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Macbeth /

An Introduction to This Text: Macbeth

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

Listen to this introduction:

Read by Ian Merrill Peakes – a special recording for The Folger Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the Folger Theatre

Macbeth was first printed in the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays now known as the First Folio. (Since the nineteenth century there have been scholars and editors who believe that parts of Macbeth as it appears in the Folio were written not by Shakespeare but by Thomas Middleton. Such scholars have offered to identify precisely Middleton’s contributions to the play, but their attributions to him remain the subject of fierce controversy.) The present edition of the play is based directly upon the 1623 printing.1 For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the First Folio. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more and ye to you. But it is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize forms of words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed text reads sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

Whenever we change the wording of the First Folio or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the First Folio does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change the First Folio’s wording or change its punctuation so that the meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

We correct or regularize a number of the proper names, as is the usual practice in editions of the play. For example, the Folio’s occasional spelling “Dunsmane” is altered to “Dunsinane,” the Folio’s more usual spelling, and the various Folio spellings of Birnam Wood—“Byrnam,” “Byrnan,” “Birnan,” “Byrnane,” and “Birnane”—are all spelled “Birnam” in this edition. Since no scholars believe that the Folio Macbeth was printed directly from Shakespeare’s own papers, it would be difficult to identify the Folio’s spellings of names as Shakespeare’s preferences.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance, rather than as a series of historical events. Thus stage directions are written with reference to the stage. For example, at 2.3.20, instead of providing a stage direction that says “The Porter opens the gate,” as many editions do, this edition has “The Porter opens the door.” There may have been doors on Shakespeare’s stages for the Porter to open, but almost certainly there were no gates.

Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of characters in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, placed so that they immediately precede the characters’ participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the –ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the last two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 We will speak further.
LADY MACBETH  Only look up clear.


However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the First Folio provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.