The tragedy is done, the tyrant Macbeth dead. The time is free. But for how long? As Macduff pursues dreams of national revival, smaller lives are seeding. In the ruins of Dunsinane, the Porter tries to keep his three young boys safe from the nightmare of history. In a nunnery deep in Birnam Wood, a girl attempts to forget what she lost in war. Flitting between them, a tortured clairvoyant shakes with the knowledge of what’s to come.
An unprecedented collaboration between two leading Shakespeareans, Macbeth, Macbeth sparks a whole new world from the embers of Shakespeare’s darkest play.
We began working on this project with a very simple desire. We wanted to get inside Macbeth’s murder chamber — something Shakespeare never allows. This meant imagining what it would be like to be Macbeth, captured in the act. We wanted to possess the terrible passions of the play — even to be possessed by them – rather than to pretend to master or explain them. How else to touch the play’s intense moral life? How else to enter and suffer its wounds? Inevitably this meant identifying with terrors and temptations in a way that critical writing almost never does. Of course any actor playing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth has to do this as a matter of course. Perhaps we could learn from that. Perhaps we could write something with the emotional directness, the ethical fearlessness, of the best performances of the play.
But we also wanted to enter the consequences beyond Shakespeare’s tortured protagonists — to enter the pain of the victims; to recover their experience, their voices. It was a political as much as a sympathetic ambition.
At first we had no idea how even to attempt our goals. We tried various ways in, but they all felt stilted and fake, unlikely to embody anything like the human variety and spiritual pathos of Macbeth. We knew that a great gift of the imagination, such as Shakespeare’s, had to be received imaginatively. But what written form could a really imaginative response take? How could we make something that might speak to the adventure of passionate literary responsiveness, and encourage it in others?
The breakthrough came when we were talking, as we often did in the first days of our friendship, about the books or music that had meant most to us when growing up. It turned out that at 16 or 17 we were reading very much the same things, albeit on different sides of the world. One of these writers — no doubt typically for hungry young minds — was Dostoevsky. It occurred to us that Macbeth shares the same basic structure as The Brothers Karamazov, pivoting on a primal act of parricide. And we realized that the four sons of Karamazov — the errant sensualist, the atheist intellectual, the apprentice saint, and the bastard in the shadows — uncannily evoked different aspects of Shakespeare’s anti-hero. What if we had a story in which each one of these sons, in their own awful way, proceeded to repeat the tragedy of Macbeth? We would write a sequel that was also a multi-pronged repetition, at once a tale in its own right and a critical reflection upon Shakespeare’s original.
But in our story — again taking our cue from Dostoevsky — the temptation wouldn’t be a crown, but a woman: one whose possession might prove to each man how truly exceptional he was. Dostoevsky’s femme fatale, Grushenka, became our heroine, Gruoch (the Queen’s name in Shakespeare’s own source). Of course, true to our wish to enter the lives of those damaged by war and atrocity, she is not so easily possessed. She has her own longing, and her own resistance to the claims of men. And she too re-suffers the temptations of Shakespeare’s dark originals.
The challenge was daunting and exciting — to set foot in Macbeth, into its scorched and turbulent consequences, to risk making a whole new world in its image.
A rook was flying across the filthy Scottish sky, her wings caked in ash. She was searching for her family. Yesterday, it seemed a thousand years ago, she was one of a roost, alive and thoughtless in their wood of Birnam. But then the humans came, endless trains of them, with shouts and swords and axes and curses, and the next thing she knew nests were falling like water down a cliff-face.
Half a day it took them, hacking away, raping her wood, wrecking the homes of every one she knew. Then the humans lay down and drank, hours of drinking, pissing in the underbrush, drowning the ants and terrifying the beetles, before pitching upright, a branch or two on each shoulder, and marching with their burdens up the squat hill of Dunsinane. She had never seen anything so mad.
Now she could barely recognize a thing. The crows sitting sentinel on the castle parapet looked alien, as though ghosted out of the invaders. The remnants of her wood were scattered as far as she could see. Even the humans that remained looked somehow wrong, wrenched out of time. On the far side of the castle was nothing but vegetable waste, with a collapsed jester snoring in a pile of compost. To the front was a tall man dressed in scarlet, barking orders as soldiers scurried around with carts and wheelbarrows, piled high with who knew what. Alone in the lane was another cart with a girl in it, the only girl in this world, shivering or trembling, hugging her chest, with the darkest bruises around her eyes. Not a familiar face in sight.
