The Tragedy of Macbeth

Some Reflections

I recently had the pleasure of watching Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth on the big screen. Let me just begin by saying this film is stunning. Visually Dunsinane is like something straight from an Escher painting, a sense of being trapped in a labyrinth of light and shadows, giving all the more poignance to Lady Macbeth only ever appearing within the castle walls. The pursuit of Fleance through the fields, the disembodied torch light illuminating the swaying corn, adding to the sense of uncanny which runs throughout the film. The witches take us into the realm of pure horror, with reflections, shapeshifting and contortion makes Banquo’s puzzled response as he sees them redundant.

He asks:

What are these,

So withered and so wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on’t?

Running for cover would have been the sanest response, regardless how manly these two think they may be.

This hag (s) are monstrous in speech and manner and are most certainly supernatural. Anyone thinking they are offering good advice has definitely been chomping on that insane root for a good while, further calling into question Macbeth’s willingness to listen to them. The raven link to the weird sisters is done well though and the raven is croaking itself hoarse from the very start. These murdering ministers pervade the mood right from the opening scenes.

The music, all deeply guttural strings, and drumbeats, create a sense of horror. The footsteps that ‘prate’ his whereabouts as he stalks towards Duncan’s chambers, reverberate through the audience and sound and silence is as well used as the contrast between the black screen and the blinding bright light is as effective as anything I have heard, or not heard in any film. Bergmanesque some might say, especially appropriate for the subject matter at hand.

However, however, I have some issues. I know this was always an adaptation, based on the screenplay of Joel Coen and not intended as a straight re-enactment of the play. It even says so in the opening credits and go so far as to omit Shakespeare’s name until the end (unless I blinked and missed it). But it is close to the text, with the majority of the lines following a straight performance of the test, lulling you almost into a sense of false security, believing that this is just as it appeared on the page or the original stage. Yet this is not what it is. There has been some tinkering with the order, key omissions, and some reassignment of who says what. Omissions are to be expected in a film that is only 1 hour 46 minutes long, even for one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, especially when you add in those silences and pauses that make this so effective, but it is always useful to be aware of what these are.  

There is also one key shift of emphasis. Ross has always been an interesting character, often seen as playing false and appearing the innocent flower whilst hiding his serpent heart as much as the main players. However, his appearances are confined to just a few moments, with one being completely devoid of lines. Here though he is placed centre stage. Dressed in clerical robes, giving a new resonance to the role of organised religion in the play, whilst at the same time absolving the supernatural elements of part in the crimes. He hovers on the fringes of the action and inserts himself where previously Shakespeare did not. This is an interesting choice, right up to the point where we see Lady Macbeth teetering on the brink of her sanity, her life and quite literally the edge of the stairs. Coen decides to have Ross pause to look at her as chaos unfolds in the castle, but then being a slow ascent towards her. The next time we see her she is dead and considering we have now seen Ross adopt a more active role in the murder of Banquo and the pursuit of his son, we are left to make of that what we will. Lady Macbeth’s implied suicide is stripped from the play and potentially removed completely from her role in the crimes. The elevation of Ross’s character also then underplays the role of the witches as he usurps them in their role. Indeed, I have seen other productions insisting the witches remain on stage or hovering on the fringes throughout the performance, enveloping the play in their supernatural doings. Now it is Ross who is orchestrating the scene, bringing ambiguity as to whether he indeed be fair or foul.

Fair would be an understated description of Lady Macbeth in this version. Frances McDormand is absolutely sensational. She is a character who, despite her murderous intent, is pitied and it is good, if not entirely original, to see a very sympathetic portrayal of the fiend like queen. Her alienation from Macbeth begins early on in the play, with her response to discovering Macbeth has killed the guards is wonderful, as she is left struggling to respond as he goes off script. She knows she needs to stick to the plan but is momentary at a loss to understand this man who she knows so well. This partnership is not one of greatness at all. She brings the sighs, slight eyerolls and glances that reflect the lot of anyone whose patience is being worn by their partner, but as she loses herself in her nightmare, she avoids the hysterics which has pervaded some of the recent performances I have seen, maintaining something more understated but all the more shocking as she quite literally unravels.

