Last (for now) in a series on writing fight scenes from the perspective of a fight director. In which I rewrite one of my fight scenes according to my own advice.
If you haven’t yet read Writing the Fight: Analysis, you’ll want to catch up on that first for context. In that post I picked apart a prose version of the Young Siward fight scene from Macbeth (Act V, Scene 7) that I originally wrote as an exercise. My big epiphany was that I’d written the scene from the wrong point of view—Siward’s. Here I’m going to present and analyze a rewrite from Macbeth’s point of view.
But first, some additional context from the play. You probably already know the major plot points: that Macbeth is promised by three “weird sisters” that he’ll be king of Scotland, and that his wife urges him to hurry the prophecy along by killing the current king. Later, he revisits the witches, who conjure apparitions that promise him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.”
Here’s some more immediate context. Macbeth has just learned that 1) the English forces are massed against his castle, 2) his wife is dead, and 3) Birnam wood is coming to Dunsinane.  That’s a lot of bad news to take in at once, and Macbeth’s state of mind is buckling under the weight of it. He begins “to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth,” meaning the apparition the witches showed him, who seemingly promised him invulnerability. However much an unbeatable monster he may appear to Siward, he’s a man at his breaking point.
Macbeth watched from above as his men fell before the English force, broke ranks, scattered, died. So much blood. He longed for Inverness. Before he was king, before he was thane, before the weird sisters. But the time for regrets was long past. They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, but bear-like I must fight the course.
From behind him came the scrape of steel on stone, tearing him from his reverie. What’s he that was not born of woman? Such a one am I to fear—or none.
A voice quavering with inexperience challenged him. “What is thy name?”
Macbeth answered without turning around, “Thou’lt be afraid to hear it.”
“No, though thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell.”
And now Macbeth did turn, unhurried, weapons at his side. A lackbeard boy stood before him, sword clenched in both hands. “My name’s—” Macbeth lunged forward, slamming his shield against the battlement like a thunderclap to underscore his name. “—Macbeth!”
The boy stumbled back, whether in sudden recognition or startled by the sound. The reason mattered less than that Macbeth saw fear in his eyes. Acquiescence. Not quite surrender, but a resignation to his doom. Yes. The fiends could not be trusted in all, but in this they spoke true.
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title more hateful to my ear.”
“No. Nor more fearful,” Macbeth said, goading him. He swung his arms wide in invitation.
To his credit, the boy didn’t fall into the trap, but settled into his stance, regripped his sword. Almost to himself, he whispered, “Thou liest, abhorred tyrant …”
Macbeth stepped in, closing the distance between them, watching the boy’s eyes as he muttered to himself, daring him to strike. “… with my sword, I’ll prove the lie thou speakest.”
So softly did the boy speak that Macbeth missed the determination in his voice and the transition into silence that preceded his attack. The boy charged, swinging his sword in a wild overhead arc that would have split his head like a log if it had landed.
Macbeth stepped back, catching the blade on his own, shield before his body, braced for the follow up, but none came. One move was all he had. Macbeth roared, binding the boy’s sword down with his own, and stepped in to drive the rough edge of his shield into the boy’s neck.
The boy dropped to his knees, hand clasped to his neck as the hot blood pumped through his fingers. He struggled to hold his sword up with his off hand.
Macbeth kicked it aside, and it clattered into the darkness. “Thou wast born of woman,” he said, “but swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn—”
The boy was on his feet with a dagger in his hand, thrusting at Macbeth’s neck. The tip caught on a link of mail. The boy twisted the dagger furiously, trying to drive the point deeper into Macbeth’s neck, trying to burst the steel loop. Macbeth dropped his sword— he was too close to bring it to bear—and engulfed the boy’s hand in his own, forcing the dagger into the boy’s unarmored thigh again and again until he stopped struggling, until his eyes went glassy and his breathing slowed, then stopped.
He let the boy slump to the ground and regarded the dagger. “—brandished by man that’s of woman born.”
As before, here’s what I’m looking for: consequences for characters we care about, a fight story with memorable storytelling moments, an interesting broken symmetry, characters with clear intentions and characterizations that extend into the fight.
Siward’s death, from Macbeth’s POV, matters little, and Macbeth himself is barely in jeopardy, physically. But his state of mind is fragile, and conquering his doubt by defeating Siward sets him up neatly for the gut punch from Macduff in the final scene.
I tried to keep as much from the previous scene as possible, so the weapons and broad strokes of the fight are the same. But I wanted to include two reversals, however brief, so the fight story is significantly different with double the number of beats:
- Macbeth starts with a mental disadvantage (doubt), and the stakes are high
- Macbeth gains the advantage immediately on seeing Siward, and the stakes decrease
- Macbeth disarms Siward, increasing his advantage and lowering the stakes further
- Macbeth is caught off-guard by Siward’s surprise attack, reversing the momentum and raising the stakes
- Macbeth discover he’s “invulnerable,” reversing the momentum again and lowering the stakes
- Macbeth kills Siward
The ones that stand out to me are Macbeth slamming his shield to startle Siward, the shield strike and the disarm (as before), and Siward’s surprise attack with the dagger. In short: yes.
I’ve retained the asymmetry of the weapons from the previous scene, but downplayed the differences in size and strength because they’re less relevant from Macbeth’s perspective. Macbeth still has the advantage of experience and ruthlessness, but they begin the fight almost at parity in state of mind. Unfortunately Siward’s inexperience “leaks” his fear, and Macbeth pounces on the advantage.
Siward’s intention is murkier—why the hell is he here?—but that’s an acceptable loss, I think. Macbeth’s intention, I hope, is clear. Certainly it’s closer to what it should be than the previous example.
I think so? Macbeth has his moment of doubt that he deals with during the encounter. Young Siward seems as fearful and fatalistic as in the previous version, so I didn’t lose anything there.
The fight moves, up through Siward drawing his dagger, are identical, but I’ve cut down on the specificity of description, including the elaborate hand choreography. The fight’s so short that the blow by blow isn’t overly tedious, but it would be if it were much longer.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if this scene is actually “better” than the other.
1. The wood is advancing on Dunsinane because the English forces have cut down branches to bear before them to “shadow the numbers of our host and make discovery err in the report of us.” But this happens after the lily-livered servant reports the size of the English army as “ten thousand.” Is Malcolm a terrible strategist or did a witch whisper in his ear just to fuck with Macbeth?