Bright Lights Film Journal

Meet the Macbeths: Again and Again and Again

Almost as though we’re addicted or something

In 2000, Russell Jackson’s Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film cites Hamlet, a silent movie from 1900 that lasts a full five minutes and stars Sarah Bernhardt as the Prince. In 2012, Wiki mentions Bernhardt in a two-minute epic, Le Duel D’Hamlet, noteworthy as an early experiment in sound film. If such conflicting evidence messes with our fact-loving minds, buffs of the Bard might recall Hecate’s warning in Macbeth: “security/ Is mortal’s chiefest enemy.”

Meanwhile, almost any decent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play can still be relied on to grip audiences with its strobic mix of statecraft, stagecraft, and witchcraft. But before coming to the film versions of Welles, Polanski, and Nunn, I want to take a sideways glance at the history of a play we can date, with some accuracy, to a period soon after the Gunpowder Plot of November, 1605.

By the 1660s, Samuel Pepys had seen Macbeth four times, calling it a “divertimento” with wonderful displays of “variety.” In the London of the Little Ice Age it’s possible he was enjoying the thrills and chills of Shakespeare’s original blank verse. On the other hand, Harold Bloom’s Macbeth Through the Ages tells us Pepys was referring to William Davenant’s much enlarged “operatic” production — or, Macbeth, the Musical. Music on or off stage was, of course, an integral part of renaissance drama, albeit not integral enough for Davenant. But I suspect that when Pepys wasn’t studying the ladies in the audience, what really excited him was the new fashion, just arrived from France with Charles II, which finally allowed female actors on stage.

Moving on with Bloom, we reach the early 1930s when, trying to save Shakespeare from the overdrawn character studies of A. C. Bradley, L. C. Knights tickled many a fancy with How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? Despite the jokes, this, too, has lost much of its earlier appeal. Nevertheless, Knights should be remembered for identifying at least one vital aspect of the play’s durability: despite its comparative brevity and awkward scene jumps, Macbeth contains some of Shakespeare’s most musical verse.And from a film writer’s point of view, it’s more than a mere coincidence that Knights wrote this very sound-conscious take on the play when world cinema first began singing — and dancing — in the rain . . .

If music plays an unexpected part in the play’s survival, its original conception owes everything to the survival of James Stuart, First King of England and Scotland. The point goes deeper than the bungled attempt on his life by Guy Fawkes and, also unexpectedly, gets us probing the subcutaneous tissue of royals as published writers. Never shy of literary debate, at his accession in 1603 James reissued his own1597 Daemonologie — a reply to a couple of demon-doubters who’d had the effrontery to go into print themselves. The king’s staunch hope was to arm the beloved reader against the old error of denying that ther[sic] can be such a thing as Witch-craft.

Macbeth therefore reveals Shakespeare’s need to address James not just as a true and godly king; not just as a generous new patron of his theatre company; but — less pondered by bardology — as a fellow writer.

James and William weren’t alone in seeing the Catholic/Protestant divide as a field of petards just waiting to hoist the most cautious of engineers. In this landscape, all ambitious writers — royals or commoners — faced the task of creating something potentially healing yet possessed of credible moral arguments. Not a problem confined to the late renaissance, one might say. And then as now, an entirely rationalist approach was not an option. At the same time, a sense of Good and Evil supported only by commonly held beliefs about the supernatural, however unifying, might only drag us deeper into some pretty weird territory. In the end, though, this was a price worth paying if society was not to be overwhelmed and annihilated by a sense of complete meaninglessness. In such a twilight zone, wasn’t it — isn’t it still — at least human to be drawn toward a companionable darkness with its ever-ready supply of ghosts and witches?

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What drove me into these gloomier corners of Hell — the space under the stage of a typical late renaissance theatre — was seeing again the startling visual unities of the 1948 black-and-white film by Orson Welles. To be precise, what really did it was the coincidence of seeing the Welles movie and learning soon after that the authorities in Thailand had just banned a Macbeth-based local film, Shakespeare Must Die . . .

In that knackered old war-horse The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex there’s a scrap of dialogue about “Master Shakespeare’s Richard II”being banned “for showing the dethronement of a king.”In (Wiki-based) fact, the Lord Chamberlain’s office thought it enough to cut the deposition scene, which — for lovers of artistic freedom and martyred monarchs — is available now in English and Hungarian on YouTube.

