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.


Lady Lodestone said...

Anne Barton, in her literary biography of Ben, writes about the use of animals in Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour, noting that while the Quixotic Knight Puntarvolo owns a horse, a dog, and a cat in the play, only the dog appears on-stage, and that as a "calculated scene-stealer," "difficult to control" and "disruptive" force on stage (71-72). Too, Barton can think of only one other dog on the early modern stage: Crab from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen. I'm guessing that if dogs, which are smaller and easily trainable, are disruptive on stage, live horses would (literally) have been a much bigger obstacle...

Craig said...

That's very interesting--I haven't read Every Man Out. I can attest that Crab regularly steals the show in Two Gents, and certainly gets the most applause.

Taylor does cite two "unequivocal" cases of horses on stage at the globe, but hedges his bet by saying they might have been properties rather than live animals: Alarum for London and The Late Lancashire Witches, neither of which I am familiar with. And, of course, we have some kind of "bear" in The Winter's Tale and Mucedorus...

Alan K.Farrar said...

Hey, Elephants in Verona! No self respecting director at the arena would miss the opportunity: Spectacular it is too.

Horses, of course, can be trained - circus.

Exit, pursued by bear? Presumption being man in costume - but a bear pit next door.

Only problem for the Globe and horse is HOW? Not horse friendly entrances if the modern reconstruction is anything to go by - unless small horses: and lifting onto the stage?

Lea said...

There is a role for a horse in the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock, as well, though we don't know when or where it was first performed (it only survives in MS). But it's pretty clear from the text that the horse is in the scene: there's an SD that reads "Enter a spruce Courtier a-horseback," and one of the characters talks to the horse at considerable length. The notes on the edition I have (Revels, eds. Corbin and Sedge) say it is "one of the three uncontested examples of the entrance of a horse in in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama" (it does not mention the other two, but cites Dessen and Thomson, whom I ought to look up, but I am lazy). Corbin and Sedge speculate that the action of this scene may have taken place in the yard, based as far as I can tell on logistical concerns rather than any clear-cut textual evidence (I don't think there's any clear evidence for use of the yard in theatrical performances). At any rate you can read the scene here (it's Act III Scene 2). I highly recommend Woodstock, which is a total blast (admittedly I have had it on the brain of late, since I'm revising my dissertation chapter on it).

I actually mostly came in to say hello and to remark that I am also blogging my way through the Oxford Middleton, albeit very slowly -- but then I realized I had something relevant to say that was on topic!

Craig said...


How happy I am to have you as a reader! Thank you for referring me to your own blog, which I look forward to reading. Just now, I'm killing brain cells on the beaches of Florida, and limiting my reading to more mindless pleasures (John Webster, for one).

I have not given Thomas of Woodstock the attention it probably deserves. The only three things I know about it are (a) that it's an incomplete manuscript, (b) it does in fact have a horse, and (c) it is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare by people who usually insist on calling it "Richard II, Part 1." It's a clown bit, isn't it--or at least a comical scene? If so, I wouldn't discount the possibility of a hobby-horse of some for use of the yard, I keep turning over my experiences at the Rose and the reconstructed Globe, and I just think that's about the only way you could get a live horse in front of the audience. I just don't know if you could move one around backstage and get it through the entrances. You can certainly imagine the theatrical power of a rider on horseback moving up through the groundlings, but I also wonder at the potential for mischief...

Welcome, welcome, and I hope you'll share much more with us in the future.

Lea said...

The three things you know about Woodstock are all entirely accurate, although the people who think it is by Shakespeare are TOTALLY WRONG. (I have strong opinions on this topic, probably the result of overexposure. Damn dissertation.) And you're right that the horse scene in it is comical; I will point out that in it, the courtier on horseback mistakes the title character for a groom (because of his plain clothes, which are a Big Deal) and asks him to walk his horse, so I am guessing probably not a hobby-horse (if you mean the kind that morris-dancers wear) though perhaps it wasn't a real one.

Another explanation I've heard for the use of the horse is that maybe the play was acted by a touring company operating in venues where there would be room. It wouldn't be hard to cut that bit for the public theaters. We're not sure, though, since, as I said, we don't know much about the circumstances of the original performances.

Craig said...

Hmm...yes, thanks for all that information. I guess we just have to call it another puzzle of Elizabethan staging. I was thinking something in the Morris dancing line--the BBC production of Henry VI, Part 1, put Duke Humphrey and the Cardinal in similar rigs for the fight at the Tower, to good effect. But your discussion of the text makes that less likely. One thing I keep thinking is that if horses "worked" on the stage--if they were practical and theatrically effective--we'd probably see more of them. That references to them are exceedingly rare suggests they were problematic.

Lea said...

Yeah, I've seen the Beeb 1H6, and the hobbyhorses did work there. They also used them in John Barton's 1973 RSC Richard II (which I did not see as I was not yet born when it was staged), where I can't imagine it worked that well. I think that your summation of horse usage in the Elizabethan theater is very sensible.

Alan K.Farrar said...

I still can't see how the horses were got on to the stages - and whether there was any point in the effort for a small scenic effect (especially as the scenic was greatly reduced).

Are we looking from too realistic a stage perspective?

The Elephants (and horse drawn carriages) work at the Arena in Verona - as a 'theatrical coup' rather than any help to the opera or staging.

Pub and courtyard space was needed for the punters - horses, although plentiful, would cut space.

In a comedy a hobby horse is more than sufficient - in the serious plays, something emblematic works - and I saw the Barton Richard II - it worked.

Craig said...

Barton in the glory days...that must have been something to see. Was that Richard Pasco's Richard II? I've seen him do just a few lines of the play (in Barton's incredible "Playing Shakespeare" series)--just amazing.

R. Cristi said...

Macbeth is by far my favorite from Shakespeare. Great work on that play. i have read it over 100 times.

pepper crane said...

Gary Taylor's Macbeth is, indeed, a revelation. The lines and events from the story that I know of are solely from Shakespeare. It's nice to know that there is a different angle to the story.