By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Main Season · Roda Theatre
February 19–April 10, 2016

Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission

Olivier Award winner and Tony Award nominee Conleth Hill (Lord Varys in Game of Thrones) and Tony, Academy, and Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge) star as the notorious couple in Shakespeare’s murderous play about the lust for power and the fickleness of fate. Joining these two powerhouses of the stage and screen is an exceptional ensemble of veteran actors from the Bay Area and beyond. Tony- and Obie Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan—dubbed the “go-to guy for Shakespeare” by the New York Times—helms this thrilling new production especially for Berkeley Rep’s audiences.

Creative team

Daniel Sullivan · Director
Douglas W. Schmidt · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Pat Collins · Lighting Design
Dan Moses Schreier · Composer / Sound Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Video Design
Dave Maier · Fight Director
Lynne Soffer · Voice Coach
Barry Kraft · Dramaturg
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Tara Rubin · Casting
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Megan Messinger · Assistant Fight Director
Steven Sorenson · Assistant Lighting Designer
Maya Linke · Assistant Scenic Designer


James Carpenter · Duncan / Porter / Doctor
Scott Coopwood · Lennox / Understudy Macbeth
Derek Fischer · First murderer / Servant to Duncan / Messenger
Gene Gillette · Bleeding captain / Seyton / Lord / Old man
Paul Henry · Ensemble
Conleth Hill · Macbeth
Christopher Innvar · Banquo / Siward / Lord
Eddie Ray Jackson · Donalbain / Lord / Soldier
Korey Jackson · Macduff / Lord
Paul Jennings · Mentieth / Messenger
Billy Eugene Jones · Ross / Third murderer
Leon Jones · Macduff’s son
Adam Magill · Malcolm
Rami Margron · Witch / Gentlewoman
Frances McDormand · Lady Macbeth / Witch
Devin O’Brien · Ensemble
Nicholas Pelczar · Angus / Second murderer
Tyler Pierce · Fleance / Servant / Siward’s son
Mia Tagano · Lady Macduff / Witch

“A riveting experience…Frances McDormand is so thoroughly engrossing a Lady Macbeth, and so unforgettable in her sleepwalking scene…The plot takes full hold in the richly nuanced, intense mutual familiarity of McDormand and [Conleth] Hill…Hill is mesmerizing in the intimate details of Macbeth’s doubts and horrors as he wades ever deeper in blood…This has the makings of a Macbeth for the ages.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Explosive…Throbs with urgency and terror…Grabbing even a jaded modern audience by the throat from the first unholy tableau to the last beheading, Daniel Sullivan’s visceral and urgent production taps into the monstrous depths of human nature, the way people are tainted by violence and corrupted by the lust for power.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

“McDormand is compelling in the sleepwalking scene…Hill humanizes Macbeth’s final act depravity, showing us a man exhausted by his own evil but left with no other choice than to go out fighting…James Carpenter uniquely individualizes three secondary roles—the clueless Duncan, the drunken Porter and Lady Macbeth’s doctor. As Banquo, [Christopher] Innvar so plausibly holds the stage as Macbeth’s equal that I’d like to see his portrayal of the Scottish tyrant one day. Korey Jackson infuses Macduff with a moral glow that galvanizes our rooting interest after Lady Macduff ([Mia] Tagano) and their son (Leon Jones) are brutally slaughtered.”—Los Angeles Times

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

Neither is Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s play about a man who murders his way to the throne and then careens toward madness is at once a thinly veiled parable about the court of James I and a violent meditation on conscience. With every ensuing murder Macbeth’s mind erodes, his spirit is corrupted, his heart destroyed. Lady Macbeth, exhorting her conflicted husband to seize the bloody time, falls victim to her own hallucinations and is finally swallowed by darkness. All the while, the world is slipping off its axis: witches utter odd prophecies as the invisible forces of nature become visibly unnatural, a reflection of the chaos created by human beings bent on slaughter. This is a play with few surprises, a lot of blood, and no hint of a happy ending.

