Macbeth on the Shakespeare Stage

Macbeth on the Shakespeare Stage

Theatre in Shakespeare's Time

Table of Contents-- 

• Stage in Shakespeare's Time 

• How was Macbeth presented on Shakespeare Stage 

• Why was the murder scene of King Duncan not presented on open stage 

• Scenes of Macbeth presented on Shakespeare Stage 

 Stage in Shakespeare's Time:

The Elizabethan theatre was very different affair from the modern day stage. The theatre in Elizabethan times was basically a courtyard surrounded on three sides by tall raised balcony areas. The courtyard was open to the sky so the lighting was largely natural. But in some indoor theatres such as Hampton Court where Macbeth was first performed in 1606, candles were also used to create light effects. Normally performances took place during the day, using the natural light from the open part of the stage. In the modern day stage, a 'picture stage', in which the audience may be said to constitute the 'fourth wall' of a room, aims at illusion; while the the Shakespearean stage, in which the stage was a platform thrust out among audience, could not hope for this. The stage itself was divided into three parts - a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area at the back for discovery scenes and an upper canopied area called 'heaven' for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called 'hell'. A glance at the illustration will make a long explanation unnecessary. The platform constitutes the front or main stage; entrance was at the back, not at the sides, so that some time elapsed between a character's appearance and his reaching the front of the stage. The building at the rear had a gallery above, which served for walls of a city, balcony of a room. Below were curtains which, when drawn back, served to provide a rear or inner stage. As there were no means of closing the outer stage, scenes which had to be disclosed or hidden took place on this inner stage. There was little approximation to scenery, but plenty of movable properties. There was also a trap-door for removal of properties, and for certain stage effects.

How was Macbeth presented on the Shakespeare Stage

Our knowledge of the precise uses to which the various parts of the stage were put is far from perfect, and we know still less of the conventions which an Elizabethan audience was prepared to accept. Devices which would provoke amusement in a London theatre of today were probably accepted as a matter of course by the simpler minded Elizabethans. Some of Shakespeare's plays are quite easy to imagine on the stage of the time, but Macbeth presents a number of difficulties. In 1611, Macbeth was performed in the Globe, one of the famous theatres in London. Many people have the curiosity that had the audience of The Globe theatre got the chance to see Shakespeare performing Macbeth on the stage. We can assume that it is quite possible for Shakespeare to perform on the stage as acting was his primary job. The following suggestions are necessarily based to a large extent on conjecture. 

Scenes of Macbeth on Shakespeare Theatre:

Act I of Macbeth on Shakespeare Stage:

In general, the full stage (with curtains open) was used very little in Macbeth, partly perhaps to add to the effect of rapidity and directness of attack. The witches present a peculiarly difficult problem. Act I, Scene I, was probably played on the front stage. In Act I, Scene III, the witches probably meet Macbeth and Banquo on the front stage: they have no cauldron or other properties here to make this difficult. They only met two men (Macbeth and Banquo) on their way across the front stage. How they vanished shortly no can satisfactorily explain. They could, of course, pass through the closed curtains, or if these were open, they might move on to the inner stage and be concealed by the closing of curtains. 

Why was the Murder of Duncan not presented on the Stage:

The murder of King Duncan is the first and most evil act committed by Macbeth in the play 'Macbeth'. But Shakespeare did not choose to present the murder scene on open stage. Shakespeare chose the murder of King Duncan take place off stage because one can imagine the scene as most gory, scary, violent. So not to leave any violent effect of the murder scene, Shakespeare presented it on off stage. Therefore, the audience might imagine the scene in their minds.

Act III of Macbeth on Shakespeare Stage:

In Act III, Scene IV, the full stage was undoubtedly used. The curtains were open, and the Banquet was prepared on the inner stage. In the Banquet Scene, the first murderer entered and Macbeth come forward to meet him and we can assume that the front stage is used here. Their colloquy took place on the front stage. Macbeth was recalled to the Banquet by Lennox but it seemed that he hovered between the front and inner stages until he seated himself at the Banquet. Next, Lady Macbeth left the inner stage, and the dialogue with her husband took place on the front stage. For a short time, the action took place on the inner stage, but when the guests had departed, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth no doubt came forward and the scene was concluded on the front stage. 

Act IV of Macbeth on Shakespeare Stage:

Act IV, Scene I, opened with the inner stage representing the cavern. Macbeth entered on the front stage. So much is clear; the rest of the scene is rather difficult to reconstruct. It might appear at the first sight that the gallery or upper stage was used for the raising of the Apparitions. But when Macbeth started towards the first Apparition, his way was barred by the first First Witch who was now with Macbeth on the front stage. Again the rising and sinking of the Apparitions would be ineffective behind the railings of the upper stage. Most probably the trap-door, the regular device for magical effects was used for Apparitions. Hence, the word 'descends' which was seldom used for an exit from the upper stage. When the Apparitions had vanished, the cauldron also descended to make room for the show of King who probably walked on at one side of the inner stage and stood in a row across it. 

Act V of Macbeth on Shakespeare Stage:

In Act V, the inner stage was probably used in Scenes IV and VI. In Scenes IV, it serves as the wood of Birnam; or, to speak in terms of practical necessity, the place from which the soldiers collect their boughs. Presumably they walk off the stage with the boughs, and reappear carrying them in Scene VI. Here the inner stage served as the place where the boughs were deposited after the Army had entered in the manner described in the stage direction. 


Although Shakespeare had to compose his dramas considering the limitations of the stage and actors, his viewers came from all classes and his plays appealed to all kind of sensibilities. Shakespeare also thought of creating scenes like Poter Scene to provide opportunities and scope for the actors to change their outfits. The plays of Shakespeare were presented so tactfully on the stage that they were easily accessible to his contemporary audiences. 

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