In any event, it seems the Thai film is actually concerned with the problems of staging a Macbeth ; and, for insecure dynastic rulers, one can see how this might give rise to uncomfortable questions. By comparison, James 1st was a nerveless believer in the divine right of kings, someone who could still count on the kind of support that had ensured his succession and the union of England and Scotland that came with it. Even so, a trumpeted restoration of “true” monarchy at the end of Macbeth would not only jar with what had gone before but, more importantly, risk reviving a Catholic resistance that had, for the moment, gone to earth.

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The play therefore remains a radioactive tangle of politics and personal morality: unless you — and your wife — really want to lose social status and your soul, don’t trust your future to the cohorts of Satan. And while Macbeth isn’t exactly a remake of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, it is Shakespeare’s most Faustian drama, brilliantly intensified by making the protagonist un homme moyen sensual — and married, too!

This is surely why Welles was so drawn to the play — in early stage productions as well as later, more famously, in film. And though his physique in 1948 had scarcely begun its journey to something more Falstaffian, his Macbeth — while in no way average — is certainly as sensual as they come. It seems right, too, that a big actor should play someone so self-defeatingly special, indeed, so distinct from other men that, like the “rapt” hero-villain, we too might dismiss the rest of the cast as clept all by the name of Not-Macbeth!

Of course, there’s at least one exception to this — the wife so closely identified with her husband that, like some lost ancestor of Catherine Earnshaw, she could be imagined howling, “I am Macbeth!” But don’t take my word for this. Just watch the 1970s RSC version, directed by Trevor Nunn and adapted for film by Philip Casson (aka A Performance of Macbeth, 1979.) Whatever its demerits as cinema, this uses Shakespeare’s full text; and here we can’t miss the criss-crossing psychological parallels that, like the bars of the Scottish flag, fuse the Macbeths at the hip. Transcending their own youthfulness, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench show a man and woman horribly ensnared in codependent middle-age. And, elucidating as the tradition has been on his “characters” and “music,” Nunn’s emphasis on Shakepeare’s view of human relationships still seems a vital new departure, if still mysteriously undervalued by old-school critiques. By now, the “r” word should finally be freed from its hysterical Agony Aunt associations and become usable in reference to all the plays, especially the Great Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

While, in that subgroup, Macbeth comes last, the Welles Macbeth is often seen as the first great example of Shakespeare on film. Strongly influenced by early Russian cinema, its stunning visual qualities seem undiminished by time; and the same goes for Welles’s 1952 Othello — small silhouettes against big skies, jumpy editing, tilted camera angles, all associated with early Soviet documentaries.

The main difference between the films was their speed of production. Macbeth was shot in three weeks, which allowed, if nothing else, a concentration of artistic vision. It led here, for example, to a profusion of beautifully lit facial portraits — yet another stylistic hallmark of early Russian cinema.

Shooting Othello in Morocco might sound an inspired choice, but with a blacklisted Welles often struggling for funds, the project stretched over three years. Yet by a stroke of film-making genius — and poetic justice — the finished piece is another hymn to a Russian aesthetic that holds everything majestically together.

But one can see why Macbeth first alerted HUAC to the threat posed by Welles. After all, if Shakespeare’s ability to mix courtly language with street talk makes him a natural egalitarian, then dwelling on the face of a murderer as carefully as, say, that of a noblemen must make Welles another slimy socialist . . .

Steeped in theatre, Welles also instantly understood how cinema can transform awkward theatrical asides into more natural-seeming voiceovers. And this has had a positive effect on later directors, including Roman Polanski. But, for purists, a health warning: Welles carves up and reassembles Shakespeare’s text with a blood-soaked abandon more worthy of Jack the Ripper than Macbeth. Of course, he wasn’t expecting anyone to sit in front of a DVD with a Complete Works in their hands. And even with this dubious advantage, I noticed only one really bad move. In Shakespeare, Macbeth’s speech beginning “Had I but lived an hour before this chance . . .” is a double-edged declaration of grief made after the discovery of Duncan’s body. In its original place, it hints at the growing strain in Macbeth’s mind between only partially suppressible feelings of self-horror and simple survival instincts. Here it’s switched to an earlier scene with Lady Macbeth where, rather limply, it’s used to flag up Macbeth’s depressive tendencies.

Albeit under commercial pressure, Welles does sometimes race too quickly to the point. And, in the early scenes at least, this makes his Macbeth more of an Adam-and-Eve story than either he — or Shakespeare — intended. But Welles was also the man who first pitched Macbeth to hard-nosed producers as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein.” Of course, the pitch was successful; but in the end — and also rather gloriously — so was the completed film.

