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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: January ::
Macbeth Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0009  Sunday, 2 January 2005

From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Monday, 27 Dec 2004 23:06:52 -0800
Subject:        Re: Macbeth Characters

I might have a point lurking in the background somewhere, but I'm hoping
to get around to it indirectly, in the meantime pretending to be
stupider than I am (slightly, or at least trying to be patient) in order
to see if anyone is willing or able to present some conscious rationale
for having these 38 speaking parts in Macbeth.  I think that's too many.
  It looks like the modern convention of speech prefix uniqueness is
being applied unconsciously, with a few adjustments for variant
abbreviations within scenes.  For instance, there is no Macc, but there
is a curious Maca -- which, since it occurs only once, sandwiched
between two Macb's, and in a scene where Macbeth and Macduff are
identified in the header -- is probably some kind of variant (in the
printing house, and we were going to overlook these variants) for Macd.
  It might be an out of sorts issue.  Anyway, I have the idea modern
editors and commentators believe they have identified and resolved the
ambiguities regarding character identification in this play, whereas I
have my idiosyncratic doubts.  They might have only resolved the easy
ones, such as La, Lad, Lady, and Maca.  I agree with K. Dent about the
modern versions being potentially misleading in many ways: they look
fancy, pretty, standard, and it is easy to make unconscious assumptions
(or at any rate easier than when working with F).

I wonder if Cardenio has any relevance here.  I am not aware of the
informed scholarly opinion on the matter, but it was the opinion of the
editor of a recent printed edition of that play that whoever wrote out
the manuscript did so in Shakespeare's handwriting.  He published some
facsimile pages: they look a lot like F Macbeth in terms of layout and
style; of course F is in two columns rather than one, but in both there
is header material naming characters who enter, with their names spelled
out more or less in full, then there is block of Spoken Text (dialogue),
with abbreviated speech prefixes situated off to the left, which seem to
refer back to the scene header as far as character ID is concerned.
There is even a certain matching of italic type for italic script, and
Roman type for secretary script.  In other words it looks like they
didn't change the layout much when it was printed.   I have two versions
of the Star Wars script: one typed and the other printed (a published
book); the book version layout looks more different from the typed
version than does Cardenio facsimile versus F Macbeth.  So, if the
facsimile pages from Cardenio (whoever wrote it) might be taken as
representative of manuscript style of the time, then I might have some
confidence in F Macbeth representing the (unknown) manuscript behind it,
at least as far as speech prefixes being abbreviated and referring back
to the scene header goes.

But, let's let a point sneak out here: most of the consolidation of
characters done until now has to do with single scenes.  What happens
when we compare characters across scenes?  Shakespeare appears to me
often to have used a speech prefix as an identifier, not for character
within a play, but for function within a scene, such as "Seruant", or
"First Murderer" (1 Mur).  Are any of these functional designations
equal to something/someone else in another scene (with a different
function)?  For instance, could Porter equal Seruant?  J. Kennedy,
above, suggested that Gerald equals Servant in a play from the 18th
century, and N. Hinton notices a kind of speech prefix ambiguity in
Shaw, which is pretty recent.  In the Orson Welles movie of Macbeth,
Macbeth is equal to one of the murderers in the scene where Macduff's
castle is attacked.  This might be grandstanding by Welles, but it might
not be.  The Stage Directions in Shakespeare are laconic.  If Macbeth
were one of the murderers, and written originally now, it might read
something like, "Enter THREE MURDERERS, with hoods over their heads.
They cross to Lady Macduff and pause.  The lead murderer throws back his
hood, revealing himself as Macbeth.  Lady Macduff starts in horror.
Macbeth demands, 'Where's your husband?'"  That is a curious question
for a garden-variety murderer to ask; coming, as it does, without so
much as a how do you do.  He recognizes her.  All F has is "Enter
Murtherers."  Then they aren't distinguished by Speech Prefix.  I think
three different murderers utter one line each.  The script might not be
more detailed because it didn't need to be; it probably was written in
an economical style, with just enough information for the original
company (ie., not us) to mount the performance efficiently.  Character
identification by the audience across scenes might have been largely
determined by wardrobe, make-up, actor, and context, possibly in that
order.  And the old (Q, F) scripts don't tell us much about wardrobe,
make-up, and actor (nor does anything else): so the tendency is to
fill-n the gap unconsciously, using modern norms.

So I'm wondering how many of these apparently distinct Speech Prefixes
belonging to apparently distinct minor characters are homologous.  Is
there enough equality to create one or two major characters?  Would it
make a difference?  How about Hamlet (that is always a ripe one for
discussion): could Ghost equal Reynaldo equal Gravedigger?

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