This project began two summers ago, when a small group of actors, including myself, thought of devising a piece comparing the dramatic character of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the life of the actual medieval King Macbeth. This turned out to be an interesting bit of fun, because the characters were really very different, but with just enough coincidental overlap for Shakespeare to run with it! We introduced the idea of having them talk to each other, and they started taking on a life of their own.
Somewhere along the line, Plato made an entrance with his concept of a tripartite soul, and the Shakespearean Macbeth became multiple-y schizoid; the timid, the noble, and the tyrant Macbeths, corresponding to and embodying the Platonic qualities of emotion, reason, and desire. So now we had four Macbeths! Who would be in control? And what would they do?
Then King James arrived. Since The Tragedy of Macbeth is commonly thought to have been written for him and about his troubles, of course he should have a say. And the religiously inspired Gunpowder Plot was the most dramatic event of his day! Further similarities among the lives of these three kings became illuminated, once we began interweaving their stories using historical records and the words of Shakespeare.
Well, as if that wasn’t quite enough, we thought; Aerial Silks! Silks can be used in so many interesting ways to create different environments onstage. The witches love working with them, and the element of verticality seemed to facilitate somehow our theme of human interactions outside of the bounds of time or natural law.
So, there you have the story of MacBheatha in a nutshell. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed composing it!
Alana Wiljanen is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond, Jepson School of Leadership Studies. She has previously directed Yazmina Reza’s Art and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and is the artistic leader behind the development of MacBheatha.
Her current research focuses on creating and producing new theatrical performances with collaborative ensembles that combine the poetry of classical text with the power and presence of physical theatre.
And for those of you who like dramaturgical analysis and that sort of thing, read on!
Physical Theatre and the Theatrical Body
The benefits accrued by training with physical theatre techniques are sadly lacking in most American theatre performance, which often only takes place from the chest up. Over the arc of history, this is a relatively new development, becoming prevalent only in the last 150 years or so. Since the ancient Greeks, we have gone from performing for the gods to performing for kings and the aristocracy, to performing for each other, and now theatre (and, indeed, performance for media such as television and film) is almost completely psychologically based. While this psychological approach has merits, it cannot be the only representational mode brought to the table, otherwise the performance will remain ungrounded and lacking. Performance should begin with a deeper foundation rooted in body and breath, and an awareness that we need to connect ourselves more viscerally to stories in order to powerfully portray them onstage. It makes a difference when someone is grounded and is engaged with their entire body, though this change is often unconsciously read by the audience. The shift is between crafting a story from the very essence that makes up the world and our experience, and simply draping a narrative over ourselves. The difference between being under the fabric of the story, and being the fabric with which the story is created. Combining the values of physical theatre and classical performance will result in more fully realized productions and stronger artist-audience relationships.
What it meant to be King of Scotland in medieval times is uncertain; the power associated with the title is debated among scholars. Scotland, or at the time, Alba, was consolidated under Kenneth macAlpin, a conquering Celtic warlord from the island now called Ireland. The sequence of royal succession followed in Alba was not father to son, but could alternate between cousins descended from Kenneth, and required some amount of ratification from the competing noble families. While each line could have their turn at ruling, the pattern did not necessarily dissuade the next claimant from hastening the death of the current king to expedite the process.
