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Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”

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‘Macbeth’ is a classical tragedy which plots the fall and death of a once great man. Probably composed in late 1606 or early 1607, “Macbeth” is the last of Shakespeares four great tragedies, the others being “Hamlet”, “King Lear” and “Othello”. It is a relatively short play, and is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s darkest work.

Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy is about Macbeth’s bloody rise to power, including the murder of the Scottish king, Duncan, and the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds leading to still more evil deeds. An interesting part to this thematic web is the play’s most memorable character, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s ambition for power leads her into an unnatural, phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft, insomnia and madness. But while Macbeth responds to the prophecies of the play’s famous trio of witches, Lady Macbeth goes even further by figuratively transforming herself into an unnatural, desexualized evil spirit.

I found watching how each theatre company portrayed ‘Macbeth’ very interesting. We viewed the Polanski version, in which Lady Macbeth was played by Francesca Annis and Macbeth by Ian Finch, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version with Macbeth played by Ian McKeller and Lady Macbeth by Judi Dench. I also read the set text of ‘Macbeth’ (New Clarendon Shakespeare) and watched ‘Macbeth, Animated Tales,’ an animated version of the play.

Macbeth was King Duncan’s blood relative, his cousin. Duncan held high regard for him. Macbeth was thought of as a hero after leading Duncan’s army to victory against the resolute army. Examples of his status in society are confirmed by a wounded sergeant’s report of the battle to Duncan, in which he called him ‘Brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name.’ The Thane of Ross proclaims Macbeth as ‘Bellona’s bridegroom,’ (Bellona being the Roman goddess of war) describing the way Macbeth had fought the battle. We find out about Macbeth’s relationship to Duncan when he calls him ‘Valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!’ Through researching, I have found out that, according to Holinshed, Duncan and Macbeth were the grandsons of Malcolm, King of Scotland, and the sons of his daughters Beatrice and Doade.

In the play, we are shown how Macbeth’s character changes. This is mainly because of the strong pressures put on him by ‘the weird sisters’ (the three witches) and Lady Macbeth herself. The witches and their prophecies had already made Macbeth conspire to murdering King Duncan, but this was helped along by Lady Macbeth’s ambition and want of power. The pressure she put on Macbeth was immense. The love shared between Lady Macbeth and her husband was very powerful. He affectionately names her ‘my dearest partner of greatness,’ in his letter telling her of what he had just witnessed from the witches, showing what he feels for her. However, in the plotting of the murder, she is shown to be the dominant one. When Macbeth tells her that they will ‘proceed no further in this business,’ she thinks him a coward, and questions him ‘Was the hope drunk, wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since and wakes it now, to look so green and pale at what it did so freely?’ meaning, where had his hope, his want, his ambition and confidence gone. Why has he suddenly began to feel so objective toward the murder. She tells him ‘Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”.’

From this point on, we see Macbeth’s slow descent down a path of destruction and disarray. His subconsciousness plays upon him. His evident worry is depicted when he hallucinates and in soliloquy, exclaims; ‘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?’ He sees a dagger. But he cannot reach it. The thought of killing Duncan is playing on his mind and makes him witness this.

Macbeth, on the hearing of Malcolm being named as heir, began to think about taking matters into his own hands. ‘Stars hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ He cannot help it, his ambition is slowly driving him to murdering Duncan. He realises this; ‘I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself to fall on the other.’ After the murder, it is evident that he had found it hard to murder King Duncan. He is distracted and distant as to the thought of what he had just done. ‘Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast,-‘ he is distressed. ‘What hands are here! Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from mine hand?’ The once ‘Brave Macbeth,’ is crumbling. At this point in time, he wishes he had not done what he just had. He regrets killing Duncan. He is frightened of what may become of the murder. ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!’ He exclaims as the door to the south entry is knocked.

