In his novel of 1949, The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler has his fictional private detective, Philip Marlowe say of another character, “nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth.” Next to Lady Macbeth and her spouse, few couples in Western literature represent such towering but doomed partners in crime. Even the nasty couple in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity schemes for comparatively small stakes, as does the incongruously prim femme fatale Philip Marlowe has to outwit. In contrast, Lady Macbeth and her husband conspire with cosmic evil forces to take over an entire kingdom.
From reading actors’ lives, it remains unclear how coveted a role Lady Macbeth may be. Playing one of the three witches would probably be more fun. All the while, the role of Macbeth ranks as one of the greats for a Shakespearean actor to sink his teeth into.
Like Julius Caesar, where there is a soothsayer and a ghost, Macbeth combines history with elements of fairy tale. From 1040 to 1057, an actual Macbeth ruled as king of Scotland, and Shakespeare read about him in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, first published in 1577 and a source for many of Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as King Lear and Cymbeline. What Shakespeare quarried from Holinshed’s verbose tome were stories that could become plays. In the case of Macbeth’s story, Shakespeare found amidst the history witches and what G. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, called “the murk and nightmare torment of a conscious hell.”
From the late 1940s until now, filmed versions of Macbeth have starred in the title role an array of outstanding actors. They have ranged from Orson Welles and Maurice Evans to Michael Fassbender and Denzel Washington. One major Shakespearean actor whose Macbeth never got filmed was Anthony Quayle. His stage performances of it can be surmised from a full-cast audio recording he did in 1960 for Caedmon.
As his obituary in National Review stated, Quayle “wasn’t terribly well known to Americans: they knew him mostly from his subordinate roles in such films as Lawrence of Arabia and The Guns of Navarone,” but he “brought to these roles, and dozens of others, a powerful frame, a magnificent voice, and a versatile technique.” In an audio recording, of course, it is that magnificent voice that comes to the fore.
Nevertheless, even at this late date we can get a sense of how Quayle performed the role on stage. In 1975 Quayle directed and starred in Macbeth at the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Barry Gaines, writing in the Winter, 1976, issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, described the production as “refreshingly traditional,” without any “attempts to make the play ‘relevant’ for its modern audience.” The solitary set was spare and stark, and Quayle “was confident that the text in itself was sufficient to provide the theatre experience inherent in Macbeth.” Come to think of it, hearing Quayle’s recording from 1960 gets us close to his way of staging the play.
In Act V, Scene 5, Macbeth utters one of the most famous soliloquies in Shakespeare. Each actor playing Macbeth finds ways to make these familiar words sound fresh. When told that the queen is dead, Macbeth says: “She should have died hereafter;/There would have been a time for such a word./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.”
As ever, Quayle’s interpretation had quiet strength. Whereas Maurice Evans’ Macbeth delivers that soliloquy sobbing with grief and Michael Fassbender’s speaks with bleak tenderness, Quayle’s delivery was marked by what Barry Gaines aptly called an “icy numbness.” Yet, into that last word “nothing” Quayle’s frostiness seared a note of contempt.
In those grim lines, among the more striking is Shakespeare comparing an actor to “a walking shadow” whose life’s work on stage is as fleeting as time itself. For Quayle, an actor’s calling had deeply mysterious origins. In his posthumously published memoirs, A Time to Speak, Quayle wrote that, “The actor realizes that his talent has nothing to do with himself personally; his attributes, his talents, are simply on loan for the period of his life.” Therefore, he believed that an actor “is neither the better nor the worse for having them. They are there to be used. He himself is there to be used. He is a lightning conductor through which the current passes: no more and no less.”
Being but an instrument meant that for him, “I had learnt the only way to live was to the glory of god—or rather, to the glory of God. I had long since been unable to say the Nicene Creed. I was unable to believe in it. But I certainly did believe in God—God as Energy, as Spirit, as Imagination, as the Force that informs the whole of life. Sometimes a blind and cruel force, but certainly one of great glory.”
It could be that this Senecan Stoicism helped bring Quayle to Shakespeare. Elsewhere in his memoirs, Quayle wrote that he felt drawn to Shakespeare, whom he called “this genius of the English language and the English spirit,” because “I could not think where I was going to fit in unless it were in Shakespeare.” Quayle believed that his height (6ʹ) and his austere looks might have cut him out for “a cowboy actor if I had been born in the USA, but I was too large, too odd-looking,” for elegant drawing-room dramas in London. Over the years, when not doing Shakespeare, he often got cast as military officers, usually modern British or ancient Roman.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is best filmed in black and white. It holds that preternatural quality of film noir, what someone has described as, “Dark things happening to dark people.” Anthony Quayle never played a hard-boiled detective in film noir, but he would have agreed with Raymond Chandler writing in a letter dated 22 April, 1949, that Shakespeare “would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything.”