But, of course, being a play by Mr. William Shakespeare, the text is replete with spectacular poetry, relentless theatricality, and enough humanity to make us keep watching. Like a great haunted house, we want to see what’s in every room, to take a peek at characters eating through their lives as they wrestle with greed, loyalty, power, sacrifice, and, yes, love.

To conjure such a theatrically dark universe you need artists with tremendous talent, rigorous craft, and unflinching spirit. Happily, we have assembled such a group. Dan Sullivan is one of our great directors, having done almost every play in the canon multiple times. He is flanked by the incomparable duo of Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand, who have graced our lives on the big screen in countless unforgettable performances, but who grace our stage for the first time. Together they lead a small army of superb designers and actors into the forbidden landscape of Macbeth. They aim to take no prisoners.

For our part, we can only hope that any and all parallels to the modern world are not irrevocable, and that our desire to move civilization out of our present darkness and into the light…may yet win the day.


Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

It’s been quite a season already, and we still have two shows to go. From Amélie to The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, followed by Julia Cho’s Aubergine, we’ve done our absolute best to take you on a roller coaster ride of fine theatre—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the refined to the raw, from irresistible love to unbridled wrath, and from propulsive enthusiasm to quiet contemplation. Now we bring you one of the great plays of the western canon, in a production that features the talents of a remarkable ensemble.

We’ve been very proud of these productions, and you, our audience, have told us that you are more than satisfied. One of the best gifts I was given over the holidays was the call from an audience member who had just seen Disgraced and was moved enough to leave a message with her intense response to the show. She was still thinking about the play after having left the theatre, and it had resonated with her at her very core. This wasn’t the only call or message of thanks, and I count myself as a very lucky person to be the beneficiary of those calls.

Though we’re looking forward to Mary Zimmerman’s Treasure Island and Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, we’ll be announcing—at the beginning of March—some of the shows that will comprise our 2016–17 season. If you’re a subscriber, you’ll be receiving your renewal packets in the mail so you can sign up for another exhilarating season of plays. Don’t put it off!

We do our best to reward our subscribers’ loyalty with flexibility and affordability. We’ve had to turn away folks from sold-out performances this season, but subscribers could rest assured they wouldn’t be left out. And, of course, they enjoy the best prices.

In recent years, it has been heartening to see the growth of our under-30 subscription base, and we’ve even seen growth in attendance among those young couples who are so busily juggling careers and their new families. It is a delight to be the “date night” for couples in search of an adult night away from the kids!

So, in March check your mailbox, your inbox, or Berkeley Rep’s website to discover several shows in our 2016–17 season. Subscribers, renew and guarantee that you will enjoy a program that we expect will be as appealing as what you’ve already seen this year. (We also welcome new subscribers, of course!) Commit to date night with your loved one, family night with more of your loved ones, theatre nights with those friends with whom you’ve been wanting to spend more time, or even a night of quiet reflection by yourself.

Either way, don’t miss out. Join us for next season’s adventure.


Susan Medak

The bloody smoking sword

An interview with Director Daniel Sullivan

By Sarah Rose Leonard

Daniel Sullivan is one of America’s most consummate Shakespearean directors. In the past decade he has directed The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, King Lear, and Cymbeline at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and notably transferred his park production of The Merchant of Venice to Broadway in 2010. Sullivan was raised in San Francisco, attended San Francisco State, briefly moved to New York in his 20s, and then found his way to Seattle Repertory Theatre, where he was the artistic director from 1981 to 1997. In the late 1990s he made a permanent move to New York, where he has since worked steadily directing classical work and esteemed new plays on and off Broadway. This production is Sullivan’s first time staging Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most famous works. Before rehearsals Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard spoke with Dan about the themes of ambition, fear, and madness in the legendarily murderous drama.

Sarah Rose Leonard: Why did you want to direct Macbeth at this point in your career?

Daniel Sullivan: I have seen three or four productions in the last 10 years or so, and I just began to see the play as more interesting than I previously thought it was. Macbeth’s constant questioning of what he’s doing, and that very human flaw of ambition, is something we can all identify with. Ambition draws us; it can become terribly hypnotic and can make us bad. If you make that first step, as Macbeth does, the whole play then is basically consequence. I think that’s dramatically interesting.

