Roman Polanski opens his film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an establishing shot composed of equal parts cold, light blue sky and dour, grey beach. The beach begins to fill the screen as a gnarled stick starts scratching out a circle in the sand. Thus Polanski introduces his version of the witches: one of the weird sisters places a noose in the hole, another places a severed forearm grasping a dagger, and the three bury these items in the sand. The final witch then pours a vial of blood on the sand, and the three chant: “Fair is foul and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Polanski begins the scene with this couplet (it traditionally closes the scene), and completely fabricates the weird sisters’ grisly rites. This is Polanski’s vision – a grim and visceral portrayal of The Scottish Play, fully realized on the big screen:
Fair is foul and foul is fair.
Macbeth tells the story of a loyal Scottish thane who hears a prophecy from the aforementioned witches that he will rise in rank, and then become king. At first, he laughs off their ravings, but when their first prediction come true, he and his wife, Lady Macbeth, fan the flames of their ambition by murdering the king and usurping the throne. As his ill-gotten crown weighs heavily on his conscience, he commits more murders to protect it from additional challengers, fearing that his claim is illegitimate. The weird sisters offer additional vague prophecies which encourage Macbeth, but with their correct interpretation it becomes clear that they are harbingers of his eventual downfall. Thus the rise and fall of Macbeth is short and gruesome, a story of unbridled ambition, guilt, and madness.
Before Polanksi’s 1971 film, adaptations of Macbeth for the big screen had not effectively told this darker version of the story with Shakespeare’s own language. Orson Welle’s 1948 version of Macbeth was hampered by budget constraints (it was shot in only 23 days), and also included heavy editing of the text, both to increase the presence of the witches as characters, and to reduce the sexual undertones of particular scenes. As we will see, Polanski also heavily cut the text for his film, but never for Standards and Practices, and never to manufacture a character into something more prominent. And, though Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a gorgeous re-telling of Shakespeare’s story, it lacks the classical lyricism of the bard’s language, and must be considered in a separate light. (To use an analogous comparison, it would be like considering Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and 10 Things I Hate About You as equal adaptations of one of Shakespeare’s comedies; they’re both good, but only one is Shakespeare).
Polanski makes a number of interesting stylistic choices to augment the themes of ambition, guilt, and the corruption of power. From the standpoint of innovation, the most intriguing decision was the decision to cast Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth. Traditionally, Lady Macbeth is an older, almost matriarchal figure in the story, and her power over Macbeth is that of a strong-willed wife. But, by casting a 26-year old physically attractive woman in her sexual prime, Polanski is able to imbue Lady Macbeth and her machinations with an additional layer of seductiveness. This is critical, because while the witches certainly provide the initial inspiration for Macbeth’s power-grab, it is Lady Macbeth who insists her husband, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place” and actually go through with it. Generally, Macbeth’s acquiescence to his wife’s wishes is framed as his desire to appear manly to her. She certainly questions his manhood a number of times:
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.16-20)
Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? (1.7.43-45)
This version of Lady Macbeth, though, has a more overt sexual power over Macbeth. His ambition is largely in service of pleasing her and realizing his full potential in her eyes. Furthermore, in the famous, “Out, damned spot” sleepwalking scene where Lady Macbeth is unable to cleanse her hands of imaginary blood, Polanski has Annis play the scene fully nude. This imparts a fragility and powerlessness to Lady Macbeth, a truly shocking sight given the previous demonstrations of her mettle and courage. Here, we see this strong, beautiful woman unraveling before our eyes, and our feelings for her turn to abject pity. One can certainly argue that Lady Macbeth is the titular character in the play, as her actions are as impactful as her husband’s, and her fall equally tragic. Polanski’s choice to make her a youthful, ambitious, and successful woman instead of a doting old seer certainly lends to this interpretation, and is a masterstroke.
In another interesting stylistic choice, Polanski’s screenplay edits the text in an attempt to make Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English sound more natural to the modern ear. Watching Macbeth for the second time, I followed along with my copy of the play and made note of the changes, and was intrigued to see that Polanski imparts the language with a much more conversational feel simply by reducing the repetition. For example, take the following passage from early in the play describing the off-screen battle which earns Macbeth his new title:
What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state.
This is the sergeant
Who like a good and hardy soldier fought
‘Gainst my captivity. Hail, brave friend!
Say to the king the knowledge of the broil
As thou didst leave it.
Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald–
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him–from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore: but all’s too weak:
For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
Quite a mouthful, right? And now Polanski’s (and Kenneth Tynan’s) screenplay version of the same passage:
What bloody man is that?
Hail, brave friend!
Say to the king thy knowledge
of the broil as thou didst leave it.
The merciless Macdonwald led his rebellion
from the Western Isles and fortune
on his damned quarrel smiled.
But brave Macbeth…
Well, he deserves that name…
…carved out a passage till he faced the slave.
And ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell
Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chops.
