Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

Shakespeare on Film - Macbeth

Roman Polanski and other filmic interpreters of Shakespeare's Macbeth

Shakespeare's Macbeth, published in the First Folio of 1623 and thought to have had its first performance in 1606, is a play invested with contemporary political concerns. Known as “the Scottish play,” it is a tribute to James VI of Scotland who had succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603 to become King James I of England under the Union of the Crowns. The new King invested heavily in the arts and was fond of plays; indeed it is thought that Macbeth was first performed directly for him. Shakespeare and his company played frequently at the Court, and relied on Royal patronage for financial reasons as well as for protection from City authorities that were opposed to playgoing in London. Macbeth is primarily about a regicide and the power struggles that follow, and Shakespeare's play text contains indications of praise for monarchy and the traditional social order. Macbeth is the tyrannous villain that inverts this order and eventually pays with his life. In the play, Malcolm's recitation of the “king-becoming graces” (IV.iii) is perhaps the clearest example of the play's reverence for monarchy. Indeed, Frank Kermode asserts that Macbeth is “the most topical of the tragedies, a play shaped as none of the others seem to be by the interests of the reigning monarch” (1355). Subsequent productions have to varying degrees appropriated the topical issues that pervade Shakespeare's play text, and the political orientation of Macbeth in performance has been far from constant.

However, even an attempt to occlude political meanings is a political act in itself. In the essay “Macbeth on Film: Politics,” E. Pearlman points to Orson Welles and his 1948 film as being exemplary of such a vain attempt to depoliticise Macbeth: “In defiance of [its] intent, the film inadvertently generates a rudimentary political vision of its own.” The production of the play that Welles oversaw in all aspects – as producer, director, and actor – is seen here as egocentric and “an exploration of both dictatorship and the cult of personality” (252). Whether the fascist subtext of Welles' film was a by-product of his own dictatorial career or of international events during the preceding decade, it is a highly politicised film despite attempts to diminish the significance of Shakespeare's topical content: “attempting to exclude politics, Welles engendered a film in which Shakespeare's poles of monarchy and tyranny have been replaced by a right-wing world view which can admit nothing other than dictatorship or disorder” (ibid.).

The example of Welles' Macbeth serves to highlight the potential for a performance – theatrical or cinematic – to be interpreted as a text in its own right. Meanings can be constructed whether they were consciously devised or not, and the dramatic text – Shakespeare's writing – is only the beginning of a complex process of meaning and interpretation that performance embodies. In this sense, Pearlman's essay is undermined by its reference to an “original Macbeth that contains Shakespeare's meanings, since the dramatic text was always intended to be performed, and every reading or performance of that text constitutes a new construction of meaning. The notion of a "performance text," as postulated by Marco de Marinis in The Semiotics of Performance (1993), underlines the significance of factors beyond the written word in shaping interpretations of the various units of discourse that can be regarded as "texts." Theatrical or cinematic performances of a playscript are certainly such units of discourse, and as such de Marinis concludes that “the units of theatrical production known as performances can be considered as texts, and can thus become the object of textual analysis” (47).

The semiotics of performance that de Marinis discusses include the language and gestures of the actors but also the visual aspects of a production that have to work with the spoken word to realise any effective conception of Shakespeare. Dennis Kennedy selects the term scenography to define the visual field of representation in theatrical performance, and it is a concept that also serves well when applied to the analysis of films and the effort to regard a film as a performance text of a dramatic work:

Of all the terms available, scenography is the one with the largest and most useful application, encompassing stage and costume design, lighting, the arrangement of the acting ground, the movement of the actors within it, and anything else proper to a production that and audience sees, including the interior architecture of the playhouse surrounding the stage: all the ocular aspects of the ludic space. (12)