There are records that name specific kings of Scotland, or Alba, since the time of macAlpin, but at times two kings are noted, one of Alba and one of Moray. Moray was the northeastern part of Scotland, extending from present-day Inverness to Glamis and Aberdeen, encompassing most of the Cairngorm mountains. In Macbeth’s time, Moray was a land of thick forests and barren rocky heights still sparsely populated by warring clans, and was geographically isolated from the rest of Scotland. The two kingdoms could have certainly coexisted, but it’s unclear if there was a recognized hierarchy between them. Did a Mormaer of Moray owe allegiance to the King of Alba? This question is particularly interesting when considering the eventual struggle between Macbeth, ruler of Moray, and Duncan, King of Alba. Shakespeare paints this act as a tyrannous murder of Duncan as he slept. Historical accounts, however, relate that Duncan invaded Moray with the intent of killing Macbeth, whom he viewed as a crown competitor, but was instead overpowered and killed in battle by Macbeth’s forces. This would have been viewed as an acceptable way to transfer power – death in battle was not murder, and usually indicated the stronger, and thus more valuable, leader. But an interesting point to consider is whether Macbeth owed any fealty to Duncan, or was an equally legitimate king, descended from a neighboring royal line that had established rule in Moray. If that was the case, then Macbeth’s ascent to King of Alba was a unification of his native Moray with the rest of Scotland. This draws an interesting comparison between Macbeth and King James I of England and Scotland, who also politically united two competing nations, Scotland and England, when he assumed the English throne upon Queen Elizabeth’s death. Shakespeare utilizes these parallels to illuminate his story of betrayal and lust for power in Macbeth.
The historical Macbeth (in modern Gaelic MacBheatha) was born around 1005 AD, although the exact date or year is hard to pinpoint. He was the son of Finlay, Mormaer of Moray, who was a son of Malcolm II, then King of Alba. All were descended through the female line from Kenneth macAlpin. Malcolm wished to bypass Finlay and Macbeth and place his grandson Duncan on the throne. Another cousin, Gillacomgain, was a further degree removed since Malcolm II was his grand-uncle, but was still within the lineage. To weed out the potential competitors, Malcolm seems to have encouraged Gillacomgain to murder Finlay and take his lands and offices, after which Macbeth most likely fled Scotland for fear of his life, as we have no further information about his whereabouts over the next decade.
When Macbeth reenters the historical record, he has returned to his homeland to exact revenge on Gillacomgain for the murder of Finlay. It is recorded in annals that Gillacomgain was burned alive in his dining hall with fifty others. Legend has it that Macbeth organized the attack, with support from relatives and the thanes of Moray in favor of his yet unclaimed Kingship. Gillacomgain’s two sons, Malcolm III and Donalbain, fled the country. Taking control of Moray, Macbeth buttressed his claim to the throne of Scotland by marrying Gillacomgain’s widow, Gruoch. This is the woman we have come to know as Lady Macbeth. Gruoch was also descended from macAlpin royalty, and was certainly familiar with the way power was accumulated. She would have come to the marriage with the lands and wealth inherited upon her husband’s death. With this calculated union, Macbeth now had two strong, legitimate, ties to the throne, a defensible realm in the vast territory of Moray, and a reputation of conquest, one of the most important qualifiers for his fellow Scots noblemen.
Malcolm II “retired” from the throne in his older age, and chose to appoint his grandson Duncan as successor, breaking with the traditional custom of tannistry or election by peers. Duncan, however, quickly proved unsatisfactory as king, failing in combat when he instigated battle with Northumbria, inviting discontent. He then turned his sights on Moray, where Macbeth was ruling in an open threat to him. His invasion of the mountainous area, however, was unwise, and his force was met in battle by Macbeth’s, where he was defeated and killed. Macbeth, with his untarnished military career and much familial and political support, assumed his role as King of Scotland.
Simply in the act of becoming King, Macbeth united Moray with Alba, creating a single kingdom in what is now Scotland. He was a strong enough leader to ensure peace in the country, and led Scotland for seventeen years. He and Gruoch eventually undertook a journey to Rome to represent Scotland to the continental world. What changed upon their return is unknown, possibly political intrigue or simply advancing age. Malcolm III, who had fled into exile when his father Gillacomgain was murdered, had reached the age of majority. Medieval kingship favored the young and strong, and Macbeth would have been nearly fifty at this point, an advanced age for the time. Others, if not Macbeth himself, would have determined he was ready for retirement. Malcolm arrived in Scotland with a military force, possibly Norwegian or English, and removed Macbeth from the throne. Unlike in Shakespeare’s tale, Macbeth was not killed then, but retreated into Moray for three more years. Malcolm assumed the throne of Scotland, and eventually met Macbeth in battle at Lumpahenen, where was killed.
