Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s least humorous plays. It’s rich in irony, but not in laughs except for the audacious scene of the Porter, which we’ll deal with in detail presently. So let’s ease into it with some comedy and a bit of autobiography. (This is my journey, after all.)
If you know anything about Macbeth other than snatches of some of its famous lines out of context (“Double, double” and all that), you know that actors really do have a superstition that it is bad luck to mention the name of the play or its main characters in a theater. A theatrical tradition of disasters caused by violating this rule goes way back. Hence the phrase “the Scottish Play” to refer to the play, “the Thane” or “the Scottish King” or my favorite, “Mackers,” for Macbeth, and “the Queen” for Lady Macbeth.
Here is a clip about the curse. It’s from the second season of the brilliant—I say again, brilliant—Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The three seasons of Slings and Arrows deal with a theatrical company rather like the famous one in Stratford, Ontario, and their efforts to produce Hamlet (season one), Macbeth (season two), and King Lear (season three). If you’ve never seen it, run out and rent the DVDs the minute you finish reading this post. Seriously. You can thank me later. Anyway, the clip begins with a scene that shows off the curse’s terrible effect; it’s followed by the second season theme. The singer is Michael Polley, father of the divine Sarah Polley:
See? “I won’t play Mackers.” And as if that didn’t clinch the point, this classic episode of Blackadder (which I somehow managed to find in its entirety) shows the lengths actors go to in order to exorcise any mention of the Scottish Play:
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But enough of this airy persiflage. When we get to The Merchant of Venice (which we may, or may not, do soon after we’ve finished with the Big Four—Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear), I’ll tell, or retell, the story of Mr. Doyle, the phys ed instructor who pinch hit as our English teacher my sophomore year in the Jesuit high school. However, that was not my first go-round with Shakespeare. The earliest exposure I can remember was to Macbeth—not the play itself, but the Classics Illustrated comics version. (Don’t knock Classics Illustrated. I can’t be the only child for whom it was a gateway drug.) I still remember images from this version, especially the scene with Banquo’s ghost and the vision of the kings. I think the illustrator went all out on that one. And who could forget the cover?
I certainly didn’t, though I must have repressed that winged helmet. But since I was reading Classics Illustrated before I started school, and this issue dates from 1955, it’s reasonable to think I knew about Macbeth, and Shakespeare, when I was very young. Searching my memory now, I am not sure how old I was when I read the actual play. Fragments have stuck with me for a long time (such as 2.1.50–51, “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky/And fan our people cold”), but I might only have read it in college.
In any case, when I was little I had the interest. What a pity that it was crushed out of me! This traversal of Macbeth is therefore a memorial to my long-departed younger self, and is offered in the hope that it can prevent even one person in that self’s position from being turned off to Shakespeare.