Other murderous figures in Shakespeare don’t question their actions—they actually take joy in them, and that’s not something that Macbeth does. He’s simply trying to fix the thing that he’s already put in motion, and it continues to go awry for him. More than anything, there’s a consciousness to him. As he says, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself…” But the fact is that he still goes forward…in fact, there’s no returning from what he’s done, and I think he knows that.

What do we know about the Macbeths’ relationship to violence before their first murder?

It’s interesting that our introduction to Macbeth is hearing about how he beheaded his rival and stuck his head on a pike. And the very next thing is Lady Macbeth hearing the news and saying he’s got too much of the milk of human kindness. I think we have to understand that this was simply part of the conventions of war—Shakespeare is just trying to say that he was a good soldier. Even in Shakespeare’s time, bodies were drawn and quartered in the town square and hung there for days. So it’s not as though our terror at the idea of beheading was shared by the Elizabethan audience. Her talking about him having the milk of human kindness is, I think, more about what we hear later when he tries to back out of what they have decided to do.

It’s interesting that the scene where he decides to go forward with the murder isn’t in the play—you don’t really know if the murder plot comes from Lady Macbeth or if it comes from him. It’s an interesting omission and you have to sort of guess at it.

Could you share some thoughts on the Macbeths’ marriage—particularly in relation to other Shakespearean romantic pairings? What is usual, or unusual, about their dynamic?

They’re unique in the passion they have for one another. Mired within their murderousness, they are two people taking care of each other. But something happens, and it’ll be an interesting thing to explore—he basically separates from her in terms of his plotting; once he gets the murderers on board to kill Banquo, he is no longer consulting her. And so that partnership starts to wither in some way. We always wonder what it is that drives her crazy because she is so much the instigator. But I think it’s more about him than it is about what she’s done—it’s the thing that she’s unleashed, who in some way she doesn’t recognize anymore—the idea of the milk of human kindness in Macbeth seems to have been buried and she no longer really knows him.

Macduff is often seen as a moral foil for Macbeth. How do you see Macduff functioning in relation to Macbeth?

Macduff is an interesting character because in the scene with Malcolm, he is accepting some of the most egregious things about Malcolm until he finally can’t take it anymore. He ends up looking with huge disappointment at him, but still trying to make it work. There is the politician in Macduff. And the large question is: What happens at the end of the play? Is it really as positive as it states? Is the future politically going to be what it has been—is Malcolm going to end up being a great leader? We’re not quite certain that we’re left in the hands of angels at the end of the play.

There’s this undercurrent of evil no matter who you’re on stage with in the play.

Right. Trustworthiness is very much an issue, from the beginning of the play. We don’t know where Banquo stands. There’s that really interesting scene with Lennox and the lord where you don’t quite know: is Lennox on his side? Is he promoting Macbeth? Is he testing these guys by saying these things? Fear drives so much of the play. The fear of not knowing who your partner is is a huge thing in the play.

How do you make sense of this play given the instability of the medieval Scottish time period?

James came into English royalty as a Scottish king, and the idea of joining England and Scotland together was something that Shakespeare certainly wasn’t going to go against, but there’s an ambivalence in it. What I find so wonderful about Shakespeare is that even though he was able to play up to a king like James, at the same time he left a lot of unanswered questions about what was going to happen in the future.

We’re doing the play in its period, in the Dark Ages. I feel it’s really about the bloody smoking sword. I think that certainly it’s a world that begins to live with a kind of fear that bad things can happen at any time. But I’m not here to underline those themes. I simply feel that we identify with it, as something that’s very much present in our world today.

Can you talk about the role of fate in the play?

Fate is created; it’s not something that exists. One of the things that I disagree with [literary critic] Harold Bloom about in terms of the witches is that they don’t make things happen…I believe they absolutely do. Without them, I don’t think the play would take place.

The witches are the driving force.