This technique of excising parenthetical or lengthy descriptive prose is used often when adapting Shakespeare to film (and to shorten stage productions as well), but Polanski’s triumph lay in how quickly he gets to the point, and how clear is the resulting dialogue. While the language still feels slightly archaic, by carving out the excess and leaving behind only the essential the audience is less likely to get bogged down in the poetry and can follow the story quite readily. This is the first passage after the opening scene with the weird sisters, and Polanski is already cutting to the chase, so to speak. He continues this throughout the play, even reducing key soliloquies from a dozen lines to four or five.
Polanski achieves clarity with a related technique by splitting longer soliloquies into smaller speeches over multiple scenes. Lady Macbeth’s classic, “Unsex me here” speech is an example of this, but a number of Macbeth’s soliloquies are similarly diced up. Sometimes, portions of the text are spoken as the inner monologues of a character, while other portions are spoken out loud to other characters in the scene. Regardless of the specifics, this technique reduces the attention span required of the audience to understand the central crux of the characters’ arguments. Where before one would drift through some 20 lines which led to one conclusion, now we get two or three five-line statements interspersed through adjacent scenes of the film, the first hinting at the conclusion and the last finally reaching it. Hence, we are more easily able to follow the internal logic of the characters (however flawed it may be).
Finally, Polanski makes a clear decision to present the gritty brutality of Macbeth’s ascension. The opening scene with the severed arm portends just how bloody the film will get, but it likely didn’t prepare 1971 audiences for exactly what they would see. The scene reproduced above begins with a man axing a fallen soldier in the back multiple times, drawing more and more blood. Later, when Macbeth orders his rival Macduff’s castle stormed, soldiers are shown assaulting women (rape is intimated but not shown), and the Macduff’s children are shown butchered. This is not a kind play, and Polanski was determined not to create a kind film.
And therein lay the challenge of Polanski’s Macbeth. It was the first film produced by Playboy (yes, that Playboy), and Polanski’s first offering following the infamous Manson Family murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child (along with four others). Hence, the critics at the time felt that the film came with a great deal of baggage. While some, including Robert Ebert, praised the film for its inventive take on Shakespeare, others decried the literalism and insistence on brutality and nudity. For instance, Pauline Kael chastised Polanksi, claiming that his film, “reduces Shakespeare’s meanings to the banal theme of ‘life is a jungle’”. She was also disappointed with the depiction of the slaughter of Macduff’s family, even suggesting that Polanski meant to deliberately re-create the Manson Murders on screen with this sequence.
As for the Manson Family low-blows, it is hard to imagine critics not drawing attention to the Sharon Tate murders regardless of Polanski’s artistic follow-up. If he had directed Rosemary’s Baby one year after the murders instead of one year before, what would the critics have said? Perhaps the child of Satan would have been described as a metaphor for the child he had lost and would haunt him forever. Or maybe a critic would claim that this was Polanski’s statement that any child, even the child of the Devil himself, was preferable to a murdered one. These interpretations are patently absurd only because of the nature of causality and Roman Polanski’s inability to tell the future, and perhaps those connecting Macbeth to the Manson Family murders should garner similar respect. The Criterion Collection version of Macbeth contains a pair of amazing documentaries on the making of the film – one shot back in 1971 as a kind of behind-the-scenes making-of documentary, and one more recent filled with interviews with the cast and production team. Both provide insight into the mindset of Polanski at this time, and while it is only my interpretation of the interviews, Polanski didn’t seem intent on using the film to work through the Sharon Tate murders.
In the grander view, these critics also miss the point of Polanksi’s Macbeth. Over forty years later, this remains the quintessential film version of The Scottish Play thanks to Polanski’s vision of Macbeth as the tragic result of ambition unleashed. The literalism, brutality, and grim nature of the film are not attempts to reduce the play to banalities, nor are they some kind of spiritual cleansing. The literalism means to show the corrupting nature of power lust and ambition in its purest forms, and allows Polanski to do so with Shakespeare’s own language. The brutality, nudity, and bluntness of the action absolves no one, and certainly can’t be considered glorifying. In addition, despite the stark nature of the film, it feels disingenuous to condone it for lacking depth or nuance. Still present is all of Shakespeare’s rumination on the dangers of ambition, the seductive nature of power, and the degenerative tendency of guilt. Polanski aptly explores each of these themes in his treatment of Macbeth, and certainly doesn’t come to the mere conclusion that, “dog eats dog”. Instead, he offers a more complex look at the absolute corruption of a man and the forces responsible; a story which remains as poignant and intriguing today as it was over 400 years ago.
This post was part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by the fine people at Silver Screenings, Speakeasy and Criterion Blues. It runs from November 16th through the 21st, and the above links will have the full expected roster of posts, as well as the posts already written. So, if you’re interested in more posts on films in the Criterion collection, click around and enjoy yourself! Share all that you enjoy on social media with the hashtag #CriterionBlogathon, and thanks for reading!