Much has been made about her and Washington’s age in the role and how this brings something new to their barren union. However, this didn’t seem to shine a new light on the topic, but perhaps that is from someone who has been unpicking that topic since first exploring the play.

Denzel Washington who plays Macbeth, is an actor I have found incredible watchable for many years. His smiling Don Pedro in the lavish production of Much Ado About Nothing brought good cheer and a playful sense of fun, fitting a world of masquerades and happily ever after. There is no doubt he is an accomplished actor and some of his moments as Macbeth are stunning, not least his response to Banquo’s gory locks. However, many of his best-known numbers, the soliloquies, fall flat for me. I was certainly up for the idea of an understated Macbeth, trying to quiet the scorpions of his mind without the bellowing and sweeping gestures of other performances. But Washington’s delivering of Macbeth’s ‘big numbers’ falls flat. I had high hopes for ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ after being underwhelmed by his indecision in ‘if it t’were done’ and distracted by the sound and cinematography in the ‘is this a dagger’ scene. The decision to deliver the lines whilst looking at the body of his beloved queen I thought would emphasise the emotion of this man confronted by the realisation he had lost it all and actually what he had briefly won was pretty pointless in the big scheme of things. His seemingly invincible life laid out before him was without meaning and the realisation that it was all both ‘brief’ and ‘signifying nothing’ is one of the most moving moments in a play where we really shouldn’t care for this tyrant. But again, the decision to deliver this in such an understated manner left me cold. We are back to assuming Macbeth just doesn’t care, and he does.

There are other things to commend the film for, including the emotion conveyed as MacDuff dismisses Malcolm telling him ‘I must feel it as a man’; we feel the pain of his loss, and perhaps that is why we struggle to see Macbeth’s. His double of course is the one filled with emotion and his distress is palpable. The depiction of the murder of MacDuff’s family again makes excellent use of imagery and is truly shocking to see the death of the ‘fry’, despite being robbed of his best line- ‘he has killed me, mother’. The arrival of Burnham Wood to Dunsinane is simply breath-taking and the final fight before MacDuff confronts Macbeth is exceptionally well choreographed.

And have I mentioned that this film is beautiful? It really is. It is haunting. It is visually stunning, and even for someone like me who does not recall visual memories well, it will remain with me for a long, long time. There is a lot of potential for using some of this adaptation with students in the English classroom, not least the fact there is a lot to chew over and bring back to the text to explore. However, I would be approaching with caution as there is enough commonalities to embed some quite key misconceptions. I can’t then help feeling this may well be an adaptation which would be more appropriate in the film or media classroom. There really is then so much to explore and I think I would have been much poorer for not having seen it.  

One thought on “The Tragedy of Macbeth

  1. Hello Zoe

    After 33 years I left teaching July 2021. I miss students, I miss colleagues …and I definitely miss daily engagement with great texts. But I have much more of a life.

    I haven’t yet watched this version of a text which has been an utter joy to teach. It’s sooooo difficult when a director messes with it. How do you improve on perfection? I love this play and it’s endless interpretations. But I’m not keen on misinterpretations.

    For me, I love and am appalled by Polanski’s version. That little shit of a man wrung out some great performances and captured the alienation and strangeness of the play. I’m still waiting for a drama that can bring the 16th century political shenanigans to life.

    Love a bit of Denzel, me, so looking forward to watching this. Completely agree with your comments about Much Ado. Although I always feel soooo disappointed ultimately in the lack of leadership here. Again, Shakespeare being bang on the money. I expected better. Probably my favourite film version of Shakespeare.

    Hope you are enjoying your real fire x

    Liked by 1 person

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