Surely the rook wasn’t expected to seek out the sea! Surely things hadn’t got that bad? A lifetime of prohibitions annulled in a day.
The rook’s wings were all set for that forbidden salt when she spotted another figure, hunched at the edge of the deracinated wood. She glided over. Oh, save us, thought the rook, another of life’s refugees. It was a ragged hobgoblin, perched in front of what looked like one of Birnam’s trademark new trees — a short thin pared pole with a clump on top, entirely undressed of branches. Get used to it, thought the rook, welcome to the razed new world.
She alighted on the clump, thankful for the rest. At once the hobgoblin turned on her, his crazy chloroform eyes pinched with weeping.
‘Cha! Cha!’ he snapped, swiping her beak with scrawny fingers.
The rook spun away into the ashy air, every particle a life that was, and started making for the unknown…
Throughout the project we have tried to stay faithful to the playworld’s most intimate movements and physics — wearing it, as we used to say to each other, like a harness on our backs. For instance, in splitting Macbeth into numerous individuals we were also faithful to Shakespeare’s own methods of composition. Macbeth is a Scottish King from the 11th century, but Shakespeare drew upon a host of figures from the chronicles in composing his hero. What is more, most of the male characters in the play — Banquo, Malcolm, Macduff, the murderers — are in one way or another doubles or shadows of Macbeth. Already in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is leading more lives than his own, just as he is haunted by lives past and passing and to come.
The same applies to Shakespeare’s language. In the same way that his scenes invite us to infer and imagine more, so too do Shakespeare’s notoriously dense metaphors teem with possibilities. We wanted to enter these words, bringing them to new life, just as we entered other gaps in the play. As we worked almost every image — a ravelled sleeve, a cup of wine, a pack of dogs, the haste in a character’s eyes, Tarquin’s ravishing strides — became a potential cue or prop for a new realisation.
One such prompt was some words from the play that are rarely noticed, spoken by Macduff to Malcolm, telling the fledgling prince about his mother:
The Queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees, than on her feet,
Died every day she lived.
This is the only presence that the play’s first Queen is allowed. But once we fully attend to and realise the image, a whole new backstory flowers in her silence — one where a Queen is praying daily, inexplicably guilty, lashed by existence, wound upon wound, worried for her sons and severed from her sainted-King, living the dying life, every day a fore-suffering and rehearsal of death. Each detail becomes a pre-echo of the world she haunts.
Another way of putting it is to say that we wanted to find out the buried lives. Macbeth is full of them. Or perhaps it is better to say that they are unburied. For they never are quite lifeless; still less are they forgotten. The play presents a savage world where women are sacrificed and families, it seems, impossible. And yet there are delicate mysteries amid the violence. Most mysterious of all is the hint of children surviving. If Lady Macbeth had children, where are they now? For one thing is sure in this world — the dead haunt the living, whether in the form of accusing ghosts, or horrible visions, or in baroque images of naked babes, newborn or undead, striding the blast. Nothing and no-one is safely dead.
As we have said, to recover these voices and figures also seems to us a political act. Macbeth is sometimes criticised for its sexual politics. Lady Macbeth, the harridan who exceeds the bounds of her sex and goes mad; Lady Macduff, innocent and helpless without her husband’s protection; the bearded witches, feeding upon catastrophe, tempting goodness from itself. It is true that mythical archetypes shadow all these figures — but true too that things are never so simple. Lady Macbeth might be seen as a misogynist’s monster, but she might equally be understood as an arch-pragmatist: upwardly mobile, with one eye to procedure and the other on her partner’s prospects, a sort of ultimate multi-tasking housekeeper. Lady Macduff is scornful and sarcastic about the husband who has abandoned her for the greater good; she looks with cold humour on the prospect of being a single mother. And the witches, too, exceed any simple label, sometimes suggesting nothing so much as a band of sisters, taunting and defying the men who have blasted their world. After all, what makes a witch? What makes a mother?
To enter the world of Macbeth — wherever we locate this world, in the 11th century, in 1606, in an ever-imminent present — is to confront the violence of sexual relations and gender nominations, and more broadly the coerciveness of institutions and words. Such things have a persisting, shaping reality for everyone, man and woman, girl and boy. To pretend to escape them is sentimental evasion. And yet one of the most thrillingly disturbing moments in Shakespeare’s play is when the heroine screams, ‘Unsex me here!’ The very action of living — and of reading as a form of life — must always seek inside and search beyond convention. In Macbeth, Macbeth that is what we have tried to do.