Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 masterclass on Macbeth’s final monologue

If only we could have had such an insightful teacher as Mr. Ian McKellen explain to us some Shakespeare at an impressionable age.

Above, a 38-year-old McKellen breaks down the famous Macbeth final soliloquy as part of a master class in 1978 on Acting Shakespeare.

He makes it clear early on that relying on iambic pentameter to convey the meaning of the verse won’t cut it.

Instead, he calls on actors to apply the power of their intellect to every line, analyzing metaphors and imagery, while noting punctuation, word choice and, of course, the events leading up to the speech. .

Thus, he says, “the actor is both the playwright and the character.”

McKellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in macbethplaying the title role opposite Judi Dench in a stripped-down Royal Shakespeare Company production that opened in the company’s studio in Stratford before moving to the West End. As McKellen recalled in a longer meditation on the difficulty of staging this particular tragedy:

It was beautifully done on the cheap in The Other Place, the old tin shack alongside the main theatre. John NapierThe whole ensemble was £200 and the costumes were a bag of used clothes. My uniform jacket had buttons embossed with ‘Birmingham Fire Service’; my long leather coat didn’t fit, nor BanquoThat’s why we had to wear them over the shoulder; Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth, wore a dyed dishcloth on her head. In a way, it was magic: and dark magic too. A priest used to sit in the front row whenever he could snatch a ticket, holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the harm we were raising.

The New York Times delirium about the production, declaring McKellen “the best equipped British actor of his generation:”

Mr. McKellen’s Macbeth is witty; not only the horror but the absurdity of his actions strike him from the start, and he can regard his downfall as an inexorable joke. His wife leads him down a road he would take anyway and he can allow himself to have scruples, knowing that she will be there to mop them up. Once his prosaic and limited ambition is reached, it is no longer of any use to him and he ignores it; “she would have died in the afterlife” is a moment of exasperation that dares our laughter.

What fuels it the most is envy, going forward in disbelief (“The Seed of the Banquo Kings?”) and backward to color the desperation of “Duncan is in his grave.” The words, and the spirit behind them, are rancid, and it’s that mood that takes hold of his final scenes. Everything disgusts him, and his only reason for fighting to the death is that the thought of subjection is the most disgusting of all.

McKellen begins his examination of the text by noting how “she would have died in the afterlife” establishes the final soliloquy’s preoccupation with time and its passage.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Crawl in this little rhythm day by day,

Until the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays lit fools

The dusty road to death. Outside, short candle!

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor gambler,

Who struts and bustles his hour on the stage,

And then we hear nothing. It’s a tale

Said by a fool, full of sound and fury,

Meaning nothing.

McKellen does a proper meal of ‘out, out, brief candle’, linking it to Lady Macbeth’s final appearance, the fools proceeding to their dusty deaths earlier in the monologue and Elizabethan stage lighting.

He speculates that Shakespeare’s description of life as a “poor gambler” was a deliberate attempt by the playwright to give the actor an interpretive hook he could relate to. In performance, the theatrical metaphor should remind the audience that they are looking at pretense even as they are invested in the character’s fate.

The director inspired by the success of the production Trevor Nunn to film it. McKellen recalled that everyone was already so familiar with the material that it only took two weeks to box it:

The claustrophobia of the stage production was exactly captured. Trevor had used a similar technique with Antony and Cleopatra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to televise Shakespeare… There were so many things I was proud of: finding out how to perform a soliloquy directly in the eyes of everyone in the audience; making them laugh at Macbeth’s gallows humor; working alongside top performances by Judi Dench.

For more expert advice from McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and other notables, watch the 9-episode CBC Playing Shakespeare series here.

Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist of East Village Inky zine and creator, most recently of Creative, Not Famous: The Little Potato Manifesto. Am here @AyunHalliday.

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