The English Monarchy in Shakespeare’s Time
The sixteenth century was a time of religious conflict across all of Europe. Civil and international wars were being waged in France, the German states, the low countries, and elsewhere throughout Europe since before 1500, with contesting Catholic and Protestant armies each intent on destroying the other in the name of God. England and Scotland had avoided outright civil wars even though the nobility was divided into Protestant and Catholic families. King Henry VIII had nationalized the church in England, separating it from both Catholic and Protestant control, but after his death and that of his son Edward, the staunchly Catholic Queen Mary I assumed the throne. She married Philip II of Spain, closely aligning the two Catholic monarchies, and reestablished the Catholic church in England during her short five-year reign. Protestant clergy and nobility were actively persecuted, imprisoned, and burned during this time, earning her the lasting sobriquet, “Bloody Mary”. She died naturally leaving no heir, and her half-sister, Elizabeth, as Protestant as Mary was Catholic, was crowned queen.
Elizabeth I reigned as Queen of England and governor of the Church of England for forty-four years. She adopted a policy of toleration for religious differences, and a mostly neutral position regarding the warring kingdoms on the continent. However, Elizabeth was condemned as an illegitimate sovereign and a heretic by the Pope in the 1570 decree Regnans in Excelsis: “We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication” (Papal Encyclicals). Priests were sent into England to convince Catholic subjects that their duty to the pope and to God was greater than to their monarch. Elizabeth became the target of several unsuccessful plots to assassinate her or otherwise remove her from the throne and install her cousin, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in her place. These threats gave rise to increasingly severe restrictions on religious practices in England. It is estimated that around 200 Jesuit priests were hanged during the rule of Elizabeth; executed as traitors rather than for their religion, although the difference was often indistinct. Mary was forced by the Protestant Scottish lairds to abdicate the throne of Scotland in 1567, and her infant son was crowned King James I. Mary was imprisoned in England and eventually executed for treason, while her son was placed in care of the court, and regents ruled in his place. James was raised in Stirling Castle, educated by Protestant clergy, and prepared for his future role as King of Scotland, and eventually, England.
James IV of Scotland, James I of England and Ireland
On March 24, 1603, King James the VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England and Ireland. James, even though a Scot, had been a candidate for succession to the English throne since he was born, being the only direct descendent of King Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth died childless without naming an heir, which probably helped extend her reign. With no designated heir, it was difficult for critics to support a deposition or conduct an assassination to force a succession. James had been in correspondence with Cecil, Secretary of State and Lord of the Privy Seal under Queen Elizabeth, since at least 1601. His succession had been agreed upon by a majority of the Privy Council, and people vied for the honor of riding to him in Scotland the moment the Queen died.
Both Protestants and Catholics hailed his arrival with optimism, though each for diverse reasons. Protestants, in solidarity with their faith, and Catholics in the hope he would grant them toleration, something they had not seen for many years. James’ personal motto was Rex Pacifica, and he was known to have a distaste for violence. His young wife, Anne of Denmark, had converted to Catholicism and grown devout, inferring the possibility of James’ own eventual conversion, or hopefully, that of his children.
