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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare in Production: “Macbeth.”
  • Katherine Rowe (bio)
Shakespeare in Production: “Macbeth.” Edited by John Wilders . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Illus. Pp. xiv + 229. $75.00 cloth, $26.99 paper.

The New Cambridge Shakespeare in Production series has ambitions for an expansive, Variorum-style edition of Shakespeare in performance. As the series editors frame it, they aim to offer "the fullest possible staging of individual Shakespearean texts" for students and researchers, selecting "interesting and vivid evocations of settings, acting, and stage presentation" that range "widely in time and space" (ii). John Wilders's edition of Macbeth for this series suggests both the excitement and substantial challenges inherent in such a project. The structure of this volume is simple and eminently useable. Wilders offers basic resources: a list of selected productions from 1606 to 1999, a compact bibliography, a dozen engaging illustrations, and a substantial introduction in which he sketches production and reception history. But the body of the volume is its detailed commentary. Anchored line by line to the New Cambridge edition of the playtext, the commentary excerpts descriptions of stage furniture, blocking decisions, stage reminiscences, directorial cuts, revisions, interpolations, and so on, garnered from a wealth of promptbook marginalia, actors' journals, reviews, and contemporary criticism.

This series comes at a time of considerable rethinking about the resources needed for exploring "Shakespeare in performance," an arena rapidly expanding to embrace film, global performance contexts, reception and audience studies, and textual studies. Wilders's volume is traditional in its outlines: the productions that matter here are classical theatrical ones, centered in London. But it is also a model of how to make diverse stage contexts accessible. For dramaturges and students of theater history, there are many useful shortcuts to be had in a commentary indexed to the playtext. One can easily imagine a survey of the way different productions have handled the play's dark atmospherics, by tracking motifs of light and dark through the text and dipping into the commentary. Similarly, Wilders outlines a range of theatrical solutions to the play's challenging combination of intimacy, violence, and ritual. The materials gathered in the commentary are of necessity scattered and descriptive; they offer little of use to an actor scoring individual speeches, Boleslavsky-style. However, they do give a sense of standard [End Page 346] through-lines for the main characters. For example, Wilders tracks changing fashions for a womanly versus a stern interpretation of Lady Macbeth. These pair up inversely with leading men who emphasize Macbeth's ruthlessness (Anthony Sher, 1999) or guilty horror (David Garrick, 1744). Such pairings have consequences for line readings, for example, the moment at which a Sher or a Garrick signals that Macbeth conceives of regicide.

Wilders's ear for theatrical trash talk makes for an enjoyable browse. We learn that critics thought the comic actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was miscast as Lady Macbeth opposite Gielgud's Macbeth (1942). According to one reviewer, "She can neither speak daggers nor look them" (56). On Ellen Terry's fabulously pre-Raphaelite outfit—all saga heroine braids, scaly green silk, and tinsel gown, embroidered with griffins and bordered in Celtic designs—Wilders gives us Oscar Wilde's acid remark, "'Lady Macbeth seems an economical housekeeper and evidently patronizes local industries for her husband's clothes and the servants' liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium'" (97). Yet Wilders is an evenhanded editor, and he closes with Terry's own words—marginal annotations for her first entrance, reading the letter: "'Steady. Breathe hard. Excited. Not too quick'" (97).

The theater history Wilders sketches in the introduction is a genealogical one, in which successive generations of London directors, actors, and occasional actresses work their way back to Shakespeare's original text after Davenant's early distortions. While the series introduction confidently uses terms such as "collaboration" and speaks of the way history "makes and remakes" playtexts in performance (vii), this particular narrative sounds surprisingly traditional, stable, and continuous. Every performance is assimilated into a normative reading of Macbeth as a drama of transgression, descent into chaos, and restoration. To some degree, such homogenizing effects are to be expected; given the space...


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