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Last Friday, I went to see our young Shakespeare campers perform scenes from Macbeth and Twelfh Night at McLaren Park in San Francisco. During the brief intermission between performances, a few rambunctious young campers leaped on stage and at the command “Die dramatically!”, they enthusiastically stabbed themselves with cardboard daggers, chopped their own heads off with paper swords, and performed various other horrific deaths, all to the delighted laughter and applause of their parents. As one of our favorite camp t-shirts says, “It just wouldn’t be summer camp without swords, daggers, and poison.”


Later that day, I watched our Macbeth and Macduff rehearse their thrilling final confrontation as staged by choreographer Andrea Weber and reflected on our relationship with violence. When is violence just good clean theatrical fun, and when is it something deeper and more disturbing? Should children ever perform violence? I’d like to argue that controlled exposure to stage violence, followed by reflection and conversation, can actually help children and adults understand the darker side of what it means to be human.

It’s pretty much impossible to live in America in the 21st century and shield ourselves and our children completely from violence. From the school shooting of the week to terrorism across the globe, we’re daily reminded of the worst side of humanity. We struggle with the eternal questions – are human beings essentially good, but flawed by society? Or are we sinful and violent at the core, and control those dark instincts only through education and other civilizing influences?


As R.A. Foakes argues in his fascinating book “Shakespeare and Violence,” it’s probably a bit of both. “Human beings, especially males, have been addicted to violence since myths and legends first circulated and recorded history began,” he writes. “It appears that we have instinctual drives that prompt us to defend ourselves when attacked, to use violence if necessary to protect family, tribe, or nation, as well as to maintain or improve status.”

Shakespeare, Foakes posits, was deeply interested in the problem of violence. In his early career, like many of the other playwrights of the time, he used violence as spectacle, designed to provoke enjoyment and catharsis, much like modern-day summer action flicks or video games. My teenaged interns always ask when we’re going to do Titus Andronicus – the ultimate horror-action flick, Shakespeare’s Tarantino play, in which the violence is so over-the-top that it eventually becomes comic. I think, as does Foakes, that kids are attracted to it as a safe way to work out violent impulses: “If all humans are capable of violence… then one reason we are fascinated by violence on TV or movie screens may be because watching and identifying with it harmlessly releases impulses everyone has and normally represses.” The bloodbath of Titus looks like fun because it doesn’t ask a lot of difficult questions or present very complex characters, but it does give actors and audiences the opportunity to experience horror in a safe way, easily shrugged off when the play is over.


If Shakespeare’s earlier plays made violence into entertainment, his later plays, like Macbeth, take a much more nuanced approach. In the great tragedies, he seems interested in what “turns on” the violent instinct – the turning point from which there’s no going back, when the protagonist abandons his nobler impulses and gives in to the heart of darkness.

What made Shakespeare want to dig deeper? In 1605, the greatest terrorist plot of Shakespeare’s lifetime was discovered and averted –  the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic dissenters attempted to blow up the House of Lords and the King himself. No doubt this extraordinary event obsessed the Jacobeans, and influenced their culture as strongly as 9/11 has transformed ours. Macbeth, probably written between 1603 and 1606, contains clear references to “equivocation,” the tactic used by Catholic priests to deny involvement in the plot. They argued that crimes committed in the name of God, for a holy purpose, were not crimes at all – a belief not unlike those of today’s jihadists. (For an excellent theatrical treatment of this era, read Bill Cain’s play Equivocation.) Here’s the Porter in Act II, scene 3:

“Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.”


Shakespeare’s audience would have found these references hilarious – but Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in a good laugh at the priests’ expense. As many of us wonder what leads people to blow themselves up in a crowded marketplace, or open fire in a classroom full of children, he wanted to know what leads people to commit violent acts in the first place.

James Gilligan, in his 1996 book “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic”, argues that every act of violence is preceded by an incident of shaming, in which the perpetrator is made to feel less than human. In Macbeth, this moment probably comes after Macbeth tells his wife about his strange encounter with the Weird Sisters, and she urges him to take fate into their own hands. At the top of Act I, scene 7, Macbeth decides NOT to murder Duncan:

“We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.”

Lady Macbeth then delivers two of the most shaming speeches in all of Shakespeare (and probably all literature):

“LADY MACBETH: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

MACBETH: Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH: What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

Lord and Lady M

By calling into question his very manhood, she shames him into performing the murder – and that one act, that tipping point, leads him down the road to serial murder, as we see later on, in Act III, scene 1, when Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. As he has been shamed, he shames the low-born men:

“MACBETH: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter… so of men.
Now, if you have a station in the file,
Not i’ the worst rank of manhood, say ‘t;
And I will put that business in your bosoms,
Whose execution takes your enemy off,
Grapples you to the heart and love of us,
Who wear our health but sickly in his life,
Which in his death were perfect.

SECOND MURDERER: I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.

So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune,
That I would set my lie on any chance,
To mend it, or be rid on’t.”

Macbeth and the murderers

The scene supports Foakes’ thesis that violence is both an intrinsic part of human nature and nourished by bad treatment, poverty, and difficult life circumstances. Real men, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both argue, have violence in their nature and aren’t afraid to kill. The murderers, who have been living in terrible circumstances, are inclined toward violence through nurture.

Macduff, later in the play, offers an alternative type of manhood, after learning Macbeth has killed his family:

“MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man.

MACDUFF: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:”


True manhood, Shakespeare seems to be saying, does not lack the instinct for violence, but tempers it with other feelings. Macduff’s first impulse is not to revenge, but to fully experience grief.

When we teach stage combat at our Shakespeare Camps and other education programs, we engage with both the need to make violence cathartic and fun and the need to make it real and meaningful. With older campers, we use the exercise known as “Air Broadswords,” devised by our colleagues at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts. It culminates in two performers retaining eye contact through a death scene, until one of the partners eventually “dies.” When we do this exercise with teens, we’re able to discuss what it really means to lose someone, and how violence has deep consequences. Using the final fight of Macbeth in which Macduff slays his former friend and ally in combat, we’re able to both enjoy his righteous revenge and experience his grief.

Macduff slays Macbeth

Some of our audience members have asked if our production of Macbeth is appropriate for children. I don’t want to answer for every child – it may be too scary for some – but I do want to argue that engaging with violence on stage, in a safe context, can lead to valuable discoveries and important discussions. Children and teens may start the play thinking the stage fights are awfully cool. We hope, by the end, they’ll reach new understandings about the causes and consequences of violence.