Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

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

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

He makes it clear ear­ly on that rely­ing on Iambic pen­tame­ter to con­vey the mean­ing of the verse will not cut it.

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

In this way, he says, “the actor is the play­wright and the char­ac­ter simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.”

McK­ellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Mac­beth, play­ing the title role oppo­site Judi Dench in a bare bones Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny pro­duc­tion that opened in the company’s Strat­ford stu­dio before trans­fer­ring to the West End. As McK­ellen recalled in a longer med­i­ta­tion on the trick­i­ness of stag­ing this par­tic­u­lar tragedy:

It was beau­ti­ful­ly done on the cheap in The Oth­er Place, the old tin hut along from the main the­atre. John Napi­er’s entire set cost £200 and the cos­tumes were a rag­bag of sec­ond-hand clothes. My uni­form jack­et had but­tons embossed with ‘Birm­ing­ham Fire Ser­vice’; my long, leather coat did­n’t fit, nor did Ban­quo’s so we had to wear them slung over the shoul­der; Judi Dench, as Lady Mac­beth, wore a dyed tea-tow­el on her head. Some­how it was mag­ic: and black mag­ic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, when­ev­er he could scrounge a tick­et, hold­ing out his cru­ci­fix to pro­tect the cast from the evil we were rais­ing.

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

Mr. McK­el­len’s Mac­beth is wit­ty; not mere­ly the hor­ror but the absur­di­ty of his actions strikes him from the out­set, and he can regard his down­fall as an inex­orable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would trav­el any­way and he can allow him­self scru­ples, know­ing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her pro­sa­ic, lim­it­ed ambi­tion is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died here­after” is a moment of exas­per­a­tion that dares our laugh­ter.

What fuels him most is envy, reach­ing incred­u­lous­ly for­ward (“The seed of Ban­quo kings?”) and back­ward to col­or the despair of “Dun­can is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are ran­cid, and it is this mood that takes pos­ses­sion of his last 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 here­after” sets up the final solil­o­quy’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with time, and its pas­sage.

Tomor­row, and tomor­row, and tomor­row,

Creeps in this pet­ty pace from day to day,

To the last syl­la­ble of record­ed time;

And all our yes­ter­days have light­ed fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief can­dle!

Life’s but a walk­ing shad­ow, a poor play­er,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

McK­ellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief can­dle”,  relat­ing it to Lady Macbeth’s final appear­ance, the fools pro­ceed­ing to their dusty death ear­li­er in the mono­logue, and Eliz­a­bethan stage light­ing.

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

The pro­duc­tion’s suc­cess inspired direc­tor Trevor Nunn to film it. McK­ellen recalled that every­one was already so well acquaint­ed with the mate­r­i­al, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

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 is so much I was proud of: dis­cov­er­ing how to play a solil­o­quy direct into the eyes of every­one in the audi­ence; mak­ing them laugh at Mac­beth’s gal­lows humor; work­ing along­side Judi Dench’s finest per­for­mance.

For more expert advice from McK­ellen, Patrick Stew­art, Ben Kings­ley and oth­er nota­bles, watch the RSC’s 9‑part Play­ing Shake­speare series here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and cre­ator, most recent­ly of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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