‘Embittered, anguished’ Macbeth hits cinemas

Foul is fair: Cotillard said the role of Lady Macbeth is ‘the darkest of all’. © Studio Canal

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in a new, ‘stripped back’ film adaptation of Macbeth. The Scottish Play has bewitched audiences for centuries, so why is it still so powerful?

‘Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.’

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been filmed for TV or cinema at least 16 times since 1900. Today, a new adaptation by Justin Kurzel opens in cinemas around the UK, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the malevolent title couple.

The play is a haunting tale of supernatural powers and human ambition; witches and ghosts stalk its pages, compelling Macbeth to murder the king, and his own best friend, in pursuit of Scotland’s crown, and driving his wife to madness.

The supernatural, for Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, was not just a theatrical device. Bad harvests, plague outbreaks and unexplained fires would often be blamed on witches — usually women who were executed for their ‘crimes’.

And it has always been women who are blamed for Macbeth’s crimes too. The Scottish warrior may be the one to stab the king in his sleep, but it is Lady Macbeth who manipulates him into doing so, and the witches who first give him the idea. But while the first performance in 1611 opened with the witches’ sinister first meeting, Kurzel’s film begins with a different kind of ceremony: the funeral of the Macbeths’ infant son.

In this modern adaptation Lady Macbeth is driven by grief, as much as ambition or superstition, to pursue her malicious plan; and it is the trauma of the bleak Scottish battlefields which seems to unhinge Macbeth. The ambitions are ‘more to fill something, or replace something, as opposed to the hunger for power,’ said Kurzel. ‘That felt very human.’

The play is so notorious, and so closely associated with the supernatural powers it depicts, that many actors and superstitious viewers still refuse to speak its name aloud. Four hundred years after its first performance, the story appears to have as much potency as ever.

Toil and trouble

It is the exciting, fast-paced tale of regicide, war and the supernatural which captivates audiences, some argue. It is exhilarating to watch the Macbeths claw their way to the greatest heights, only to be torn back down to a world of madness and violent retribution. The classic battle of good versus evil is taken to the utmost extremes — so we return to it again and again.

Others think that the play’s power lies in more everyday themes. The twisted relationship between Lord and Lady Macbeth is one of the most fascinating ever written. And we can all identify with tales about ambition; everyone has some kind of vision for their future. The question is how far they are willing to go to achieve it. That is why this newest version, which focuses on the characters’ most ‘human’ motivations, has been so well received by critics.

You Decide

  1. Why is Macbeth so popular?
  2. Is Lady Macbeth the best female role ever written?

Activities

  1. Split into groups of three and stage your own version of Act V Scene V (link under Become An Expert).
  2. Plan an essay exploring the theme of ‘ambition’ in Macbeth.

Some People Say...

“Shakespeare is overrated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I find Shakespeare confusing.
That’s not unusual. The language is complex, and teeming with ambiguities, double meanings and references lost to history. That’s part of what makes it so rewarding to decode. It helps to understand a rough outline of the plot before you begin, and to remember that it’s still English — it’s the same language you use every day. Don’t give up if you stumble over a word or a phrase here and there; it will all come together in the end.
Is Macbeth cursed?
There have always been rumours that the spells are not just poetry, but ‘real’ witchcraft, and that the whole thing is cursed as a consequence. The boy actor who played Lady Macbeth died on opening night, and in 1721 a theatre hosting the production was burned down. Just bad luck, or something more? You decide...

Word Watch

Supernatural
Without science to explain disasters or tragedies, the people of Shakespearean England searched for a cause beyond the realms of the natural world.
Witches
James I, who took the throne in 1603, was particularly interested in witchcraft. He had written a book on the subject called Daemonologie, and the number of witch trials increased significantly in his reign. The king was the first to rule both Scotland and England, and was paranoid about potential usurpers. It is unsurprising that Shakespeare first wrote Macbeth soon after James I became ruler.
Son
Lady Macbeth refers to breastfeeding a child during the play, but no child ever appears in the action. Some believe that the ‘lost child’ explains why the Macbeths are so intent on destroying the entire bloodlines of their enemies.
Trauma
Michael Fassbender has said that he imagined his Macbeth as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, although this is not a condition that was known or understood during Shakespeare’s time.
Regicide
The act of murdering a king.

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