Did Elizabethan audiences at the Globe Theatre ever see Shakespeare in Macbeth, performing on stage? It’s quite possible. As well as being the world’s greatest playwright, Shakespeare was an actor. In fact, acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was Shakespeare’s primary trade when he first lived and worked London.

We know that while performing, Shakespeare began contributing to the writing of the plays that kept the theatre industry alive. We also know that he then became involved in theatre management and eventually theatre ownership, still working with the same acting group, who by then had changed their name to the King’s Men.

The first point to make on the issue of whether Shakespeare played any of the roles in Macbeth on the stage is that we don’t have a definitive answer. We do know, however, that Shakespeare acted in London theatres – at least once in one of his own plays. We know this from several pieces of evidence:

  1. The first reference to Shakespeare in the world of the theatre comes in 1592, when dramatist Robert Greene referred to Shakespeare on stage. Greene wrote in his autobiography that “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
  2. This is proof that Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had performed for Queen Elizabeth I a number of times. In the public records office there are accounts of the treasurer of the royal chamber from 1594 that state: “To William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberlain, upon the council’s warrent dated at Whitehall xv die Marcij 1594 for two several comedies or interludes showed by them before her Majesty in Christmas time last past, viz; upon St. Stephan’s day and Innocent’s day, xiiij li. vj s. viij d. and by way of her Majesty’s reward…” 
  3. We know that Shakespeare was in the cast of two of the plays of his close friend, Ben Jonson. Jonson kept meticulous records of the performances of his plays, recording the years and places of the performances, along with cast lists. He has William Shakespeare recorded as performing in Every Man in his Humor in 1598 and Sejenus in 1603, though sadly there’s no record of which roles Shakespeare played in these two productions.
  4. In the introduction to the First Folio (published in 1623), there is a list of “the principll actors in all the plays“, which includes one William Shakespeare. Because of this, we can be sure that Shakespeare did indeed act in some – or all – of the plays included in the First Folio. Frustratingly, however, there’s no information in the First Folio about which role(s) Shakespeare played.
  5. There is a written reference to Shakespeare appearing on stage in one of his own plays. Nicholas Rowe, an actor who later produced the first critical edition of Shakespeare’s works, wrote in his 1709 book The works of Mr. William Shakespear that Shakespeare played “the Ghost in his own Hamlet.”  Not only that, but that he was in fact “at the top of his performance.”
Drawing of Elizabethan actors in stage costume

An illustration of Elizabethan actors in their stage costumes.

Beyond these facts about Shakespeare performing on stage, there is a lot of speculation and surmise about other characters Shakespeare might have played. They are Edward I by Edward Peele in 1593, and a variety of roles in his own plays: Adam in As You Like It, King Henry in Henry IV and King Duncan in Macbeth.

So while it would be very nice to find proof of Shakespeare in Macbeth, perhaps on stage as King Duncan, murdered by Macbeth in his own play, sadly there isn’t any. We can only imagine that that might have been so – Shakespeare in Macbeth is at best pure speculation.

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