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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (review)

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 127-131 | 10.1353/shb.2011.0011

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This rich and provocative collection of essays is a compilation of historical, theoretical and interdisciplinary viewpoints on ways in which performances of Macbeth have engaged issues of race. Part of Palgrave Macmillan's series "Signs of Race" (series editors Arthur L. Little, Jr, and Gary Taylor), the book originated in a 2008 symposium at Rhodes College, organized by the volume's co-editor Scott L. Newstok. That conference, like many of the essays that it engendered, had its origin not so much in "Shakespeare studies" in the literary sense, but in performance: Newstok was inspired by the perhaps coincidental occurrence of two racially marked Macbeths in the Memphis area—Hattiloo Theatre Company's production with a largely black cast, and Opera Memphis' production of Verdi's opera with black principals. Newstok and co-editor Ayanna Thompson are to be commended for the impressive speed with which they have brought this important post-conference volume to publication.

The twenty-seven contributions (more numerous than in many such collections) form a kind of miscellany, comprising a number of methodologies (performance history, theory, testimony and polemic, to name a few) and written by both academics and non-academics, including several actors and directors. But they share a common goal: to "combat," as Thompson writes, "the historical amnesia" about Macbeth's "long history of literary and performance intersections with race" (6). Though lacking obvious explicit markers of race, the "Scottish play" is revealed in this volume as a site of long-standing—and continuing—racialized contention in the United States. Some of the essays focus on vexed questions of casting: the appropriateness of so-called "white" roles for black actors, and ongoing debates about color-blind casting. Others give accounts of the long after-life of Macbeth in racially charged political discourses. Still others chronicle the many ways in which the play has been displaced from medieval Scotland to other settings, thereby speaking more directly to the racial struggles of those other times and places.

I received this volume for review just as my Shakespeare classes at Oberlin were discussing a racially inflected campus production of Macbeth directed by faculty member Justin Emeka (a similar production by the same director at the University of Washington in 2005 is briefly chronicled in the volume's listing of "Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-traditional Casting" [250]). The production, set in the American South during Reconstruction, had white Macbeths, he from the North and she from the South; Banquo was a freedman who had served with Macbeth in the northern army; the witches were freed slaves. The murder of Banquo was staged as a lynching by disgruntled southern whites whom Macbeth had motivated to form the KKK. The controversy resulting from the production, in classes as well as in the student newspaper, made it clear how much a book like this is needed. Even on a liberal and race-conscious campus, too many students easily evoked the tired position that Shakespeare's text, in which there are no black characters, makes a racialized production irrelevant or even irreverent to a misconceived notion of the originary genius of Shakespeare.

The essays are organized in a rough chronology. To begin the volume, coeditor Thompson addresses the anthology's title, particularly the word "weyward," which in the Folio is the word used by the witches to describe themselves: "The weyward Sisters, hand in hand.…" In most editions, the word is changed to "weird." This volume, Thompson asserts, wants "to maintain the multiplicity and instability of the original text's typography" in order to recognize "the ambivalent nature of the racialized re-stagings, adaptations, and allusions to Macbeth" (3). An essay by Celia R. Daileader follows, continuing Thompson's textual-theoretical inquiry with an examination of the instability latent in Middleton's additions to Shakespeare's play, including the line about "secret, black and midnight hags" (4.1.64), a resonant phrase in a volume about race.

A recurring episode in the performance history analyzed in this volume is Orson Welles's famous 1935 Harlem production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre project. That event is contexualized first by a series of essays about the play's meaning for the...

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