The Tragedy of Macbeth and the Immortal Genius of William Shakespeare

An excellent new film adaptation combines a stark abstraction with rich performances and stunning moments to illuminate the complexities underlying a simple plot, but no single version can ever capture the impenetrable duality of man that serves as Shakespeare’s true subject matter.  Free will or foreordained?  We are a product of both, and this play is more than the sum of its parts.

In some ways, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most accessible tragedy.  The plot is straightforward:  Macbeth assassinates King Duncan to seize the throne for himself, but, as is often the case with dark deeds and plans, maintaining power requires spilling more blood and the initial murder is only the first of many atrocities, until a hero emerges to win the day.  The driving force behind his actions is clearly a ruthless ambition shared with his wife, what Macbeth himself describes as “vaulting,” making the thrust of the play readily relatable to audiences of any age. The new film adaptation, officially The Tragedy of Macbeth, from Joel Cohen makes ready use of this simplicity, using a minimalist approach to costumes and set design, at times so sparse and stark it seems like an abstract stage performance, where the audience is expected to imagine the fullness of the setting.

At the outset, Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is presented as somewhat flat himself, worn and weary, returning victorious from a battle, but far from reveling in it.  Mr. Cohen maximizes the impact of both these decisions as the movie unfolds, gradually increasing the texture and complexity to match the events and revelations on screen, using the simplicity to ensure key moments stand out and keeping the focus on the performances and Shakespeare’s language. The simplicity also serves to emphasize the underlying complexity of the tale, the ramifications that lurk beneath the surface when one begins asking questions of the text.  The plot itself may be simple and the primary motivation easily understandable, but the implications of both defy easy explanations.  Instead, the closer you look, the impenetrable, everchanging duality of man is on full display as the primary subject, and what causes a person to move from the light to the dark is the main theme.

How does a hero become a villain?  What happens in the mind and the soul?  These questions and the fact that they have no easy answers is present in almost every aspect of the film and the play.  The contrast between good and evil takes on physical form here, from the chiaroscuro of the visual palette and the contrast of the words themselves, encompassing both “foul” and “fair.” The simple word “day” appears some 30 times, set against “night” at 48, the two frequently opposing one another, and befitting the tragic theme night is often swallowing day.  Night is, of course, where the bad things happen, “come thick night, And pall me in the dunnest smoke of hell.”  Men and women are also equally set at odds, with men judged the worse of the two as Lady Macbeth prays to be “unsexed” and literally turned into a man to support her husband in committing bloody murder. Macbeth himself is a hero at the onset, a villain at the end, foul and fair in one, to the point where his first words in the play are “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”  He might as well have been describing himself in addition to the weather.

The presence of witchcraft and ghostly apparitions that defy any simple, straightforward interpretation add another layer of complexity to the tale, making the play forever opaque from linear analysis.  The witches actually appear first, picking over the remains of the initial battle.  In the their telling, were we to take it at completely face value, Macbeth is only a murderer because of a prophecy delivered unto him on his return from this battle, victorious.  The prophecy of the three witches, the weird sisters, comes in three parts.  First the witches hail him by his title at the beginning of the play, “All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”  Then by a better one not yet his own, “All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”  Finally, they claim he will be king, “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”  At first, Macbeth himself is skeptical, saying:

….I know I am thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor.

Macbeth’s comrade in arms, Banquo, is equally skeptical when the witches inform him that his children shall be kings, asking, “have we eaten on the insane root that takes reason prisoner?”  It is only when Ross and Angus arrive immediately thereafter to greet Macbeth and Banquo with the news that King Duncan has granted Macbeth the title Thane of Cawdor that the potential reality of these prophecies begins to sink in.  Banquo asks, “What, can the devil speak true?”  before Angus reveals that the Thane of Cawdor was found out as a traitor, opening the title for Macbeth.  Macbeth himself seems captivated at once, saying to Banquo, “Do you not hope your children shall be kings, When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me Promised no less to them?”  Banquo, however, remains worried about anything that might flow from the witches, telling Macbeth that “oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths.”

At this point, Macbeth reasons or rationalizes he might gain the throne without taking any action.  “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir,” but he is quickly disabused of this notion when the king anoints his eldest son, Malcolm, as “Prince of Cumberland,” and his heir.  Macbeth immediately realizes this is an impediment to the prophecy, and virtually eliminates the possibility he might ascend to the throne without blood.  He is overcome with the blackest thoughts at the news, begging the stars to “hide your fires, Let not light see my black and deep desires.”  The scene then jumps to Macbeth’s castle, Inverness, where Lady Macbeth learns of the witches and the prophecies in a letter from her husband.  She is immediately intrigued as well, but feels Macbeth may not have the stomach for the grim deeds ahead, “I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way.”  She vows to help him overcome this innate goodness by pouring “my spirits in thine ear; And chastise with the valor of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round.”

