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?