Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Macbeth in the Borderlands

 Kathryn Vomero Santos unravels the startling link between Macbeth and the drug trade in America…

5 minute read

What does Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ have to do with the devastatingly violent realities of the drug trade in the Americas?

Macbeth 2020 | Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank | Photographer: Ellie Kurttz

In many ways, the answer is nothing at all. None of Shakespeare’s plays could possibly account for the complex colonial histories and economic policies that have shaped the global cultivation, manufacture, and trafficking of narcotics and other controlled substances. Nor can Shakespeare’s plots and characters account for the experiences of those who have suffered the brutal physical and psychological violence that this economy has created.

Anglo-American journalists have reached for Shakespeare’s play about bloody ambition to help explain the rise and fall of powerful narco ‘kingpins’.

But in the last two decades, Anglo-American journalists have reached for Shakespeare’s play about bloody ambition to help explain the rise and fall of powerful narco ‘kingpins’. Take, for example, a Los Angeles Times review of Mark Bowden’s best-selling non-fiction book

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw. The reviewer, Michael Harris, describes the story of how U.S. military operatives helped Colombian police take down the infamous cartel leader Pablo Escobar as ‘a compelling, almost Shakespearean tale’, describing Escobar himself as ‘like Macbeth’.

In another example, Rolling Stone reporter Paul Solotaroff uses a similar phrase to describe the capture and extradition of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. ‘Like Macbeth’, El Chapo was ‘so steeped in blood that there was no going back, only forward’, Solotaroff writes.

Comparisons to Shakespeare’s works are commonplace in popular media, and the adjective ‘Shakespearean’ gets bandied about with enough frequency that these examples may not seem remarkable. But it’s worth asking: what are the implications of such analogies? Are they suggesting that a cross-border military invasion like the one we see at the end of Macbeth is necessary to restore order along the U.S.-Mexico border? Or that Anglo-American ‘high culture’ can offer solutions for Mexican ‘drug culture’? More broadly, is it ethical to call upon the works of a supposedly universal white English playwright as shorthand for a problem that has been used to racialise and demonise an entire category of people, many of whom attempt to enter the U.S. to escape the violence that same problem has caused?

As cartel violence has escalated in Mexico and Mexicans have become increasingly dehumanised in U.S. media and political conversations, several Mexican American and Latinx theatre artists living in the U.S. have started addressing such questions. For them, Shakespeare’s works are appealing not because they offer an easy analogy. Instead, the plays present a means to interrogate the complexities of the drug trade and its impacts.

[Shakespeare’s]  plays present a means to interrogate the complexities of the drug trade and its impacts.

Such nuances include the colonial and racist dimensions of the so-called ‘drug wars’ and the complicity of U.S. politicians, police, military, media, and consumers in the violence associated with narcotrafficking. So rather than simply seeing echoes of Shakespeare in the realities of cartel violence, these productions see—and encourage their audiences to see—Shakespeare’s works as a tool for reframing the dominant stories about life in the Borderlands as they have been told through white Anglo-American perspectives.

An actor looking upwards and holding a script.

Fode Simbo as Banquo. Credit: Johan Persson

A group of actors gathered around a phone.

The Company of Macbeth. Credit: Johan Persson

An actor with a grey bears leaning on a pillar, illuminated by sunlight.

Ferdy Roberts as Witch. Credit: Johan Persson

One particularly fascinating example within a larger trend of ‘narco’ Macbeths is a one-man bilingual hand-puppet adaptation entitled El Beto, which was created by Mexican American actor and puppet artist Kalob Martinez in 2016. In this production, Martinez used verbal, visual, sonic, and theatrical strategies to resist the forms of storytelling that portray Mexicans as a monolith or uncritically demonise narcotrafficking.

El Beto opens with an original narcocorrido, a subgenre of Mexican narrative ballads that chronicles and reclaims the exploits of narcotraficantes. The song acknowledges that neoliberal economic policies and U.S. demand for drugs are also responsible for creating the conditions that incentivised poor Mexican farmers to stop growing food and start growing more lucrative crops such as marijuana and opium poppies. As the song reaches its conclusion, the projected images of drugs, money, and guns fade into one another in rapid succession. But the transnational terror they represent lingers, setting the stage for Shakespeare’s gruesome tragedy.

Martinez creatively used the medium of puppet theatre to amplify the immediacy of his Borderlands adaptation of Macbeth. Using 3-D scanning and printing techniques, he gave all the male puppets his own face, while simultaneously embodying the role of puppeteer and human Macbeth, who is doubled by puppet Macbeth throughout the production. By quite literally putting his face on Macbeth in a medium that required him to play many roles at once, Martinez used Shakespeare’s play to tell a story about power and violence that affects people who, like his puppets, look like him.

Macbeth 2020 | Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank | Photographer: Ellie Kurttz

El Beto and other ‘narco’ Macbeth appropriations, like Stephen Richter and Mónica Andrade’s Marqués and Chris Mangels’s Tragedy of Macbeth, acutely remind us that Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ ends with a cross-border military invasion. This is perhaps most apparent in Martinez’s production when Macduff’s flight across the border to England is translated into a regionally relevant Spanglish statement: ‘Macduff is fled a los Estados Unidos’. It is in ‘los Estados Unidos’, of course, that Martinez’s Macduff will join the U.S. armed forces that later invade Mexico under the pretence of restoring order—just as the ‘English power’ invades Scotland at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Demarcating a fluid linguistic border at the level of the sentence, El Beto subtly but powerfully challenges assumptions about what is fair and what is foul.

As Martinez and his puppets work through the complicated resonances of Macbeth in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands, El Beto demands that audiences reckon with the idea that the thousands of lives lost in the drug trade are not, in fact, abstract figures on the other side of the border or in the margins of our consciousness. They are human beings whose lives are affected by the decisions and desires of many agents in the U.S. and globally.

Kalob Martinez performing in El Beto. Photography by Radu Corcodel.

Reproduced with permission.

If there is anything Shakespearean about these realities, it is that the story is far more complex than we have been made to believe.


Macbeth plays in our Globe Theatre from 21 July – 28 October as part of our Summer 2023 season.

Learn more about Macbeth on one of our pre-show Guided Tours.