Why start with 1.2?

So why does 1.2 make a great place to test our ideas about a video game adaptation of Macbeth?

If you saw the 2015 movie version of Macbeth, you saw the battle described in 1.2 played out like an action scene. Awesome, right? But that’s not how it is in the text, or in most theatre productions. In the text, the battle is described by a blood-covered Sergeant (and then Ross, minor character), with good king Duncan asking questions every few lines.

Managing this battle description is a unique challenge. I’ve taught this play, staged it, workshopped it with students, and written about it (a lot). And 1.2 is a brick wall for students, for audiences, even for a lot of actors. The battle described is too complicated and expensive to enact on stage, so most productions stay close to the text and send out some random blood-covered dude, who you never see again, to holler florid poetry at the audience for five minutes.

Consider the pacing up to this moment: everyone got excited by three witches kicking off the show, and then the stakes get ramped even higher by an army guy running on stage covered in blood, and then … a bunch of talking. There’s no payoff that’s legible to a contemporary audience. Even if the best actor in the cast plays the Sergeant (unlikely), it’s still five undiluted minutes in your face of the single biggest barrier to Shakespeare: complex, 400 year-old language. Five minutes is a lifetime on stage. And as everyone’s zoning out on the cadence and the obscure references—or their eyes are skimming over unfamiliar words on a page, or breaking the flow by checking the explanatory footnotes like good students—two things are happening.

1) All those past associations each person has with “Shakespeare” are rushing to the forefront. Maybe they’re positive—hey, lots of people like fancy poetry, me included—but for the audience/readers/students who are here out of obligation, it’s probably confirming their worst fears. Either way, “Shakespeare = words words words text text text” is in blaring marquis lights.

2) They’re missing the crucial insights embedded in this battle description: these lines set up the world of the play, Macbeth’s character, and the high regard everyone else has for him. If we the audience (or reader) don’t catch these nuances before Macbeth shows up, our baseline is going to be skewed by contemporary expectations.

And right after this monologue is when the story really heats up. But if you’ve ever lost an audience, you know how hard it can be to get them back–now they’re bored and they don’t trust you. Beyond the pacing challenges it poses, here’s some of the really important thematic stuff set up in 1.2:

  • Wow, this is a super violent world. Your own countrymen could easily be rebels and traitors who try and help Norway invade your homeland. (Side note, did you realize Norway and Scotland are that close by boat? 300 miles! That’s like going to New Orleans from Birmingham, Alabama. Bon temps roulez, y’all.)
  • Even within a world that is already pretty violent, Macbeth and Banquo stand out for their extra violent behavior on the battlefield. Check out 1.2.22–23: “he unseamed him from the nave to the chops, / And fix’d his head on our battlements.” Macbeth cuts through hordes of foot soldiers to find the traitor, and without hesitating (crucial), guts him from the groin to the chin like a deer, cuts off his head, and sticks it like a trophy on Scotland’s battlements. Eat that, Norway.
  • Extra violent behavior is impressive, desirable, and will be rewarded by social approval and an upgrade in nobility.

… Check back tomorrow to read about some of the mixup that can happen if you don’t catch all the details in 1.2.