adaptation

Now that we’ve talked about this crazy text of Macbeth, let me lay out the shape of the Middletonian adaptation, according to Gary Taylor’s text and notes. My intent is to take each of the major items in future posts, one by one, and give you the invaluable perspective of a Computer Science major on these difficult matters of textual scholarship. Man, do I love this Internet we built!

The original Macbeth was probably written sometime around 1606—within fifty years of that date, almost certainly. Middleton’s adaptation was done perhaps in 1616, with a similar margin of error. I’ll refer to them as the 1606 and 1616 versions—it’s probably close enough.

The most significant systematic modification Middleton made to the 1606 Macbeth was to make it witchier. The three beings Macbeth and Banquo encounter on a blasted heath are called “wayward sisters” or “weyard sisters” by everyone in the play, themselves included, and this looks back to Shakespeare’s source, Hollinshed’s Chronicles, which called them “weird sisters,” the term that editors generally standardize the spelling to. The women are indeed strange, but “weird” here is from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, or “fate.” So the Sisters are, originally, the three Fates. Shakespeare made them a little like witches, killing swine and cursing ships, and Middleton turned the dials up to 11, with familiar spirits, dances in a ring, invocation spells. This is important to me, as the most significant systematic modification I made to Macbeth for the 2007 production I worked on was to de-witch the play as thoroughly as possible. Not an eye of newt to be found. I’ll talk about the different visions of these characters in a future post.

Gary Taylor also argues for a second systematic modification, in which Middleton toned down the Catholicism in the 1606 version, even as he cranked up the witchcraft. I’m not sure that I’m on board for that ride, but I’ll call attention to it scene-by-scene.

The 1616 Macbeth presents an account of a battle, told in pieces by various characters that come on stage to report to the King. It’s a disjointed scene, and many people have seen signs of cuts and compressions in the text. Taylor suggests that the 1606 original actually presented the battle, in one of those wonderful swirling scenes with lots of noise and running—such as comes at the end of Henry IV, Part 1, or near the beginning of Coriolanus. He supposes Middleton re-arranged the language and caulked over the seams as best he could with new lines.

The next substantial alteration is the appearance of Hecate, who calls out the other three Witches for reaching out to Macbeth without her oversight. There follows a special-effects spectacular, with spirits in clouds, flying machines, and the first of two songs, lovingly reconstructed from The Witch and Davenant’s later version of Macbeth.

After Hecate roars off into the darkness, there is a shot scene where Lennox and an unnamed Lord feel each other out on the whole Macbeth situation. There’s some lovely, subtle verse there:

…the gracious Duncan
Was pitied of Macbeth. Marry, he was dead,
And the right valiant Banquo walked too late—
Whom you may say, if’t please you, Fleance killed,
For Fleance fled. Men must not walk too late.

Taylor suggests Middleton cut this scene down, and meant to cut it further, but some intended deletions remained in the manuscript. I don’t have an opinion to offer yet.

Back to the witches now, and Hecate’s second song, after which Macbeth arrives to demand more prophesies, because that’s worked out so well for him thus far. The argument here is interesting. Taylor believes there was a cauldron as far back as 1606, but that the three apparitions were Middleton’s innovation—the prophesies were originally spoken by the Weird Sisters themselves. Interesting. If so, it’s the one element of the 1616 Macbeth that I can whole-heartedly embrace. After the witches vanish, Macbeth has a chilling soliloquy that Taylor credits, mostly, to Middleton:

To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to the edge o’th’ sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line…

(You know, I’m starting to enjoy adding punctuation to the text as I type it. With this edition, everyone can be an editor!)

Back at Fife, Middleton evidently expanded or revised the dialogue between Lady Macduff and her son. The argument turns on vocabulary and an odd, redundant quality to the existing text that I noticed when I made my own edit.

