No Exit for a Dead Body: What to do With a Scripted Corpse?

Homer Swander

Homer Swander

Macbeth kills young Seyward on the field of battle, and Shakespeare gives us no stage direction telling us when or how to dispose of the body. If he has left us suggestions of any kind, they must reside entirely in dialogue that does not openly solve the problem or in stage directions that seem not to address it.

The resulting mystery has not attracted much attention from the critics; and, in the past, modern editions have unanimously declined to intervene textually where Shakespeare is silent, though a few of the editors have, briefly, in the notes to the passage, offered their advice. But the 1986 Wells and Taylor editions from Oxford (both ‘The Complete Works’ and ‘The Complete Works: Original Spelling Edition’) break new editorial ground: in the text itself, Macbeth exits “with the body”, and a note pointedly explains that previous editors have failed to provide the apparently necessary intervention.

Directors, of course, have not been free, like the rest of us, to ignore the mystery. A corpse on stage demands attention. Yet in most productions the company manages to minimize the difficulty: the body disappears with as little fuss as possible, most members of the audience hardly noticing at the time and, later, not remembering at all. Thus young Seyward plays his part fully by dying bravely-with his wounds “on the Front,” as Rosse puts it. But his, the role is thus limited only if directors and editors ignore the signals of the sole original text, the Folio, the text that dwells most intimately with Shakespeare’s script.

Theory and practice, however-whether in the theatre or in editorial texts-currently provide very little protection for Shakespearean characters living or dead. Without undertaking in any full sense to explore new theoretical possibilities, I mean here, simply by taking the Folio text seriously as a script, to point a direction for the thorough exploration that is, I believe, the greatest single need in Shakespearean studies and performance.

When, in the Folio, the young man enters alone to challenge Macbeth, we are in the last scene of the play, ‘Scena Septima,’ about one hundred lines from the end. Macbeth takes only seven lines to kill him, but we may be surprised to notice that, more than fifty lines later, as the play moves to its conclusion, the nineteen lines prior to the last twenty-two are devoted entirely to responses to his death-from old Seyward (his father), Rosse, and Malcolm slowing the action when one would perhaps least expect a delay.

Except for Macduff s six-line speech as he enters with Macbeth’s head and Malcolm’s sixteen-line concluding speech, these responses define the last matter for which our attention is demanded. The attention, first, of the acting company: how are we to play the lines in almost the last moment of the play? And the attention, second, of the audience: why are we pausing over young Seyward’s death at such a time?

It does seem strange, and is certainly unnecessary. With Macbeth dead and Malcolm entering victoriously, any audience knows that but for some brief formalities, the play is over. A director who simply cuts the discussion of young Seyward-moving, after an appropriately spectacular staging of ‘Retreat. Flourish. Enter, with drum and colours, Malcolm, Old Seyward, Rosse, Thanes and Soldiers,’ directly to Macduff s entrance with Macbeth’s head on a pole would hear no cries of anger or confusion from the audience. It would make a splendidly theatrical and satisfying complete conclusion. Only a scholar or two, remembering the text, might leave the theatre with a sense of something missing.

Yet the text insists. Sandwiched in between the two great, climactic events-killing Macbeth and declaring Malcolm King of Scotland — stands this passage in which the audience learns what they already know because they have seen it: young Seyward died bravely.

Nineteen apparently superfluous lines devoted, at such a moment, to a young man who, in all the rest of the play, claims our attention hardly at all. He is mentioned twice, each time very briefly; he speaks only in the seven-line exchange with Macbeth; and the most notable comment made about him is that he was (like most of us) “born of woman.” Why is he suddenly, in response to his death, so important?

The question urges itself upon us even more forcefully, I think, if his body has unobtrusively disappeared soon after his death: the last opportunity to make him visually memorable has disappeared with it. Yet the Oxford editors, and the other editors who confront the problem in their notes, all agree that we must get rid of him quickly. After all, only twelve lines after Macbeth kills him his father enters and does not mention him: in editorial logic, he must not be there.

And as Malcolm later reports that the young man is “missing” in action, and Rosse says he has been “brought off the field”, for those editors who comment the only question is whether the body is taken off before or after the Macduff soliloquy that follows the death by three lines; whether it is taken by Macbeth himself, by servants, or by soldiers is a matter on which they mildly disagree.

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