A CLASSROOM ACTIVITY
Each student will need a photocopy of the printed resources for the activity, found here.
Other helpful student materials:
- basic information about the ascent of James I to the English throne and about the 19th-century movement to unify Italy. (A good resource would be printouts of, or online access to, the articles found in Microsoft's Encarta encylopedia found here:
The Unification of Italy
- copies of the relevant sections of Shakespeare's Macbeth. A clear, line-numbered edition is available at a website called "Shakespeare Online" and can be found here. (Line numbers cited in this activity refer to this edition).
Giuseppe Verdi intended to be faithful to Shakespeare in presenting his version of Macbeth. Nevertheless, the opera is a product of its times. In this activity, students will consider some differences between politics in Shakespeare’s day and politics in Verdi’s, then observe how those differences are reflected in Verdi’s work.
- be introduced to basic generalizations about government in the early 1600s and mid-1800s—royalty vs. democracy
- compare characterizations in the two versions of Macbeth
- discover some functions that a chorus can perform in an opera
- acquaint themselves with some of the music in Macbeth in advance of the Met’s HD transmission
STEPS In this activity, students will take a close look at four moments in Verdi’s Macbeth and will compare them to parallel scenes in the original Shakespeare play. All four moments involve the reaction of one of Verdi’s choruses—the people of Scotland (so to speak)—to major plot points. By studying these scenes, students will come to see a significant difference between the political theories underlying the two versions: The people, central to Verdi’s concept and to the politics of his day, are invisible in Shakespeare’s ruling-class drama.
Step 1: The historical context of the two Macbeths will probably be unfamiliar to your students. If possible, have them read the articles on James I and Italian unification before class begins. If not, be sure to allow a few minutes at the beginning of the lesson for students to do this background reading.
Step 2: Establishing the time frame
Write “1865” on the chalkboard. Ask students what associations they have with this year. (Some may mention the U.S. Civil War or other events.) Point out that this is the year the revised version of Verdi’s Macbeth premiered, the same version in the Met Live in HD transmission.
Directly below, write “1606.” Ask students to guess what happened in that year. The answer is: Shakespeare’s Macbeth premiered in London. Subtract 1606 from 1865. The result, 159 years, is the time between the two Macbeths. You may want to note that a lot can happen in 159 years!
Step 3: Confirming background knowledge
Ask questions based on the background readings:
- Who governed England when Shakespeare’s Macbeth
- How did James I become king of England?
- Who governed Italy when Verdi’s Macbeth premiered?
- What was the “Risorgimento?”
- What event took place in Italy in 1861? In 1871?
The points to elicit are these:
James I was king of England in 1606. Like so many othersbefore him, he came to power in a climate of court intrigue—much like the intrigue in Macbeth. Factions, marriages, alliances, backstabbing, even murder played a role in deciding who would rule England in the 17th century.
When Verdi’s revised Macbeth premiered, Italy was a parliamentary kingdom, somewhat like today’s Great Britain. The Kingdom of Italy was the result of a movement to unify Italy, called the Risorgimento. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Italian peninsula had been divided among a number of small kingdoms and duchies, lands controlled by Austria, and lands controlled by the Catholic church, supported by France. Much of that century saw a movement to create a single, unified Italy, with the support not just of ruling-class leaders, but of the entire Italian people.
The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, but Rome was not integrated as its capital until 1871. Verdi’s Macbeth premiered right in the middle, 1865.
Step 4: Before turning to Macbeth, draw a copy of the “Who Cares, and Why?” chart on the chalkboard to be filled in as the lesson proceeds.
A printable version of this chart can be found here.
Step 5: Comparing the two Macbeths
One interesting difference between Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera is the composer’s use of a standard operatic device—the chorus. Choruses can act as characters, representing groups of people. They can also comment on the actions of other characters. In Macbeth, Verdi uses two distinct choruses. He turns Shakespeare’s three witches into a three-part chorus. He also introduces a new “character,” a chorus representing the people of Scotland. This activity will take a careful look at his use of the “people’s chorus.”
Duncan’s Murder: At the end of Act I, Verdi’s chorus responds to the murder, Track 8. Representing the people of Scotland, they call heaven and hell down upon the murderer of their king. They continue,“O gran Dio… in te solo fidiamo” (God…, we trust in You alone)—significantly addressing their plea above the heads of earthly political leaders. Their prayer is full not only of vengeance, but of grief.