The final substantial innovation comes in that interminable scene in England, where Macduff, Ross and Malcolm launch their rebellion, and it’s one of the most surprising items in this edition—Taylor argues that, in 1606, Edward the Confessor actually appeared on stage, cured the sick, anointed Malcolm as Scotland’s rightful King, and loaned him an army. True or not, it’s a striking idea, and I can’t help thinking that it would make for a much more effective scene than what we have today. Why would Middleton cut it? Here’s where we get back to the Catholicism argument—Edward was a Catholic saint, and, for political reasons, he had to go.

The rest of the play proceeds as we all remember: sleepwalking, Birnam Wood, Homeric duels. The confusing way Macbeth seems to be killed both off-stage and on may point to a final Middleton edit, or may not.

Of course, we’ll never see all the lines of the 1606 Macbeth that Middleton cut, but the remarkable quality of this edition is to present the Shakespearean original as much as the Middletonian adaptation. It makes me wonder if some gutsy director might not try to put Edward Confessor back on the stage…there’s a very fine line between clever and stupid, as they say; I wonder which side of the line that would come down on?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Alien and Alienating Text

Before digging any deeper into this edition of Macbeth, I wanted to talk about the remarkable nature of the text itself. It is billed as “a genetic text,” designed to present and explore the layers of composition, and is a quirky, idiosyncratic beast. There are neither punctuation marks in the text (except for apostrophes) nor capital letters at the beginnings of sentences or verse lines, so we get Shakespeare by way of e e cummings:

she should have died hereafter
there would have been a time for such a word
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death out out brief candle
life’s but a walking shadow a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more it is a tale
told by an idiot full of sound and fury
signifying nothing
enter a messenger
                                thou com’st to use
thy tongue thy story quickly

Huh. The argument goes, neither Shakespeare nor Middleton used much in the way of capitals or punctuation in their surviving manuscripts (real Shakespeare nuts will note that you have to accept the “Hand D” additions to Sir Thomas More as Shakespeare’s in order to give him any “surviving manuscripts”), so that the 1623 Folio punctuation “reflects the practices of different compositors and scribes,” and not the playwrights. The spellings, too, are taken to have more to do with the print-shop compositors, and so all the spelling is quietly regularized to modern norms, as being the most neutral choice possible. “Words have to be spelled, one way or another,” and “the choice of any early modern spellings would necessarily have been arbitrary, lending an undeserved weight to differences which have no more authority than differences in punctuation.”

Okay, but then we go a bridge too far: “This completely unpunctuated text lets readers decide for themselves how to interpret the words…glossarial commentaries, like punctuation, make interpretive choices about which meanings are appropriate and which are not.” That might explain why Macbeth has been stripped of punctuation and commentary, but it doesn’t explain why we wouldn’t want to do that for every other play in the book. Doing this once as a special exercise in textual exploration is one thing, but don’t let’s try to make some kind of post-modernist virtue out of it.

Beyond this, every word is color-coded, as it were, to show Gary Taylor’s assessment of its provenance, thus:

-What Shakespeare wrote and Middleton left untouched is in normal type.
-Middleton’s additions are in bold.
-Words that Middleton deleted or meant to delete are in light gray.

“Deleted?” But how can we know that? There’s just the one text, and you can’t see what’s not in it. Ah, but Doctor Taylor can—even if only through a glass, darkly. He conjectures that certain passages were re-arranged from Shakespeare’s original manuscript: these appear in gray in their “original” positions, and then in bold where Middleton is supposed to have relocated them. There is also the rare bit that seems to have been meant for deletion, but somehow survived in the manuscript—redundancies and so forth. Last of all, Taylor takes a couple of tentative stabs at describing what might have once been present in Macbeth before Middleton’s cuts—including a cameo appearance by Edward the Confessor himself.

Gentle reader, I perceive your dubiousness through the very fabric of time and space. But let’s leave our discussion of the details for another day. I can only report that I’ve been turning Taylor’s conjectures over and over in my mind these past days, and there is a satisfying resonance to them, a kind of ring of plausibility, if not of Truth in all her glory. We’ll talk about all these items one at a time—for now, I just wanted to paint a picture of this very odd text.

