The astrologer Simon Forman went to the Globe on Saturday April 10th, 1611 and later wrote about it in his diary. Although it is tempting to paste in the entire account, I am going to drop it in in snippets in order to highlight my thoughts about its implications.
“ther was to be obserued, firste, howe Mackbeth and Bancko, 2 noble men of Scotland, Ridinge thorowe a wod, the[r] stode before them 3 women feiries or Nimphes, And saluted Mackbeth, sayinge, 3 tyms vnto him, haille mackbeth, King of Codon ; for thon shalt be a kinge, but shalt beget No kinge, &c. then said Bancko, what all to mackbeth And nothing to me. Yes, said the nimphes, haille to thee Banko, thou shalt beget kinges, yet be no kinge. And so they departed & cam to the courte of Scotland to Dunkin king of Scotes, and yt was in the dais of Edward the Confessor.”
Most critics who have taken note of Forman’s account focus on his mention of horses. Yet thanks to the scholarship of Dessen and Thomson, we have identified two plays—Alarum for London (1599) and the Late Lancashire Witches (1634) that were both staged at the Globe and also call for a horse to appear. Despite that, pretty much everyone continues to insist that it is implausible that horses were involved and that Forman has conflated his play experience with the account of Macbeth’s reign given in Shakespeare’s source--Holinshed, where there is a woodcut that shows Macbeth and Banquo on horseback with the “weird sisters.”
In his comments on Forman in the Oxford Collected Middleton (in which Macbeth now appears as an adapted text), Gary Taylor concedes that “Anything not mentioned by Forman could be an addition” (388). Yet his musings on this subject are very conservative. For example, Taylor has not mulled over the fact that Forman has the play begin with what in Shakespeare’s Folio is Act I Scene III. In the Folio, the Witches start the play with a brief bit about when they shall meet again—there on the heath to met with Macbeth (I.i). We then proceed to a scene (I.ii) where we meet King Duncan on a nondescript battlefield and watch him receive reports from concluded battles, one against Macdonwald, another against Norway assisted by that most disloyal traitor, the thane of Cawdor. Only then do we get the scene with Macbeth and Banquo encountering witches, except, as critics have noted, in Forman’s account they are not characterized as witches but as nymphs or fairies.
I am sure RR readers can see where I am going with this line of speculation, but before I continue, it is worth noting some Shakespeare stats: first Macbeth is 2477 lines long in the Folio. This total includes Act 3, Scene 5 (virtually always cut now) featuring Hecate and the song O Come Away, the full text of which appears only in Middleton’s play The Witch (which features a scene stealing Hecate). This line count also includes all of Act 4, scene 1 where Macbeth visits the witches, a scene that as printed includes Hecate’s second appearance and a directive for two songs, one with the witches circling the pot and another at scene’s end to “cheer . . . up” Macbeth (once again, this material is usually cut). So, Macbeth’s line count—as now staged—shrinks even further—to 2049 lines long, making it the second shortest play in the canon behind only the early Comedy of Errors (1778).
Furthermore, Macbeth is traditionally placed as having been written around 1606, that is after Lear (3499 lines) and before Anthony and Cleopatra (3578), plays with line counts that are typical for Shakespeare’s tragedies and for the plays cranked out around from 1600 to 1610, lets say. The conclusion I am driving at is clear: as Taylor explains, “it seems likely that anywhere from 700 to 1200 lines have been cut” by Middleton from Macbeth as we now have it (386). Taylor concludes with this guess: “Just as Coriolanus (1608, 3824 lines) has a sustained battle sequence in Act One, so Macbeth as written by Shakespeare might have staged some of the material which 1.2 narrates” (387).
Perhaps. But that is not what Forman records. Instead he has Macbeth and Banquo arrive at Duncan’s court. Of course once again, this is a major discrepancy with the text preserved in the folio where we never set foot in Duncan’s castle. I would suggest that it is likely that Macbeth as written by Shakespeare opened with Macbeth and Banquo entering the Globe’s pit from the rear on horseback. The weird sisters come out on stage. The actors dismount and make their way up on stage. The horses are led away, having kicked the show off with a bang. The scene concludes roughly where Ross enters in the Folio in response to Banquo’s line, “Who’s there?” In its place Shakespeare had some concluding banter between Macbeth and Banquo about the prophecies as they exit the stage.
Next Duncan appears and makes comments that establish the new scene as his court. Here I think the plot would unspool in a way similar to Othello. That is, we would learn that Scotland is under assault, by Norway and traitors unknown, and that Duncan greets and then charges his two best generals—Macbeth and Banquo—to mount a successful defense.
Next would follow Taylor’s conjectured battle scenes. However it is worth pointing out that Forman’s account does not mention them. Perhaps they bored him. I would conjecture that they proceed not unlike the end of Julius Ceasar where Cassuis and Brutus divide their forces to fight Octavius, Anthony, and Pompey. If so it would help explain a detail that has always perplexed me--Macbeth’s surprise at learning that he is the new Thane of Cawdor. After all, in the previous scene, Ross tells us that “the thane of Cawdor began a dismal conflict / till that Bellona’s Bridegroom lapped in proof / confronted him . . .”
Practically all editions of Macbeth gloss “Bellona’s Bridegroom” as Macbeth—yet that attribution raises a real question: how can Macbeth then claim when Ross greets him as the new thane of Cawdor in the very next scene that “the thane of Cawdor lives!”
