restricted access D'Avenant's Lady Macduff: Ideal Femininity and Subversive Politics
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D'Avenant's Lady Macduff:
Ideal Femininity and Subversive Politics1

When Sir William D'Avenant—Shakespeare's own godson—adapted the original Macbeth (c.1606) in 1664, he successfully launched one of the most popular and lasting productions of the Restoration and early eighteenth century.2 From its first performance in 1664 until 1744 (the year it was permanently replaced by David Garrick's version), D'Avenant's Macbeth was enacted over two hundred times (Stone 187). Those who saw and recorded comments on the play were approbatory. Samuel Pepys, for instance, registers eight performances of the play (between 1664 and 1669), praising its acting (5.314) (especially Thomas Betterton as Macbeth [8.482; 8.521]), its "divertisement" (8.7), "variety of dancing and music" (8.171), and its "perfection" as a tragedy (8.7).3 More negatively, D'Avenant's Macbeth was occasionally a target of mockery, as in Thomas Duffett's Empress of Morocco (c.1673), which includes a farcical "Epilogue Spoken by Heccate and three Witches, According To the Famous Mode of Macbeth" ("Epilogue").4 Even such burlesques, however, demonstrate the celebrity of D'Avenant's version, a play that could at least be congratulated for warranting such attention. In short, D'Avenant's Macbeth was an exceptional play in its time, helping to establish a triumph for the Duke's Company (over the rival King's Company) in the early years of the Restoration (Hazelton Spencer 81), and garnering significant audiences and attention throughout its tenure on the English stage.

Despite Macbeth's prominence and reception during the Restoration and early eighteenth century, however, the play has been adversely criticized in subsequent centuries. Only in recent decades have scholars focused less on the ways D'Avenant's version fails to measure up to the original, and more on the ways D'Avenant's changes reflect the rhetorical, cultural, and political values of his own era. For instance, while Hazelton Spencer once called D'Avenant's alterations "hopelessly garbled" (166), his diction "horribly mutilated" [End Page 39] (159), and his tendency to literalize Shakespeare's figures of speech "irritating" (169), Richard Kroll has more recently contended that the adaptation sheds important light on D'Avenant's own rhetorical moment, one that was committed to a Hobbesian epistemology of, in Kroll's words, "reducing complex structures to their component parts" (838).

While D'Avenant's Macbeth has begun to be taken seriously as a reflection of early Restoration aesthetics and politics, the play continues to be the source of considerable frustration for feminist scholars. By augmenting and revising Lady Macduff's character, D'Avenant has been accused of creating a flat icon of idealized and submissive femininity, and a transparent foil for the demonized Lady Macbeth. As this article demonstrates, however, scholars have underestimated both the complexity of Lady Macduff's character and her ability to subvert seventeenth-century prescriptions of ideal womanhood. Not only does Lady Macduff raise controversial political questions (ones that challenge the political orthodoxy espoused elsewhere in the play), but she also openly disagrees with her husband ideologically and accuses him of serious moral wrongdoing. Although D'Avenant's motivations (aesthetic and political) for creating such a problematic heroine were far from proto-feminist, Lady Macduff breaks with dramatic precedent, emerging as a rare and, at times, even subversive tragic heroine. Perhaps most remarkably, Lady Macduff is able to achieve tragic pathos in spite of her controversial qualities. For, despite challenging the governing political ideology of the play, and despite her open defiance of her husband, Lady Macduff has carried—for over three hundred years—the illusion of being an ideal, submissive, and innocuous tragic heroine.

Modifying Macbeth

Notwithstanding increased scholarly attention in recent years, modern-day readers tend to be unfamiliar with D'Avenant's adaptation. Thus, what follows is a brief summary of the most significant changes D'Avenant made to Shakespeare's version of the play, separated into three major categories: staging, language, and constructions of character. Significantly, critics have lamented D'Avenant's alterations in each of these categories, arguing that the adaptor destroyed the Shakespearean complexity of the original; as Peter Dyson contends, D'Avenant made...