Saturday, May 09, 2015

Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason.

Theatre  After a couple of years away from the core series whilst they pay attention to other Early Modern Dramas, Arden returns to Shakespeare with their third edition of Macbeth. Glancing through the list which appears in this year’s Arden catalogue there aren’t that many plays still waiting for the edition uplift from the second and a glance through Amazon indicates that by September 2016 everything but A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be available. Not that it will end here; editors for the fourth series have already been announced with those editions due in the 2020 (which just demonstrates the lead time that some of these books require). How these will differ to the A3s, time will tell.

Anyway back at Macbeth and this edition edited by Sandra Clark, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London and Pamela Mason currently a lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham. The former provides the introduction and discussion of textual legitimacy in the appendices, the latter is the editor of the text and provides the textual notes including editing justifications also in the appendices. There’s some heroism in this division of labour because while Clark’s work will implicitly be read by the book’s whole audience, Mason’s notes sit within an interstitial consultation space, only referred to if needed which is a shame because they contain a fascinating quantity of trivia.

The introduction freewheels around Macbeth ignoring anything like a traditional structure or reiteration of the usual themes, this being the sort of play for which there isn’t really a shortage of that sort of thing already. So we have a short discussion of Macbeth as an example of tragedy. A close textual analysis of the use of time in the play. It’s setting and realisation of Scotland as a geographical and historical event. A discussion of its sources but note, its adaptation from Holinshed rather than how that chronicler developed his version. Plus a theatrical “history” which chooses themes a key elements of the play, the extent of Macbeth’s culpability, the pre-eminence of the witches, the setting and how various actors and directors have treated the ending.

Much of this underscores that like most of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is set in "Scotland" rather than a real place, the the featured "history" is nothing of the sort and that when productions do affect accents and have the cast sweeping around in kilts they're deluding themselves with an approach which has about as much legitimacy as Hamlet wearing clogs and a fez whilst affecting a Scandinavian pronunciation.  Which isn't to say Scottish actors haven't made great Macbeths and there haven't been useful productions set in Scotland, it's just that the underlying elements of the play don't support it, not least because in other plays Shakespeare made the Scottishness of characters a key component.

As is also so often the case with these Ardens, my eye is caught in the appendices which is where the textual discussion resides. For decades, critical mass has focused on the notion that the version of Macbeth we have now is not as originally written by Shakespeare, that its single textual version as it appears in F1 has been interfered with or adapted by another hand, usually attributed to Thomas Middleton, largely because of the similarity with his own play The Witches, notably in relation to some songs. This led to Gary Taylor including the play in his Oxford Complete Works of Middleton’s plays and it’s this analysis that I’ve seen cited as an example of Shakespeare the collaborator.

Clark reiterates of all of these arguments at length with sources before, like so many A3 editors before her, stripping away the hearsay and presumption to reveal that we actually don’t know anything, that the evidence is circumstantial at best.  She cites an electronic analysis by Marcus Dahl, Marina Tarlinskaya, and Brian Vickers (which is available to read online here) which compares the supposed added passages with Middleton's work and doesn't find a match (though she does note that others have argued against their work because the Middleton database they used it incomplete.  But the general message is that just because the play is short and is interestingly structured in places doesn't mean any of it is missing.

Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. 2015. RRP: £8.99. ISBN: 9781904271413. Review copy supplied.