Oh, very much so. You can see it as a test—they see this huge ambition in this man, and they promote it. You can see it as some sort of universal, that everyone has this potential; let’s see what we can do to pull it out of him. But they have agency in the play. I don’t think this world would collapse without their pushing it. Macbeth wouldn’t do what he does, I believe, if it weren’t for the seeing eye of the witches knowing what his flaw is, and promoting it from the beginning. I mean, if Macbeth came back from the war and had not met the witches who suggest to him what the future is going to be, would he kill Duncan? I think that’s a big question.

Hail to Thee, Thane of Cawdor!

A primer on medieval Scottish royalty

By Katie Craddock

There are few surviving literary or historical chronicles of the early rulers of Scotland; its early history is almost labyrinthine in its complexity and contestability. We do know that five major tribes—the Picts, Gaels or Scots (who were actually from Ireland), Angles, Britons, and Norsemen—occupied Scotland before they were first unified under Kenneth MacAlpin. Each tribe had its own traditional system for determining its rulers, and these systems were not entirely harmonious. For example, the Picts likely used matrilineal succession, where the Scots did not permit succession through maternal bloodlines. The story of medieval Scottish succession, therefore, is rife with arguments, confusion, and full-on battles.

Kenneth MacAlpin began a royal succession known today as the House of Alpin—17 kings who reigned in Scotland for almost 200 years, from approximately 843 until 1034. The House of Alpin followed tanistry, a Gaelic custom for passing on titles and lands. Under tanistry, the king was elected by family heads in an assembly. The family heads concurrently elected a tanist, or heir-apparent, so if the king died or became unfit to rule, the tanist could become king immediately, avoiding a period of chaos and preventing a dangerous power vacuum. These assemblies mandated that a king must be fully grown and sound of mind and body; once elected, he would rule for the rest of his life. In a significant departure from the English primogeniture system, the tanist was not necessarily the king’s firstborn son; rather, any qualified male relation (brother, cousin, nephew) could be elected. In the case of the House of Alpin, tanist Giric impatiently killed off his predecessor Aed to become king; several others are rumored to have done the same during the first centuries of Scottish royalty.

Scottish society in the High Middle Ages (a period roughly between 900 and 1300) was a legally stratified feudal system. “Laws of the Brets and Scots,” a codification document from the period, describes five castes: king, mormaer, toísech (thane), ócthigern (a non-noble freeman who owned land or livestock), and serf (before the 12th century, Scotland also recognized a sixth group—that of the mug, or slave). The mormaers and thanes had similar roles, though the mormaers ranked above thanes, falling right beneath the king of Scotland. It is generally thought that for the purposes of Macbeth, Shakespeare condensed the classes of mormaers and thanes into merely thanes to describe the rank of characters such as Macbeth and Macduff—one large, noble, land-holding class just below the king filled with nephews and cousins, all of whom could potentially inherit the throne of Scotland. These lords controlled most of Scotland’s northern territory and ruled over their lands like kings of provinces: they were the secular and religious leaders of their territories, supervising law and maintaining order, and had their own warrior societies. They were expected to pay a regular cain, or tribute, to the king of Scotland—usually in the form of weaponry, livestock, and taxes collected from peasants. They were also expected to provide conveth, or food and hospitable accommodations for the king whenever he wished to visit. When required, these lords would give up their local armies in service of the king’s battles and expositions.

The House of Alpin came to an end with Malcolm II, who left no male heirs. Duncan I, the son of Malcolm II’s daughter Bethóc, began the House of Dunkeld. Early in Duncan’s reign, Macbeth was recorded as Duncan’s dux, which could mean both “duke” and “war leader,” implying that Macbeth may have been Duncan’s right-hand military man. When Duncan led an army into Macbeth’s northern domain of Moray, Duncan was killed in battle against Macbeth, and Macbeth succeeded him as king. Duncan followed his relative and predecessor Kenneth MacAlpin and many of the early Scottish kings in burial at the Isle of Iona’s Rèilig Odhrain, an ancient island burial ground off the western coast of Scotland. Macbeth was the last of these kings to be buried on the Isle of Iona after Malcom III, Duncan’s son, killed him.