Lady Macbeth knows her husband well, some say they have the best relationship in all of Shakespeare, and she has good reason to think he is not the sort of man that would commit cold-blooded regicide.  Macbeth has so far been depicted as a hero and a noble man in general.  Banquo refers to him as a “noble partner.”  Angus notes that Macbeth won the battle on account of his own “personal venture,” and the king is full of “wonders and his praises” as he fought against foes “As thick as hail Came post with post.”  King Duncan himself greets him as a “worthiest cousin,” telling him “More is thy do than more than all can pay.”  He tells Macbeth, the man that will soon kill him in his sleep, that he has high hopes for him in the future, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor To make thee full of growing.”  This can also be seen as another duality, broaching the age old question of nature versus nurture.  Can a naturally good man be nurtured into evil?  Shakespeare is unequivocal on the answer, even as the characters in the play frequently equivocate, sometimes literally.  The Porter, the rare comic relief in otherwise depressing descent into evil, makes this point plain.  “Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to.”

Regardless, the Macbeth we see throughout the remainder of the play is anything but a good man, and yet Shakespeare makes it impossible to identify a single cause for his fall.  Clearly, he was prompted to the idea by the witches prophecy, but just as obviously the choice to actually kill the king was his and his alone.  Was it Macbeth’s destiny to go down this path, or was it his own freewill?  Shakespeare refuses to provide an easy answer, but this is fitting when none exists in the real world, turning the play itself into a metaphor of the varied forces that move us.  Like Macbeth himself, we are all shaped by things we cannot control, our minds swirling with ideas that originate outside and are continually revised inside by processes that are impenetrable to the conscious mind, and yet this doesn’t imply that we have no control or don’t make important choices.

Rather, our lives are spun out in the intersection between the two:  We are buffeted by fate, but ultimately compelled to act by the force of our own free will.  There is also, of course, temptation, and in Macbeth this takes the form of the imminent arrival of King Duncan and his retinue at Macbeth’s own castle, making the murder one also of easy opportunity.  Still, one of our choices is always not to act, and we can imagine a slightly less ambitious Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who hear the same prophecy, but do not commit the same crimes.  Even so, Shakespeare makes us wonder if boundless ambition is all the Macbeth’s suffer from.  Do they share some other flaw of the mind?  In the play, they are plagued by apparitions, perhaps one step away from madness even at the outset.

In fact, Macbeth sees his first apparition before killing King Duncan, in the unforgettable “is this a dagger speech”:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

The dagger is soon covered in blood, first in his vision then in real life when he actually kills the king.  Here, Mr. Cohen takes full advantage of the previously muted style, depicting the murder as a dagger through the neck while Duncan is awake and knows his killer.  The drip-drip-drip of the blood is rendered as a booming sound, echoing from the speakers as it echoes through the rest of the play.  In the moment, Macbeth is such a stranger to the crime he enters something of a fugue afterward, taking the dagger from the room with him, rather than leaving it behind to frame the grooms for the crime.  He returns to his chambers where Lady Macbeth sees him covered in blood, “Why did you bring these daggers from the place?  They must lie there: go carry them; and smear  The sleepy grooms with blood.”

Macbeth is too distraught, refusing to witness the aftermath of his crime once more, leaving it to wife, making her more culpable than simply for pushing the idea, a fact which will return to haunt her, physically as well as mentally.  The next day, however, Macbeth is almost miraculously recovered: As if the cruel act energized him somehow, he takes charge and kills the grooms to eliminate the potential witnesses, and one murder becomes three.  Denzel Washington seems to relish in these sequences, turning the weary Macbeth into a man full of purpose.  Next, he quickly realizes that Banquo is a threat and plots his and his young son’s murder, declaring him the man in all the world he most fears.  Like almost everything else in the play, however, Macbeth’s fears spring from two places.  First, Banquo heard the prophecy and might well reason that Macbeth murdered Duncan himself to seize the throne, though he is smart enough not to blurt it out loud. As Macbeth describes it, “in his royalty of nature Reigns that which would be fear’d: ‘tis much he dares; And, to that dauntless temper of his mind, He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour To act in safety.”  The witches also prophesied that Banquo’s children would ascend the throne one day themselves.  If that is true, they:

…have put barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If ‘t be so,
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them.

