1. The Text
Lighting Macbeth is a lighting designer’s dream. Not only is it perhaps the greatest play in the English repertoire, but its text is also strewn with hints and pointers for a designer to follow. In this short collection of four posts I shall consider the director’s brief, the set and the design itself, but I shall start, as I always do when putting together a design, with the text.
The word ‘night’ occurs a remarkable 38 times in the play. Its symbolic use is fairly obvious: the night in Macbeth’s own soul, the darkness of the deeds he commits, the darkness of his reliance on the weird sisters, the darkness of Lady Macbeth’s pact with the ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’, and so on.
Shakespeare presents night not so much as the absence of night as the smothering and concealment of anything that emits light: the sun, the stars, a candle. Lady Macbeth invokes ‘thick night’ to conceal the act she commits; she summons spirits to prevent ‘heaven’ (i.e. the sun) ‘peeping through the blanket of the dark’; and when she dies, her husband imagines her death as a candle snuffed out. So too is Banquo’s torch extinguished at the moment of his death. An ephemeral flame is a consistent metaphor for the fragility of a human life.
The play opens with a stage direction: ‘A desert place. Thunder and lightning’. The text repeats the scene-setting for the benefit of the audience:
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
The reply gives the lighting designer another useful hint he can employ in the next scene – it will be just before sunset. The next two scenes continue the storm imagery, ‘Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders’.
Macbeth’s first entrance reminds us again of the stormy weather conditions, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’.
Thus the first scenes establish the dark and stormy character of the play. The theme of concealing and covering of any light source begins with Scene IV as Macbeth realises he can only achieve the weird sisters’ prediction by killing Duncan, ‘Stars hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires’.
This theme is taken up by his wife in what is surely the dark heart of the play and the source of the many superstitions surrounding it as she sacrifices her fertility and femininity to the ‘spirits that tend on mortal (i.e. murderous) thoughts’ and conjures up an unnaturally dark night,
Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
Duncan’s arrival at Forres promises to introduce some light – ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’ – but both the messenger and Macbeth have already made clear that his arrival takes place at evening and the guests are quickly fed and escorted to their beds.
Act II opens in total darkness, lit only by the torches of Banquo and Fleance; it is after midnight, the moon has set and the stars are hidden – ‘there’s husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out’. The darkness and silence of the night are unnatural – the product of Lady Macbeth’s pact,
Now o’er the one halfworld,
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings…
In this near total darkness hearing becomes preternatural: a bell rings, an owl shrieks, the grooms snore, crickets cry, voices are hard to identify, ‘Didst thou not hear a noise?… Did not you speak?’ In the silence Macbeth hallucinates: ‘Methought I heard a voice cry ‘sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep’, while his own voice is strangled,
But wherefore could I not pronounce ‘Amen’?
I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’
Stuck in my throat.
A strange knocking begins which carries us into the next scene and morning, and further descriptions of the strange sounds in the night, chimneys blown down, ‘Lamentings heard I’the air, strange screams of death,… the obscure bird / Clamoured the livelong night’. A bell clangs, associated by Lady Macbeth in her agitated state with the final trumpet.
Though it is morning there is still no light, ‘by the clock, ‘tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp’. This is the result both of the unnatural murder of a divinely appointed king and of Lady Macbeth’s earlier prayer, ‘O never / shall sun that morrow see!’ The king, the divine sun, has been extinguished.
By Act III Macbeth is already king but only some 24 hours have elapsed since the opening of the play and though we are hastening towards evening again, the lighting designer may be excused some artificial light. Lady Macbeth plans a banquet and Macbeth devises his next murder with two cut-throats, instructing, of course, that the murders of Banquo and Fleance must take place under the concealment of night. The imagery of strange sounds returns,
Ere to black Hecate’s summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note.
And again Macbeth summons up an unnatural darkness to hide the deed, ‘Come seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’,
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse:
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.
Banquo’s murder takes place appropriately as the sun sets – ‘the west yet glimmers with some streaks of day’ – but torches are needed for identification and in the confusion Fleance flees. Back inside for the banquet in the next scene the lighting designer must relieve the darkness with some welcoming artificial light but the festive mood is soon cut by the gory apparition of Banquo’s ghost, which is usually marked by some eerie lighting.
This is the mid-point of the play – ‘I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ – and the lighting designer will be feeling under some pressure to raise the lighting levels a little, in order to relieve the unrelenting darkness. The next scene provides the opportunity as we are taken in our imaginations over the border to sunny England, ruled by ‘the most pious Edward’.
Immediately afterwards, however, we are back with the weird sisters, grouped around a bubbling cauldron. Once again the imagery is of darkness and shrouded light sources – ‘Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse’. Macbeth’s speech is full of storms and unnatural and unholy phenomena – ‘Though you untie the winds and let them fight / against the churches… though the treasure / Of nature’s germens tumble all together’. There follows a truly nightmarish sequence of apparitions dragged up from hell and Macbeth conceives his next set of murders: of Macduff, ‘his wife, his babes’, which is attempted in the next scene, before a return to England in the long, and rather tedious, scene after which ends Act IV. Here again the light levels need to be lifted before the final darkness of Act V.
The final act opens again at night and in darkness as the Doctor and a gentlewoman await the appearance of Lady Macbeth, sleep-walking and carrying a taper. We are told that she keeps ‘light by her / continually’, presumably to ward off the spirits she has invoked; it is also a metaphor for her fragile life. Once again Shakespeare fills the darkness with strange noise, ‘Foul whisperings are abroad’.
After a brief moment outside – again, at night – we are back in another room of Dunsinane castle with Macbeth buckling on his armour and preparing for battle with the English. Cut to the attacking army disguising their numbers behind hewn branches from Birnham wood. Cut back to Macbeth, a ‘night-shriek’, and the final extinguishing of Lady Macbeth’s candle. Birnham wood begins to move, an alarum bell rings, and a storm wind gets up.
Cut to the English troops; cut back to Macbeth: the imagery is of hell and ghosts: there is fighting, killing, noise, confusion. Finally Macbeth and Macduff confront each other and Macbeth learns that the trust he placed in the weird sisters has been betrayed,
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise in our ear,
And break it to our hope.
They exit, more confusion, then Macduff returns with Macbeth’s severed head, and surely no lighting designer can resist a sunrise:
The time is free:
I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl.