The Smell of Macbeth
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Shakespeare Quarterly 58.4 (2007) 465-486

The Smell of Macbeth

mercury       Peace, good squib, go out.
crites       And stink, he bids you.

—Ben Jonson1

Did the Shakespearean stage stink? The Jonsonian stage certainly did. In the prologue to Bartholomew Fair, the Scrivener complains that the Hope Theater, where Jonson's play was first performed in 1614, is "as dirty as Smithfield, and as stinking every whit."2 Such a description may stir the worst suspicions of modern readers, who all too easily imagine the early modern playhouse—in an age before deodorant, showers, and air conditioning—to have been a malodorous cesspit of the great unwashed, populated by reeking groundlings against whom the only available protection was the plague-palliating nosegay or pomander. But while Jonson refers here to the space of the theater as a whole, he also knew something of the bad odors that could be produced specifically on the stage. Among the early modern theater's most dazzling special effects were two fireworks mentioned by the Caroline playwright Richard Lovelace in his epilogue to The Scholars: "'rosin-lightning flash'" and "'Squibs.'"3 Low-tech these fireworks may have been, but they packed an explosive theatrical punch. Rosin powder was thrown at candle flames to produce flares; squibs, famously called for in the stage directions to Doctor Faustus, were employed to produce flashes and loud bangs.4 [End Page 465] Because of their visual and acoustic impact, it is easy to overlook how both effects also stank—especially the squib, which became a virtual synonym for bad odor, as my epigraph from Jonson's Cynthia's Revels suggests. Like all gunpowder products, the squib combined foul-smelling ingredients—sulfurous brimstone, coal, and saltpeter—that reeked all the more when detonated. In his 1588 manual on the manufacture of explosives, Peter Whithorne writes that the saltpeter of gunpowder "is made of the dunge of beasts, . . . and aboue all other, of the same that commeth of hogges, the most and best is gotten."5 If saltpeter's fecal origins were not enough, gunpowder's customary mode of preparation served to amplify its malodorousness: Whithorne explains that its ingredients "must be compounded with the oile of egges, and put . . . vnder hot dung for a moneth."6 Little wonder, then, that Jonson's Crites insists on the squib's "stink."

Squibs, perhaps in tandem with rosin powder, were almost certainly used at the beginning of Macbeth to produce the effect of its famous stage direction: "Thunder and lightning" (1.1 sd).7 The controlled detonation of fireworks would have helped to create not only the necessary sound and light effects for the opening scene, but also the poor air quality described in the three witches' bizarre incantation, "Hover through the fog and filthy air" (1.1.11).8 In its first performances, then, the play most likely started not just with a bang, but also a stink, which would have persisted through the first scene as the fireworks' thick smoke wafted across the stage and into the audience. Even in the open-air Globe, the smell would have been strong; if the play was performed indoors at court for King James, the odor would have been stifling. Given the squib's dungy provenance, its stench might have lent an extra olfactory charge to Lady Macbeth's invocation of the "dunnest smoke of Hell" (1.5.49).9 [End Page 466]

This essay, then, considers what may seem like a familiar subject in Macbeth criticism: gunpowder. It does so less to cast light on the infamous historical Plot of that name, however, than to ponder the ways in which the smelly materials of early modern theatrical performance worked on their audiences or, for the purposes of this essay, their olfactors. I consider how the smell of Macbeth's "thunder and lightning" was as theatrically important as its visual and acoustic impact, and how playgoers' responses to the odor of the squibs were not just physiologically conditioned, but implicated within larger cultural syntaxes of olfaction and memory. But...