James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan at the Almeida Theatre
Photograph by Marc Brenner
038 – Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
Published 2nd December
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy of love, ambition and betrayal, full of relentless energy and shocking violence, infused by an air of the supernatural. With the ghostly witches, the plot of a thriller, and most of all the passionate partnership of the Macbeths and their doomed ambition, this has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It has some of the most memorable scenes in all of theatre: the witches chanting over their cauldron, the ghost of murdered Banquo haunting Macbeth at the banquet, Lady Macbeth sleepwalking and wringing her bloodless hands, and finally the avenging army approaching camouflaged by the branches of Birnam Wood.
The ‘Scottish play’ was written in 1606, in some way as a compliment to the new monarch and sponsor of Shakespeare’s theatre company, James I or James VI of Scotland. The three “weird sisters” may owe their creation to the king’s well-known obsession with witchcraft, and the story and consequences of a regicide echo the real-life assassination attempt by Guy Fawkes less than a year before.
Since the 17th century the parts of the central couple have attracted the greatest actors of the age, and the story has inspired multiple films, including those by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski and more recently in 2015 by Justin Kurzel, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the title roles. As we record this episode The Tragedy of Macbeth is also running on stage at the Almeida Theatre in London, directed by Yael Farber, with riveting central performances from James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan.
I am joined in this episode by a familiar face, Professor Emma Smith, who teaches Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Oxford. Emma was my expert guest in episode 17 of the podcast where we talked about another murderous Jacobean play, John Webster’s wonderful potboiler The Duchess of Malfi.
Professor Emma Smith
Professor Emma Smith teaches early modern drama at Oxford, with a special focus on Shakespeare, on which she has published a number of books, including The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s First Folio – Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare and most recently This Is Shakespeare published by Penguin last year, and which was a Sunday Times bestseller. Her lectures on Shakespeare are also available as podcasts, which you can find on the Oxford university podcasts pages. She is reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and most pertinently perhaps for our purposes, she also happens to have written the Arden Student Guide: Macbeth, Language and Writing.
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The Footnotes to our episode on Macbeth include observations on the unnatural, propulsive pace of the play, and on the origins and interpretations of Shakespeare’s three ‘weird’ sisters.
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