Dead, My Lord, The Queen Is

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Over at the Bardfilm blog, our good friend KJ put up a lengthy post dissecting scenes of Macbeth in the Max series Barry. If you’re a fan of either Macbeth or Barry (or Bill Hader, who stars) it’s definitely something you’ll want to check out.

I want to grab a piece of that post and expand on it. In the scene, Bill Hader plays Seyton, entering in Act V Scene V to deliver his line:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

Instead, it comes out

My lord, the queen is dead.

Here’s the thing: I really like that second one better. It’s an example you don’t often imagine—it’s not changing any words, leaving them out completely, or giving them to another character. It’s just flipping the order. Without the script in front of you, you’d be hard-pressed to remember which is the original.

But once you see them both delivered, the change is obvious. As written it feels way too formal to me. Like Seyton has no personal feelings on the matter He’s all formal. He interrupts, he remembers that he has to properly acknowledge Macbeth, then he continues his message. I suppose you could almost imagine him bursting into the room with the intent to just yell, “The queen is dead!” but he can’t do that, he’s got to throw the “my lord” in there.

Flip it, though, and it changes so much. Now it feels like he’s breaking the news. He addresses Macbeth not out of formality but because he’s got a message for him and wants his full attention. You could drag out the pause here as long as you like, depending on how difficult it is for Seyton to deliver the line. He’s about to tell Macbeth that his wife is gone.

Consider when Ross has to deliver a similar message to Macduff, that his wife and children have been slaughtered. He can’t even do it at first. Macduff is so excited to see him, asking for news, that Ross lies:

MACDUFF How does my wife?

ROSS Why, well.

MACDUFF And all my children?

ROSS Well too.

MACDUFF The tyrant has not batter’d at their peace?

ROSS No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.

It’s only after Macduff presses him, knowing that something’s up, that he is able to deliver the real news. Unlike Seyton, he goes on about it in great detail. Seyton has to pack all of his feelings on the matter into one line, just four words. By shifting a few words he goes from neutral observer to emotionally invested in the scene.

Where are some other good opportunities, in this play or others, where a similar re-ordering of words can make such an unexpected impact?

5 thoughts on “Dead, My Lord, The Queen Is

  1. Perhaps obviously (being Bardfilm), I agree with you. In the clip you mention, the show actually shows the two versions side-by-side. Of course, there are other directorial decisions going into that, but the line as written is very formal—almost emotionless—and the switched line does carry more emotional weight, both for the speaker and for the receiver.

    It’s early in the morning, and I can’t think of other places where this could happen—but I’m sure other readers will have some. In the meantime . . .

    “Not to be . . . or to be” would put a more optimistic spin on the speech.

    “Othello, say it” before Othello’s explanation of Desdemona’s love for him might make that introduction even more obvious.

    “Brute, et tu?” is more of an actual question than an accusation . . .

    I’ll keep thinking.

    kj (Bardfilm)

  2. Except Seyton is already there. He’s come in at the top of the scene with Macbeth, knows the Queen is dead, Macbeth has asked him “what is that noise?”, Seyton responds “It is the cry of women…”, Macbeth goes on–to Seyton– about the taste of fears, etc. for 7 lines, asks again, what was that cry?–then Seyton must answer with what he’s known since the top of the scene. So, he’s known all that time the Queen is dead, is hesitant to report the news to a crazed Macbeth, and the lines–as written–follow what’s happening. Seyton must play the scene up to that point with the knowledge. He could attempt to deliver the news, with Macbeth constantly interrupting or whatever, but there are choices for the actor, eliminated by having him exit.

    The hesitation is written in for the actor…The Queen,… my Lord,… is dead. 4 beats of separation to be filled by the actor to complete the meter.

    Having Seyton exit is a modern editor’s choice.

  3. Intriguing! JM is correct. If Seyton stays on stage, it mirrors Ross’ hesitancy that SG mentions above. A production will have to decide whether he knows all along or whether someone comes in and hands him a note or whispers to him (probably a bad decision–upstaging Macbeth’s anxiety over what that noise was and what it means) or whether he looks out a window to see what’s going on.

    I’d like to talk about the rhythm as well. Seyton’s line is three feet. It could be filled (as JM indicates) with beats between each foot. Or it could be delivered straight. Macbeth’s next line is also three feet. That’s six feet—too many for the two lines together to be considered one line of iambic pentameter. If Seyton delivers his without pauses, we then have a two-foot pause at the end of his line . . . and a two-foot pause at the beginning of Macbeth’s anwsering line. That’s an awfully long, suspense, potentially very moving pause for Macbeth to digest the information and consider a response.

    These options (and others) can use the verse to provide a range of emotional possibilities.

    Thanks, JM & SG!

    kj (Bardfilm)

  4. Hello again kj! Long time no see. And thanks for that analysis. I had forgotten that part and didn’t think past Seyton’s line. Brilliant. It works and I’m testimony to it. When I did it in the 90s at Riverside Shakespeare Co. in NY, it gave me time to take it in and cross DC, the focus on the Tomorrow speech to come. Also, as to Seyton being onstage the whole time, Macbeth asks WHAT is that noise, doesn’t wait for an answer, then asks WHY (wherefore) was that noise. Macbeth is all over the place in that scene, at the height of his mania, and One of Riverside’s resident ‘Clowns’ played Seyton, a great comic actor, actually got a laugh–among others in his take on the role– during Macbeth’s haranguing, by attempting to interject.

    Interesting to note: Macbeth is one of the 18 first published in the First Folio. Riverside was famous for the resurgence of F1 in analyzing the plays from a performance based point of view, having hosted Patrick Tucker from Royal Shakespeare Co. for in-depth conference on same. I’ve used it ever since in my directing and teaching. That’s why I’m such a pain in the ass about it. 🙂

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