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:
His horses go about!
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.
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.