In truth, I rather like it. It’s not a text for reading, really, but there’s no need for that: as the editors point out several times, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a “traditional” text of Macbeth. I count five of ‘em on my bookshelf right now. This is more in the nature of a blueprint or schematic drawing: the intent is to expose the structural members, not conceal them. One thing I’m really coming to admire about Taylor’s editorial practice is his ability to communicate important non-verbal messages through form and style. This wacky Macbeth actively avoids polish. It looks like an archaeological dig site, which I suppose it almost is. In spite of the stated reasons for stripping all the capital letters and punctuation, I think the biggest one was to contribute to the atmosphere of roughness in the text, which encourages us to be open-minded to the possibilities of revision and reconstruction in a way that a “clean” text might not. An “alien and alienating” text, as Taylor puts it, putting one in mind of Brecht and his “alienation effect”—setting us apart to better analyze and judge.

I keep thinking I’m just going to bang out a few quick thoughts, and, next thing I know, I’m closing in on 900 words again. Past time to shut this one down!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

By the pricking of my thumbs...

(Image: Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Henry Fuseli)
I came to realize that, if I didn’t get right to Macbeth, it was just going to lurk in the back of my mind and make me too cross to enjoy anything else. So, my first play in the Collected Works of Thomas Middleton is going to be a play that isn’t especially "by" Middleton at all. How post-modern of me.

How does Macbeth come to be in this collection? Many fans of Shakespeare, even, will be surprised to hear that one of his greatest and most enduringly popular plays is covered with another author’s fingerprints. And yet, the basic idea that leads us, ultimately, to “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” being printed in the Oxford Middleton is about as settled and non-controversial as anything ever gets with this stuff. That basic idea is that two songs and a stray character drifted into Macbeth from another play sometime around 1616.

If you’ve read all of Macbeth, you will probably remember that there were not just three witches in it, but also the character Hecate, a sort of Witch Supervisor or District Manager who shows up to berate the first three for violating corporate procedures earlier in the play. She sings a song with them, just to show that there are no hard feelings, then later shows up during the “fillet of a fenny snake” business to sing another song and observe from the background as the first three witches summon the apparitions to speak their riddles to Macbeth.

I say “read,” and not “seen,” because it’s almost impossible to see these episodes performed on the stage anymore. Hecate serves no useful function and the song and dance numbers put the witches at grave peril of becoming ridiculous in our eyes. I’ve only even heard of one modern production retaining Hecate, and that was an amateur company that performed in Spanish (perhaps it gains something in translation). The excellent Arkangel Shakespeare audio series, with their philosophical commitment to cutting nothing, included both Hecate and songs, and gave it their best shot, but the play is unmistakably weaker for it.

But Hecate is where Thomas Middleton enters our story.

The Shakespeare Folio—our only authoritative source for the text of Macbeth—includes only the first words of each of the songs: “Come away, come away,” and “Black spirits.” The full text of each song is found in the only other play of the period to feature a witch named Hecate: Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. The stapled-in nature of the Hecate material in Macbeth makes it obvious that the flow of information was from The Witch into Macbeth, and not vice-versa, but there’s additional evidence in the form of a later adaptation by William Davenant, who printed the full text of the two songs in 1674, but most likely didn’t have a copy of The Witch to refer to. The chicken-and-egg calculations are very interesting, and covered beautifully by Taylor in his textual notes—I might write more about them later.

So, somebody transplanted the songs from The Witch into Macbeth, and, presumably, somebody wrote the lines for Hecate, who is quite superfluous to the plot. The leading theory for centuries now is that both of those somebodies were none other than Middleton himself. And, once we grant that the text was revised in one area, a lot of other things start to look fishy. Macbeth is very, very short—shorter than any other Shakespeare play except the very early Comedy of Errors. There are places where the verse is choppy and ragged, and whole scenes have a stitched-together kind of quality. The obvious conjecture is that we are not looking at just an expansion of Macbeth, but also an abridgement, and we can even guess where some of the cuts were made. We’ve already given Middleton credit for the songs and the Hecate additions—perhaps he also made the cuts, and whipped up a few lines of his own here and there to paint over the seams?

