The Reading Room
Macbeth in Early Social Media
In London between 1700 and 1750 one in six theatrical performances was a Shakespearean play. In fact, the most popular comic dramatists of the time, Arthur Murphy, declared, “With us islanders, Shakespeare is a kind of established religion.” But not everyone adored him with this kind of fervor. One of his early critics, Charlotte Lennox, set out to understand how he created his plots. She was already a well-known published author, and her well-connected literary networks made it possible for her to study an impressive range of texts that Shakespeare consulted.
Lennox was the first female scholar to publish Shakespeare criticism, and her research unearthed the sources for twenty of the bard’s plots, but Macbeth was her favorite. She declared, cheekily, that Macbeth had “fewer faults than any other of [his] plays.” John Bellenden’s The History and Chronicles of Scotland (1536), which for the first time made accessible the account of Macbeth meeting the witches, and Raphael Holinshed’s History of Scotland (1577) informed her interpretations, which appeared in her three-volume scholarly work, Shakespear Illustrated (1753) and again in her popular, pioneering magazine, The Lady’s Museum (1760).
As a writer who lived primarily by her pen, Lennox worked both outside and inside male-dominated literary London. However, frequently she did not agree with male interpretations and even took issue with literary and theatre luminaries like Samuel Johnson and David Garrick. Lennox insisted that judgement is in the eye of the beholder and that “[e]very author who treats [past] times, fills his bucket as he imagines.” In contrast to her male peers, Lennox was interested in how Shakespeare was original and how he crafted individual experience.
She was experimenting with how popular and widely circulated texts, like magazines, that were equally available to kings and clerks changed reader’s minds. At the moment when England was engaging in acts that would soon result in the Seven Years War, the first global conflict, Shakespear Illustrated revealed how Shakespeare was highlighting the devastating effects of quests for domination. Lennox wrote that she hoped to encourage “a different [and more subtle] manner of reading and thoughtfully performing his plays.” Shakespeare Illustrated, which was published in three volumes in London by one of the most prominent booksellers, was her first attempt at making a research-based argument that Shakespeare promoted empathy over heroism. Daring to experiment with early social media served Lennox’s goal of reaching wider audiences.
Four years into that global war, Lennox turned to a genre that was exploding in popularity and one whose mission she considered a noble civic “duty"-- the magazine-- to more fully flesh out her argument about how Macbeth was crafted and how it depicted war. The Lady’s Museum shows us that women’s magazines of the 1700s were not simply committed to fashion and domestic issues but understood themselves to be educating women readers in what Lennox described as “all the arts and sciences.” Not only were they instructive, magazines, Lennox wrote, had the power to “shew those over-bearing men that they have no advantage [over] us but what they derive from prejudice, and like tyrants, from having the power in their own hands.”
Lennox extended her claims from Shakespear Illustrated to an essay in her Lady’s Museum that contradicted previous scholars. In third scene of Act 4, Macduff and his companion Malcolm discover that Macduff’s wife and young son have been murdered. This is the moment when Macbeth shifts to killing out of personal rage, rather than his initial motivation to destroy his country’s enemy. With this turn, Shakespeare diverts attention away from brutality and toward empathy.
Malcolm weakly attempts to comfort Macduff. Unsympathetically Malcolm suggests that revenge will “cure him of his grief.” Eighteenth-century male scholars saw this scene as one of stating the obvious. They explained that Macduff’s “He has no children,” referred to Macbeth’s childlessness. Their explanations assumed that the cold-blooded slaughter of Macduff’s family was not so much heartless as a necessary act committed in war. Lennox’s magazine essay corrected their conclusions and stated that the eleventh-century Scottish King Macbeth did have a son. Lennox follows this evidence with the claim that Macduff’s statement about having no children actually referred to Malcolm whose childlessness makes him oblivious and pitiless. Overwhelmed and sick with heartache, Macduff is thus expressing that he is beyond comfort and that his comrade could not know the profundity of losing a child and how it creates a permanent wound.
Lennox’s interpretation is important because it brings to light Shakespeare’s emphasis on the deep scar of grief and the insensitivity bred in war. Drawing attention to this callous dynamic among soldiers was especially poignant as England was enmeshed in monumental world-altering conflict. Lennox uses literary interpretation in this early form of social media, the magazine, to not only influence audiences experience of the play but also actor’s decisions when performing these lines. “According to [her] interpretation,” she writes,
the actor must shew by some gesture, some motion either of his head or hand, that Malcolm is the person in his thoughts, when he says, He has no children. After staying some time in the place where he was first struck motionless, he is roused at once by indignation and crossing the stage, says…What all my pretty ones.
These stage directions shows how Lennox understood her magazine to reach audiences of little means, including actors.
Lennox ties Shakespeare’s play to actual history by pointing out that the real-life Macbeth’s insatiable thirst for power only gave him three months on the throne before he was massacred by the very man who suggested revenge as a cure for Macduff’s horrific loss. Lennox is therefore highlighting not only an instance of pointless violence, but of the nature of self-perpetuating vicious revenge.
Lennox’s interpretation of this scene makes evident the horrors of war and the inconsolable and incurable pain of loss. By marking this reality even more pointedly in her magazine, Lennox shows that Macbeth’s violence should be seen as far more cruel. His thirst for status and power doesn’t simply result in his own psychological downfall because of guilt. His ghastly actions also have life shattering consequences for many and ultimately offer no benefit to the perpetrator nor to his countrymen.
The Lady’s Museum essay proved especially valuable to literary criticism as it influenced Samuel Johnson to change his explanation of this scene to reflect Lennox’s interpretation in his 1765 The Plays of William Shakespeare. However, instead of giving her credit, he called her “an anonymous critic." Johnson’s Plays would go on to be considered the canonizing moment for Shakespeare, lifting him up as the supreme playwright and poet of the English language. Johnson’s slight, however, did not stop Lennox’s work from being promoted by James Boswell for a new illustrated edition of Shakespear Illustrated, reprinted in the United States in 1809, and being preserved in one hundred and fifty-nine libraries from Kyoto to Beirut.
If we want to understand the true trajectory of Shakepeare’s popular rise, we must recognize the role of mass distributed publication like The Lady’s Museum. These weeklies and monthlies with short pieces written by authors whose work would not have seen print in earlier times had a radical effect on how readers (and actors) understood not only literature but the world around them. Today we study Lennox in part because her work was published and reviewed in this new genre of magazine, which helped to level the playing field of intellectual repartee. Lennox’s work on Macbeth and her savvy use of early social media suggest that greater access for authors and to ideas offers opportunities for the best of (and in) us to emerge.