Lady Macbeth is a woman of single purpose. She suggested to Macbeth that they would have to murder Duncan. On receiving the letter from Macbeth of his great success on the battlefield and meeting with the ‘weird sisters,’ their prophecies and the shocking correctness of them, she began instantly thinking about murdering Duncan. She is also aware that Macbeth, despite his heroic exploits on the battlefield, ‘is too full o’th’milk of human kindness,’ to consider the situation. Macbeth had already dismissed the thought of claiming the crown by murdering the King, ‘If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me without my stir?’ However, the forthcoming visit of Duncan offers her the perfect opportunity, ‘To catch the nearest way,’ to kill Duncan. ‘The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements,’ she proclaims in soliloquy, meaning she is going to go forward with the murder, she has already decided, regardless of what Macbeth’s wishes are. There is an example of euphemism when she says ‘He that’s coming must be provided for.’

She is prepared to sacrifice everything, even her femininity, to fuel her murderous intent. Lady Macbeth pays little thought to future repercussions, as she invokes the spirits to assist her. She wishes for the inner strength of man as she invites the spirits to, ‘unsex me here,’ removing her feminine side, so she may be possessed with man’s ability to perpetrate evil. ‘Stop up th’access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between the effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers.’ Lady Macbeth becomes the dominant force in the partnership.

As she schools Macbeth in the art of deceit, she warns him to hide any thought of their deadly intentions. ‘Your face my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters. To beguile the time look like the time, bear welcome in your eye.’ Her purpose is clear; as she implores Macbeth to, ‘put This night’s great business into my despatch.’ She shows no compunction as she endeavours to bring about what she now desires, urging him, ‘Leave the rest to me.’

As she feared, Macbeth’s resolve begins to weaken as he protests; ‘We will proceed no further in this business.’ Lady Macbeth scolds her husband for his lack of conviction. She questions his love for her; she mocks him, saying that he is less than a man, accusing him of being drunk and a coward. She speaks of a smiling babe she once nursed and how she would have, ‘dashed the brains out, had I so sworn.’ Her loyalty to him is unfaltering as he procrastinates, ‘If we should fail?’ She replies, ‘We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.’ Finally she wins him over! “I am settled.”

Lady Macbeth’s planning was meticulous; she drugged Duncan’s guards and laid out their daggers ready for Macbeth. She appears anxious as she waits for Macbeth to return. Only now does she begin to show the first signs of conscience, ‘Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.’ Macbeth returns having murdered Duncan. She is aware that he is disturbed by the events and ironically advises, ‘These deeds must not be thought After these ways; so, it will make us mad.’ Macbeth is reluctant to return the daggers; again, she chides him, ‘Infirm of purpose!’ As she returns after replacing the daggers we see further evidence of the turmoil in her mind, ‘My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.’ She appears to regain her composure as she ironically assures Macbeth, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’

Afterward, we see Lady Macbeth’s downward spiral to her eventual suicide. She begins to sleepwalk, and constantly tries to clean the blood off her hand. Blood which is not there, though she still sees ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One; two: why then ’tis time to do’t,’ she tells herself, rubbing at her hands. ‘What! Will these hands ne’er be clean?’ She has gone mad. Lady Macbeth, who had made all this evidently happen ironically became the one to disintegrate. ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes or Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh!oh!’

Macbeth starts out a heroic man of good doings, but his whole attitude completely changes because of the murders he commits. His relationships with many characters are broken or become weak. He starts trusting no one and hating – or killing – everyone. Lady Macbeth may have started him on his killing streak, but he was the one to finish himself off. After murdering Duncan, Macbeth speaks of his hands being a ‘sorry sight,’ referring to the blood which then covered them. This is ironic, as he goes on to murder many others, without a second thought to the blood which continues to cover his hands or the taking of anothers life. After Duncan’s murderm, he tells Lady Macbeth; ‘Look on’t I dare not,’ yet he looks upon many other killings proceeding from this first murder. Perhaps one of the most strangest twists and a fantastic example of irony in the play is Lady Macbeth’s free-fall; from one who is so confident, to the uncontrollable maddened person which she becomes as a direct result of Duncan’s murder.