Macbeth concludes that Banquo and his children must die, but Lady Macbeth starts to have doubts, and Shakespeare uses this as an opportunity to juxtapose their subsequent reactions to the sins they have committed throughout the remainder of the play.  In the meantime, Lady Macbeth seems strikingly naive for a moment, not clearly seeing all the threats they’ve created, and urges Macbeth not to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance.   Macbeth tells her the hard truth, “We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.”  Still, she believes “You must leave this,” and let it be, as if there was still some chance they could walk away with their souls intact.  Macbeth proceeds to send assassins after Banquo and later that evening will have a vision of his ghost interrupting a feast.  Later, Lady Macbeth will have visions of her own, unable to wash the blood from her hands, seeing spots of red stained there forever.

It might seem easy to dismiss these apparitions as the product of their fevered and guilty minds, and there is certainly some truth that interpretation, but Shakespeare also makes it clear they both see these things physically, nor should we dismiss the idea that such things exist in this world given the appearance of the witches.  Both the witches and the apparitions also serve another duality, introducing the idea of the spiritual and physical worlds, separate yet intersecting.  Macbeth acts in the physical, but the root cause of his crimes and their repercussions lie in the spiritual. In some cases, the mental world might be a more apt description, as the play artfully interchanges the two.  A doctor appears towards the end, and says of Lady Macbeth, “This disease is beyond my practise,” and “Therein the patient Must minister to himself.”  In the meantime, the witches themselves appear once more, informing Macbeth that he need fear no man born of woman, and that he will reign until a forest marches on the castle, filling him with false, desperate hope.  If nothing else, all of this is all-too real to both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, serving as a tool Shakespeare uses to visualize their ambition and guilty madness, but also a physical manifestation of the forces that move us, inside and outside.

Shakespeare also makes clear that these internal and external forces can move us even to commit atrocities fully knowing that more evil will spring from them.  Macbeth doesn’t commit King Duncan’s murder thinking it will be easy, or he will be unchanged afterwards.  He is not some crazed serial killer, at least not yet.  Before the murder, he reasons rightly that there will be consequences, first by imagining a world where there would be none.  In that world, everyone would leap at the chance to murder their king, if “this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here, But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We’d jump the life to come.”  He’s aware, however, that things don’t work this way in the real world.  Instead, “we but teach Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor.”  Therefore, Macbeth’s continued descent into evil shouldn’t be surprising, even to him, and yet somehow it is as he kills the two grooms, orders the death of Banquo and his son, then Macduff and his family, killing women and children.  Lady Macbeth serves as a counterpoint:  Blinded by ambition, she didn’t see the danger, and it grows inside of her.  If Macbeth becomes a man of action, his wife, especially as portrayed by Frances McDormand, becomes paralyzed by her guilt, committing suicide in the final act when she realizes she can never wipe her hands clean.

Ultimately, Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be seen as both a warning and lesson.  The warning is simple:  There are some lines we cannot cross for whatever reason, and should we cross them we will no longer be the same on the other side.  Our actions can change us, if you commit murder to quench your ambition, you will do worse to protect your ill gotten gains.  The lesson is one of our endless capacity for self rationalization.  Macbeth knows from the start that killing Duncan will have dark consequences.  This is true even if he truly believes the throne will be his by prophecy, and yet at the very end he dismisses his own role in these events, resorting to a bleak nihilism despite all the evidence of the play itself:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Having seen the play and the film, we know this not to be true, at least in the context of the mechanics of the work itself, and yet it makes perfect sense coming from Macbeth’s lips as events drive on to their inexorable conclusion.  When all is lost, we look outside ourselves for an explanation, at times refusing to consider clearly the choices we’ve made that have led directly to the current catastrophe.  From Thane to prohesied king to murderer to king in truth, Macbeth ends as just a pathetic, broken man, making excuses for himself, the same as everyone else.  In this way, we might say Macbeth is both Shakespeare’s most accessible and all too human tragedy.

Interestingly, as smart and engaging as the new film adaptation surely is in Mr. Cohen’s expert hands, it also only serves to scratch the surface of a much deeper work.  Denzel Washington’s Macbeth starts out as somewhat flat, a worn and weary soldier, and it is only ambition and the defense of his ill gotten gains that wakes him from his stupor.  The play, however, supports another reading:  One where Macbeth is a charismatic man of action from the start, a fearless warrior and leader who many can already see as a king, but then he turns that energy to darker purposes.  Likewise, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is seen first as a schemer, then as attempting to hold things together for her husband. In a sense, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Washington make choices of their own that ripple through the adaptation, showing you one side at the expense of others.  This is natural and fitting when we can never know the root cause or consequences of our actions anymore than Macbeth himself.  These are the product of things that overlap yet remain fundamentally outside the physical realm, occupying the mental and the spiritual.  All we can say for sure  “oftentimes, to win us to our harm. The instruments of darkness tell us truths,” and often these instruments of darkness are in our own minds.

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