Play on! Q&A: Migdalia Cruz on translating ‘Macbeth’

Migdalia Cruz
Migdalia Cruz

Over the next few months, the Folger is doing a series of Q&As with some of the playwrights and dramaturgs involved with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

This month’s Q&A is with Migdalia Cruz, the playwright who translated Macbeth. There are plans for productions by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project of Boston in fall 2018 and at the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco in summer 2019.

⇒ Read an introduction to the Play on! project by Lue Douthit, the project director at OSF

Read previous Q&As in the series:

⇒ Q&A with Kenneth Cavander about translating Timon of Athens

⇒ Q&A with Caridad Svich about translating Henry VIII

⇒ Q&A with Elise Thoron and Julie Felise Dubiner about translating The Merchant of Venice

What made you pick the Shakespeare play that you translated? What were your first impressions of the Shakespeare play you translated?

Macbeth has always been my favorite Shakespeare play. I was attracted to the story of a good man becoming an ambitious man becoming a monster. I was intrigued by Lady Macbeth, whose ambition at first surpasses her husband’s, but then transforms into guilt and madness under the weight of her betrayal of King Duncan. Also, I wanted to explore the witches, which have never seemed like old crones to me but rather strong, psychic beings with overwhelming sexual attraction—and that’s why men are so afraid of them. As a woman of color, I wanted to make a place in the Shakespeare canon for my sisters, and the sisters that seemed most underexplored were the witches. I also think that women of color can be terrifying to some men because of their direct and unapologetic sexuality—which seemed perfect for my witches. I also saw an opportunity to write songs for them; since Shakespeare took his songs from Thomas Middleton, I felt that gave me license to create my own musical landscape for the witches and for the play.

What did you learn about your Shakespeare play through the translation process? Do you see it differently now?

I finally understand ACT IV. Malcolm and MacDuff’s very long scene about loyalty—which is often cut to shreds because no one quite understands all the rhetoric between them—is a very interesting scene when you understand all the levels of testing that Malcolm puts MacDuff through to prove his loyalty to Malcolm as the rightful heir to Scotland. It is a long scene at a crucial point in the play, and I found it difficult to unpack—but unpack we did—we being myself as writer/translator, and my colleague, Ishia Bennison, as actor/dramaturge.

What is your favorite line (or set of lines) from the Shakespeare play you translated?

One of my favorite scenes is the PORTER scene. It was quite a puzzle trying to work out all the jokes, puns, and sexual innuendo of this scene, so besides being a challenge, it was fun!


Outside the South Gate of MACBETH’s castle.

A PORTER enters.

Knocking from offstage.

PORTER:   There’s a knocking, indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate, he should have plenty of key-turning to do here.  (Knocking.)

Knock, knock, knock. Who i’th’name of Beelzebub is there?

Here’s a greedy farmer, who tripled his prices, then hanged himself when the grain became cheap: come in, Father Time; have hankerchiefs about you for here you’ll sweat like hell.


Knock, knock. Who’s there, i’th’devil’s other name?  Faith, here’s a lawyer, who could swear against the scales of justice on either side who lied enough for God’s sake, yet could not lie to God: O! come in, Father Equivocator.


Knock, knock, knock. Who’s there?  Faith, here’s a dodgey English tail-or come hither for stealing the crotch from a French panty: come in, tailor; here you may cook your carrot


Knock, knock. Never stays quiet! What are you?  But this place is too cold for Hell. I’ll devil-porter it no more: I had thought to have let in some from all professions, that go down the primrose path to th’Devil’s everlasting bone-fire.


Anon, anon: Let me…come!

(Holding out a hand for a tip as HE opens the gate for MACDUFF & LENNOX.)

I pray you, remember the Porter.


Can you describe your process for translating Macbeth?

First, I did as much research as I could about the history, culture, and political climate at the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, particularly the politics of England and Scotland at the time. I read about bawdy language in Elizabethan times, about King James as a descendant of Banquo, the slang and curse words, the sexual innuendo, etc.

Then when I felt I could understand all the historical references in Shakespeare’s play, then I taught myself iambic pentameter and the other poetic forms he used. I scoped out all the places he did not follow his own rules and took license in those same places to go off meter. I also decided that Duncan and Hecate should both speak in couplets—so the “royals” spoke simply and directly in their poetry.

Then I went to visit the real King Macbeth’s grave on the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides. Of course, once I got there, I was told that maybe he was in the mass grave/burial mound, since 24 kings of Scotland are buried there—but no guarantees!  I decided he was definitely there. Iona was full of all kinds of magic.

Iona graveyard where Macbeth is supposedly buried
The chapel that is next to the graveyard. The light inside is from candles. Many of the gravesites are unmarked, or marked with plain stones. Courtesy James M. Kent

Visiting his grave gave me spiritual license to write his story. I paid my respects and now I was ready for the deep dive into the writing, along with my dramaturge, who often performs with the RSC, and as an experienced Shakespearean actress was very helpful in making the words playable and speakable for actors, which was important to me. (In fact, she is performing this summer with the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon in Romeo & Juliet and The Merry Wives of Windsor.) We read the text out loud, made adjustments, made more adjustments, read it again using the First Folio and the third edition of the Arden translation as a guide to the final draft, and then after several readings and workshops with actors, got to a text with which we were happy to go into possible production.

What has been one of the most challenging aspects of translating Macbeth?

It was difficult feeling right about changing lines that people know by heart. Basically blasphemous. But then I felt I needed to be brave about this and make sure I only changed what I didn’t understand while trying to maintain the integrity of Shakespeare’s poetry and dramaturgy. And I needed to feel justified in making any changes or adjustments, hence, the pilgrimage to the Hebrides…

Can you give us an example of a speech that you’ve translated in a way that makes it noticeably different from Shakespeare’s original language?

ACT II, Sc.3, The Porter’s speech is the most obvious change, because all the jokes had to be adjusted for a modern audience. Also, ACT IV has many changes that were necessary to make sense of Malcolm’s manipulations of MacDuff in order to solicit his help in fighting for the throne. It is also an emotional scene for MacDuff, since he is told about the murder of his family at the end of it—and he still has to rally for Scotland. So much of the language became more emotional perhaps than the original.

This was a deep dive into Shakespeare’s text. How do you think it’s affected you as a playwright?

I completely incorporated Shakespeare into my writer’s soul. As an example, I wrote a piece in iambic pentameter for a benefit for Puerto Rico at HERO Theatre in April 2018. I think I will never shake the poetry I learned. It has become a way I look at, use, and interpret language. And I feel entitled to that use—because I was so completely supported by Lue Douthit and OSF’s Play on! I felt respected as a writer and my being a Nuyorican woman never made me feel marginalized in this process—quite unusual in the theater world. In any world, really.

How did you feel about Play on! at the start, and now?

At first I thought I had to do something I did not believe in—toying with a master’s work, but now I clearly understand the importance of making art accessible without destroying the art. I feel the project brings Shakespeare into the 21st century without crazy costumes or imposed thematic landscapes. It makes the language fresh again.