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Macbeth’s “Strange Garments”

Borrowing Africa’s Robes

By Todd Barnes

Authority and clothing are associated throughout Macbeth. Early in the play, Macbeth learns that he has acquired a new title and power as the Thane of Cawdor, yet in his mind the Thane still lives. He asks, “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” (act 1, scene 3). Banquo remarks that “New honors come upon him / Like our strange garments, [which] cleave not to their mold” but only fit, over time, “with the aid of use” (act 1, scene 3). While King James was laboring to locate the essence of authority in the sovereign’s blood and body, Macbeth raised the possibility that kings merely inhabit an authority which, like a prop, is passed down and therefore risks being appropriated. As political figures are invariably supplanted, others slip into their royal robes. This language of “borrowed robes” and “strange garments”—“strange” being a Jacobean synonym for “foreign”—has long suggested to me that Macbeth is a play about tragic borrowings, a tragedy of misappropriation.

Marcus Gheeraerts II, Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee, 1594. Tate Gallery.

Sartorial choices (or borrowings) hide one’s figure, accentuating and distinguishing certain features while hiding or minimizing others. For Shakespeare’s contemporaries in early modern England, clothing’s power to distinguish and diminish was literally woven into the fabric of everyday life. Elizabethan “sumptuary laws” or Acts of Apparel meticulously defined the colors, fabrics and accoutrements each type of citizen could wear. The regulation of apparel often went hand-in-hand with conquest, as when Henry VIII forbade Irish dress and required the Irish in Galway to wear English caps.

Shakespeare’s theatre served as an exception to laws tethering bodies to costumes, much to the chagrin of its Puritan critics. On the stage, the actors performing Macbeth—who were technically servants of their patron, King James—were licensed to borrow the robes of their betters (many of which were bequeathed or sold to the company upon the owner’s death). When players passed for kings, however, such performances exposed the possibility that the Emperor himself might be nothing more than his clothes. If players could become kings, could kings become players? At the end of his tragedy, Macbeth laments such a fate, finding himself “a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more” (act 5, scene 6).

The failure of borrowed robes in Macbeth highlights the inherent dangers of a theatre built around appropriating the props or cultural properties of others. Shakespeare, after all, may have borrowed a few yards of Scottish tartan in order to dress his English players as Scots. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, perhaps knowingly and strategically, appropriated medieval Scottish history and culture to tell a particularly British tale—as opposed to a Scottish or English one. Shakespeare’s public theatres offered their audiences a portal to other worlds and other times, both of which were refracted through the lens of the here-and-now. The only surviving illustration of a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays drawn during his lifetime, what scholars call the “Peacham Drawing” (c. 1595), depicts characters from Titus Andronicus. Scholars have noted how the actors on this stage wear costumes from distinct historical eras and geographical regions: Titus wears an ancient Roman toga, Tamora wears an English medieval gown and the rest wear contemporary English attire. We might consider how the “hurly-burly” drama of Macbeth similarly layers the past and the present, the native and the strange.

The danger of appropriating the clothes of strangers is nowhere more apparent than in the Africanization of Shakespeare’s plays. The long history of habiting Shakespearean plots in African robes, of course, includes the American minstrel tradition’s appropriation of both Shakespeare and the property of blackness. This tradition illustrates, perhaps better than any other, how costuming exaggerates some features while hiding others. As certain traits are caricatured, the human complexity of a culture can be reduced or obscured. But such borrowings have trafficked in both directions, with artists within the African diaspora, many of whom read Shakespeare throughout their schooling, likewise tailoring Shakespeare to fashion their own tales. Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest (Une Tempête) is the most famous example of such appropriations.

African politicians have also appropriated Shakespeare. Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, translated both Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice (“The Bourgeoisie of Venice”) into Swahili. In 1971, when Ugandan President Idi Amin told Radio Uganda that his friends in Scotland consider him their uncrowned King, the Daily Express in London ran an article dressing him in Macbeth’s robes: “Hail! Now It’s King McIdi [sic].” In an attempt to tear at the seams of British imperialism, King MacIdi often dressed himself in Scottish garb as he crowned himself “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” From stages to pages to palaces, African appropriations of Shakespeare abound, as do such intercultural borrowings in most of Britain’s former colonies.

