Conjuring darkness in Macbeth

Much of Macbeth is set at night, yet its first performances took place in the open air, during daylight hours. John Mullan explores how Shakespeare uses speech and action to conjure the play's sense of growing darkness.

It is strange to think that Macbeth was almost certainly written for, and first performed at, the open-air Globe Theatre, where plays were staged in daylight. ‘Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to th’ rooky wood’ (3.2.50–51), says Macbeth – but the actor first speaking these words did so in the bright light of day. The palpable gathering of darkness that the speaker describes and welcomes had to be imagined by Shakespeare’s audience. We know for certain that Macbeth was performed in daylight at the Globe, for the astrologer Simon Forman records seeing it performed there in 1610. It had first been staged in 1606. Even if it were later performed at the indoor theatre at Blackfriars, where plays were illuminated by candlelight and where darkness was obtainable, this theatre was not available to Shakespeare’s company until 1608–09. It seems clear, then, that Shakespeare conceived it as a play where darkness had to be theatrically conjured rather than literally provided.

Frontispiece to The Wits, showing chandelier above the stage of a 17th-century indoor playhouse

Frontispiece to The Wits, showing chandelier

An impression of a 17th-century indoor playhouse, with artificial lighting from candles and chandeliers.

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Literal and metaphorical darkness

In modern times, productions of the play have given directors opportunities for many a special theatrical effect that has depended on alternations of darkness and concentrated light. Yet the original play, by having to create these alternations in the imagination, powerfully merges literal and metaphorical darkness. Shakespeare did have some special effects to hand: Macbeth begins with ‘thunder and lightning’ and, in the performances at the Globe, this lightning might have been represented by flashes from fireworks, as was done with other plays of the period. But, for the most part, in the bright daylight of a Thameside afternoon, the darkness that seems to envelop the play had to be created by words and gestures.

Key scenes of the play are set at night, and even in many of the daytime scenes characters are aware of the fading of the light. The Witches who open the play agree that they will meet Macbeth ‘ere the set of sun’ (1.1.5); Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle at evening (Act 1, Scene 6); the First Murderer, instructed by Macbeth to kill Banquo and Fleance, notes how ‘The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day’ (3.3.5). We often feel darkness coming, especially because both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem to invoke and invite it. They need darkness to do their worst.

On a stage crowded with Duncan and his thanes, Macbeth speaks in one of his asides that allow us to hear his unspoken thoughts. ‘Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires’ (1.4.50–51). This is the first reference to darkness in the play. He has just found out that he has become Thane of Cawdor, as prophesied by the Witches, and that Duncan is to visit his castle. The underside of the roof covering much of the stage of the Globe was decorated with painted stars, so Macbeth’s invocation is like a spell to darken the very space in which he stands. In the next scene, Lady Macbeth, excited by the tidings that the king is to come ‘tonight’ to her castle, brings on a kind of conjuration of darkness. ‘Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell’ (1.5.50–51). She has not heard her husband’s words as we have done, yet she seems to echo them with her wish that ‘heaven’ not ‘peep through the blanket of the dark / To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’’ (1.5.53–54)

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

A heath. Macbeth, Banquo and three witches. Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3 by Henry Fuseli.

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Hiding deeds from heaven

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth separately call on darkness not just to assist their plans but to hide their deeds from ‘Heaven’ or their own consciences. ‘Let ... The eye wink at the hand’ (1.4.51–52), says Macbeth, as if the dark might hide his own action from himself. Later he echoes his wife’s when he talks to her of his planned murder of his friend Banquo, but in such way that she might remain ‘innocent of the knowledge’ of what he is about to do (3.2.45). ‘Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,’ he continues. Seeling is a metaphor taken from hawking, where a hawk has its eyelids sewed shut in order to be trained. Macbeth looks forward to the darkness that will facilitate his murderous plans. But it is more than this. Day is ‘pitiful’, and in his ruthless actions Macbeth must escape pity. In his imagining, darkness is a psychological space, where scruple can be shed, compunction lost.