When substituting the playhouse for the film set and also considering the role of the film camera, an analysis of scenography becomes similarly important in constructing interpretations of Shakespeare on screen. Indeed, Trevor Nunn's 1979 Macbeth, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, highlights the adaptability of such a concept since it is a televised version of a stage production. Nunn's scenography is minimalist, and as with Shakespeare's theatre the focus is on the spoken word. A limitation of this form of filmed theatre is the exclusive focus of the camera, which can fail to capture certain elements of the production that a circumspect theatre audience can appreciate. The production stands in stark contrast to cinematic renderings of Macbeth that cut liberally from the play text to suit film conventions and exploit the scenography to consolidate their conception. In such works, everything that constitutes the mis-en-scène is carefully considered and the performance text is designed to be contained within the camera frame.

Among the most celebrated cinematic adaptations of Macbeth is Roman Polanski's 1971 film starring Jon Finch in the eponymous role. The renderings of Macbeth offered by Polanski and Welles both highlight another significant factor that must be considered in constructing meaning from a performance text, namely the relationship between its conception and its cultural moment. The material contingencies that affect the performance have to be considered alongside the social and political contexts in which it is inserted. As with Welles, Polanski's life and career can be seen to contribute to the vision of Macbeth that he brings to the screen. He was born in Paris in 1933 to Polish parents – a Jewish father – and lived in Poland during World War II, surviving the holocaust. This is in itself an upbringing that inescapably influences Polanski's work, but in 1969 he also suffered the loss of his wife Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by followers of Charles Manson. Macbeth is the first film that Polanski directed after this horrific event, and Pearlman identifies in it an obsession with the demonic and dark forces of humankind that can be attributed to these formative life experiences.

One aspect of Shakespeare's playtext that is significantly diminished in Polanski's rendering is the role of Christianity in opposition to mythology and the sorcery of the witches. The film is “stripped of Christian comfort” and affords no simple resolutions, but rather further questions about the duality of human nature (Pearlman 253). Nunn's Macbeth, meanwhile, sees King Duncan dressed in holy white clothes and presented as an ageing, saintly figure – in opposition to the Macbeths who are dressed in black throughout. Where Nunn's production is dark and minimalistic with a black background, much formal behaviour and little fanfare, Polanski's Macbeth is bright and beautiful in many respects, if only to accentuate the extreme violence and negativity that is foregrounded intermittently. The array of cinematic resources at the director's disposal enables him to visually reinforce the antitheses of good and evil, light and darkness, beauty and violence. Such a conception is clearly evident in Polanski's rendering of the royal procession approaching Macbeth's castle, as Duncan says: “This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” ( The quickly changing physical conditions, lighting, and soundtrack all conspire to reflect the irony of the King's words, and to underscore the impending darkness of the play.

The resources that cinema production affords – in comparison to Nunn's relatively low-budget televised Macbeth – extend beyond lavish settings and costumes. The soundtrack is one of the most significant features of Polanski's film, often representing the psychological torment of the Macbeths, whose occasional voiceover narratives ensure that the audience is drawn into a certain sense of complicity with their actions. The banquet scene in III.iv is exemplary of the considerable difference in styles of visual representation adopted by Nunn and Polanski respectively. The former has embraced the theatrical style in provoking an imaginative reaction from the audience – Banquo's ghost remains invisible throughout, and the lack of visual stimulation in this instant pushes McKellen to a remarkable performance of Macbeth's mental torment where he is literally foaming at the mouth. The scene requires a heightened imaginative engagement with the verbal language from both McKellen and his audience. However, the fact that the ghost is not shown also distances the character from the audience and emphasises his insanity.

