Thanks to everyone who registered a guess for this month’s Crocodile Mystery and congratulations to those of you who answered correctly! As many of you pointed out, the oddity in the final disposition of characters is Macbeth’s full-bodied presence on the stage—usually we just see his head, held aloft by Macduff! Read on for the gory details…
A while ago, I wrote about the stinky ingredients used to create the effect of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. Other evidence of disgusting smells and gory props in this play came to my attention, so this post provides us with more information about the olfactory experience of Macbeth in performance.
Blood & guts
The workhorse prop in Macbeth is blood. Beginning with Macbeth’s return from war, to Duncan and his attendants’ gory deaths, from Banquo’s murder, to the murder of Macduff’s family, blood appears everywhere in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Mentioned 40 times during the play, blood flows onstage even when it’s not physically present. During one of the most famous scenes in which the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth tries to wash her imagined blood-stained hands she says, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (5.1.53). This line stopped me in my tracks when I read it. So much is made of Lady Macbeth washing her hands crying “Out, damned spot,” dreaming that she sees the blood. But she also calls out the smell of blood, the strongest sense tied to memory. This short line is a big clue in our hunt for the stage properties that would have added to the odor of Macbeth in performance.
What a mess
The effusion of blood and parade of gory props were particularly stunning to and popular with the audiences of early modern drama. Over 60 early modern plays explicitly refer to the use of blood in their stage directions and over 150 of them allude to stage action that would induce bleeding such as wounding, hurting, or stabbing.1 Most of the time, stage directions suggest that the actors enter the scene wearing clothes already bloodied, because the costumes were too expensive and difficult to clean from the different types of stage blood to apply fresh blood onstage at each performance. Bleeding onstage usually comes during a scene in which the character arrives already bloodied, which explains why so many deaths in Shakespeare’s plays take place offstage (and are remarkable when they don’t). To give the thrill of bloodshed without the mess, stage directions occasionally indicate the isolation of bleeding to the actors’ hands, on which small sponges filled with blood were tied on the inside of their fingers. The actor would clasp their wounded hand or wrist, which would deploy the blood and draw attention to the wound for effect.2
The stage effect of spontaneous bleeding of mortal wounds happened enough, however, that it prompted at least two different authors to write tracts to dispel the notion that practical effects on the stage, including the release of blood and severed body parts, were not supernatural phenomena, but were simply tricks by “jugglers” and performers.
The Discoverie of Witchcraft, London, 1584. Folger call number: STC 21864 copy 1.
In his 1584 tract, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot describes how bleeding after wounding is achieved onstage: “according to the fashion of your belly and breast: the same must by a painter be colored cunningly, not only like to your flesh, but with paps, navel, hair, etc. so as the same (being handsomely trussed unto you) may show your natural belly. Then next to your true belly you may put a linen cloth, and […] betwixt the plate and the false belly you place a gut or bladder of blood.”3 Within just a few years of this publication, however, blood onstage became not only commonplace but popular. Revenge tragedies, battle dramas, and even comic scenes used blood in copious amounts. One lost play, Six Clothiers of the West from 1601, purposely reveals the stage trick Scot describes when a nobleman seeks a cure for an imagined affliction. His doctor tricks him into thinking he is having his blood let, but the audience and doctor both know that the doctor is performing phlebotomy on a sheep’s bladder filled with blood.
In early modern productions, stage blood took several forms, including dyed vinegar or the use of vermilion paint. Most often the blood prop came from calves, sheep, or pigs, but not adult cows or oxen because bovine blood was too thick to drip realistically.4 Decaying blood would have had a strong odor to which the theater audience might have become nose-blind already. Most of these open-air theaters stood alongside bear-baiting arenas just outside the front doors, providing a day-long draw to the area or alternate entertainment on days the theater was dark.5 The connection between animal blood sport and the theater was so strong, Macbeth likens his being trapped in a losing battle with Macduff to a chained bear: “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly. But bear-like I must fight the course” (5.7.1-2). Both this line and Lady Macbeth’s reference to the smell of blood on her hands create “olfactory reminders” of that smell at crucial moments in the play to freshen the audience’s awareness of something they had become accustomed to during this overwhelmingly bloody play.6
Sic semper tyrannis
Macbeth’s life comes to an historically conventional end when Macduff, of no woman born, kills him. Like all tyrants, Macbeth is beheaded after death and his head is displayed for all to see the proof of the end of his tyranny.