In this context, Jacques Ibert’s music deserves its own mention. Underlining Macbeth’s developing alcoholism — in a very plausible reading by Welles that would influence both Polanski and Nunn — Ibert’s slithery score perfectly suggests an increasingly marred judgment protesting less and less credibly its grasp on reality.

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In August 1969 a sad little group of drug-emboldened cut-throats invaded the rented Beverly Hills home of Roman Polanski and murdered five people. One of the victims was Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, who was within a couple of weeks of giving birth. According to the coroner she’d been stabbed sixteen times and five of the wounds were in and of themselves fatal. While Polanski has always played down connections between his 1971 film and an appalling real-life tragedy, there’s an eerie echo here:

Act 3, Sc 2: . . . (Macbeth) . . . But Banquo’s safe?
(Murderer) Ay my good lord: safe in a ditch he bides/With twenty trenched gashes on his head;/The least a death to nature.

More than any “unadmitted” motive of Polanski’s, this reveals how reductive brutality always is, not only of individuals and individual facts but of language itself. I therefore believe that in making Macbeth Polanski was, as he has always insisted, not thinking about personal catharsis but about the cultural sanctuary offered by Shakespeare. This was because he knew that any film of his that followed the death of his wife would be scrutinised for signs of “callousness.”

Unfortunately, like cinema itself, Shakespeare is sometimes less a place of thoughtful retreat than a smoke-engulfed global industry. When combining the two it’s easy to swoon in the fumes. Meanwhile, all on his own, Shakespeare seems to have led British poet, Ted Hughes, into a largely sterile if steamy obsession with mythology and metamorphosis. On his own admission, the strain of research shortened his life. And if The Goddess of Complete Being doesn’t actually need to be reduced to “the book that killed a poet,” maybe it is a bit of a poetry-killer, which, given enough time, is something Macbeth might have got round to.

Metamorphosis as an action thriller trope is certainly relevant to films and, from the beginning, winds its shifty way through world literature. This is metamorphosis as something physical-yet-allegorical. But, perhaps explaining a lack of sympathy for the Hughes thesis, my own bigger interest is in the emotional metamorphoses that, with no great allegorical subtext, affect individuals and, more interestingly, their relationships — with others and with themselves.

In life and art, mental shape-shifting isn’t always about intoxicants and violent desires; but in Macbeth it’s about little else. From Welles, both Polanski and Nunn take voodoo ideas — rituals involving dolls and so on. And all three (when will they meet again?) hint at drug-induced hallucination. But where Welles — probably forced by the censors — confines Macbeth’s drug of choice to good old alcohol, there’s no such coyness inflicted on the younger directors. So Polanski shows drink and more exotic pharmacology (brewed in a cave full of naked older women) playing their part in Macbeth’s decline. Without the nakedness, Nunn does something similar a few years later.

This should lead, I think, not to dead-end discussions of ’60s/’70s drug culture, but toward noticing how film and theatre productions go through their own evolutionary metamorphoses. In Polanski’s case, any fan of late 20th century Italian cinema will spot elements of giallo — for example, the scene with the Macbeths in bed, drenched with red filter, incarnadined, one might say. For the most part, though, there’s a quieter homage — conscious, I think — to Pasolini, or at least Pasolini in medievalist mode: widescreen shots of landscape; human lodgings with farm animals making themselves at home; and — yes — some obligatory nudity. But, very ’70s though that is, J. Lawrence Guntner (in the aforementioned Cambridge Companion) notices the strong connection Polanski makes between nakedness and vulnerability: Macduff’s little boy being washed by his mother just before both are killed; Francesca Annis as the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth, gently led to her bed by her female attendant.

But this is Polanski, preferred hate-figure for more than a few critics. The late Tom Milne in TimeOut, for example, couldn’t resist comparing his Macbeth unfavourably with that of Welles. But the reason he offers — that Polanski somehow misses the nightmare quality captured by Welles — suggests, almost positively, that the younger man was actually too good at keeping private horrors separate from his work.

On that note, I’d just add that the three directors I’ve been looking at all seem consummate professionals to me. And if this makes them complete workaholics — as I think it does — then that only makes them more like Master Shakespeare. All the plays, those “great tragedies” especially, are living commentaries, I think, on his own phenomenally intense relationship with his art. In Macbeth I also think that — like that other great pro, Ted Hughes — he knew he was pushing himself too hard. Yet he went on turning that awareness back into great drama. And if his approach to work really did shorten his life — fifty-two wasn’t “old” even in those days — here’s one addict not many film or theatre lovers would wish to cure.