But what if when Macbeth and Banquo are dispatched, we do not know who is the traitor working with Norway and what if Macbeth fights Macdonwald and Banquo fights Norway and discovers in the battle that the traitor is Cawdor. Then Duncan bestows Cawdor’s title to Macbeth.
Here we arrive at another hypothetical plot crux. Why would Duncan do that? Because in Shakespeare’s play, Duncan chooses rashly to reward according to his whim and here he decides to reward not Banquo but the thane he sees as Banquo’s superior and that is Macbeth. In making this decision Duncan signs his death warrant, and oddly enough, Banquo’s too. I see a speech about needing not to tie rewards to specific victories for if one does then it entices the subordinate to focus on deeds for rewards and not for honor. So Duncan gives what Banquo has won to Macbeth and then decides to allow Macbeth time to enjoy the favor before following it up with giving Macdonwald’s forfeited property to Banquo. In the meantime, in a similar mood, Duncan declares Malcolm his heir--this in violation to the Scottish convention of election of kings, rather than simple biological succession. Yet he never circles back to reward Banquo because--well, because. He is just that kind of man: foolish, trusting, forgetful —a man who says he is unable to read a man’s character from his face and that Macbeth’s castle hath a pleasant seat—and he will end up drunk and dead before issuing that edict rewarding Macbeth's right hand man.
Our surmises have taken us ahead of Forman who continues thusly:
And made Mackbeth forth with Prince of Northumberland, and sent him hom to his own castell, and appointed mackbeth to prouid for him, for he wold Sup with him the next dai at night, & did soe. And mackebeth contriued to kull Dunkin, & thorowe the persuasion of his wife did that night Murder the kinge in his own castell, beinge his gueste. And ther were many prodigies seen that night & the dai before.
With the exception of the odd phrasing surrounding the title Prince of Northumberland this summary is a very close match to the text as preserved in the Folio. That congruence reminds us of what Shakespeare can do well. Just as he pulled off a great piece of work about Iago’s rebellion, he once again scores pay dirt here. The account continues to remain close with the exception of some stage business involving the daggers:
And when Mack Beth had murdred the kinge, the blod on his handes could not be washed of by any means, nor from his wiues handes which handled the bloodi daggers in hiding them, By which means they became both much amazed & affronted. the murder being knowen, Dunkins 2 sonns fled, the on to England, the [other to] Walles, to saue them selues. They beinge fled, they were supposed guilty of the murder of their father, which was nothinge so. Then was Mackbeth crowned kinge, and then he for feare of Banko, his old companion, that he should beget kinges but be no kinge him selfe, he contriued the death of Banko, and caused him to be Murdred on the way as he Rode. The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had bid to a feaste to the which also Banco should haue com, he began to speak of Noble Banco, and to wish that he were ther. And as he thus did, standing vp to drincke a Carouse to him, the ghoste of Banco came and sate down in his cheier be-hind him. And he turning A-bout to sit down Again sawe the goste of banco, which fronted him so, that he fell in-to a great passion of fear and fury, Vtteringe many wordes about his murder, by which, when they hard that Banco was Murdred they Suspected Mackbet.
This account also provides some good reportage about how Banquo’s ghost was staged. It was not simply an invisible presence but played by an actor. Forman concludes the account in a way that suggests a fall off in interest on his part:
Then Mack Dove fled to England to the kinges sonn, And soe they Raised an Army, And cam into scotland, and at dunston Anyse ouerthrue Mackbet. In the mean tyme whille macdouee was in England, Mackbet slewe Mackdoues wife & children, and after in the battelle mackdoue slewe mackbet.
Obserue Also howe mackbetes quen did Rise in the night, in the night in her slepe, & walke and talked and confessed all & the doctor noted her wordes.
Certainly, the observer who is clearly unimpressed with Macduff raising an army and attacking Macbeth’s castle and beheading the tyrant could also find the battle scenes that opened the play even more forgettable. Note also how Forman circles back around to the best bits: the gratuitous killing of Lady MacDuff and her son and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, dramatic nuggets that in many ways end the play.
Also notice what is missing: The return of the witches at the end of Act III, and the prophecies. Material likely added by Middleton.
Forman’s account provides fodder for endless thought about Shakespeare, his dramatic methods, and what Macbeth looked like before Middleton revised it. We clearly gain in the department of the supernatural. Most likely, we lost straight forward martial action and some psychological drama surrounding Duncan, Banquo and Macbeth. Perhaps we followed Duncan’s son Donalbain to Ireland. In the Holinshed, he kills his brother Malcolm to become king and so doing opens the way for Banquo’s son Fleance to get to the throne, thus confirming the witches prophecy--and King James’ claim to the monarchy. If so, all of that vanished under Middleton’s red pen. If there was more time spent in England with Malcolm at the court of the English King—Edward the Confessor (long a site of speculation, that is, that there was a scene of Edward touching for the King’s evil on stage, a scene shifted into the report we have in the Folio)—then all that is gone too.
What remains clear is that the play Middleton left us is one that was very probably much improved. Regardless of aesthetic judgments, Middleton shifted the play from being a tragedy to a tragic-comedy, a strategy that reflected the changes in taste among London’s theater audience that occurred from 1606 to 1616 (the conjectured date for Middleton’s revision). I will discuss the nature of this change in my next blog.
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