A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin.
Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.
Episode 5 – What Bloody Man is That?
- The title of this episode is a line from Macbeth (Act 1, Sc 2), spoken by King Duncan on encountering a wounded, bleeding army general who is Macbeth, Thane of Glamis.
- The play Macbeth, the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is set in 11th century Scotland, with two scenes in England. The length of the performed play depends on directors cutting scenes or the time given to the battles, but based on 1,000 lines an hour, Macbeth would be approximately two and a half hours.
- Although there was a real King Macbeth who ruled Scotland between 1005 and 1057 and was known for his efficient government and advocacy of Christianity, Shakespeare’s Macbeth reigned from 1040 to 1057, and this character does not seem to be based on his namesake.
- The play is believed to have been written in the reign of King James I of England and VI of Scotland and performed for him at court in 1606, three years after he succeeded Queen Elizabeth I. It was not staged at The Globe till 1611, and among actors it is considered unlucky to speak its title, so it is often referred to as The Scottish Play.
- The play includes compliments to King James as well as references to the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters which took place between January and March 1606.
To put it ‘in a nutshell’ (as Will might say!), below is a brief Macbeth synopsis, followed by itemisation of the similarities between The Scottish Play and Upstart Crow’s What Bloody Man is That? as well as some historical facts.
SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY
- Macbeth has two encounters with three witches (also known as the weird sisters) who address him by name and at the first meeting predict he will become Thane of Cawdor and king after that. At the second meeting they prophesise that no man born of woman shall harm him.
- Although Macbeth and Banquo, his friend who is another general in the Scottish army, have both fought bravely in battle, King Duncan awards only Macbeth with a title: Thane of Cawdor, partially fulfilling the witches’ prediction.
- Eager for the second part of that prediction to be fulfilled, and encouraged by his wife, Macbeth kills King Duncan during a regal visit to their castle. Prior to committing this crime, Macbeth speaks the words ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’
- The dagger used is found beside the king’s body by nobleman Macduff who then suspects Macbeth of the murder, as does Banquo subsequently.
- Macbeth usurps the throne, to become king of Scotland, but is full of guilt for his crime, shown by his words, ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No…’. However, this does not stop his involvement in other murders, including Banquo’s. Macbeth hires two assassins to kill Banquo, whose ghost later appears to Macbeth during a state banquet.
- Lady Macbeth, also full or remorse for her actions in the killing of King Duncan, starts sleepwalking and rubbing her hands as if to remove blood from them. In the last act of the play she commits suicide.
- Meanwhile Macbeth, although realising that Macduff suspects him of King Duncan’s murder, initially feels safe, heeding the witches’ prophesy that no man born of woman shall harm him. Macbeth then recalls that Macduff’s birth was by caesarean section and, under the impression that this does not constitute being born by woman, surrenders to Macduff who has him executed and presents his head to Malcolm the eldest son of Duncan. Malcolm, the rightful king of Scotland, is then duly crowned at Scone.
UPSTART CROW – WHAT BLOODY MAN IS THAT?
- This Upstart Crow episode revolves around the play Macbeth and takes place entirely in Stratford (the first of two episodes to be wholly set there) as Will and friends have left London to escape the plague. Will, Kate and Bottom are staying with the Shakespeares, while Kit is a guest of Sir Thomas Livesey, a character who seems to have been invented for this episode.
- On the way from the coach to Stratford, as they walk on a dark, damp heath, they encounter a group of three witches who address Will Shakespeare by name, claiming he is the owner of a house on Henley Street, future owner of New Place and of a new suckling pig. However, the historical facts relating to Will in Upstart Crow are as follows:
The house on Henley Street was not owned by Will but by John Shakespeare, though it is thought that, on his father’s death in 1601, Shakespeare inherited it even though his mother lived till 1608. It is now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and this link will show a photo of the house and give further information: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/
Shakespeare did become the owner of New Place, buying it in 1597 after which his wife Anne, with daughters Susanna and Judith, moved there from the Henley Street house. Will was away much of the time in London till his retirement in 1613. New Place is said to have been the second-largest house in Stratford, as revealed in this episode, and was the first brick-built house in the town.