In this image from the First Folio of 1623—the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays—we see the stage directions that indicate the importance in witnessing both Macbeth’s death and the prominent display of his severed head. Not only did the display of the “usurper’s cursed head” convey political meaning in the early modern period, but the audience would have gotten a thrill from seeing such a lifelike prop on display before them.
We know that in movies and TV shows today, certain tropes, stories, and characters become trendy and early modern theater was no different. During the 1580s and 90s gruesome stage props such as severed heads were featured in countless productions. Even though Macbeth first appeared onstage in 1606, the penchant for staged dismemberment had not run out.
The Discoverie of Witchcraft, London, 1584. Folger call number: STC 21864 copy 1.
Reginald Scot demystifies one popular method for simulating beheading, as you can see in this image of a head on a platter. A wax body on the table allows the living actor to put his head through a yoke while seated on a stool to craft the special effect. In one notable play depicting the life of St. George, a wax effigy of the actor was placed onstage filled with animal entrails to enhance the reenactment of his martyrdom.7 Severed heads were more commonly stage props, rather than pulling this live-action trick, to enhance the drama surrounding the end of an evil figure’s life, and to allow the live actor to possibly double in another role.
Along with existing plays such as The Battle of Alcazar by George Peele, a couple of lost plays also provide us strong evidence of the theatrical fad of showcasing severed heads. Two lost plays, Bendo and Richardo and Six Clothiers of the West, along with a play called Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek (possibly Mahomet), all feature some form of headless hijinks. In Bendo and Richardo from 1592, Richardo’s father Bendo falls into a cauldron of boiling pitch, but Bendo requests before his death that Richardo bury his head both to cover up their crime of theft and to provide him with a semblance of a proper burial, which his son does. In Six Clothiers of the West from 1601, a man named Hodgkins of Halifax is given permission by Henry I to execute those accused of stealing drying cloth hanging on a line. Hodgkins and the townspeople of Halifax cannot bring themselves to carry out the executions, but mercifully a Friar has invented a machine (now called a Halifax Gibbet, akin to a guillotine) to perform the executions without guilt, live onstage. Finally, Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek from 1589 shows a severed head as evidence of the death of the Turkish tyrant Mahomet, providing more evidence for the same type of use we see in Macbeth.
Theater owner Philip Henslowe financed and provided props for all three of these plays. Henslowe kept many inventories of stage properties, costumes, and the hardware used to build sets. Among these props numbered at least 5 human heads, including one for “owlde Mahomet,” heads for mythical figures like Cerberus, and countless limbs for various characters like Hercules.8 These prop heads would have looked incredibly lifelike because they were made from wax, akin to a modern wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s. Wax was readily available, easily painted and molded to look like the actor in the unfortunate role and could also serve as a temporary vehicle for blood effects. This wax effigy of Charles II was crafted in 1685 and demonstrates the impressive level of detail that could be achieved in wax, giving us a sense of what was possible for early modern stage props.
