- Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance
It turns out that Macbeth, even more than The Tempest or Othello, may be the Shakespearean production that speaks most directly and frequently to the history of race in the United States. Such a claim rests on significantly more than Orson Welles’s famous Federal Theatre Project production of “Voodoo Macbeth” in 1936. As the twenty-six essays collected in Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance demonstrate, Macbeth’s historical engagement with American racial epistemologies began with the first documented Shakespearean drama performed in the colonies (in 1699) and continues as an ongoing project today. In this volume, Welles’s production is at once decentered and returned to a deep and rich performance history that refigures the play’s “weyward” relationship to American racial identity and liberation politics. Weyward Macbeth originated as a symposium at Rhodes College in 2008 organized by co-editor Scott Newstok, and the essays retain the length and accessibility of conference presentations. This is a great strength of the collection, as it successfully weaves multiple disciplines, voices, visions, and approaches into a coherent and singular project. It is a model of collaborative performance history, bringing together Shakespeareans, filmmakers, musicologists, actors, poets, Americanists, historians, media studies scholars, composers, directors, undergraduate students, and community organizers to map Macbeth’s unexpected, discontinuous, and allusive paths in the United States.
The essays are arranged loosely chronologically, tracing the intertwined relationship between Macbeth and race from its early American enactments and allusions, to its early twentieth-century appropriations, through the legacy of Welles’s production, and to contemporary theatrical, musical, cinematic, and poetic adaptations. It looks toward the twenty-first century with an epilogue about racial narratives, Macbeth, and President Obama, and includes an impressive appendix of “Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-Traditional Casting.” Rarely is a collection of essays so focused and yet so broad, so comprehensive, and yet so intellectually open-ended. Any one of the essays on its own would be a respectable contribution to the study of race and Shakespeare, but it is in their collective resonance with and across each other, their symphonic ambition, that the volume’s significance lays. [End Page 315]
In an important essay that opens the collection, Celia Daileader establishes the transmogrifying potential of Macbeth as something immanent in its invention. She tracks Macbeth’s textual history and literary borrowings, finding the seeds for Macbeth’s racial germination in the authorial hybridity produced when Thomas Middleton added the gender-indeterminate witches—the “weird sisters” who were in earlier versions “weyward sisters”—to Shakespeare’s text after his death. Middleton and Shakespeare both drew from Renaissance moral vocabularies that employed rhetoric of lightness and darkness. But in the text that we know as Macbeth, Daileader finds that “Macbeth’s demonized—and sexualized—rhetorical darkness is a distinctly Shakespearean feature, while the play’s potential for vivid theatricality, its elements of pageantry and carnival, seem owing to Middleton” (19). This internal tension, combined with the introduction of the weyward sisters and their “anarchic power,” she contends, establishes the conditions for the future racial appropriations of the play in the U. S. context (15).
This textual porousness, carnivalesque spirit, and thematic reverberation made Macbeth especially open to cultural appropriation in antebellum America. As co-editor Ayanna Thompson puts it in the introduction, “the play’s very rhetoric of blood and staining informs—or seeps into—early American racial rhetoric as well” (4). Following the introduction, the volume’s second section traces Macbeth as it appeared in minstrel olios and blackface skits, in black actor Ira Aldridge’s world tour of the play, in political tracts and oratory by Southern and Northern politicians alike, and in work by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Throughout the antebellum public sphere, “Out, damned spot!” was uttered to indict the Constitution itself, marked with the stain of slavery, and Banquo’s ghost was appropriated as a moral symbol by both abolitionists and proslavery advocates. Proslavery writers compared female abolitionists to Lady Macbeth for their...