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The Smell of Macbeth


This essay considers the theatrical squib, the stinking low-tech gunpowder explosive used to produce the illusion of thunder and lightning in Macbeth. The smell of the squib may well have provoked in audience members a variety of memories and associations.  Collectively, these would have created a palimpsest of temporally discrete events and conventions: the contemporary Gunpowder Plot, the older stage tradition of firework-throwing devils and Vices, and the abandoned sacred time of Catholic ritual in which fair and foul smells signified, respectively, divine and satanic presences. This sacred time may be past, but it is not simply superseded; Macbeth powerfully registers the loss of the old system of value encoded in Catholic olfactory ritual. Like Walter Benjamin’s historical materialist, who “seizes on a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger” in order to explode the empty homogeneous time of the present, Shakespeare and the King’s Men used their squibs and the memories they provoked as temporal explosives, transforming stage materials into matériel that shattered the olfactory coordinates of Protestant time.

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