An unknown artist’s painting, from around 1903, of the room where Shakespeare is believed to have been born in the Henley Street house
- In a stroke of inventive comedic brilliance for this episode, New Place is owned by Scotsman Duncan Macbuff. The actual history of this house dates back to 1483, its first owner being Sir Hugh Clopton. It remained in his family till 1563 and, following two sales, was bought by William Shakespeare. On his death in 1616 Susanna inherited it, but she and her husband did not live there till after her mother’s death in 1623. It later passed to Susanna’s only child Elizabeth but she had no children, and on her death in 1670 it returned to the Clopton family. Unfortunately, New Place is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1759.
- Back in the Upstart Crow world, Will fears that while sleepwalking he has poisoned neighbour Duncan Macbuff by pouring white lead paint into a milk jug given to the Scot, and it is this milk jug which replaces Macbeth’s dagger in this episode. In fact, Will even uses the phrase ‘Is this a milk jug which I see before me?’ as a floating image of a milk jug appears in a dream is he having before he begins sleepwalking.
- Although Will’s apparent killing of Macbuff is a different scenario, it is certainly based on events in The Scottish Play. Lady Macbeth encouraged her husband to murder King Duncan, whereas Anne put the idea in her husband’s head to add lead paint to Macbuff’s milk. Believing that he had carried out this plan and killed him, Will confessed to Anne. Her reaction was not shock but delight at the prospect of now being able to buy New Place, a house they had long coveted. Although this is somewhat out of character for her, it does tie in with the Macbeth
- The dinner party given by Lord and Lady Livesey is a reflection of the banquet given by Lord and Lady Macbeth, where the ghost of Banquo is seen – not a servant of the household covered in milk pudding as Will sees in this episode.
- On a lighter note, the entertainment provided by Burbage, Condell and Kempe at the dinner gives an insight into commedia dell’arte which was a popular Italian form of stage humour, relying heavily on improvisation and the wearing of masks. Though Upstart Crow Kempe claims to be ‘big in Italy’, having won several awards, the real Will Kempe may never have visited Italy and certainly not before 1600. After he parted company in 1599 with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting troupe (of whom Richard Burbage and Will Shakespeare were members), possibly for ad libbing and confusing his fellow actors, he may have toured and performed in Europe, including Italy, but this is not known for certain.
- Mirroring Lady Macbeth’s habit of sleepwalking and trying to rid her hands of the blood which metaphorically covers them, is Anne walking across the bedroom rubbing her hands in the night but thankfully she does not commit suicide.
Believing he has killed Macbuff, and knowing Robert Greene suspects him of the crime, Will sends Bottom off on to the heath in the middle of the night for more words of wisdom from the weird sisters. These turn out to be, ‘No man born of woman shall accuse him of this crime’. Like Macbeth, Will feels safe at first. However, Robert Greene then arrives, revealing he was born by C-section, paralleling Macduff, but Anne points out that all men are born of woman, no matter the route. However, saving the day is Macbuff who, unlike Banquo, arrives alive and well, praising the milk Mrs Moo Moo has provided. Amid the shock of Macbuff’s survival, Anne reassures Will that he poured the white liquid from the milk bucket, not the paint bucket. · As a footnote to this, although Mrs Moo Moo has a few mentions in Upstart Crow, she has only been seen once. Her appearance occurs in this episode, in the cowshed, where Will wakes Bottom sleeping against her (a mock-up cow, only partially in view) to send him out to talk to the witches on the heath.
- As the episode ends, it seems that Will is keen to write a comedy called Two Milky Jugs, while his more astute wife envisages the recent events forming a thriller!
In Episode 6, the final of Series 1, we find Will in court trying to escape death for an unpaid debt to Robert Greene.