And that brings us to the present edition. Inga-Stina Ewbank, in her introduction to the text, reports Taylor’s estimates that Middleton might have cut ¼ of the original Macbeth. After picking through the play word by word, he also credits about 11% of the existing text to Middleton: mostly witchy stuff, but some other items as well. He also tries, where possible, to re-create what the original play might have looked like, an exercise that gets dangerously close to finding dragons in clouds at points, but also offers some fascinating possibilities.

Macbeth is very dear to me, and I’m afraid I had gotten my nose a bit out of joint at the prospect of it being included, in its entirety, in this collection—especially on the basis of some additions that are massively despised today (in the words of Ewbank, “disapproved of by editors, ignored by critics, and almost invariably cut by modern theatre directors”). I’m happy to say that my attitude has changed: in order to do what he wanted to do, Taylor had to include the entire text, because his edition is as much about uncovering the original Shakespeare as it is about delineating the Middletonian modifications. And the play certainly isn’t billed as some kind of collaboration, as much Middleton’s as Shakespeare’s—no, it is clearly understood as “Shakespeare’s play,” adapted by Middleton.

The chip on my shoulder is slowly being whittled down—although I still don’t like the Hecate stuff, and I still have my lingering resentment that I will never see the original Macbeth.

I’m still a very new blogger, and I’m trying to make my posts, well, bloggier—which means cutting them off at a reasonable hour for bed, and saving something for next time. I’m still eager to discuss the quirkier aspects of this text, and share with you my experiences doing my own adaptation of Macbeth last year (Craig Bryant—“our other Middleton”), and, not least of all, burden you with my own reading of the “witches,” and how I think Middleton’s adaptation undermined and cheapened Shakespeare’s original vision. But at least I’m at a point where I can cheerfully despise Macbeth’s Hecate, rather than grumbling darkly and gnashing my teeth.

So, until then!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thomas Who?: Some Middleton Resources

First off: not the guy who wrote Paradise Lost.

There's not a tremendous amount of Middletonian material on the Internet. Some Renaissance dramatists I could mention have venerable discussion lists, search engines, guides, and text repositories that someone has been meaning to get around to fixing since the end of the last century. For my new friend Thomas Middleton, the pickings are slimmer. I thought I would bundle together some of the most interesting resources I've found to date.

As part of the media whirlwind surrounding the release of the new Oxford edition, a couple of good articles appeared in the popular press. Gary Taylor, one of the general editors, made an engaging case for the importance of Middleton in the Guardian of London: "The Orphan Playwright." I don't buy everything he's selling--he seems to think it very important that Middleton was published at a younger age than Shakespeare, for some reason, and I can't say that I remember A Yorkshire Tragedy as especially "searing," but he gives a brisk, cogent argument for what makes Middleton great, and why he has languished in obscurity. Time magazine presents a more balanced, but open-minded and favorable treatment in "Thomas Middleton: For Adults Only." The Toronto Star gives another good account in "Who is 'The Other Shakespeare?'" Last, you can hear a lecture Taylor delivered at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, if you just keep scrolling through this page until you find the link.

Middleton, of course, has a Wikipedia page, as do many of his individual works. It doesn't seem bad, but you've always got to watch yourself around Wikipedia. Some unsavory types hang out there.

Chris Cleary has produced HTML editions of many of Middleton's plays, but, sadly, appears to have moved on to other endeavors. It was in his editions that I first read The Witch and A Yorkshire Tragedy, and I'm very grateful to him for his work.

The Luminarium page on Middleton brings together a number of essays and other resources.

Florida State University maintains a website at in support of the new Collected Works, but there's not really much there at present.

There is at least one blog dedicated to discussing the work of Thomas Middleton, but it's very new, written by an amateur, and not especially interesting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What a marvelous modern age we live in...