The gadfly: Meet Macbeth Dramaturg Barry Kraft

By Sarah Rose Leonard

Barry Kraft is a rare breed: He is one of the few Shakespeare dramaturgs on the planet. He has spent the bulk of his professional life—and childhood—immersed in the Bard’s writings as an actor and avid reader. He comes to Berkeley Rep’s production of Macbeth from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he helps directors, actors, and designers navigate historical context and tricky language. Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard talked with Barry about the process of dramaturging a Shakespeare play and the elusive, enduring power of one of his most famous works, Macbeth.

Sarah Rose Leonard: I hear you’ve acted in all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays. Is that correct?

Barry Kraft: I have, and many of them several times.

That’s incredible. How did dramaturgy come into your life?

My first Shakespeare play was when I was 12 years old; it was one of John Carradine’s last Hamlets. He came through my hometown of Laguna Beach with his core company and auditioned locals for the peripheral roles. I was cast as the prologue to the play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago. And I thought, “Shakespeare, wow!” It was life-changing. I started reading, and studying, and seeing, and I was totally imbued with Shakespeare-everything: criticism, amateur productions, listening to it on records; I just couldn’t get enough. And I have a very retentive memory, so much of Shakespeare stayed in my head. And as the years and decades went by, I became a font of knowledge (sometimes unwelcome, sometimes welcome).

It was back in the end of the ‘92 season, Henry Woronicz, who was the artistic director of OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), said, “How would you like to be a dramaturg?” I guess somebody had talked to him and said, “Kraft’s very helpful in rehearsals.” So he said, “Why don’t you—” because they didn’t have an official dramaturg then—“Why don’t you be [our] dramaturg?” So I said to Henry, “What’s that?” And Henry said, “I don’t know either, but we’re going to find out together,” which I loved. And I said, “But I want to keep on acting!” There’s a thing in our culture—very seldom are you allowed to be a recognized practitioner in two different fields. They say, “You’re this, so you can’t be that.” It’s really awful—instead of widening the horizons, they squeeze them in on you. And I said, “We’ll find out what a dramaturg is, but I still want to act.” Just imagine if someone had said to Shakespeare 400 years ago, “You can only be one of these: an actor, a poet, a playwright, or a shareholder in the Globe Theatre—now choose!” How much poorer his life would have been!

For many seasons at OSF, I would take a small part in a play, like John of Gaunt in Richard II, and I would dramaturg it at the same time—or the Poet in Timon of Athens. So the shift was very gentle. So after a time I said to myself, “I’ve acted in all the plays. Why not just focus on dramaturgy?” It’s a shorter gig and leaves more time for travel and other interests.

When you’re dramaturging a show, whether or not you’re acting in it, how do you prepare for the production?

With Shakespeare, the big difference is that half of his plays are published in at least two forms (usually just two—the early quartos during his lifetime, except for Othello, and then the great first folio in 1623 that contains 36 of the plays, half of them never before published). With many of those plays, there are gigantic differences in the original texts. So the first thing I do with those plays that have two or more original forms is I make a parallel examination and highlight each instance of what I think is a meaningful difference. It could be in just a wording, it could be in the character who’s saying the speech—whenever there’s a difference between quarto and folio, I put it out on paper and then present it to the director. Before we start we decide which of these choices, quarto or folio, we might want to do. Now, in the case of Macbeth, there’s only one source, it’s just the folio. There I don’t do a quarto/folio comparison, but I of course read, and reread, the play minutely.

Then I make notes of the meanings of the words—I use anywhere from five editions to 17, as when I dramaturged King Lear. I try to find the clearest definition of obsolete words or allusions that the actors can use. And if a couple, or several, editors disagree about the meaning, I gather all of those meanings so the director, the actor, and I can collaborate on what is actually being said at that precise moment, for the needs of that specific production.

When you’re in the rehearsal room, what are you focusing on?