Polanski chooses again and again to visually represent Macbeth's hallucinations, a process that draws the audience closer to Macbeth and reinforces the uncomfortable feeling of complicity with the villain. As Macbeth imagines a “dagger of the mind” beckoning him towards Duncan's chamber in II.ii, it is shown on screen and he attempts to touch it, the disorientating soundtrack confirming its transient and unearthly nature. Polanski consolidates this image with the gruesome figure of Banquo's ghost. The consistency of his visual representation is underlined by Lady Macbeth's reaction her husband's vision in the banquet scene: “This is the very painting of your fear; / This is the air-drawn dagger which you said / Led you to Duncan” (III.iv.60-3). The dagger is also used emblematically at the very start of the film as it is ritually buried by the three witches. It should be noted that the make-up and special effects employed by Polanski in rendering these visions were most likely unavailable to Nunn. In fact, the Macbeths in Nunn's productions speak numerous lines as asides to the camera, and this deconstruction of the fourth wall also creates and maintains a disconcerting bond between them and the audience, at far less expense.

The Scottish kingdom presented by Polanski's Macbeth is characterised by bright colours, beautiful scenery, and grand castle settings. These scenographic features help to form a stark contrast with the violent evil and wrongdoing of the play, which has to take place beneath a prosperous and at times joyful surface. Again, the banquet scene is illustrative of Polanski's conception of such a duality and the sudden shifts in mood that characterise the production. Macbeth welcomes many others into a grand hall and there are smiles all round as he proposes a toast. He remains cheerful and seemingly at ease as he is asked to sit, and Finch's instantaneous facial reaction is key to a change in atmosphere as a whole. The movement of the camera, soundtrack, and lighting all combine again here to anticipate the visions and madness that Macbeth is about to endure, in contrast to Nunn's film where McKellen is given the sole responsibility of rendering such a transformation.

From the outset, Polanski shows that events can be preordained by demonic powers, and that a mysterious evil lurks beneath the surface of everyday life.

The question that remains concerns the relationship between Polanski's conception of Shakespeare's Macbeth and the aforementioned choices he makes in his visual rendering of the play text. While there is great beauty and apparent prosperity in the world he presents, there is also monstrosity and gratuitous violence. The burial of the dagger by the witches in the very first scene is a forewarning of the bloody battle that takes place on the same beach, and the two appear to be connected. From the outset then, Polanski shows that events can be preordained by demonic powers, and that a mysterious evil lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. Pearlman asserts that this is a thematic concern that is not entirely congruent with the dramatic text: “While Shakespeare acknowledges the witches' power, he never forgets that goodness and truth are also native to mankind. In Polanski's version of Macbeth, human political institutions are regularly subordinated to demonic power” (254).

The epilogue of the film, which sees Donalbain seeking out the witches at the same location where Macbeth heard their first premonition, is an affirmation of Polanski's predominant theme. Donalbain is looking for a premonition of his own, to begin his own vainglorious rise to power. The vision Polanski offers is decidedly negative, as it suggests that there is no hope of a resolution, and that evil is a cyclical, inescapable truth of society. In contrast, Shakespeare's Macbeth sees the turmoil of the tyrant's reign resolved by the accesion of Malcolm to the throne, a King every bit as virtuous as his father Duncan at the beginning of the play. Considering Polanski's own admission that “the superfluous brutality of the hired killers who invade Macduff's castle at Fife recalls an SS intrusion into his own home during the Second World War” (Pearlman, 253), a connection between the director's conception of Macbeth and the context of his life and career becomes clear. His formative experiences in Poland during World War II and particularly the inexplicable and violent murder of his young wife two years before filming are thought to have shaped a remarkably negative conception of Shakespeare's play, a world where beauty is only skin deep and lives are preordained by violent forces of evil. Polanski's Macbeth is ultimately about duality and contradictions, and a focus on its various features beyond the verbal language helps to reveal these underlying thematic concerns.

Gross, A. M.


  • Davies, Anthony and Stanley Wells, eds. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
  • Kennedy, Dennis. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth Century Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
  • Kermode, Frank. “Macbeth”. Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. 1974. 2nd ed. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 1355-9.
  • Marinis, Marco de. The Semiotics of Performance. Trans. Áine O'Healy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
  • Pearlman, E. “Macbeth on Film: Politics”. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Eds. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 250-60.

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