Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! We're wrapping up the second season of my interview series, Women in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.
Firmly rooted by two decades of producing outdoor Shakespeare, the NY Classical Theatre stands out for its theatrically environmental stagings, which keep audiences on the move in Manhattan parks. In her debut with the company, Jenny Strassburg takes on Lady Macbeth. She emailed with me about the role, and about Shakespeare generally.
Let’s start with Lady Macbeth. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?
I love that Lady M will change on a dime to get what she wants — the crown that she feels her husband deserves. For me, the most challenging scene is probably the incantation. It’s taken me a while to feel my way through that one, i.e. trying to find the truth of it. But after doing some research, I realized that this moment, and all of the supernatural moments in Macbeth, are akin to our modern-day special effects and therefore have a heightened theatricality. And really, Lady M herself has a heightened theatricality as well. She’s dynamic and dramatic. Once you can embrace that, it’s really fun to do as an actor.
What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?
There are lots of knots in Macbeth — the one I find most fascinating is the idea to murder Duncan. It’s not explicit in the script. In rehearsal, we were trying to figure out whose idea it was — Lady M’s or Macbeth’s. You literally have to read between the lines, and what we discovered is that it is an idea that they hatch together, almost without words. The Macbeth’s are so in tune with one another that they have the same thoughts at the same time, finishing each other’s sentences. They are the original power couple.
Who is she, independent of her husband? What drives her to commit murder?
When we first see Lady M, she is reading a letter where Macbeth tells her about his meeting with the witches and what they have forecast for him. If she had never received the letter, I believe that she and her husband would have gone on happily living together, very much in love. But she receives the letter and is then told that Duncan is coming to her house, which seems like Fate to her. And when Macbeth arrives the two of them start to plan.
She seems so incredibly strong and ambitious, the stronger of the two really, and it’s very interesting to me that when she realizes she has lost her husband in the banquet scene, she starts to lose her own grip on reality. So, in the end, being independent of her husband is so painful that she cannot go on living. And that pain is what drives her to suicide — and while she plots the death of Duncan, her own murder is the only one she actually commits.
How do you approach her mad scenes, and play them honestly? What, in your mind, links them to the sane woman earlier in the play?
I actually really like getting to play the mad scene. It is a totally different side of Lady M that we haven’t seen up to this point in the play. She is very vulnerable, and even has moments of returning to her childhood. Our director, Stephen Burdman, was incredibly helpful in crafting this scene. He told me that in order to play mad, you have to commit to each moment fully and then change on a dime. Shakespeare has written very clear beats in this scene, so that the actor knows when and where Lady M is in her head from moment to moment. There are actually very clear links to earlier moments in the play — she repeats some of the same lines, or a version of them, so that you know exactly what moments she is revisiting and trying to resolve.
What does Lady M share with similar roles in Shakespeare, like Cleopatra, Lear’s daughters, and Queen Margaret?
Like Cleopatra, she feels she is fated for greatness, and like Cleopatra the pain of living without her love is too much, so to end her suffering she takes her own life. It’s interesting to think about her similarities to Goneril and Regan, who are trying to take the control of the kingdom from their aging father. Duncan is not senile — but his kingdom is in turmoil. There is no doubt in my mind that Lady M thinks Macbeth would be a better king. He is the nation’s best general, and in order to get there he must have inspired great loyalty, love, and respect in his men, making him an excellent and natural leader. Lady M and Lear’s daughters are overthrowing the present rule for something they think will be better — themselves. Queen Margaret is frustrated with her husband for his weakness and his inability to rise to the occasion, and Lady M certainly experiences that frustration with Macbeth’s vacillations and inability to leave the past behind once he is king.
What sets her apart from those women?
Well, she is strong and ambitious in a way that is threatening to society. She is unabashed about what she wants. And it’s amazing to me that the reaction that Shakespeare’s audience had to Lady M is probably going to be the same for many people in a modern audience. Women like this are dangerous — they don’t accept societal norms and refuse to be boxed in. She goes for the jugular in a way that I don’t think any of his other women do, so that it’s easy to see her as a villain — she is referred to as the “fiend-like queen”. But, of course, I do not see her this way. She loves her husband passionately and wants the crown for him. That she gets to be queen is secondary.
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?
His roles for women are fantastic. They are interesting, complex, and usually very strong. There are nowhere near as many female roles as men, so the women that are in the plays are going to be very compelling and integral to the story. Even the less assertive female characters have a strength of conviction and nobility. He was writing women that had to be played by men, but the words feel very natural coming out of a woman’s mouth, which I think speaks to Shakespeare’s genius. To date, I haven’t really found any weaknesses. Perhaps only that I wish there more women in the plays :). And to me, there is nothing in Shakespeare that requires salvaging. Even a moment that seem unfinished or disjointed is always there for the a reason — and it is up to the actor to discover why it is there.
Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
I’d love to play Cleopatra or Imogen. I have a child and I’d love to see a woman play King Lear — it would be fascinating to see to how making Lear into a mother would inform the relationship with the daughters. Also, Hotspur, just because he’s awesome.
Thank you for your time, and break a leg!
NY Classical Theatre's Macbeth plays from Jul 30 to Aug 20 in Battery Park in lower Manhattan, and from Aug 22 to 29 in Brooklyn Bridge Park across the river. Tickets are free!
headshot Laura Rose