Macbeth on film overview

© 2000 Debra Murphy

Macbeth is one of the most frequently attempted of Shakespeare film adaptations, perhaps second only to Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in its popularity with filmmakers.

One must stop and ask oneself why. After all, it is not only one of the Bard’s darkest tragedies—only Titus Andronicus comes to mind as bloodier or more cynical. There’s also hardly a sympathetic character in the entire play. Like Richard III, this play is about a man who murders his way to the crown. But unlike Richard, the protagonist doesn’t endear himself to the audience with brilliant comic asides, and must even suffer the indignity of being overshadowed, at least in the first half of the play, by an ambitious and dominating wife.

And these, oddly enough, may be the very reasons why the play is so irresistible to actors and directors. My son John Murphy, the future auteur, has long since pegged Macbeth as the first of his own Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Gary Wills' WITCHES AND JESUITS: SHAKESPEARE'S MACBETH

Gary Wills’ WITCHES AND JESUITS available from Amazon

The atmospheric possibilities are tremendous: medieval, almost barbaric Scotland—the English certainly thought of it as such—encased in fog and riddled with witches and other Weird Women. Why, the thing’s been considered so spooky over the last several centuries that die-hard thespians (no pun intended) still insist on calling it “The Scottish Play” rather than use the demon-drawing “M-word.” Done right (with lots of chutzpah and a great art director) and you have Braveheart meets The Exorcist. Indeed, if I have any beef with the various productions I’ve seen (on both stage and screen) it would have to be that directors are consistently too timid in availing themselves of all the ghoulish possibilities afforded by Shakespeare’s sorcerous language. (For a wonderful discussion on this subject, see Gary Will’s book Witches and Jesuits).

The other irresistible draw in The Scottish Play is the relationship between Macbeth and his iconic wife.

Calling all Amazons

Lady Macbeth is a cultural byword, the definition of Ball-breaker in the western tradition. (Remember the episode of Frasier where Niles describes Frasier’s indomitable agent as “Lady Macbeth without the sincerity”? The audience didn’t need to know anything about Shakespeare to know what was meant.) The actress who takes on this juiciest of female leads has the formidable task of stealing the show in the first half with an almost impossible combination of determination and seductivity. The audience has to (somehow) be made to believe that this bulldozer-in-skirts still has the feminine whatsis to lead her general around by the nose—or some other part of his soldierly anatomy.

And If that isn’t challenge enough, she then has to do a complete one-eighty in the second half of the play by discovering a conscience—a conscience so powerful yet brittle that it drives her to madness. Not many actresses are going to have the range for this.

Macbeth Soldiers On

As for Macbeth himself, his “character arc” as the movie people call it, is somewhat the opposite: from uxorious husband to conscienceless tyrant, Macbeth is an unintellectual soldier-type who, once he’s made up his mind and acts, never turns back, unlike his more complicated wife. (One reason, a Shakespearean actor-friend of mine, the late Stephen Hemming, once told me that he thought that actors who are good at the more intellectual and witty of Shakespeare characters—Iago, Hamlet, Richard III—have a harder time succeeding with Macbeth.) And yet this brutish fellow must nonetheless retain enough humanity and sensitivity to utter, upon the death of his once-beloved wife, one of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking speeches in the English language:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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.

Act V, scene 5

Here’s a list of our pages about movie and TV adapations of Macbeth: