A visit to London.
Suddenly I found myself outside Drury Lane Theatre. The play was Macbeth, led by the finest actor of the age, who had the power, it was said, to make an audience forget everything but the sound of his voice. Such a medicine I yearned for, so I went in. . .
Another look at Edmund Kean, always Mary Shelley’s favorite actor. In 1824, two years into widowhood, she wrote in a letter, “I have been highly delighted with Kean—he excites me & makes me happy for the time.” He was also inspiring her to write a tragedy, she continues, for which she saw “Kean partly as a study.” In fact she began a tragic play, in verse, but abandoned it after her father judged it not worth the trouble to finish; in later life she regretted agreeing with him. But what she wrote instead wound up being The Last Man, in which Kean would serve as a “part-study” (along with Byron, of course) for Lord Raymond.
In this installment drawn from the original Volume 2, Chapter 8, the man himself makes an (anonymous) appearance, though it’s almost parenthetical. Like her audience in the novel, Mary Shelley keeps her focus on the show of apparitions and future kings that the witches invoke for Macbeth. Back before film, when the stage had a monopoly on astounding special effects, this scene’s call for theatrical magic was central to the play’s popularity, and theaters would go all out to realize its demands. Which received shorter shrift in any production I’ve ever seen: why budget for jaded tastes, I guess modern theater figures. Conversely, no director of Shakespeare in our day would neglect a full staging of the scene in Macduff’s castle that follows, and culminates in the incredibly shocking and brutal on-stage murder of a child.
Attentive readers will have noticed that in the performance Lionel attends, Act 4 moves from the weird sisters and the masque of apparitions, to a scene between Malcolm and Macduff. Then Ross enters with his terrible news—killers sent by Macbeth have murdered Macduff’s wife and children—and Mary Shelley tells what happens next. But Shakespeare has already shown us the killers at work (he puts Lady Macduff’s death off-stage, but we often see it, too). It’s possible to read the scene’s excision as one of Adrian’s “measures and modifications designed to reduce overexcitement” among people out at night; though in that case, even the second-hand account, and Macduff’s reaction, prove too much for Lionel. It’s also the case that during Mary Shelley’s lifetime, and indeed as late as 1904, the scene was rarely included in any production—even Edmund Kean, whose unsuccessful attempts to restore the original, sad ending of King Lear to the repertoire were noted here earlier, doesn’t seem to have kept Act 4 Scene ii of Macbeth.
So, as Mary Shelley demonstrates, Shakespeare’s vastness accommodates the centuries in turn.