The Tragedy of Macbeth: Shakespeare and Polanski

Historical events has often provided literary producers material for their written works. In the case of William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth, what we have is a dramatization of 11th Century Scottish history recorded by Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles. The story of Macbeth, as we all know, is the tragic story of a war hero who, egged by the prophecy of three witches, his own ambition, and his wife’s caprice, slew the king and became a tyrant, only to be also later on deposed from the throne.

The past is always done. It is finished. It is closed. It is something that cannot be changed. But as much as our present is determined by the past, we who are in the present can still insert new possibilities into this earlier period. (Žižek) Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Shakespeare’s version of the events in Holinshed’s Chronicles. While Shakespeare was retelling things from the past, a past that determines the scope of his account, his rendering inserts new possibilities into the story of Macbeth. While Holinshed provided no details of the circumstances of King Duncan’s murder, Shakespeare presented a fully dramatized account of this regicide.

In the same way, Roman Polanski’s 1971 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play repeats the same procedure. The film, although coming after the play, nonetheless inserts new possibilities into the play. These potentials come not only in minor changes, the subtractions and additions, in the way the narrative is told and retold. Cinema does not only give us another way of presenting a story. The cinematic form itself alters the way we humans see things and imagine for it is only with cinema, in the spectacle of moving images emancipated from any single point of view, that our vision is detached from the limitations of the human eye. (Colebrook 29)

Polanski’s Tragedy of Macbeth begins with an eerie meeting of the witches by the sea. What we read in the text as mere dialogue and a background of thunder and lightning is given a fuller depiction in the film, a depiction that is previously impossible in the theatre form. Then we are led to a scene filled with dust and smoke in the air as the sound of death and fighting resonate. This cinematic recreation of the fog of war, which stands for the chaos and confusion that permeates the battlefield, continues while the film credits are shown and fades only when the fighting ends.

New possibilities are indeed brought into the story of Macbeth. The cruelties of war, the resulting fields packed with the dead, the wounded heaving along the ground, the gory hanging of the traitors – details that are just implied in Shakespeare’s play, are explicitly shown on the cinematic screen. Cinematic visual effects, for instance, allows us viewers to perceive the imaginary dagger of Macbeth’s delusional mind. Meanwhile, unlike in the theatre stage, where everything is spoken out aloud by the actor, the film adaptation allows for a differentiation between contemplation (the character’s internal thoughts) and uttered words.

We have thus come a long way from Holinshed’s sketchy account of Macbeth’s regicide in his Chronicles. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was produced in 1970. Today, even more developments in the practice of filmmaking, as well as technological advancements in this field, should make future versions of Macbeth on the cinematic screen more promising.

Nevertheless, even as Polanski’s Macbeth puts into full play advantages that can be gained from the cinematic form, not a few scenes seem to show a reluctance to embrace it completely. The violent killing of Duncan by Macbeth, for example, betrays a choreography that cannot but strike one as theatrical. The dagger stabbings are done with an emphasis, with an exaggeration, that made it seem as if Macbeth was still in a theatre stage. But cinematic affect, in the case of adaptations, is fully brought to light at its most cinematic, only when it does not attempt to repeat or duplicate an exact copy of the original in its previous literary or theatrical forms. (Ibid. 31)

The same can be said of the final battle scenes where the fighting is stilted to give space for the dialogue which occurs while the actors are coming to blows. One cannot but be reminded of the concluding scenes in Filipino action films where Erap, FPJ, Lito Lapid, or whoever, still has the occasion to challenge each other with insults in between the staccato of M-16 and 45 caliber pistol gunshots. These are clichéd ways of seeing or organizing images, perceptions or narratives that modern cinema has supposedly long left behind.

Like Shakespeare before him, who extensively played with Holinshed’s original account of Macbeth, Polanski for me, achieved his best, when he radically departed from and unearthed the potentials found in Shakespeare’s text.

No version of the tragedy before that of Polanski’s, for instance, portrayed Lady Macbeth sleepwalking while nude. Finally, the grim ending shows the brother of Malcolm, who replaced the tyrannical Macbeth as Scotland’s rightful king, entering the lair of the three witches. This hints that Malcolm’s brother will also seek the witches’ advice regarding the seizure of the throne as Macbeth did before him, hence altering the original trajectory of the story from an open-ended conclusion (we do not know how Malcolm’s reign would proceed) to that of an endless repetition. ■

Works Cited

Colebrook, Claire. Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge, 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj. Lecture. Masterclass on Jacques Lacan: A Lateral Introduction, Day 3. London, 1 June 2006.


1 Comment

  1. I came across your blog arbitrarily…I find it really interesting, especially the new perspectives you take on the seemingly mundane. A friend mentioned about Polanski’s version of Macbeth and after reading this I feel impelled to watch!

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