Thursday, 29 December 2011

Darkness in Macbeth- why I believe it was written for the Blackfriars Theatre

Shakespeare is rightly famed as a playwright who could transport audiences through the power of words alone. In the most uncongenial of settings- a bare stage, open to the elements, lit only by natural daylight and without any of the modern accoutrments of scenery, lighting or amplified sound- he effortlessly recreated the decadent splendours of ancient Egypt, a storm on a heath in pagan England or a magical island far away. Yet as well as the Globe, from 1608 Shakespeare's company staged plays in the Blackfriars Theatre, in which Shakespeare had a share. This was an indoor theatre, with some sort of lighting, so plays could be performed in the evening. This meant that for the first time Shakespeare was able to incorporate actual darkness into his plays and I am convinced that, although the first known production of Macbeth was in the Globe Theatre in 1611 it was actually written for the Blackfriars Theatre.

It is of course well known that darkness features prominently in Macbeth. It is in every way a dark play, with its regicide, its famous witches and its exploration of the inner thoughts of a psycopathic killer. In it, Shakespeare was effectively inventing the horror genre and darkness is a central element of all horror. Darkness is one of the key elements of the imagery he uses and he uses language with his customary skill and power to evoke darkness, both spiritual and actual. Certainly Macbeth was successful at the Globe, where actual darkness was impossible to achieve. Yet it is still remarkable the extent to which actual darkness is implicit in the action and referred to by the characters. Many of the key scenes (the scenes around Duncan's murder, Banquo's murder, the banquet, Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking) take place at night and characters frequently mention the state of the light. Below are just a few examples:
"The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
There's husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out
by the clock, 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp
 Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
 While night's black agents to their preys do rouse
 The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day
What is the night?
Almost at odds with morning, which is which."

Of course it could be argued that Shakespeare has the characters say these things to remind the audience of the time of day- an indication that the stage was not literally dark. After all, Hamlet starts with a night scene and Romeo and Juliet have one scene at night (the balcony scene) and another at dawn (the morning after their wedding night). However, for me, Shakespeare makes more effort in those plays to have the lines render the time of day in our imagination. In Hamlet for instance the scene ends with "But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,/Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:" and in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet really drums into the audience in Act 3 scene 2 that night is on its way:
"Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
Come, civil night,

Thou sober-suited matron, all in black
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,"
and so on.
and Romeo's description of the dawn for the audience is as poetic as Horatio's:
"look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops."

What is striking in Macbeth is not only the number of scenes that take place in the dark but the way in which physical darkness seems to surround all of the characters, at least in Dunsinane castle. In Act 2 scene 4 Ross actually comments on this phenomenon, with the lines
" Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?"

To me, whereas Romeo's and Horatio's descriptions of the dawn invite the audience (with the use of the command "look") to imagine what their physical eyes cannot see, Ross' speech works much better if it is drawing their attention to an actual darkness that envelopes them to.

None of this is conclusive proof of course that Macbeth was written to be performed in a theatre where literal darkness was an integral element of the staging (as it is in theatres today). However there is one detail, easily overlooked, that convinces me that it was. Shakespeare was an impatient genius- constantly thinking and adapting his style and stagecraft. I believe that in writing for Blackfriars he suddenly began to realise what could be done on the stage in this theatre, and in Act 3 scene 3 of Macbeth he was suddenly struck with an idea that has become commonplace in theatre and film today.

One of the biggest challenges any playwright faces is to make violent death look convincing on stage. Stage blood is all very well but if you want to capture the true horror of brutal murder then having an actor collapse onto the stage in front of the audience and lie there trying not to breathe too heavily is not the most effective way to do it. This is why Duncan's murder happens offstage. Along with Lady Macbeth we hear strange, eerie night sounds but can see nothing, and our imagination does the rest.

In Act 3 scene 3 another crucial murder takes place, but this time on stage. Three murderers have been sent to kill Banquo and Fleance, who are out riding. They kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes. The scene is set up in an atmosphere of edgy suspicion as the first two murderers discover that Macbeth has sent a third, to keep an eye on them. The tension builds with short, disconnected exclamations. Banquo is heard offstage and the three murderers, who are men of few words, set on him.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the murder risks being a slightly farcical anticlimax after this build-up, with a confused tangle of bodies, or else an unconvincingly staged sword fight. And this, I believe, is where Shakespeare was suddenly struck with inspiration. Before the killing Banquo calls "Give us a light there, ho!" and the Second Murderer shouts "A light, a light!" The stage directions say "Enter BANQUO, and FLEANCE with a torch". Immediately after the murder (and Fleance's escape) the Third Murderer asks "Who did strike out the light?" 

Surely the implications are clear: Shakespeare is telling the actors that in the course of the scene the light is to be struck out so that the stage is in actual darkness. Why? So that, as with Duncan's murder, the audience will not be able to see anything, allowing their imaginations to take over. Shakespeare knew very well how "imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown" and here, I believe, he uses that power of the imagination to create the atmosphere of horror that would be that much weakened if the audience could actually see what was happening.

Of course successful film makers ever since Macbeth have used darkness and concealment in the same way. In real horror films it is what you cannot see, rather than what you can that is truly horrifying. So I believe that in that simple, unremarkable looking, short and easily overlooked scene, Shakespeare was pointing the way for future film directors in how to use darkness to invoke horror.

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