Gender in Macbeth is never quite what it seems. Like Shakespeare’s other major tragedies, the play takes its title and plot from the story of a powerful but conflicted man. As warrior, killer, and king, Macbeth evokes masculine force, mirroring the court that greeted the play’s 1606 first performances. King James I, who had succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603, was a Scottish descendant of Banquo and the author of a book about witchcraft, as well as the patron of Shakespeare’s playing company; the play is widely seen as designed to appeal to him. Yet just as the new king’s court was haunted by memories of the late queen, Macbeth is haunted by the specter of formidable female power. Framed by the play’s eerie chorus of witches, and incited by his fiercely determined wife, Macbeth partakes of “the insane root,/ That takes the reason prisoner.” He becomes a man possessed.
Macbeth opens with the Weird Sisters, who defy clear categories of sex. Banquo tells them, “you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.” Their incantatory riddle, “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” underscores their ambiguous status; it also invades the imagination of Macbeth, who enters the stage announcing “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Macbeth’s echo of the Weird Sisters’ words prefigures their indirect sway over his wife. When Lady Macbeth first appears onstage, she is reading about them in a letter from her husband and vowing to make their promise a reality. Like a Greek chorus, the witches never directly intervene in the play’s action, but their hovering presence and prophecies take shape through Lady Macbeth, who goes on to rouse her husband to action with her passionate exhortations.
Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by male actors, with female roles played by boys who didn’t yet have beards or broken voices. Although the Weird Sisters are described as elderly hags, they would have been portrayed by male adolescents, offering a suggestive theatrical subtext behind Banquo’s confusion about their sex. Similarly, when Lady Macbeth calls on spirits to “Come to my woman’s breasts,” and insists she knows “How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” her charged words would have emerged from a young male body, complicating her famous plea, “unsex me here!” These dissonances and additional meanings change in productions when casting is aligned with characters’ sex and age. They change in different ways in Erica Schmidt’s production, which reverses Macbeth’s gender-crossings with an all-female cast, imagined as schoolgirls staging the play.
Already focused on the haunting power of unsettling female figures, the play takes on new dimensions as its actors respond to the physical and emotional chemistry of the adolescent female world they inhabit. In particular, the witches take on even more shaping power by stepping in to play other characters. Doubling parts was common in original productions; actors with few lines would typically have played multiple roles, maximizing the company’s economic efficiency and building resonant links between characters who shared the same performer’s body. We don’t know whether the actors performing the witches would have played other roles, or which ones if so, but it would make sense given the scarcity of their appearances onstage. In this production, they are heavily repurposed: each Weird Sister serves as an additional five characters, collectively encompassing everyone in the play beyond Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, and Macduff. By visibly lurking in Duncan, Ross, Malcolm, Fleance, and others, as well as the play’s murderers, messengers, and servants, these witches propel the play’s actions with a literal force.
Tragedy is often described as dramatizing the fall of kings, and Macbeth fits this template: Macbeth is doomed, just as Duncan was. Yet despite the play’s focus on both depicting and performing for male rulers, its theatrical electricity resides especially in the strange and uncanny female figures who haunt its unfolding events. By replacing the play’s male community with an entirely female world, this production highlights and intensifies these figures’ shaping power, with fascinating and terrifying consequences.
Tanya Pollard is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and at the CUNY Graduate Center. She researches Shakespeare, theater, and performance.
She speaks frequently to public audiences with actors, directors, and playwrights about theater in performance. She serves on the Council of Scholars for Theatre for a New Audience, and has appeared in conversation with Ethan Hawke in PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth and Christopher Plummer in Shakespeare Uncovered: King Lear. Her books include Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (2017); Shakespeare's Theater (2003), and Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005).
For complete details about Red Bull Theater's production MAC BETH, visit here.