It soon became clear that James was more interested in arranging an Anglo-Scottish union to insure his own future, than devoting time and energy to Catholic appeasement. He advanced his intention of combining the thrones under him into a unified Kingdom of Great Britain, even though Parliament and English nobility were not at all enthusiastic. This focus on political union disappointed Catholics, who had expected that James would champion a diplomatic approach to the religious strife, and aid their cause. Cecil and Parliament, however, remained adamant in their opposition to relaxing religious policy. Militant priests continued to be arrested and executed for plotting against the rule of the monarchy. More Catholic citizens openly avoided the services of the Church of England, ignoring the fines levied on these “recusants”. In March 1604, nine hundred recusants were reported in Yorkshire alone. King James, previously showing leniency, could not safely allow the growth of a Catholic faction strong enough to worship openly and challenge the law. A proclamation banishing all priests was delivered on February 1604; then in April, the House of Commons declared all Catholics to be outlaws. Until Parliament was formally adjourned on July 7, there continued a succession of anti-Catholic legislation. Priests were declared outlaws, and recusant fines for not attending Church of England services were enforced severely. In September 1604, King James issued a directive for a committee of Privy Councilors to preside over the extermination of Jesuits, other priests and “divers other corrupt persons employed under the colour of religion”. Given the Catholics’ difficult history during the Elizabethan years, these new repressive laws further inflamed the religious strife that had been growing over the past two generations, and helped ignite organized resistance.
The Gunpowder Plot
Just after Christmas 1601, even before the death of Queen Elisabeth, some of the conspirators had first assembled at the residence of a Catholic priest, Father Garnet. Then, on Sunday May 20, 1604, a meeting is known to have taken place between the plotters Catesby, Wintour, Percy, Wright, and Fawkes. The group would eventually grow to thirteen (the same number as attended the Last Supper), but these five were the primary activists, bound by their religious fervor and sworn to secrecy.
Guy Fawkes, a militant Catholic born and educated in England, had been abroad fighting with the Catholic Spanish army to suppress rebellious Protestants in the Spanish-ruled Netherlands. Upon returning to England, Fawkes joined the plotters. On March 25th, a lease was secured to a house located in Westminster, attached directly to the building of the House of Lords. A door led to a lower level of the House of Lords, so the house could be used as a robing or transitional area for various functions. There was an indirect passage from this house to the bank of the Thames River through which barrels of gunpowder were transported over the next few months. The amount of gunpowder cached differs over accounts, but between two and ten thousand pounds are estimated to have been smuggled into the building. It was to be detonated while Parliament was in session, with the King and his family in attendance, killing all present.
A few weeks prior to the implementation of the plot, a Father Tesimond learned of the plot while hearing the confession of Robert Catesby, and sought out his superior, Father Garnet, to share his concerns. There are accounts which say that Garnet did not receive Tesimond under a true form of confession. These sources that claim that Tesimond was so distressed that Garnet took him on a walk out of the church. If this were true, then the spirit of confession might have been followed, but the well-defined rule was not, thus denying its legality as an excuse for silence. Garnet sought to hinder the conspirators, writing to his superiors in Rome to request a Papal declaration forbidding Catholics from engaging in seditious plots; the papacy’s response forbade priests, but not all Catholics, from sedition. Even if the priests’ interlocutions were held under the seal of confession, they were no longer innocent about the plot, and would pay for that knowledge.
The next date for Parliament’s assembly was set for November 5th, 1605. The conspirators decided that Guy Fawkes would light the fuse in the cellar, then make his way to the European continent, and explain their actions to the Catholic kingdoms in expectation of support. However, a letter was delivered to Lord Monteagle on October 26th warning him to remain away from the next Parliamentary session. Monteagle forwarded the missive to Lord Salisbury. The modernized text of the letter is as follows:
“My lord, out of the love I have for some of your friends, I want to make sure you are safe. Because of this I would advise you to not attend this sitting of parliament because God and man have agreed to punish the wickedness of this time. Do not think this is a joke, go to your estate in the country where you will be safe, because although there is no sign of any problem yet, this parliament will receive a terrible blow, but they will not see who it is that hurts them. This advice should not be ignored as it may do you some good, and it can do you no harm because the danger will have passed as soon as you have burned this letter. I hope God grants you the grace to make good use of it, and that he protects you.” (The National Archives)
Salisbury did not immediately alert King James, who was away on one of his frequent hunting ventures, though he did tell several members of the privy council. There is speculation about his reasons for keeping this information private. One is that, having gained control of the situation, he could let the plot grow, apprehending it at the most critical moment, with evidence enough to convict. Another plausible theory is that Salisbury knew that the letter was fabricated by Monteagle himself. Monteagle’s family had close friendships and familial ties with certain of the plotters, and this may have led him to undermine the plot without mentioning specific names, thus hoping to avoid their arrest. Furthermore, being the one able to warn the King and Parliament about the impending danger would lead to ample rewards.