I note with happiness that has recently made both volumes of the Oxford Middleton available for full-text searching. Besides giving all you fence-sitters the chance to read a few pages before putting your money down, Amazon's "search inside" button is wonderful for finding something in a hurry or checking your memory when a book is at home and you're supposed to be working. I've looked up countless recipes in my favorite cookbooks, for instance, so as to check my shopping list for the afternoon commute. And now I can find every occurrence of "complete textual apparatus" in my Middleton at the press of a key. And I remember when the Internet was nothing but Star Trek geeks insulting each other in newsgroups at 1200 baud.

On Sitting Down to Read Thomas Middleton

Ready and equipped at last to begin the voyage. Acquiring my own 13 pound ration of Middleton proved to be a bit of work, as I first tried to save a penny with the cut-rate third party sellers on This works brilliantly, except when it doesn’t, and then it’s extra helpings of delay and frustration. Week and a half to get so much as an acknowledgement from the seller, then the wait for the refund and more time to buy again at list price, refreshing the UPS tracking page every fifteen minutes on delivery day, because I’m pretty sure they monitor that and tell the drivers to prioritize the packages for the anxious customers.

But that’s all done now. The ingredients are at hand: the Collected Works, the Companion, and an evening to survey the field. Truly not a book to be tossed aside lightly—one could sprain a wrist trying. Nor a book, it seems to me, to be embarked upon lightly. I pour a bracing drink and begin my reconnaissance.

The bulk of the book is itself a message, of course, and the message is something along the lines of, “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT AUTHOR.” I’ve been reading about the plans the Department of Energy is making to mark our radioactive waste dumps for the next 10,000 years, and the size of those markers is a message in the same way: 40-foot earthworks, 100-ton granite obelisks, massive concrete bunkers all proclaim, “This message is important—please pay attention!” So does a 2,016 page book. It is impossible not to compare it with the Oxford Shakespeare, also featuring Gary Taylor as a general editor. I don’t own a copy of that august work—yet—but I stopped by the bookstore to give it an experimental heft, and the new Middleton easily wins on pounds. I can’t believe that’s any kind of accident. The old comedy show “The Kids in the Hall” began a sketch once with a preacher asking, “Which weighs more: the Bible, or the Koran?” Isn’t Taylor inviting a similar comparison?

I open the book—it creaks a bit as the spine adjusts—and am delighted to see that Taylor does not disappoint. The first words following the title page trumpet his manifesto: “Thomas Middleton (1580-1627)—‘our other Shakespeare’—is the only other Renaissance playwright who created acknowledged masterpieces of comedy, tragedy, and history…” At least he has the courage of his convictions: spite of cormorant, devouring time, our other Shakespeare is rescued from the dust. Magnificent! I can tell I’m going to enjoy this journey immensely, even if I end up hating Middleton.

But it also makes me wonder about this enterprise. I was drawn to this brassy new edition of Middleton because I distrusted the cult of personality that had grown up around Shakespeare, and was getting a bit uneasy about my own devotion to that cult. Now I think—am I really changing my outlook, or just dabbling in the cult of Middleton, too? How much better is two cults than one? Then again, perhaps I’m just a bit unnerved at the way the book is already cutting off the circulation to my lower legs, and I’m looking for a way to second-guess myself. A quick pause to chafe the feet, then onward.

Following the three tables of contents (chronological, alphabetic and by genre—“generic?”), I am grateful to find a little five-page User Manual, “How to Use This Book.” It forms a neat prĂ©cis of the major editorial decisions that shaped this edition, and I admire Taylor for hanging his laundry out like this for us to see. I’ve gradually been growing more aware of how four hundred years of editing have shaped the way we read Shakespeare: act and scene divisions, names of characters, names of the plays, even. Taylor doesn’t have those four centuries of practice, and has to write his own rules.

