Macbeth: Shakespeare vs. Verdi

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Yes, that’s me. Dressed as a witch. Holding a book on Verdi. Why do you ask?

For the past week I have been preparing myself for seeing William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth at the Globe Theater. I read the play for the first time this week and I have seen the opera by Giuseppe Verdi several times. After reading the play, I wondered how closely Verdi had followed Shakespeare’s lines and plot…

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Verdi managed to include everything essential to make the plot flow. However, there are a few minor details that he did not include in the opera. For example: In the play, King Duncan’s sons Donalbain and Malcolm flee from Scotland. Donalbain flees to Ireland and Malcolm flees to England. MacDuff also joins Malcolm in England. Neither MacDuff’s nor Malcolm’s escape to England are mentioned in the opera. When the curtain opens in Verdi’s Act IV, we find both of them with their armies at the border between Scotland and England. It comes as a surprise!

Verdi also did not mention some of the characters. For example: Hectate, the goddess of witchcraft, who helps the witches conjure up Macbeth’s apparitions. Verdi used an entire women’s chorus to act as Shakespeare’s three Weïrd Sisters, so one of them could possibly have been Hectate. However, if it was planned that way, it is not clear to the audience. Verdi also did not mention Donalbain, the second son of Duncan who flees to Ireland. Donalbain is not featured in the play after he flees to Ireland. He is also the younger brother of Malcolm, putting him out of the competition for the title of king if Macbeth was thrown over. 

King Duncan, as important a character as he is in Shakespeare’s play, does not sing or speak one word in Verdi’s opera. He is only shown marching in with his train into Macbeth’s home, and walking to his bedroom where he will be murdered later that night. In some opera productions, like the Met’s most recent one, Duncan’s bed, drenched with blood, with him in it, is carried out for the household to see. However in most productions, King Duncan is not featured as greatly as he is in the Shakespeare play.

Macbeth and Banquo’s Ghost at the Metropolitan Opera 2007 © Ken Howard

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The same goes for Banquo’s son Fleance. He has plenty of conservations with his father in the play, but does not say a word in the opera.

One other part of the play that Verdi did not include in his opera were certain scenes. For example: There were several scenes of King Duncan talking to his sons, Macbeth, and other characters. Duncan does not even sing in the opera! There were also scenes where Ross, Lennox, and other Scottish noblemen would talk over the situation of Macbeth, and the mysterious deaths that were occurring in Scotland. There is also one scene, Act IV Scene 3 to be exact, where Macduff and Malcolm meet each other and plan their battle in Scotland. Malcolm at first is suspicious of Macduff, and thinks he could possibly be a spy for Macbeth. Proven wrong, Macduff and Malcolm trust each other and prepare their armies. Finally, one of the other scenes that Verdi did not include was where Lady Macduff and her children are murdered by Macbeth’s men. The witches tell Macbeth to beware of Macduff, so he decides to brutally kill his family. In the opera, Macduff receives a letter telling him that they were murdered, and regrets the fact that he was not there to protect them in his aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”. The feeling of regret that Macduff experiences in the opera is reflected in the way Lady Macduff refers to him in the play. She tells her son that his father was a traitor for leaving the family unprotected in Scotland, that he should feel regretful. Verdi exclusively included Macduff’s reaction, rather than including both Macduff’s and his wife’s reactions.

The characterizations that Shakespeare made for his characters and the ones that Verdi created for his characters differed. For example: Both Shakespeare and Verdi made Macbeth a careful, scared character, who followed all of his evil wife’s commands. However, once Lady Macbeth dies, their characterizations became diverse. In the Shakespeare, Macbeth becomes ruthless and nasty to his servants, making them keep watch for Birnam Wood and prepare for battle. He also goes into the actual fighting and kills young Siward. In the opera, Macbeth keeps that scared and nervous attitude, just as he had when he encountered Banquo’s ghost at the ball. He is killed by Macduff with no other fighting or killing. The characterizations of the other characters remain equal with each other, especially the outright evil and demon-like characterization of Lady Macbeth.

Birgit Nilsson as Lady Macbeth (Verdi)

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The play and the opera are not completely different. Verdi did in fact follow the text of the play closely, and wove it into his libretto. For example: In the opera, Lady Macbeth’s aria in her sleepwalking scene is called, “Una macchia è qui tuttora!”, meaning “Yet here’s a spot! (V.1.31)”. That line is uttered by Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene in Shakespeare’s play. Another line that Verdi copied was “He has no children (IV.3.222)”, which is said by Macduff. In reference to Macbeth, Macduff explains to his men that he [Macbeth] is brutal and that he killed his [Macduff’s] wife and children because he has no children of his own. This line is also sung in Verdi’s opera.

I am a huge fan of both Shakespeare and Verdi, making Macbeth one of my favorite plays and operas. I am looking forward to seeing the Shakespeare play live at the Globe Theater, the theater that Shakespeare built specifically for his plays, just as Wagner built Bayreuth specifically for the Ring and Parsifal. I will also looking forward to its return to the Met in the future.

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