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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 63, Number 4, December 2011
pp. 671-672 | 10.1353/tj.2011.0120

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Edited by Scott Newstok and Ayanna Thompson, Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance challenges the commonly held assumption that, unlike Othello or The Tempest, Shakespeare's "Scottish play" does not outwardly concern race or issues of racial difference. By addressing a range of adaptations, appropriations, and allusions to Macbeth, the twenty-six essays included in this volume undermine that assumption to demonstrate that "people have historically treated Macbeth as anomalous, different, and Other" (4). As Thompson explains in the introduction, racial implications abound throughout the play, beginning with Shakespeare's description of the witches. Although modern editors have typically rendered the First Folio's "weyward" as "weird," effecting a vowel shift that narrows the connotations of the original term, the more likely "wayward" suggests multiple and contradictory associations—including "weird," "fated," "perverse," "fugitive," and "troublesome"—that construct the three sisters as Others who may also be racially marked (3). Situating their study within American cultural history, Newstok and Thompson reveal Macbeth's historical engagement with American constructions of race, and thus offer a cure for the "historical amnesia" that has plagued the playtext, its performance history, and its scholarship (6).

Organized into seven sections, the volume offers persuasive raced and resistant readings of Macbeth. In addition to Thompson's introduction, the first section features Celia Daileader's "Weird Brothers: What Thomas Middleton's The Witch Can Tell Us about Race, Sex, and Gender in Macbeth," an essay that successfully initiates the project's recuperation of the play's racially inflected history. By examining the playtext, Daileader departs from the subsequent sections' interest in American performances. The witches are well-known to have been interpolated by Middleton, who re-imagined Shakespeare's fairies into the now-familiar bearded hags. However, Daileader also distinguishes Middleton's literal use of racial markers and employment of spectacle from Shakespeare's rhetorical, feminized darkness. She argues that Middleton, the first in the volume's series of Macbeth appropriators, is responsible for the play's "ambivalent, though certainly unwitting, legacy of 'racialized' interpretation" (12). Daileader's essay serves both to trouble Shakespeare's authority and to confirm the waywardness of the early modern text.

Section 2 examines how Macbeth operates within early American discourses about freedom, slavery, and national/racial identity. One of the most comprehensive essays in this section is Heather Nathans's "'Blood Will Have Blood': Violence, Slavery, and Macbeth in the Antebellum American Imagination." Clearly in dialogue both with the editors' objectives and with the other essays in this section, Nathans affirms the plural and ubiquitous meanings generated by the play in early American culture, as both pro- and anti-slavery activists and white and black audiences claimed Macbeth as their own. As Nathans demonstrates, the title character became a figure of proslavery white masculinity in Edwin Forrest's iconic portrayal, while the play's indelible images of blood and stained hands were associated with the violence of slavery.

The third section interrogates the history of Orson Welles's famous 1936 "Voodoo" Macbeth. Newstok's "After Welles: Re-do Voodoo Macbeths" is particularly successful at problematizing the production's legacy through a discussion of its remakings. Because Welles disavowed race as a determining factor in his own multiple adaptations of Macbeth, Newstok finds it unsurprising that black theatre companies have also often found themselves in contradictory positions toward Welles's precedent. Although the Classical Theatre of Harlem inaugurated its 1999 season with Macbeth and has since performed the play more often than any other, its cofounder Alfred Preisser remains appropriately equivocal toward Welles's influence. Newstok ultimately contends that contemporary African American productions of Macbeth are "burdened by the icon of Welles" (99) to varying degrees, desiring autonomy while also, deliberately or not, generating parallels to Welles. Newstok's conclusion substantiates the unstable, contradictory relationship between contemporary productions of Macbeth and the play's racialized performance history.

Section 4 provides five "snapshots" of what the editors call "racialized adaptations," or productions that translate Macbeth to modern racialized settings, such as ancient Japan or the Alaskan Tlingit community (7). These comparatively shorter essays provide opportunities for more in-depth, theorized scholarly investigation and will be valuable to artists interested in comparable projects...

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