The story eventually released to the public was that King James received and read the letter, and, illuminated by the divine, concluded the threat must lay with plotters who had secreted large amounts of gunpowder in rooms beneath Parliament, with the intention of destroying Parliament and his own family just a few days later. Scholars believe it is likely that Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, had found additional information convincing enough to guide James into this interpretation. The authorities entered the rooms around midnight on the 4th of November, hoping to secure physical evidence. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found racked, and one man there to set it off who claimed his name was John Johnson, but who would eventually confess himself to be Guy Fawkes. The rest of the plotters had already left London.
On November 8th, authorities closed in on Holbeche House, where the escaped men were hiding. Five were killed in the ensuing fight; Grant, Morgan, Rookwood, and Wintour were captured. After being tortured until confession, all survivors were condemned to hang. All but one claimed innocence at their following trail, contradicting the letters they signed under duress. The youngest conspirator, Digby, pled guilty and asked forgiveness from the court. It was granted to him, then he was hung with the others. The Jesuit priests Fathers Garnet, Tesimond, and Gerard were named as named as providing inspiration and guidance for the plot. Garnet, the most superior of these, was apprehended, tried, and executed, while the others escaped abroad. There were many repercussions restricting the Catholic faith in the following years, but England had once again avoided being drawn into a civil war.
Following the executions, Shakespeare, and other playwrights at the time, wrote “Gunpowder Plays” to capitalize on the infamy. Shakespeare was playwright for the King’s Men, and was perhaps more familiar than other London playwrights with the difficulties among Catholic and Protestant families. Shakespeare would have also associated in the same circle as the plotters, having had mutual friends in the world of the Mermaid Tavern. Due to government censure of public information, no playwright could have safely written about the Plot directly. Instead, Shakespeare wrote about an ancient king of medieval Scotland, alluding to King James’ Scottish heritage, to tell an allegorical tale reflecting the current political events. He called upon King James’ deep interest in witchcraft and poetry, as evidenced by the king’s original writing, Daemonologie, and his sponsorship of a new iteration of the Bible, the King James Version. Trigger words are placed throughout the text; words such as blow, shake, and equivocate that would immediately call to mind the sensational details of the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare uses many phrases and images in his story that would have been recognized and understood by contemporary audiences, and doesn’t concern himself with medieval historical accuracy. The weird sisters were men with beards dressed in women’s robes, who spoke in incantations, and perhaps reminded those watching of priestly actions. The way King Duncan was murdered, sleeping peacefully in Macbeth’s castle, would have reflected King James’s personal fears for his safety, since his own father had been similarly dispatched. At the end of Macbeth, Malcolm returns with the help of the English to kill Macbeth and restore order and justice to the world, in much the way James presented himself to Parliament after the plot was foiled. The testimonies of the government witnesses explaining the treasonous gunpowder plot, vilifying the accused conspirators, thus ensuring their conviction and justifying their executions, may well have been embellished and augmented prior to the trials. These accounts were then further fictionalized by playwrights creating their entertainment pieces for public consumption. The actual truth may have been lost in the passage of time, and the tales told have become what we perceive as history.
These nuances, and many more, were included in the development of MacBheatha. Often, the connections between the stories were discovered in the rehearsal process, as scenes and words became linked together in moments of spontaneous improvisation. When these connections made themselves present, we would try to expand upon them, combining them with our own interpretations and visual imagery, perhaps shedding more light on these old stories.