One of the things I do is usually sit next to the director and listen to the questions that the actors come up with, and I will give an answer when it seems appropriate. Sometimes it’s hard for dramaturgs in the room to do that, because the director and the actor are hot at it, and the dramaturg has something to say that lends light, but it’s very hard sometimes to break in on the director-actor conversation. I call myself a “gadfly” at the Festival, and I base it on Socrates’ defense, “I’ve been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. I haven’t done any such thing; Athens is like a very large and lazy horse, and what I do is go in like a gadfly and pester it, and I ask questions, and I make the city answer, and in the end you may swat me and kill me”—which, of course, they did; he had to drink the hemlock—“and then you’ll go on sleeping for the rest of your life.” So sometimes what I have actually done, after I’ve told the director I’m a bit of a gadfly, I’ll go, “Bzzzz!” And they can say, “Not now!” or whatever, but they know the dramaturg has something to offer at that moment. Most of the directors I’ve worked with many, many times, I have an ease with about knowing when to come in.

Do you find historical context important for Shakespeare’s plays?

It really depends on the specific play. In a play like Macbeth, I’m reading Holinshed’s Chronicles, realizing that Shakespeare had two different stories, with names slightly changed, about the murder of the king and the retribution. I find that fascinating. A prince of a scholar, Alan Dessen, told me decades ago, “When you’re looking, Barry, at the original source and what Shakespeare did, it’s fun to see where Shakespeare copies slavishly, but it’s far more interesting to see where he alters his source to interject his own viewpoint.” So far, the most interesting thing I’ve found in the Holinshed is that the Macbeth character was competently on the throne for 10 years after having murdered his predecessor. So you think, “What does Shakespeare achieve by having these events take place over no more than a year or two, enough time for Macbeth to make himself a tyrant who everybody hates and wants to depose? What does that mean in terms of speed of the play?” So with the historical context for Macbeth, I’m interested in the court of James, the witch trials, James’ interest in witches, Banquo, and James being a descendant of Banquo and all of that—the equivocation, the trials of the Gunpowder Plot—all of that stuff.

What’s something you’ve learned about Macbeth that’s surprised you?

It must’ve been Jonathan Bate who made the observation that, unlike Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet, Macbeth dies isolated from his nearest and dearest. Romeo and Juliet are practically in each other’s arms; Othello is strangling the object of his love; King Lear is holding his daughter in his arms; and Horatio is right there at the final seconds, receiving the injunction from Hamlet, “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/To tell my story.” But Lady Macbeth dies isolated, and Macbeth dies isolated from her, and I thought, yes, that is surprising. It’s obvious, but I had never considered it before.

What is a burning question you have about this play right now?

I’m thinking about the movie American Sniper. It’s the story of a soldier—a man who is eminently good at picking off the enemies, and then he comes home and he can’t find a way to interject himself into peacetime society, his family, and friends. I think this is the story of war. This play of Macbeth is so troublesome to me—it’s a burning question of how you can go off and kill, in hand-to-hand combat, so many humans, and get such high praise for doing so, and then come back and say, “Well, why is it bad now? If I perceive this person to be my enemy, and I could be king—as I seem fated to be—why is it a bad thing to exercise my skill in taking him off?” And this is why it’s deeply troubling to me. I was a conscientious objector—I refused induction during the Vietnam War—but I’ve been thinking about war and warfare all of my life. How do you go from being a killer of human beings, with ease, to ingratiating yourself in society and saying, “No, that is a wrong activity now, even though it was right before, and it could be right again”?

Pleasing a new monarch with a new play

By Barry Kraft

Early in the play, three wayward/weïrd sisters encounter the Scottish warriors Macbeth and Banquo and speak predictions “of noble having and of royal hope” to Macbeth. Banquo, feeling more than a bit neglected, demands of them, “If you can look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow, and which will not,/Speak then to me.” The remainder of the play sprouts from the growth of the seeds planted, or foreseen, by those three strange women. “The seeds of time” is a resonant phrase, meaning in part the sources of future events.

If poet-playwright William Shakespeare had the power of looking into the seeds of time, what might he have seen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603? For starters he would have seen (as would practically everyone else) the smooth ascension of the 36-year-old King James VI of Scotland to the throne—thus becoming King James I of England. But could Shakespeare have foreseen that the new King would prove to be even more fond of the theatre than Elizabeth was, and that within two months of donning the crown, James would bring Shakespeare’s acting company directly under his royal patronage?

