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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (review)

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 63, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 246-249 | 10.1353/shq.2012.0020

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The title of this collection contains its argument: the choice to follow the Folio spelling “weyward” instead of the more familiar “weird” is meant to destabilize our understanding of the play Macbeth, while serving as an emblem for the unpredictable and unacknowledged ways in which race has intersected with the play in its reception and performance history. As coeditor Ayanna Thompson writes in the introductory essay, the volume is intended to demonstrate how wayward—“weird, fated, fateful, perverse, intractable, willful, erratic, unlicensed, fugitive, troublesome” (3)—the play’s role has been in racial discourse and history. However, more than just waywardness is at issue. Countering the general assumption that plays like Othello or The Tempest have occupied more significant places in racial discourse, the collection sets out not only to demonstrate how much more “racially engaged” (4) Macbeth is than is commonly assumed, but also to “combat the historical amnesia” about this play’s “history within dialogues about race” and “position” it “in the center of American racial constructions” (8). The book promises a great deal, and it undertakes what could have been a significant reevaluation of Macbeth. Perhaps understandably, given the scope of the introductory essay’s claims, the volume does not deliver on its promises. Although the twenty-five essays in the collection do concern themselves with race and performance, they do not collectively advance an argument but remain scattered and diffuse—or wayward. Nonetheless, the book is certainly a worthwhile contribution: even essays that read as isolated reflections disengaged from the dialogue promoted by the book prove to be highly interesting; when connections are made, they are often unexpected and illuminating. In the end, one does acquire a new understanding of the part played by race in readings and performances of the play.

The book’s second essay, by Celia Daileader, is paired with Thompson’s introduction and is intended to illustrate the Shakespearean beginnings, or textual basis, of the tradition of “racialized reading[s]” and “interracial cast[s]” (17). Daileader tantalizingly notes that “the word ‘black’ occurs as often in Macbeth as in Othello” (15), as if to substantiate Thompson’s assertion that the play is in fact more racially engaged than commonly recognized. However, Daileader’s concern is not literal blackness, but Macbeth’s “rhetoric of blackness,” as evidenced in its “tropes of blackness” (16). She notes that, unlike Middleton, when “Shakespeare invokes blackness there is almost always a feminine point of reference” that is often “sexualized” (18–19). Daileader’s primary focus, that is to say, is “Shakespeare’s antifeminist bias” (19). For Daileader, “‘voodoo’ productions,” as well as “reviews of Angela Basset’s 1998 performance of Lady Macbeth that harp on the black actress’s sexuality,” are all ultimately extensions of the “misogyny” (19) that demonizes female sexuality as rhetorically black. If too categorical, this is an interesting twist on a fairly conventional reading of the play’s gender politics, but it ultimately highlights Macbeth’s “amenability” (13) to racial readings rather than the engagement with race already present in the play. Many of the collection’s other essays on related issues seem unaware of the dialogue that Daileader’s essay would initiate. For example, Wallace McClain Cheatham’s “Reflections on Verdi, Macbeth, and Non-Traditional Casting in Opera” is essentially a critical lament that African-American singer Shirley Verrett, despite her celebrated performances of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth at La Scala and elsewhere, never had the opportunity to play the role at the Metropolitan Opera. The reason: the Met already had a “black star” in Leontyne Price and would not “make room” for another (147).

Essays that deal explicitly in some form with Orson Welles’s famous 1936 Federal Theatre Project production, often called the Voodoo Macbeth, similarly head in multiple directions, although possible lines of intersection and dialogue are sometimes visible. Marguerite Rippy is primarily concerned with the racist “condescension” in the “modernist primitivism” (85) behind Welles’s production, and thus revisits a familiar criticism of the production without taking up the gender thread introduced by Daileader. Other essays seem entirely unconcerned with any criticism of Welles’s staging. Lisa Simmons, a filmmaker, looks at an African-American production of Macbeth...

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