Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes – John Wolfson Lecture

John Wolfson, Honorary Curator of Rare Books at Shakespeare’s Globe, gives an annual lecture on some aspect of Shakespeare’s work. This year, his lecture, which took place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was entitled Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes.

Macbeth is unusually short for a Shakespeare tragedy, suggesting that some scenes have been lost. The play also contains scenes known to have been added by another hand. The missing scenes and the added scenes are the subject of John Wolfson’s talk this year.

I was vaguely aware that Macbeth was the shortest Shakespearean tragedy, but I honestly had no idea that some of its scenes were supposed to be missing and I certainly didn’t know that others had been added. Naturally it’s harder to tell where the missing scenes are than the added scenes, though Shakespeare scholars have made attempts to identify these over the years. Wolfson’s talk was fascinating, illuminated by actors from his forthcoming play The Inn at Lydda who enlivened proceedings by declaiming several lines of dialogue.

It is thought that Thomas Middleton was particularly culpable when it came to slotting in scenes: there was a witch called Hecate in his play The Witch so it is believed that he added the Hecate scene in Macbeth, as well as the songs. David Garrick, the famous seventeenth-century actor, added a death speech to the end of the play but naturally enough, this is not performed now. I was slightly disappointed that there was no reference to my own favourite Macbeth anecdote: the famously dreadful poet William McGonagall tried his hand at acting, and on one occasion when playing Macbeth he simply refused to die.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of the talk involved the structure of the play and how it reflects the missing scenes. Acts 1 to 3 have a strong structure with Macbeth as the main character, but Act 4 has a scene between Macduff and Malcolm, in which Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty, which makes no sense in the context of what has come before. It’s possible that Shakespeare did originally include this plot thread and the scenes have gone missing. We are also meant to be aware that Macbeth has been king for many years between the banquet scene and the start of Act 4 but we don’t really get a sense of this.

Macbeth is a powerful but flawed play and this talk really helped me appreciate some of the difficulties surrounding its structure and performance. I’m looking forward to both seeing and reading the play again to explore this further.

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