Staging Violence and Terror

‘Genuine’ Violence on Stage? Jürgen Gosch’s Macbeth

by Christina Wald

       […] let us meet,
And question this most bloody piece of work,
To know it further (Macbeth, 2.3.123–125)[1]

In times in which the cinema and TV depict violence in a realistic manner with an ever–increasing perfectionism, can violence depicted on stage at all have a genuine feel? Can it have a disturbing impact on audiences? Jürgen Gosch’s recent production of Macbeth seems to testify to these possibilities. It has aroused immense media attention since its opening at Düsseldorf’s Schauspielhaus in October 2005, its stagings in several European cities and its invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen. The production has been both celebrated and heavily criticised, in particular for its depiction of violence. Stefan Keim, who belongs to the proponents of the production, rather apodictically states in his review for the Frankfurter Rundschau,„An Jürgen Goschs radikaler Inszenierung kommt erst einmal nicht vorbei, wer über Echtheit von Inszenierungen—egal wo—nachdenkt.“[2] I take my cue from Keim as to the importance and ‚Echtheit’ of Gosch’s Macbeth for my following exploration of theatrical techniques that allow for the staging of ‘genuine’ violence.

As the production photos show, Gosch’s Macbeth was performed by an all–male cast, who were, for the most part of the play, naked. When a soldier returns from the battlefield in the play’s second scene to report the state of the fights to the king, Duncan asks, “What bloody man is that?” (1.2.1). Critics have emphasised the importance of this first bloody apparition that sets the tone for the play, henceforth “haunts the stage” and characterises Macbeth as “the bloody man, the image of death”.[3] Gosch takes Duncan’s question literally: He makes the other characters strip the captain and cover his body with blood—and the image of a blood—covered naked male body will indeed haunt the stage throughout the production, as it will return in ever–new manifestations.

This first bloodshed is followed by many more; by the end of the production, not only are most of the actors covered in blood, but also is the scenery demolished and bloodstained. The production’s visual imagery thus corresponds to the play’s talk about bloodshed, such as in Macbeth’s famous statements “It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood” (3.4.121) and “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.135–137). Harold Bloom accordingly describes Macbeth, which, on the verbal level alone, mentions ‘blood’ more than forty times, as the most extreme example of a “tragedy of blood” of all of Shakespeare’s plays,

not just in its murders but in the ultimate implications of Macbeth’s imagination itself being bloody. The usurper Macbeth moves in a consistent phantasmagoria of blood: blood is the prime constituent of his imagination. He sees that what opposes him is blood in one aspect […] and that his opposing force thrusts him into shedding more blood.[4]

Discussing the depiction of violence in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, Derek Cohen comes to a similar conclusion as Bloom, suggesting that Macbeth most radically investigates both the destructive potential and the fascination of violence:

The play seems to explore the possibilities of unleashed violence in a world already inured to violence. So that what is normally a violent place has then to absorb ever increasing eruptions of violence to a degree almost beyond measure. This rain of violence in all forms upon an already staggering world only produces corollaries such as the breakdown of ‘normal’ forms. […] Most alarming of all, however, Macbeth suggests the terrible seductive power of violence. Indeed that is the context of its beginning. The haunting and terrible beauty that violence can be is pursued to its dreadful but rational conclusions.[5]

Francis Barker likewise identifies two attitudes towards violence in Macbeth, which he considers “a play of hurt and violence” and “the most bloody” of the high tragedies;[6] according to Barker, the play oscillates between “two violences”, “between, on the one hand, the demonisation of violence, and on the other hand the contemplation of violent solutions to the historical blockages and depredations which form the nexus of its event”.[7]. R. A Foakes even suggests ordering Shakespeare’s plays with regard to their treatment of violence and argues that they follow a trajectory of (1) the representation of violence for entertainment, (2) the problematisation of violence and (3) the investigation of human aggression in relation to self-control. [8]

Given the predominance of the topic of violence in Shakespeare’s oeuvre and in Macbeth in particular, in which “violence is his [the protagonist’s] way of life and violence is the blood and bones of the nation he helps to maintain”,[9] Gosch’s aesthetics could be considered an adequate visualisation of the “bloody business” (2.1, 48) of the play whose “colour is the colour of blood”.[10] While many reviewers appreciated Gosch’s approach to the play that brings to the fore the obscenity of the witches and the bloodshed of Macbeth, others criticised the gory aesthetics of the production. Tabloid newspapers in particular featured dismissive articles with headlines such as „Ekel-Skandal im Schauspielhaus: Hunderte Zuschauer flüchteten aus Premiere” and „Sudel-Macbeth: Ist das noch Kunst?”[11], which included comments by local politicians such as Düsseldorf’s mayor Joachim Erwin, who, without having seen the production, demanded, „Man sollte 'Macbeth' so machen, dass man Shakespeare noch erkennt […]. Solche Umdichtungen sind ein unerträglicher Trend!“

