Marissa Skudlarek is not afraid to say “Macbeth” as many times as she’s worried she might have to see it.
“Do we really need another Macbeth right now?” Jason Zinoman wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. “A new revival, this one starring Ethan Hawke, opened on Nov. 21, four months after the previous Broadway production, starring Alan Cumming, closed. If you fail to see Mr. Hawke reveal what life, which as we know is full of sound and fury, signifies, not to worry: Kenneth Branagh will fill you in next spring, when he brings his production of Macbeth to New York.”
And that’s not counting Patrick Stewart’s Broadway Macbeth from 2008, or Kelsey Grammer’s from 2000, or the Macbeth film that’s currently in production starring Michael Fassbender. Or the ultra-hip, Macbeth-riffing theater piece Sleep No More. Closer to home, there were two Macbeth productions in the Presidio in September of this year (SF Shakespeare Festival and We Players). While actual statistics are hard to come by, it wouldn’t surprise me if Macbeth were Shakespeare’s most frequently-produced tragedy in the 21st century. And I’m pretty sure that it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most frequently (even though it’s not actually one of my favorites).
So what accounts for the play’s massive popularity? Some people will point out that it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and therefore suited to a short-attention-span modern audience. Others will argue that any play that features witches, apparitions, madness, and a big swordfight in the last scene is bound to be popular. (But Hamlet has all of those things except witches, and it isn’t produced nearly so often.) Others will propose that Macbeth’s “timeless themes” – ambition, corruption, guilt – explain its continued renown. But are its themes really more timeless, more worth hearing, than those of Shakespeare’s other great plays?
Instead, I want to propose a clean, practical explanation. Zinoman writes that “simple old-fashioned star power” lies behind many recent Shakespeare revivals: “The great Shakespeare roles still have the most cultural cachet for actors, who get taken more seriously and, in many cases, are energized by performing the parts they read or tackled in school.”
And what are the “great Shakespeare roles”? Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s tragedies are “greater” than his comedies and that, of his dozen or so tragedies, four stand out above the rest: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. So let’s examine the heroes of those four tragedies, and what characteristics an actor must have to portray them.
Hamlet’s age is a matter of some debate, but he’s clearly a young man, a student at the University of Wittenberg. He must appear young enough, untried enough, for it not to seem weird that the Danes have allowed Claudius to take the throne, rather than crowning Hamlet. People often talk about the difficulty of finding the right actor for the role: by the time you have the technique to tackle such a massive part, you look too old to do it. While it is rare for a man who’s literally college-aged to play Hamlet these days, it’s still a young man’s game. My sense is that once you get to be about 35, you’re too old to play Hamlet.
Meanwhile, King Lear is an old man: a white-haired king, giving up his throne and going senile. The text specifies that Lear is over eighty (“four score and upward”) but again, it can be difficult to imagine a real eighty-year-old with the stamina to tackle this massive role, not to mention the strength to carry Cordelia’s corpse onstage in the last scene. A too-youthful Lear, though, is equally ridiculous. Let’s say that, generally speaking, the role should be played by a man who’s at least 65.
Then we come to Othello. He’s middle-aged: a powerful general who has seen much adventure and is considerably older than his young bride Desdemona, but is still in the vigorous prime of life. And – oh, yeah – he’s black. Thankfully, our theater no longer finds it acceptable for actors of other races to put on blackface to play Othello; but what this means is that only a subset of actors can put this role on their wish list.
So what do you do if you want to play a great Shakespearean tragic hero, but you’re not old, not young, and not black? You play Macbeth. And who has the most power in the Anglo-American theater? What stars tend to be the biggest box-office draws? Middle-aged white men.
Michael Fassbender is 36; Ethan Hawke is 43; Alan Cumming is 48; Kenneth Branagh is 53. Of the four “great” Shakespearean heroes, Macbeth is the only one they can play, the only one that’s open to them at this stage in their lives. The window for playing Hamlet or Lear is narrow; Macbeth could be any age from 35 to 65. Certainly, there are other excellent Shakespearean roles for men in this age range – Richard III, say, or Brutus – but those plays don’t quite have the cultural cachet, or box-office appeal, of the Hamlet-Lear-Othello-Macbeth quartet.
And why are those considered Shakespeare’s four greatest plays, anyway? Why do we privilege tragedy over comedy? Could it be (at least in part) because tragedy is a more “masculine” genre, but Shakespeare’s greatest comedies tend to be female-dominated? Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola are amazing roles – yet we somehow consider it a far more daunting, courageous task for a young actor to play Hamlet than for a young actress to play Rosalind. People ooh and aah over Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night that’s currently on Broadway; people never gush about female Olivias in the same way.
Our theater continues to privilege middle-aged white men over women and minorities; tragedy over comedy; Shakespeare over all other dramatists; familiarity over risk. That is the reason that Macbeth continues to haunt our stages. That is the play’s real curse.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s still a little irritated that she didn’t get cast as Witch #2 in her high-school production of Macbeth. For more about Marissa, check out marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.