Macbeth: stage directions

In most plays, I find a whole lot of stage direction within the lines, be they soliloquies or dialogues. But in Macbeth, a play where some real stage direction was later filled in with the work of other playwrights, I’m finding less.

Here’s one that I could have included a while back in my discussion of scansion and pauses, but I think works just as well here: When our bleeding Captain Exposition is telling Duncan of Macbeth’s prowess on the field of battle, he gets halfway through another descriptor when he cuts his speech short with shortened line (“I cannot tell” [I.ii.41]), a mini iambic bimeter line, followed by “But I am faint; my gashes cry for help” (I.ii.42). Obviously, that pause is a clue to the actor to play up his injuries like a Euro soccer player.

When the witches deliver their prophecy to Macbeth, it’s obvious what direction that actor should take in his reaction: Banquo comments that “he seems rapt withal” (I.iii.57). Macbeth has no lines from line 47 to line 70. He’s dumbstruck.

And might not these dumbstruck lapses be played as mini momentary fits, which Lady Macbeth references in the banquet scene?

A classic stage direction (and pause) comes when Lady Macbeth says to her husband that Duncan will not leave the castle; at the end of this three-foot line, there’s a two beat pause, and once again we get direction for the actor playing Macbeth: “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men // May read strange matters” (I.v.61-2). Again, he’s dumbstruck–and I’m wondering if he shouldn’t respond in much the same way as he does to the witches a couple of scenes earlier.

The most straightforward use of spoken stage direction is nested in the “is this a dagger which I see before me” speech, when Macbeth speaks of the imaginary dagger, saying it is “in form as palpable // As this which now I draw” (II.i.41-2) Again, another short line (iambic trimeter, this time), as if to point out to the actor that he’s supposed to draw his own dagger at this moment.

We also know that Macbeth should sit “i’th’midst” (III.iv.11) of the gathered lords at the banquet.

And of course, we know what actions Lady Macbeth should perform in her sleepwalking scene: “washing her hands” (V.i.29); eavesdropping and spying are not needed, even without the “Out, damned spot” *V.i.29) statement on her part.

Yeah, there’s there’s really not a whole lot there… It will be interesting if we seem a lessening of the reliance upon dialogue-based stage direction as we move toward the end of the Canon.

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