‘Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hand,’ she had told Macbeth, yet, she is the one who later in the play is seen sleepwalking, saying; ‘Out, damned spot!,’ while continuously rubbing at her hands, trying to cleanse them of the smell of blood. Her guilt is coming out. From her brave statement;’My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,’ she has progressed topathetic cowardice. She thinks about the murder constantly, yet she had said; ‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.’ When Macbeth had committed the murder, he talked of how he heard a voice cry; ‘Sleep no more!’, ‘Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!’ Ironically, Lady Macbeth is the one who evidently can find no rest, she, ‘sleeps no more’. She scolded Macbeth; ‘These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad,’ though strangely enough, she distances herself from reality and commits suicide.

I have studied each theatre company’s murder scene, and I will now explain how each was portrayed, beginning with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version. The setting is dark which symbolises evil. There is no music and the only sound comes from the actors’ voices, apart from the shrieking owl at the beginning of the scene, which sounds strangely human.

Lady Macbeth suddenly appears out of the darkness and walks steadily toward the camera, seeming distressed and anxious. She begins talking at a whisper, setting the atmosphere. Her voice grows louder as she speaks of the disturbance made by the owl, signalling the death of Duncan. In soliloquy she seems as if she is talking directly to you, she looks around and when she turns back to face the camera it is very close to her face, showing her scared expression.

Macbeth arrives out of the shadows and they bang into each other. The daggers in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version are more understated than in the Polanski version. There is fear in their voices and it shows on their pale, grief-stricken faces. Macbeth is ashamed of what he has done ‘This is a sorry sight,’ he tells himself while staring blankly at his hands,seeming distant. Lady Macbeth appears to be unashamed of what has just been committed. Her voice is strong and domineering. She stays in control. Macbeth continues to speak to himself in a distressed fashion, but Lady Macbeth will hear none of it and covers her ears with her hands to drown out his words. There is an edge of control in her voice, she is more frustrated with Macbeth than worried about the daggers.

Macbeth is shaking and the daggers are heard rattling together, I think this is very effective and shows what he is feeling at that point in time. The blood which covers his hands comes right up to the elbows, and is thicker than that in the Polanski version. Lady Macbeth scolds him and tells him sternly that he is a coward, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ Basic mothering is shown from the Lady as she talks to Macbeth trying to reassure him. Throughout the scene he holds his hands close to his face. This infisises the enormity and seriousness of what he did, as if he is showing you his guilty hands. There is a closeness, a bond established between Macbeth and the viewers. Macbeth is absorbed in his hands throughout Lady Macbeth’s words. He cannot look at her, and this, I think symbolises the disintegration of their love.

The Polanski version is in full colour and the set is real. I think this adds a lot more ‘realism.’ The scene is set with the use of gloomy bagpipe music. Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are wearing white and blue elaborate costumes, white symbolising good, whereas in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version both characters wore black, which is symbolic of evil.

The daggers in this version are made to appear very central. The blood covering Macbeth’s hands stops at his wrists and looks too much as if he has just dipped his hands in a barrel of thin, watered down paint. Lady Macbeth comes across as a weaker person in this version compared to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s. When she returns from leaving the daggers in Duncan’s chamber her hair is untidy and she seems more stressed than the character of Lady Macbeth in the other version, which adds to the effect.

I liked the Polanski version’s realistic touch. The castle and the settings added a sense of illusion. The blood in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version was much better than the Polanski’s and looked very real. I think the owls shriek at the start of the Royal Shakespeares version was better than that of the Polanski’s and sounded human.

The only thing I can think of that I would have tried differently had I been the producer, was the blood in the Polanski version. It was too thin and didn’t look much like blood at all. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version, the blood looked very real and was spread further up Macbeth’s arms, not just concentrated on one area as Polanski showed.

I believe that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version was more effective because the characters seemed real in the way they spoke and acted. I liked the way the atmosphere was set around the characters and felt that the whole scene was very well done. As there was nothing else to concentrate on apart from the characters and the words they spoke, it gave the actors a chance to show how well they could act the two tragic figures of “this dead butcher and his fiend like queen”.

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