Recently, a similarly polemic and outraged tone has entered a more serious journalistic arena, when Joachim Lottmann in the Spiegel complained about the destructive attitude of the allegedly „jungdeutsche Regisseure” and characterised Gosch’s Macbeth as „Ekeltheater von Anfang an”.[12] Rather than acknowledging that “to address Macbeth is inevitably to address violence”,[13] Lottmann feels sympathetic with young pupils watching the production who must have, in his imagination, expected a cleaner and less violent Shakespeare: „Die minderjährigen Lämmer haben sich noch nicht richtig hingesetzt, als ihnen schon meterhoch der Dreck entgegenspritzt. Was mag in ihnen nun vorgehen? Der Lehrer hat etwas anderes versprochen. Auch die Mädchen hatten eigentlich Shakespeare erwartet. Nun sehen sie Blut und Schlimmeres.” Lottmann does not seem to consider the fact that whilst he complains about the bloodshed on stage in the Spiegel, the very same magazine runs articles on the pleasure involved in playing video and computer games that often contain "violence to a degree almost beyond measure" as described by Derek Cohen, in which these "minderjährigen Lämmer" nonetheless seem to revel.[14] Lottmann in a similarly pathetic manner describes the reactions of adult audiences to Gosch’s Macbeth: „Ein Rinnsal von Flüchtenden bildet sich, Vertriebene aus dem Theaterland, Alte, Gebrechliche, Enttäuschte, manche weinen. Etwa ein Drittel des zahlenden Publikums verlässt das Haus vorzeitig, trotz der Schikane” – this ‚Schikane’ refers to the fact that the lights in the auditorium do not allow for secret exits; in Lottman’s imagination, however, the normal lights have become „gnadenlose[…] Scheinwerfer”.

A number of the comments by audiences on the theatre’s web sites and letters to newspapers show that some spectators indeed expected something else from a production of Macbeth. They pity both the actors who have to endure ‘humiliations’ on stage and the playwright ‘who must have turned in his grave’.[15] That the violence inherent in the production felt appallingly ‘real’ to audiences and to some reviewers also becomes apparent in the curious fact that local newspapers ran series that explained through which techniques and props the production enacts the bloodshed.

It is surprising and interesting that such newspaper articles felt that they had to demystify the theatrical experience and explain about the use of theatre blood. It is surprising, since the production itself in a self-conscious manner exhibits the theatrical fabrication and simulation of violence. Thus, the production starts with showing the stage which is empty but for a few tables that seem to be set for a conference. Instead of the usual water and juice bottles, however, audiences can discern bottles of theatre blood on these tables. Not only does this initial stage image set the agenda for the piece that will negotiate the bloodshed of hundreds that has been decided upon by a few warlords, but it also introduces the most important prop of the production: artificial blood. If we take a closer look at some production images, we see that the blood bottles are used and emptied throughout the play.

The formidable final fight between Macduff and Macbeth illustrates particularly well the powerful yet at the same time self–conscious use of theatre blood in the production. The fight features two naked actors with flexible plastic knives whose task is to empty bottles of blood on the body of the enemy. Thus, Gosch’s Macbeth exhibits and calls attention to its theatrical frame, which is reinforced by the fact that the production does not use common devices such as extra-diegetic sound or make-up, that it has the all-male cast constantly on stage and makes them repeatedly change roles, and that the light in the auditorium is never turned off. The production thereby not only, in some respects, offers an approximation to the aesthetics of the Elizabethan stage, but its anti-illusionist stance can also be compared to Brecht’s epic theatre. Given the aesthetics, the reactions of both appalled audiences, who have written hundreds of letters and comments that are displayed on the web pages of the Schauspielhaus, and the critics who warn audiences about the graphic production and who feel responsible for highlighting the fact that the bloodshed on stage is far from real, come as a surprise.