Audiences will be most aware of the gathering of darkness when Duncan comes to stay at Macbeth’s castle. What Lady Macbeth chillingly calls ‘This night’s great business’ (1.5.68) must happen in the dark. Servants carrying torches enter at Act 1, Scene 7 to signify that night has fallen. And it gets yet darker. At the opening of Act 2, Banquo’s son Fleance carries a torch when he enters with his father. It is after twelve and ‘The moon is down’ (2.1.2): it is pitch dark. With a brilliant touch, Shakespeare lets us hear how different characters make their own sense of the blackness. ‘There’s husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out’ (2.1.4–5), says Banquo, fancifully – and unconsciously reminds us of the obscuring of Heaven and starlight for which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have wished.

Now, in this deep darkness, characters cannot see each other even by the light of torches. ‘Who’s there?’ asks Banquo as Macbeth enters with a torch-bearing servant (2.1.10). It is the same nervous exclamation as begins Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and as in the first scene of that play, which begins in darkness on the battlements of Elsinore, the audience at the Globe would have been able to see very clearly how the characters on stage were unable to see clearly. A little later, after Banquo has retired, Lady Macbeth enters and catches herself starting at the shriek of an owl, just before her husband comes to meet her. ‘Who’s there? What ho?’ (2.2.8) asks Macbeth, and at first she hardly seems to recognise him: ‘My husband!’ (2.2.13). Their dialogue creates a darkness in which sounds and apprehensions are amplified: ‘Didst thou not hear a noise?’ (2.2.14), ‘Did not you speak?’ (2.2.16). The terrible deed has been done and the darkness that made it possible concentrates their fears.

The discovery of Duncan’s murder is followed by an odd little scene, which must take place several days later, in which Ross and an Old Man discuss unnatural events that seem to have accompanied the killing. Shakespeare takes from his source story in Holinshed’s Chronicles the report that after Donwald murdered King Duff ‘For the space of six monenths together ... there appeered no sunne by day, nor moone by night in anie part of the realme’. In the wake of Duncan’s killing, darkness appears to have seeped from the night into the day. ‘By th’ clock ’tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp’ (2.4.6–7), observes Ross. Without any help from artificial lighting effects, we gain an impression of ‘night’s predominance’ (2.4.8), as he calls it.

When we return to Macbeth he has been crowned king but fears Banquo and ‘his royalty of nature’ (3.1.49). He must again call darkness to his aid. Banquo tells him that he is riding out and will probably be ‘a borrower of the night / For a dark hour or twain’ (3.1.26–27) before he returns for Macbeth’s feast. Night will, of course, facilitate the arrangement of his murder, and when Macbeth instructs the two Murderers on their mission, he echoes Banquo’s own phrasing. Fleance, he tells the hired killers, must ‘embrace the fate / Of that dark hour’ (3.1.136–37). As so often in this play, darkness is simultaneously metaphorical and literal. The ‘dark hour’ is the time of killing – but also the lightless time when a trap can be sprung. When the Murderers attack Banquo, it is darkness that allows them to surprise him – but also that allows Fleance to escape. ‘Who did strike out the light?’ asks the Third Murderer (3.3.19). Darkness is not the friend to Macbeth that he believes. Fate is not his to command.

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow

Lady Macbeth shrouded in darkness.

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Darkness may seem to become Macbeth’s element, but his wife, once the prime mover of their plots, comes to dread it. Watching her sleepwalking, her Gentlewoman tells the Doctor that ‘she has light by her continually, ’tis her command’ (5.1.22). ‘Enter Lady with a Taper’ is the stage instruction in the First Folio, on which text all later editions are based. The taper, the smallest kind of candle, is Lady Macbeth’s safeguard against the powers of darkness. These were once the powers that she invoked, but now they crowd in on her. Once she called ‘Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell’ (1.5.50–51); now she feels and fears ‘Hell is murky’ (5.1.36). In her final scene before her death, Shakespeare shows how the horror of her deeds has possessed her, and does so by dramatising the most elemental and childlike of fears: fear of the dark.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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