Shakespeare writes the scene differently. In Macbeth, Act II, Scene 3, lines 160–176, we find the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain (a character omitted by Verdi), with Banquo. It’s Banquo who mentions God here—a member of the governing class—and he’s not seeking help, but swearing that he himself will wreak vengeance. Macduff and other assembled lords and nobles agree. The two sons, fearing for their own lives, then plan their escape—one to England, one to Ireland. Notice: There’s no sign here of the Scottish people. Students can now begin to fill out the “Who Cares, and Why?” chart. Who is upset about Duncan’s murder in Verdi’s opera, and why? And in Shakespeare’s play? How do you know?
Macbeth’s Madness: Act II of Verdi’s opera closes with the banquet at which Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. It’s a stretch to say the people of Scotland are represented at this grand affair, but it’s still worth noticing the party goers’ attitude in this scene. Macduff is among them, and as the act closes, he’s become suspicious. He decides to leave Scotland. “Now that it is ruled by a cursed hand,” he explains, “only the wicked can remain.” In Track 9 the chorus echoes the sentiment: “Uno speco di ladroni/Questa terra diventò” (this land has become a den of thieves). But notice the difference between their complaint and Macduff’s. Where his complaint is only with Macbeth, theirs is with a community of evil—Scotland’s entire leadership.
Macduff doesn’t even show up at Shakespeare’s banquet, Act III, Scene 4. At line 152, Macbeth and his wife discuss the meaning of his absence—not moral disgust, but more conspiracy. By this time in Shakespeare, the party has broken up. But the partygoers didn’t leave in horror or fury, as Verdi’s do: Atline 139, Lady Macbeth asks them to go because her husband “grows worse and worse.” They comply, but not before one lord,Lennox, calls out meekly for all, “Good night; and better health attend his majesty!” What do your students make of these reactions? Are Verdi’s banquet guests like Shakespeare’s? What are the differences?
Recapturing the Crown:
Act IV begins with a melancholy song—(Track 10)
“Patria oppressa!” cries the chorus of Scots—our oppressed homeland!
In a few moments, the opera will turn personal, as Macduff learns that his wife and children have been killed. But for now our attention is on the suffering of an entire nation. “Al venir del nuovo Sole/S’alza un grido e fere il Ciel.” (When the sun rises anew, a cry goes up, outraging Heaven.)
The parallel scene in Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene 3, finds only Malcolm and Macduff on the plain, weeping their own “sad bosoms empty.” Malcolm talks of redress, of overthrowing a tyrant. (Macduff, not yet having heard about his family’s murder, is not yet convinced.) At line 50, he mentions Scotland: “it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/is added to her wounds”—but he’s really focused on seeking help from England. Whose concerns do your students find expressed here? Whose seem to be omitted?
Macbeth’s Defeat: The conclusive evidence of a difference between Shakespeare and Verdi comes at the very end, Track 11. What do your students make of the lines “Dov’è l’usurpator?/D’un soffio il fulminò/Il Dio della vittoria”? (Where is the usurper? The God of victory struck him down with a breath.) Again, God is credited, Macduff is only His agent. Victory belongs not only to the new king, but to “lapatria,” the homeland.
Verdi’s conclusion is stirring. Shakespeare’s feels like an afterthought. Where Verdi’s chorus sings “Macbeth, ov’è?”—where is Macbeth—Shakespeare shows us: at the end of Act V, Scene 8, Macduff appears with the dead man’s head!
The rest is tying up loose ends. King Malcolm has the last word—and he uses it to split up the booty and give out new titles to noblemen (lines 74 through 77). He then calls home political allies who fled Macbeth. Finally, he invites the governing class to his inauguration. Can your students find any mention of the Scottish people in these last two speeches?
Step 6: Putting It All Together
It’s time to take a look at the “Who Cares, and Why?” chart. How do your students explain the differences between the two Macbeths? You may need to remind them of the background knowledge with which the lesson began: Government looked one way to Shakespeare, another to Verdi. For Shakespeare, the question of who ruled England was one of pure power, duplicity, and cunning. By Verdi’s time, the idea had emerged that a government should at least represent, if not be chosen by, its people. Verdi’s Macbeth is not only a musical version of Shakespeare. It’s a statement in support of Italian unification, a process in full bloom, but not yet complete, in 1865. The future was unknown. Shakespeare, from his position outside the governing class, wrote a commentary on power as he understood it. Verdi, a member of a people seizing its own destiny, was writing, in part, a call to arms.
FOLLOW-UP For homework, students can write an op-ed piece, a persuasive essay aimed at the Scottish people. Should they take up arms in the fight against Macbeth? Or is this just a fight among the ruling class? Does the average Scotsman “have a dog in this race”? Use examples from the opera to convince your audience.