What are the stage directions in "Macbeth"? How do they contribute to the way the play is performed?

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amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Stage directions in any Shakespeare play are found both in the italicized parts as well as in the speeches themselves.  Shakespeare was truly clever about this since they did not use lots of props and scenery to perform each scene...they used words to tell the audience when it was night, day, or if the moon was out or not.

For example, at the beginning of the first scene in Act I, the italics tell us that it is storming--thunder and lightning. Enter three witches.  They mention the weather in their speeches as well...all of this is to set the mood of strange and curious happenings to come. The fact that they are witches also helps create a mood of supernatural events...the stuff that thrilled Shakespeare's audiences and our own today.

[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch: When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (Act I.1)

If we skip to scene three in the same Act, you see that the witches are waiting for Macbeth, again with thunder in the background.  After they have told the tales of where they have been since their last meeting, they come together as the italics tell them to do, dancing in a circle, but they also say, "The Weird Sisters, hand in hand, Posters of the sea and land...to make up nine." 

[Drum within]
Third Witch: A drum, a drum!
Macbeth doth come!
ALL [dancing in a circle]: The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine. (Act I.3)

They know that they need to dance and that they are chanting a charm just by these stage directions.  This tells them what tone of voice to use and gives them directions for body language.  It also helps immensely with dramatizing mood.

suman1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It should also be mentioned that Shakespeare by his stage directions in ‘Macbeth’ gives appropriate scopes to the director to modify and add personal touches. This particularly applies to Act II, Sc. iii and Act III, Sc. iv.

For instance, in Act II, Sc. iii Shakespeare nowhere mentions that Lady Macbeth faints. He only notes in the stage direction that “Lady Macbeth is carried out”. This gives appropriate scope to the director of the drama to identify that Lady Macbeth faints in this section and all modern performances are made accordingly.

Banquo: Look to the lady:
[LADY MACBETH is carried out]
And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet,
And question this most bloody piece of work,...

Additionally, in Act III, Sc. iv Shakespeare's stage direction says: “The ghost of BANQUO enters, and sits in MACBETH’s place.” The DRAMATIS PERSONAE section of the play includes ‘The Ghost of Banquo’, but Shakespeare provides scope for the director to modify this character as the character does not speak anything in the play.

Lennox: May't please your highness sit.
[The GHOST OF BANQUO enters, and sits in MACBETH's place]
MACBETH: Here had we now our country's honour roof'd,
Were the graced person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance!

As a result of the stage directions, in a number of modern performances ‘Ghost of Banquo’ is not considered as an individual character – instead of seeing Banquo’s ghost the audience sees an unoccupied space. It is through Macbeth’s speeches they understand that Macbeth is confronting a hallucination.

reidalot eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Stage directions in any work of drama, especially Shakespeare's, can sometimes tell us more about the characters than the characters' actual dialogue. In Macbeth, one of the most important aspects of stage directions lies in two scenes. One, is Act 3, Scene 4, where Banquo, as a Ghost, sits in Macbeth's place at the feast after his murder. If it were not for this scene, the audience would not realize Macbeth's guilt, his slide into madness, nor Banquo's heirs' rights to the throne. Later, Act V opens with Lady Macbeth sleepwalking with a taper (candle). Again this direction highlights Lady Macbeth's fall into insanity which is a prelude to her suicide.

One other key aspect in Shakespeare's stage directions is his use of asides;that is, when the character speaks to the sudience. For it is truly in these asides that we can hear the character's thoughts. The action is begun in this play by Macbeth's aside in Act I, Scene 3: "The supernatural soliciting cannot be ill cannot be good..." From the start, Macbeth is set on his course of evil and only the audience knows this and other characters do not, a powerful use of stage direction!

Macbeth: This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?... (I.3)