Of all the plays, Macbeth might seem an unlikely candidate for a company seeking to set a Shakespearean drama in Africa. Those wishing to address issues of cultural difference, race or colonialism, we might think, would gravitate toward Othello, The Tempest, Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, or even Titus Andronicus. When compared to the dramatic horizons of these plays, Macbeth’s geographical and cultural scope feels rather narrow. Not so, it turns out. The connection between Macbeth and the African diaspora runs deep. One study, Scott Newstok and Ayanna Thompson’s Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, counts over one hundred performances of Macbeth using non-traditional (or “colorblind”) casting etween 1821-2010, the vast majority of which emphasized their black actors and/or a setting within the Afro-Atlantic world. From Out of Joint’s 2005 production reimagining Macbeth’s Scotland as Idi Amin’s Uganda to a 2007 Macbeth set in “Dred Scotland,” the frequency of black Macbeths in the United States alone prompted Newstok to describe the play as “arguably the most popular Shakespearean play for contemporary black repertory.” Throughout Africa, Macbeth is far-and-away the most popular, and most often performed, of all Shakespeare’s plays.

Perhaps no all-black Macbeth is better known than the one staged in 1936 by the Harlem Negro Theater Unit of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project. Quickly dubbed the “Voodoo” Macbeth, the wildly successful production was directed by a 21-year-old Orson Welles, who set the play’s drama in the 19th-century Caribbean in order to draw upon the life of Haitian Emperor Henri Christophe. The production relied upon the conceit of racial primitivism, which condescendingly casts Africans as “noble savages” within an exotic world, a lost and magical realm where naïveté commingles with barbarism. Like many Africanized Macbeths before and since, the so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth, more than anything else, accurately presented white, colonial fantasies of Africa and blackness.

While Africanizing Macbeth certainly presents unique dangers, we might also consider how every performance of Shakespeare risks falsely equating present and past, collapsing important cultural and historical differences. Every performance, because it borrows robes in order to represent others, hazards the risks inherent in such appropriations. Shakespeare’s culture, too, can be reduced to the caricature of “Merrie Olde England” one might find peddled at tourist sites or Renaissance Faires. However, we should note that such images of England were often manufactured by the English themselves to hide internal divisions or the unpalatable features of medieval feudalism.

Stagings of Macbeth often feel claustrophobically centered on its royal couple as they struggle against the tightknit web of the witches’ magic. We are often so enchanted by the magic of Macbeth that we fail to see the play’s broader secular and political concerns. Many have claimed that the play’s magic makes staging its drama in the Afro-Caribbean feel like a seamless and natural fit. But the ease with which one Africanizes this magic, transforming it into a literal “black magic,” hides the fact that the play’s magic is strikingly European.

Performing Shakespeare requires that we borrow the robes of others, from the here and now, or from distant times and distant places. Costume, like allegory, metaphor, or analogy, will always accentuate certain cultural features while erasing or obscuring others. When we dress the past in the costumes of strangers, we often focus on differences in order to obscure uncomfortable similarities (e.g. exotic magic); or, alternately, when we dress distant others in familiar attire, we often find sameness as we erase politically and culturally significant differences (i.e. flattening history or culture in favor of vague universals). Intercultural theater presents dangers, but our increasingly globalized world makes such dangers unavoidable. Ethical borrowing requires a respect for the complexity, and history, of multiple performance traditions and a keen attention to what such conjunctions hide or illuminate. Cultural cross-dressings can potentially locate hidden commonalities or, when they fail, alert us to cultural asymmetries or inequalities. Such borrowed robes may not fit at first, but depending on how we wear or share them, they may fit—or even change us—“with the aid of use.”



Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016–2017, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook. Season ticket holders receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.

Todd Barnes is Associate Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His essays and reviews have appeared in Shakespeare Bulletin, Public Books, Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, Shakespearean Echoes, Hamlet Handbook, and the Arden Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: A Critical Reader. Barnes served as dramaturg for the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, where he also worked in educational outreach.

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