Actually “royal protection” rather than “royal patronage” would be a more precise term to describe the connection between court and theatre. If London’s city magistrates had their way, there would be no theatre at all: players and playgoers, they firmly believed, were elements of a sinful, dirty business—the Devil’s domain. Only by means of the useful fiction that the plays performed at public theatres were extended rehearsals, practice trials to prepare the works for court consumption, was theatre permitted to exist. However, only when performing at court before the King (usually during holiday seasons) would the King’s Men—as Shakespeare’s company would come to be known—receive lavish royal rewards for their efforts. All other times the company had to rely on gate receipts to make ends meet.

We imagine that Shakespeare, motivated by necessity and curiosity, began to enquire into the habits, history, likes, and dislikes of this new English monarch, two years his junior. He studied his quarry with a keen eye. For instance, James had been heard to say that he disliked long plays, and eyewitnesses had observed him slumbering through them. Duly noted.

Then there was the royal practice of “touching for the King’s Evil.” From the time of Edward the Confessor (1042) the condition of the “King’s Evil”—tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in the neck—was allegedly cured by the laying on of royal hands. King James was always pleased to exercise this power. Duly noted.

And what about genealogy, family trees? King James I boasted to have traced his royal Scottish lineage from a (mythical) Banquo’s (mythical) son Fleance, on up to himself. Duly noted.

More importantly, there was the matter of witchcraft. James had an almost morbid fascination with witches, witch trials, witchcraft. He believed that his own life and concerns had been put into jeopardy on several occasions through the agency of witch sorcery. He had attended witch trials, avidly cross-examined and testified against supposed witches, and had administered capital punishment to the unfortunate women his courts found guilty of practicing witchcraft. In 1597, James wrote and published his own contribution on the subject: Demonology, in Form of a Dialogue. Duly noted.

All well and good. But now, how were these disparate duly noted Jamesian threads to be knotted together into an actual and actable performance piece that would be well received by the monarch? It might seem that one crucial element was missing—the plot. Creating a storyline was never a problem for Shakespeare: he simply hitched his imagination and poetic skill to whatever readily available vehicle he fancied—be it another author’s play, poem, tale, biography, history, etc.—and drove off in his own direction. Only a handful of the 40 plays he wrote, or occasionally collaborated upon, feature an original plot. (In today’s world, the Bard would be behind bars for plagiarism.) Plot creation wasn’t his skill: what he did with plots was!

In the case of Macbeth, he dipped back into a favorite source he had often used for his English history plays—Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 2nd edition, 1587. Shakespeare lifted most of the facts of Macbeth’s career from Holinshed’s history, but for details of the murder of King Duncan he substituted Holinshed’s account of the murder of an earlier Scottish king. Shakespeare’s most dynamic alterations of the chronicle history were to severely truncate and blacken Macbeth’s 10 years of well-governed ruling over Scotland following Duncan’s murder, and to make the character of Banquo—King James’ ancestor—innocent, when in Holinshed he was chief amongst Macbeth’s “trusty friends” who aided him in dispatching Duncan.

In mid-autumn of 1605 a near catastrophe almost claimed the lives of King James, his family, his ministers, and the members of both houses of Parliament. Its aftermath would give Shakespeare the focus he needed to coalesce all of the observed Jamesian threads into a compelling dramatic unity.

A small group of Catholic gentlemen, embittered by King James’ failure to extend toleration to adherents of their faith, saw to it that a vault situated beneath the House of Lords was packed with 36 barrels of gunpowder along with iron bars. On November 4, the night before James was to appear in person to open a new session of Parliament, conspirator Guy Fawkes was arrested in the vault with all the implements needed to blow the whole shebang sky high. Under excruciating torture, Fawkes gave the names of his co-conspirators who were then hunted down, tortured, tried (with the King watching the judicial proceedings unobserved), then hanged and quartered.

