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!

7 comments:

Alan K.Farrar said...

You know, I come back to - who acted the witches? And I still put money on the comedians - in which case, the music and the oddness of Hecate stems not from the adaptations of Middleton, but the false perspective of the forces of evil - I can't help thinking too much Fussili and not enough Goya.
I read through the intro to the Oxford Shakespeare last week and also can't help thinking the folio adaptation is actually closer to the 'original' in the sense that it records what was acted on stage ...

Craig said...

Taylor argues the Sisters--the pre-1616 "witches"--were played by the boy actors, and closer therefore to the "nypmhs or fairies" reported both in Hollinshed and by a contemporary diarist. Post 1616, the boys were needed for supporting roles in the special-effects spectacular: apparitions, spirits singing to Hecate, and so forth, and the reshaped Witches were played by adult members of the company--hence, "beards," "filthy hags," and so forth.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon your blog whilst looking for an etext of The Witches. Ewbank is a she. And is still pretty persuasive...

Mary Pua said...

One of his famous works, but unfortunately I haven't got the chance to read it yet. Had many attempts to read, and even watch it, but something important always comes in the way so I never got to do so.

R. Cristi said...

I was able to watch it last year, and basically it is very amazing. I believe there will not be another William Shakespeare.

R. Cristi
Author of Blonde Joke book!

Jennnna said...

Found your blog fascinating! Doing some very lightweight research into Middleton's adaptation of the witches in Macbeth, and although it didn't tell me what i needed to know, i feel better for reading it!

day trading said...

It's proven that books written by Shakespeare will be very interesting to read and you can get a lot of knowledge with it.