In the satisfyingly gut wrenching ending of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff carries the titled villain’s head onto the stage. Of late, several American productions have “enhanced” the Folio stage directions by having Macduff subsequently toss the head across the stage in disdain. During this maneuver, it is customary to use a burlap sack filled with all manner of materials (small watermelons and tomatoes are favorites) as the prop. Some audiences have come to expect the thud-splat of Macbeth’s head as part of their catharsis, allowing us to share Macduff ’s triumphant revenge and reminding us of the fact that overreaching arch-villains do not, in fact, always succeed.
Therefore, it was with some sadness and horror that I watched and heard the sack representing Macbeth’s head bounce across the stage and roll to a stop during a recent performance of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. In no way did the ball inside the sack sound, look, or act like what one might expect from a decapitated head. If this had been a collegiate performance, I might have excused and even laughed at the gaffe (as many of the audience members around me did). Instead, I was watching the professional troupe, Actors from the London Stage perform what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and undermine a crucial emotional moment with a bouncing ball prop.
That said, I hasten to point out that the overall performance was very good. But I begin with this minor misstep because I think it instigates an important discussion. As a professional Shakespearean, I have certain expectations of what Shakespeare should be. The four full rows of undergraduate students behind me did not murmur aloud as I did; in truth, they probably had no idea what I found so annoying as to snort in derision at that point in the performance. Unfortunately, the difference in their reactions and mine is just one example of what happens to all of us as we advance further in our studies. As we develop intricate, multifaceted lenses through which to view early modern theatre, our experience of Shakespearean productions often suffers because they cannot possibly live up to our lofty, idealized, quintessential performance. As academics, the arroyo between criticism and mere enjoyment as an audience member is a problematic one to attempt to traverse and/or to fill. The gloss of academic elitism, though, must sometimes be torn asunder to allow new acolytes a view of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as something more than mere consecrated words on a page. The AFTLS performance of Macbeth at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was part of such an attempt.
In the spring of 2001, an interdisciplinary group of faculty members, led by history professor Dr. Robert Bast, applied for a UT Presidential [End Page 78] grant and formed the Medieval and Renaissance Curriculum and Outreach Project, or MARCO. Subsequently, MARCO won a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant of three million dollars in 2003 for its academic and community outreach programs. Since its formal acceptance as a separate Institute within the university in 2004, the faculty of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has won a number of major research fellowships. Most recently, Marco and University of Tennessee chancellor Loren Crabtree declared Fall 2007 the “Renaissance semester” and planned a wide span of symposia, courses, seminars, and performances for the campus and the public throughout the semester. These events included the annual Renaissance Faire; public lectures by scholars such as A.R. Braunmuller, Elizabeth Clark, Lester Smith, Kathryn Salzer, and Jay Rubenstein; the annual Marco Symposium, entitled “Saints and Citizens: Religion and Politics in the Middle...