Gosch’s production and the reactions by critics and audiences are exemplary in bringing to the fore the paradox inherent in theatrical spectacles of violence: The stylisation of violence on stage can be experienced as much more ‘real’ by audiences than attempts to stage violence realistically, which inevitably has an artificial feel. Gosch’s theatrical spectacle of violence neither aspires to an ‘authenticity of pain’ on stage as typical of performance artists such as Marina Abramovic', nor shares the perfectionism of realistic spectacles of violence in the cinema. Nonetheless, the reviews and audiences’ comments read as if Gosch’s Macbeth staged violence in a nauseatingly realistic manner. They testify to the experiential impact of the production that is paradoxically achieved through its aesthetic departure from stage realism. Apparently, the images of bloodstained bodies have even greater impact if audiences beforehand are allowed to witness their theatrical fabrication and do not need to wonder about how and when the actors made invisible blood pads burst. In other words, since the business of performing is laid bare and needs no further investigation, the ever-oscillating gaze of the audience can focus on the performed business. It seems important, however, that the enactment of pain warrants the theatrical ‘realness’. In many scenes, and most impressively in the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff, the actors of Gosch’s Macbeth reacted to the plastic knife blows and the pouring of blood with the enactment of pain, thus establishing two simultaneous levels of action: the rehearsed choreography including the pouring of bottles by the actors and the fight for life and death by the figures. Thus, it is the achievement of the stage images as well as the actors that audiences experienced the staged stylised violence as ‘genuine’, not despite of, but because of the fact that Gosch’s production foregrounds the processes of its theatrical fabrication.


[1] All quotes from Macbeth are taken from William Shakespeare, Macbeth, in The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 2555–2618.

[2] Stefan Keim, „Nackter Wald: Jürgen Goschs Suche nach Echtheit auf der Bühne wird immer radikaler“, Frankfurter Rundschau, 8. 10. 2005.

[3] John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies (London: Routledge, 1961), p. 58 and p. 59.

[4] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), p. 520–521.

[5] Derek Cohen, Shakespeare’s Culture of Violence (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 1993, p. 127.

[6] Francis Barker, The Culture of Violence: Essays on Tragedy and History (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993), p. 58.

[7] Barker (1993), p. 52–53.

[8] R.A Foakes, Shakespeare and Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), p. 1–2.

[9] Cohen (1993), p. 141.

[10] Andrew Cecil Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (London: Macmillan 1992 [1904]), p. 293. Bradley continues, “It cannot be an accident that the image of blood is forced upon us continually, not merely by the events themselves, but by full descriptions, and even by reiterations of the word in unlikely parts of the dialogue. […] It is as if the poet saw the whole story through an ensanguined mist, and as if it stained the very blackness of the night.”

[11] Düsseldorf Express, 1.10.2005.

[12] Joachim Lottmann, „Hau ab, du Arsch!“, Der Spiegel 10/2006, 06. März 2006, An equation of youth and stylistic radicalness can also be found in celebratory articles on Gosch’s production, such as in Christine Dössel’s remark, „Mit 62 Jahren ist er der Regisseur der Stunde—der jüngste, radikalste und offenste von allen“. Christine Dössel, „Bis sich der Körper im Text abdrückt“, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 5. 5. 2006, S. 15.

[13] Barker (1993), p. 52.

[14] Cf. for example Tobias Moorstedt, „Warum macht Gewalt uns so viel Spaß?“. Spiegel Online 27 (März 2006).

[15] Cf. „Kommentare zum Stück Macbeth“, und „Was unsere Leser zu ‚Macbeth’ sagen“, Rheinische Post 6.10.2005.


Jürgen Goschs Inszenierung von Macbeth eignet sich in besonderer Weise zur Diskussion der Frage, ob und wie Darstellungen von Gewalt auf der Theaterbühne ‚echt’ wirken können. Die Inszenierung, die ihre theatralen Mittel bewusst ausstellt, hat eine derart starke Wirkung auf das Publikum und einige Theaterkritiker, dass diese in Leserbriefen und Rezensionen das Ausmaß der dargestellten Gewalt scharf kritisieren. An diesem scheinbaren Gegensatz zeigt sich das theatrale Paradox, dass theatrale Gewalt dann besonders ‚echt’ wirkt, wenn sie jenseits der Mittel des Realismus stilisiert dargestellt wird—im Fall von Goschs Macbeth wirken die Bilder von blutüberströmten nackten Körpern affizierend, obwohl das Publikum zuvor gesehen hat, wie die Schauspieler literweise Theaterblut aus etikettierten Plastikflaschen auf ihren Körpern verteilten.