To make prop severed heads even more lifelike, the neck would have been stuffed with a sheep’s bladder filled with blood, also called a squib, which would have been punctured just before entering the stage so that it gave the effect of a freshly completed beheading. Actors also were able to wear prosthetic wax appendages, such as an arm or an ear, which when “cut off” would bleed in a lifelike manner due to the wax being punctured. These effects were so popular that over 60 early modern plays, including many by Shakespeare, feature some sort of severed appendage either being used as a separate prop carried onstage or involving the dramatization of the removal of the appendage.9
The popular stunt of cutting off an appendage came with risks to the actors and prop masters, however. The paint mixture used to create the color of white flesh comprised white lead, bitumen, coal, and mercury. Actors wearing the props and paint mixers who created them reported symptoms of vomiting, sweating, burning sensations, fainting, (temporary) paralysis, abdominal pains, and shallow breathing. These bodily effects were thought to have been brought on by an imbalance of humors, specifically an increase in choleric or hot humor. To remedy this imbalance, rather than stop applying neurotoxins to their skin, actors would instead drink copious amounts of milk or eat a large amount of butter to cool themselves and to bring their humors back in alignment.10
So far, we have ample evidence that early modern theatergoers were not squeamish. It’s clear that considering the sheer number of performances that included blood and severed body parts these stage practices were very popular. With the passage of time, however, Shakespeare’s Macbeth underwent some radical changes to the text and performance to make it more palatable to audiences’ changing tastes. In 1664, playwright William D’Avenant revived Macbeth with changes that, in some cases, lasted through 200 years of performance history. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, women were for the first time allowed to act on the public stage. To account for this radical change, D’Avenant greatly expanded the parts of Ladies Macbeth and Macduff, giving them both more solo scenes and interactions with their spouses. The witches were also incredibly popular and merited more stage time that included additions of them singing, dancing, and many more than the original three in number. These changes set a precedent for altering this Shakespeare play to suit audience tastes. One of the most famous actors of all time, David Garrick, is widely acknowledged as the reason Shakespeare and his plays enjoy such popularity to this day. From restoring many plays to their original states to funding a multi-day Shakespeare Jubilee, Garrick restored Shakespeare beyond his previous reputation to that of unparalleled genius.
Macbeth loses his (severed) head
However, even Garrick was not above meddling with the Bard. Like any actor at the top of his craft, Garrick cherished the limelight. To this end, in combination with prevailing tastes and the assurance of censorship by his superiors at the royally patented Drury Lane theater, he made a major change to the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Mr. Garrick als Macbeth. German, mid-18th century. Folger call number: ART File G241 no.57.
Macbeth dies onstage but is not dragged off by Macduff who does not then return with Macbeth’s severed head. Instead, Macbeth is given one final speech, alone onstage:
Tis done! The scene of life will quickly close.
Ambition’s vain, delusive dreams are fled,
And now I wake to darkness, guilt and horror;
I cannot bear it! Let me shake it off
‘Two’ not be; my soul is clogg’d with blood
I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy
It is too late, hell drags me down; I sink,
I sink, Oh! My soul is lost forever! Oh!11
That final sentiment by Garrick’s Macbeth seems so out of character from the gruesome tyrant in the rest of the play, almost teetering on repentance and recognition of his sins. This Macbeth cannot be the same one whose final words are warlike and aggressive in Shakespeare’s text as he cries, “Lay on Macduff, and damned be him that first cries ‘Hold! Enough!’” (5.8.38-39). In their attempt to explain the rationale behind such a dramatic shift, the footnote from the official printed production text published with permission by the censors at Theater Royal Drury Lane explains the decision:
If deaths upon the stage are justifiable, none can be more so than that of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s idea of having his head brought on by Macduff, is either ludicrous or horrid, therefore commendably changed to visible punishment—a dying speech, and a very good one, has been furnished by Mr. Garrick, to give the actor more éclat; but as we are not fond of characters writhing and flouncing on carpets; and as from the desperate state of Macbeth’s mind we think his immediate death most natural, we could wish it to take place. There are, in the last scene, some lines added, and some judiciously transposed, for perusal as well as representation.12
Thanks to David Garrick, Macbeth loses his severed head with this representation of events prevailing with few exceptions in most major productions for the next 150 years. Many promptbooks in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection are textually based on David Garrick’s Drury Lane production, using the same printed version Garrick did. I could only find evidence in the Folger’s extensive collection of one attempt at a brave production that performed Macbeth’s grisly end.