I generally like the look of things, although my spider sense starts tingling when he talks about the “federal” properties of the edition—taking different approaches to spelling, commentary, presentation, from one text to the next. He calls it “mak[ing] a virtue out of multivocality,” but I think it has a certain quality of throwing lots of spaghetti at the wall and then seeing what sticks—as if the general editors weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do, or (perhaps more likely) found it impossible to ride herd on the 61 other named contributors at the front of the volume. Then, too, uniformity can be stifling. My own “Complete Shakespeare” is a crazy-quilt of different editions: Signets, Ardens, Folgers, Cambridges, what-have-you. My wife can’t understand why I’d need three different Macbeths, but I know that they’re all different. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Eighty-odd pages of introductory essays follow the warm-up essay. I’ll probably read “Thomas Middleton: Lives and Afterlives” right away, and save the pieces on London and the theatres of the period for later.

At last, I come to the main event: the collected works of our other Shakespeare. It’s getting late—or my glass is getting empty—or both—so I’m not going to start a serious assault on a play tonight, but it is impressive to flip through for a while.

For all the talk of following the approach of the Oxford Shakespeare, this book gets one thing right that the earlier work got disastrously wrong: it includes footnotes with the plays. I still am baffled by the idea of presenting an edition of Shakespeare to general readers without footnotes (and saying that they’re all in a companion volume is a pretty shoddy defense). Middleton, who we haven’t been hearing all our lives, would have been impossible without them. And the quality seems just about perfect—“false friends” in the vocabulary, obscure references elucidated, but nothing to try the patience or insult the intelligence.

The running titles on the pages have come in for a lot of notice, and I notice them, too. A single play might have five or six different titles, all in different typefaces (or even handwritten). So, the play called “The Puritan Widow” will have at the top of each page one of the following:
The Puritan Widow
THE WIDDOW of Watling-ftreete. (I know it’s a long ‘s,’ not an ‘f.’ Give me a break—I’m new to Blogspot.)
The Puritaine Widdow.

It may be a bit disorienting, but I rather like it. In a modern omnibus edition, it is necessary to homogenize the texts to some extent, but I think this is a nice way of calling attention, almost subliminally, to the rich, contradictory, frustrating, endlessly rewarding mess that is textual scholarship. It gives us access to a little bit of the richness, with very little of the pain.

My eye is drawn toward some familiar titles: Timon of Athens. Measure for Measure. Macbeth.

Macbeth. The warm feeling I am developing for this book cools. The only text of Macbeth we have today is the one that Middleton monkeyed around with, interpolating his silly song-and-dance numbers from The Witch and fundamentally debasing the whole play. Shakespeare gave us the awful majesty of Fate, and Middleton turned the Weird Sisters into the Three Witches, a Haunted-House attraction. Sorry to sound emotional like that. I put together an adaptation of Macbeth last year, and I came to believe that a big part of what I was doing was un-adapting Middleton’s adaptation. It bugs me that I’ll never get to read Shakespeare’s original, and it bugs me to see the complete text of Macbeth in Middleton’s Collected Works. Back in high school, I myself wrote a puerile “new ending” to Romeo and Juliet. So do I get to include the first four acts of the original in my “works?” Would even George Bernard Shaw have the pluck to publish the first four acts of Cymbeline under his name, on the basis of his new fifth act?

I’ll have more to say about Macbeth, I’m sure. But this is bringing me down, and I don’t want to lose that happy glow. Just a touch more Scotch (of course), and a quick thumb through the Companion. The meat of this book is a “textual apparatus” for each of the works in the main volume—lovely term, evocative of scaffolding and gears and pulleys. Mark Scroggins, who blogged his own impressions of this book, and who, I wish, would write more about Middleton, took exception to sticking all the textual notes in an ancillary volume, but I think this isn’t so bad. Too many notes slow down the “pace” of a text—I find the Arden Shakespeare almost unreadable, except as a reference work. Having these notes in a separate volume means I can have both books open at once if I’m really scouring a passage.

