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Playing Shakespeare's Villains

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Edited By Louis Fantasia

The essays in Playing Shakespeare’s Villains trouble our assumptions of what—and who—constitutes "villainy" in Shakespeare’s works, through probing and provocative analyses of the murky moral logics at play in the Bard’s oeuvre. Shakespeare spreads before us a panoply of evil, villainy, and amorality—of characters doing bad things for good reasons, bad things for bad reasons, and bad things for no reason at all. How does Shakespeare handle culpability and consequence? How much does he justify his villains’ actions? How much do we enjoy watching people get away with murder and mayhem? What are we to make of the moral universe that Shakesperare presents: a universe in which some villains are punished and others seem to be rewarded; where mischief can quickly turn violent; and where an entire world can be brought down by someone’s willful insistence on having one’s way? Questions like these animate the discussions in this lively volume, the second in the Playing Shakespeare’s Characters series.

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1. “Something wicked this way comes”: (Re)Locating the Supernatural World of Macbeth (Janna Segal)

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1.  “Something wicked this way comes”: (Re)Locating the Supernatural World of Macbeth

JANNA SEGAL

Shakespeare’s Macbeth does not, as one might assume, open with a scene featuring the titular character heroically doing battle in the play’s medieval Scottish background. Instead, it launches in an unidentified terrain peopled with three demonic figures making a pact to reunite “When the battle’s lost and won” (1.1.4) in order to “meet with Macbeth” (1.1.7).1 Upon encountering the play today, one immediately finds oneself in an unfamiliar landscape without an immediate cultural compass point. The tragedy thus presents contemporary artists and audiences with the challenge of visualizing a supernaturally iniquitous realm that, while tangible to the play’s initial spectators, is now imperceptible to most viewers. This essay first locates the play’s “Weїrd Sisters” (1.3.32) in their early modern English context by considering the witches in relation to King James’ discourse on witchcraft and as participatory in the Jacobean vogue for witch plays. Having situated the play’s demonic world in King James’ domain, this essay then explores how the witches have been culturally relocated in postmodern productions. Locating Shakespeare’s witches within the Jacobean world in which they first appeared, and then relocating them in three of the more recent, non-Western and Western spheres in which they have reappeared, which renders those figures who seem “not like th’inhabitants o’ th’earth, / And yet are on’t” (1.3.41–42), more legible to contemporary theatre practitioners, scholars,...

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