The link to Macbeth was the last man to be hanged. Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, knew of the Gunpowder Plot, but under constraint of the Catholic seal of the confessional was silenced from speaking out. A handful of years before James was crowned King of England, Garnet had written A Treatise of Equivocation which justified the morality of giving misleading or ambiguous statements under oath. To equivocate, to juggle words with multiple meanings so as to avoid incriminating oneself, or revealing the secrets of the confessional, or committing the sin of lying under oath was defensible behavior, Garnet believed.

In a flash Shakespeare must have realized his own art was that of the equivocator: from the lowest pun to the highest flights of metaphor, duplicity was the stock of his trade, the marrow of his being. Hence, as well as peppering his new play with references to equivocation, he fashioned the very fabric of Macbeth out of the material of duplicity, of doubleness.

We can hope his new play (probably performed at court in the summer of 1606), was amply rewarded by King James. For if Shakespeare was able to look into the seeds of time, he would have seen an outbreak of plague that summer which would effectively close the theatres for the following two and a half years.

Might this have been the origin of the curse said to haunt Macbeth?

Watch now

Behind the scenes: Macbeth

Hear more about Macbeth from some of the cast!

Highlights: Macbeth

Get a peek at the Bard’s most notorious play, featuring Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand.

Toil and trouble

Meet the witches in Macbeth!

At the Commonwealth Club

Actors Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand discussed Macbeth and more with Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone at the Commonwealth Club of California on February 8, 2016.

Something wicked on TV

Hark! Our TV spot for Macbeth arrives.

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Additional resources

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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s biography

  • An extensive biography of Shakespeare from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Recommended reading from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

  • Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in England has an excellent list of online resources for further reading about the playwright, early English texts, performance projects, and online journals.


Folger Shakespeare Library

  • An overview of the play from the Folger Shakespeare Library, our national resource on all things Shakespeare, located in DC.

Ian McKellen analyzes Shakespeare

  • Sir Ian McKellen takes us through a Macbeth monologue in a master class on speaking Shakespeare that aired on British TV in 1979.

Slings and Arrows

  • The second season of this delightful and hilarious TV show about a fictional Shakespeare Festival in Canada follows a production of Macbeth.

A biography of the real Macbeth

  • A BBC biography of the historic Macbeth, who was not as murderous as Shakespeare made him out to be.

“110 years of Macbeth on film”

  • An article from Slate magazine that discusses the seemingly endless film adaptations of Macbeth.

Dramaturg Barry Kraft’s reading list

Macbeth dramaturg Barry Kraft recommends the following books for the Shakespeare enthusiast. The titles are accompanied by notes from Barry.

Mark Van Doren—Shakespeare

  • This book came out in 1939. It’s an essay per play, and they are marvelous; they are stylistically beautiful and filled with wonderful insight—sometimes incorrect, but really worth a read.

James Shapiro—Contested Will

  • For Shakespeare’s life and work, I would recommend Contested Will. It’s an answer to the Oxfordians, and the Baconians, and everybody who believed someone else wrote Shakespeare’s works. Shapiro goes through, with kindness, insight, and humor, and demolishes their position. We learn so much about Shakespeare the theatre man when reading Contested Will.

Margaret Webster—Shakespeare Without Tears

  • This was written back in the 1940s. Webster was a producer; she worked with Maurice Evans often, and she has a chapter per play, and it just cuts the edge—what to avoid as a director or actor, what to embrace, what to look for—and her essays, one per play, are a bit old-fashioned, but still worth the read.

Harley Granville-Barker—Prefaces to Shakespeare

  • When I was young, I devoured his preface on Hamlet. Harley Granville-Barker is that rare combination of a theatre director, a critic, and a playwright himself. In fact, he’s very much like Shakespeare in that way, who was a part theatre owner, a poet, a playwright, and an actor—and an expert in all of those fields. The theatre is always deeply embedded in Harley Granville-Barker’s criticism, and he’s a great stylist as well.

Logan Pearsall Smith—On Reading Shakespeare

  • This is a beautiful little book. The first chapter, I think, is called “On Not Reading Shakespeare”—are we bamboozled by this man? He’s a delightful stylist.

Shakespeare in Love—Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman

  • I love Shakespeare in Love; Tom Stoppard is my favorite living British playwright.