The restorer of Macbeth’s severed head, Samuel Phelps, was a respected actor and the manager of Sadler Wells’ theater near London in the mid-19th century. During his tenure at Sadler Wells, Phelps also restored others of Shakespeare’s plays to their original plots and texts, such as Richard III and King Lear, the latter of which notoriously ended happily for 150 years. In his promptbook for the 1847 production of Macbeth in Phelps’s fourth season at Sadler Wells’, we can see his proclivity for meticulous stage instructions and judicious deployment of props for which he was well known. Written in the same expurgated edition that Garrick’s Drury Lane theater had produced almost 100 years previously, the note on the right-hand page shows Phelps’s boldness in restoration:
Loud flourish and shouts
All the characters, and Forces, Everybody
On- Macbeth’s head on a pole, borne
By an officer= 6 Flags of England
And Scotland, surrounding the head
Troops fill the stage, characters
Down R&L= Macbeth up stage
Pointing to head, Malcolm down front, back to audience.13
Other, less brave, theatrical performance editions show the entrenchment of the tradition of a fully-headed Macbeth. Some printed books intended as prompts include fixed stage directions, such as in the 1823 production mounted in Montgomery, Alabama, which supplied the image for today’s mystery. In it, Macbeth is a footnote, laying behind Lenox and Macduff on stage right, ancillary to the main event of hailing Malcolm as the new king. The tradition for Macbeth with head intact remained, even though theater companies began using texts that had reverted to Shakespeare’s language as you can see in this mid-19th version.
On this page, we have concrete evidence of theatrical tradition usurping textual authority leading to the play’s ending in lackluster decorum. Robbed even of the dignity of a final speech, mid-century Macbeth simply dies onstage, which, as an ending, frankly stinks.
I want to leave you with one especially entertaining “beheading” of Macbeth to cleanse our palates after a smelly and gruesome discussion of the play’s stage properties. On March 17, 1752, Spranger Barry performed as Macbeth in the manner of David Garrick—full death scene on stage, including the speech written by Garrick. The final scene did not go according to plan, however, as the Drury Lane Journal reported the next day:
Those heroic full-bottomed periwigs, whose bushy expanse is spread over the whole back of the wearer, have lately been exploded on the stage, and a more natural, I mean a less enormous covering for the head substituted in its stead. Unfortunately Mr Barry this night chose to appear in one of the most curiously frizzled out and of the fullest tragical flow I ever saw: When in the last act it was our heroes turn to be kill’d, honest Ryan [as Macduff] being eager to dispatch him, just as he was to plump down upon the carpet, entangled his hand in the vast profusion of Macbeth‘s hair; and by jerking back his sword after the concluding stab, away came poor periwig along with it, while our hero was left expos’d, in the last agonies of death bare-headed. Ryan in the meanwhile with some confusion contemplated Full-Bottom, which he held dangling in his hand, but sadly tumbled out of curl; at length he good naturedly adjusted it on the bald pate of the tyrant, who was then enabled to make his dying speech with proper regularity and decorum.
Whether Macbeth loses his periwig or his entire head, the final scene of the play is one in which audiences expected the tyrant to receive his comeuppance. While tastes may have changed and traditions waxed and waned, Macbeth and the rest of Shakespeare’s canon has been restored with only light tinkering in performance, compared to the wild days of the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Munro, Lucy. “‘They Eat Each Other’s Arms’: Stage Blood and Body Parts.” The ArdenShakespeare Library: Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance. Ed. FarahKarim-Cooper and Tiffany Sterm . London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014, p. 76.
- Ibid, 78.
- Scot, 197.
- Ibid, 78.
- Dugan, Holly. “‘As Dirty as Smithfield and as Stinking Every Whit’: The Smell of the HopeTheatre.” The Arden Shakespeare Library: Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance. Ed. Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern. London: Bloomsbury ArdenShakespeare, 2014, p. 199-200.
- Ibid, 202.
- Kenny, Amy. “A ‘Dummy Corpse Full of Bones and Entrails’: Staging Dismemberment in the Early Modern Playhouse” in Humorality in Early Modern Art, Material Culture, and Performance, eds. Amy Kenny and Kaara L. Peterson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, p. 91.
- Lord Admiral’s Men’s inventory, 10 March 1598, in Henslowe’s Diary, discussed in Foakes, Henslowe’s Diary, 316–25.
- Kenny, 87.
- Ibid, 92.
- Macbeth: a tragedy … As performed at the Theatre-Royal, Drury-Lane. Regulated from the prompt-book, with permission of the managers … An introduction, and notes … are added by the authors of the Dramatic Censor. London: Printed for John Bell; and C. Etherington, at York, 1773, p. 69. Folger copy PROMPT Mac. 13.
- My emphasis. Ibid, 69.
- Folger copy PROMPT Mac. 33.
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