Tracing Macbeth: ‘The Local/Global Birnam Oak’ – by James Richards

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I’m James Richards, a second year BA English student who spent his summer working on Dr Toria Johnson’s ‘The Local/Global Birnam Oak’ project.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Prior to becoming an intern on Dr Toria Johnson’s project, I had already studied the Shakespearean tragedy on three separate occasions. The first, when I was ten, was also my first exposure to Shakespeare. The second, when I was thirteen, saw me delve deeper into the themes of the play. The third, earlier this year, had me reread the play as part of my Shakespeare: Jacobean module. In effect, I have spent half of my life studying Macbeth and by the time I signed up for a Collaborative Research Internship in the Spring of 2023, I was feeling a tiny bit sick of it. I felt like I had a good working knowledge of Macbeth – a knowledge which I hoped would benefit the project – but the last thing I expected was to gain any sort of new insight into the play.

In the words of my research lead, Dr Toria Johnson, interns on ‘The Local/Global Birnam Oak’ project would be expected to ‘contribute research towards a definitive account of the Oak’s local and literary history.’ I was told that an intern’s work would ‘focus on two main areas: Shakespeare’s sources for Macbeth, and the tree’s significance to Birnam and neighbouring village Dunkeld’. My forty hours of work ended up getting spent on the former category, rather than the latter: at the start of the project, I was given a hundred-page-long orange folder of Macbeth’s compiled source material, ranging from highly probable chronicle sources to obscure potential analogues. My job was to sort through the sources (and an also-included introduction) and compile them into a smaller, more readable document for the benefit of Dr Johnson.

Compile I did. 40 hours, 10,000 words and twenty condensed pages later, I came away from the project with a new document that featured condensed summaries for all of the most likely sources for Shakespeare’s play (and some of the most unlikely ones), complete with an edited introduction and a student-facing appendix containing only the most pertinent bits. What I didn’t expect to also come away with, however, was a newfound appreciation for the Shakespeare play that I had been studying on-and-off for the last ten years:

Essentially, the process of analysing Macbeth through a new lens – the lens of its many sources – allowed me to view the play in a completely different light. Rather than as a dramatist, I began to see Shakespeare, first and foremost, as a curator. From all those pages of source material, Shakespeare had incisively managed to select only the most interesting; the most dramatically gripping pieces for inclusion in his own work. Occasionally, I would come across a noteworthy source that hadn’t made it into the Scottish Play, but even these seemed to have been excluded for a reason: they would have slowed the pace down, perhaps, or detracted from other parts of the narrative. Over the course of the CRI, therefore, my understanding of Macbeth deepened.

I will be taking this knowledge forward, too. With a new academic year comes a new Shakespeare-based dissertation that needs writing. I may not know exactly what I’m going to write it on, but one thing seems certain: I’ll be paying special attention to the playwright’s sources when I do so… and I’ll be looking at them with a newfound appreciation that I may never have gained were it not for Dr Johnson and her hugely rewarding research project.

James Richards, BA English