And of course there’s loads of interesting essays, on printing technology, music, seemingly anything you’d care to know about the period. My mind is an infamous junk-drawer of odds and ends, and I know I’m going to suck greedily all of this information.

But for now, it’s time to put the book back on the shelf—remembering to lift from the knees and avoid twisting motions. I see the clock has turned over and today is become tomorrow. April 23, the traditional birthday of William Shakespeare, “our other Middleton”. My entire life is suddenly full of portents. What could be more appropriate?

Monday, March 31, 2008

A beginning is a very delicate time...

So I’ve been in love with Shakespeare for most of my life. For all the usual reasons, I suppose: those people live so big, and die so big, triumph, rejoice, despair and are vanquished on a level that is so grand it is almost out of an ordinary person’s comprehension. And those words…oh, those words, that feel like lightning and echo faintly in your mind the rest of your life. Even his crummy plays—and he wrote a few, no mistake—have at least a passage or two of pure gold. And the best ones? Horatio can’t even say, “It’s getting light; let’s go find the prince,” without uttering some of the finest poetry in English.

I acted in a little Shakespeare in college while I was supposed to be studying for my Computer Science degree, and I recently went back to my alma mater to assist with a production of Macbeth, for which I coached the actors and produced a very tight 90-minute version of the script of which I’m kind of proud. Last year, I made it a project to read all of Shakespeare (some of it for the first time), and experience all of the plays in production (some live, some video, some audio)—a wonderful journey that my overheated little brain is still processing; resonances and connections float up to my conscious mind from time to time.

And yet, fantastic as it was, I couldn’t help feeling a bit small-minded about it, even a bit guilty…particularly as I slogged my way through the approximately five billion stanzas of Lucrece, which I didn’t enjoy at all. I’ve always had this nagging awareness that Shakespeare was just one figure—albeit a titanic one—in the story of the English Renaissance. He didn’t write the forty best plays of the period, but it’s much, much easier to find a production of an indifferent Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona, say), than of the masterpieces of Jonson, Marlowe, Webster, and so on. And here I sat, indulging in the cult of Shakespeare. I felt cheap.

I decided it was time to spread out, try to find some of that magic in the words of the people who wrote at the same time for the same stage. If nothing else, I would deepen and refine my understanding of one of the great treasures of human art. And if there’s another Shakespeare out there, waiting to be read…

Enter, at that moment, Gary Taylor, with his 20-years-in-the-making, cast-of-thousands edition of the collected works of Thomas Middleton. “Our other Shakespeare,” he likes to call him. You haven’t ever been able to read him properly, but now, for the first time in 400 years, you can.

You know that I held Epicurus strong
And his opinion: now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.

I have to take a chance on an omen like this. I have my doubts—a bushel of them. Gary Taylor is an infamous name in some Shakespeare circles; he makes me awfully suspicious. And Middleton? I mostly think of him as the hack who scribbled all over Macbeth in 1616 or so, and prevented us from ever being able to read Shakespeare’s original. But I’m going to give it a go. has my money, and soon I hope to open the steel-reinforced box bearing my very own copies of Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works and Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, 3,200 pages in all. And I bet there aren’t even pictures.

I’m not committing to the lot, you understand. But I’m going to give Middleton the fairest shake I can. Falling in love with Shakespeare was hard work, sometimes, but worth it in the end. If you’re interested in the journey, gentle reader, I will use this blog to post dispatches along the way. Perhaps, I can show you some new and undreamed-of treasures…or at worst, warn you away from the quicksand.

I’m not offering heroics, like Julie Powell did when she cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year (though perhaps I should; she got a book contract and a movie deal for her trouble); I’m going to go at my own pace, and if I want to sneak off and read some Shakespeare in the middle of it, I’m gonna. I’m sure I could force myself to get through ten pages of Middleton a day, and just as sure that it would pass almost unimpeded out the other side of my mind. Taylor spent, after all, a good chunk of his professional life on this project—I owe it enough time to take it seriously. Check in with me once in a while, and we’ll see if I have something worth sharing with you.