Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

‘Darkness does the face of earth entomb’

  Macbeth is overwhelmingly a play of night-time and the hours just before and after dark. It drew on all the resources of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre when it opened its doors in 1609

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On a Saturday in April 1611, the quack physician Simon Forman took in ‘Mackbeth at the Glob’, as he recorded it in his Bocke of Plaies, a journal of his play-going habits. At the Bankside amphitheatre, Forman was struck in particular by the moment ‘Mackbetes quen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walke and talked and confessed all, and the docter noted her wordes.’ Forman’s medical amour-propre might account for his special mention of the doctor, but he also paid attention to the night-time setting of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.

In the Globe, of course, the play was performed in full daylight – Forman probably noticed the giveaway taper carried by the queen as a prop that denoted darkness – but just across the river, he would have had the chance to see the play in very different circumstances.

Drawing of a man with thick hair and bushy beard, wearing traditional male Elizabethan dress.

Simon Forman’s account of Macbeth plays special attention to the night-time in Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene.

In 1609 the King’s Men had taken possession of the Blackfriars, the lavish indoor playhouse that became their winter home, and a new venue for their dramatic repertory. Intimate in scale and lit by candlelight, the Blackfriars offered theatrical effects unavailable in the outdoor amphitheatres. In the years before the King’s Men’s takeover, indeed, the Blackfriars had pioneered the development of stage lighting effects. In 1606 the writer Thomas Dekker alluded to these practices in his pamphlet The Seven Deadly Sins of London when he observed that the city, in the grip of one of its periodic outbreaks of plague, resembled ‘a private playhouse, when the windows are clapped down, as [if] some nocturnal, or dismal tragedy, were presently to be acted.’ By ‘nocturnal’, Dekker meant a play, usually comic, in which a significant proportion of the action took place at night; his off-hand reference suggests that theatre artists were already exploring ways to change the lighting states on their stages to replicate night-time or to create an atmosphere of tragic gloom.

Three lit candles in the dark shadows of an indoor wooden theatre.

Intimate in scale and lit by candlelight, indoor playhouses like the Blackfriars offered theatrical effects unavailable in the outdoor amphitheatres.

Macbeth bears some of the characteristics of a distinctly un-comic nocturnal, or a tragic ‘night-piece’. The play’s two central murders occur in the dark, a state which induces paralysing fear in Macbeth after Duncan’s killing, and leads to the gory botching of the attack on Banquo and Fleance, who is able to escape in the confusion. Key scenes of hospitality, such as Duncan’s arrival at the Macbeths’ castle, are attended by torches, as called for in the stage directions of the folio text. Memorable scenes take place at the break of day or at the approach of ‘seeling night’.

Frontispiece to a pamphlet depicting a man holding a lantern and bell, followed by a dog, on some cobbled streets.

‘It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern’st good-night’. Frontispiece to Thomas Dekker’s Bellman of London, 1608, showing bellman with lantern and passing bell, rung when a person was near death. Topfoto

Night occupied an ambiguous position in the minds of early modern men and women. On the one hand, darkness was a familiar condition. Few homes were lit with the extravagance of the indoor playhouses; after nightfall, most people made do with a single candle, carried frugally from room to room. As Banquo says to his son on the starless night of Duncan’s murder, ‘there’s husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out’: thrifty housekeepers snuffed out lights to save money on beeswax and tallow. But darkness was also a time for misbehaviour. The theatrical ‘nocturnals’ mentioned in The Seven Deadly Sins tended to feature their fair share of comedic bed-hopping and midnight knavery, and in another publication, the cony-catching handbook Lantern and Candlelight (1608), Thomas Dekker revealed the seedy world of London’s night-time rogues and vagabonds.

A painting of two figures in a candlelit interior.

Ambiguous night. Figures in a candlelit interior, in the manner of Francesco Bassano, c.1600. Calke Abbey Derbyshire / National Trust Photographic Library / Bridgeman Images.

Pitch darkness might have been familiar, but that didn’t make its terrors any easier to bear. After dark, one was vulnerable to assault from one’s fellow subjects, to infection from miasmic air, or to visitation from demonic forces. Even death by natural causes was more likely to occur in the small hours. As the historian Roger Ekirch puts it, ‘pestilential vapours, diabolical spirits, natural calamity and human depravity’ were the ‘four horsemen of the nocturnal apocalypse.’ Above all, night-time was the province of fear, the emotion that, said Michel de Montaigne, ‘exceeds all other disorders in intensity.’ The most chilling manifestation of fear in early modern imaginings was the dread of the hereafter, the spectre of sin and damnation that hovered over every human soul. According to the theologian Thomas Rogers in a treatise of 1576 on the workings of the mind, ‘fear riseth from a conscience convicted guilty of some offence.’ Remorse and guilt – those emotions associated so strongly with Macbeth in the present day – found their origin in this fear of purgatorial punishment. Not for nothing has Macbeth been identified by the scholar Ewan Fernie as ‘Shakespeare’s Faustus’…

A fearful looking man stands holding two knives in the dark shadows of an indoor playhouse.

A ‘fear-sickness’ stalks Macbeth, seeding the language of its characters with a vocabulary of dread: the word ‘fear’ is spoken forty eight times. Paul Ready as the titular character in our 2018 production. Photographer: Johan Persson.

Macbeth ‘is obsessed with fear,’ observed the Shakespeare critic Allison Hobgood. A ‘fear-sickness’ stalks this dark play, seeding the language of its characters with a vocabulary of dread: the word ‘fear’ is spoken forty eight times. The bloody deeds committed by the Macbeths come back to haunt the perpetrators in phantasms both ‘real’ and unseen; and overseeing all is a trio of ‘weïrd women’, prophetic beings with the power to summon apparitions from the spirit world. If the tyrannical Macbeth meets his end by human hand, he is dispatched on his way by the misleading prognostications of the weïrd sisters and their black magic.

Shakespeare’s play, written for the Globe in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, captures the fearfulness and anxiety of that era in a tragedy that unfolds in unsettling gloom or abjectly frightening darkness. If Shakespeare was inspired by the structural possibilities of the ‘nocturnal’ genre, he gave his night-time scenes a fresh jolt of terror. And in 1609, he and his dramatic collaborators were granted the opportunity to rethink the darkness of his Scottish tragedy after the move indoors to the Blackfriars, equipped with its irresistibly flexible candlelight. We don’t know if the King’s Men ‘clapped down’ the windows and extinguished the candles for the dark scenes in Macbeth, but the play’s likely emendation by dramatist Thomas Middleton in the years after 1616 suggest that the company were minded to keep it up to date with theatrical fashion beyond the playwright’s death, and they may well have experimented with the sort of lighting effects for which the indoor playhouses were well known. Perhaps the King’s Men discovered that Macbeth thrived in the dimly glittering, intimate space of the Blackfriars, where the ‘good things of day’ could be shut outside, for ‘night’s black agents’ to begin their devilish work.