Europe's Times and Unknown Waters #6
e-revistă culturală de filosofie şi literatură aplicată
lansată în Aprilie 2009
ISSN 2066 - 3323
Cathartic Violence. Lady Macbeth and Feminine Power in Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971)
by Oana Ilieş Gheorghiu
Abstract: Based upon a controversial rendition of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, i.e., Roman Polanski's The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1971, this paper aims primarily at contextualizing the cinematographic production in the time and spatial frame of the late 60's - early 70's cultural, political and mindset background, and secondarily at drawing a parallel between the Shakespearean text and its reinterpretations in the afore-mentioned production. As stated in the title, the focus is not upon the supernatural in Macbeth, the paper dealing mainly with the extreme violence of the production, and with the Polanskian perspective upon Lady Macbeth's character.
The paper tackles controversial issues related to the various meanings of Shakespeare's Macbeth that literary criticism has insisted upon, the art of adapting literature for the screen and, within a wider frame, cultural dynamics. Since Macbeth, the play, allows psychoanalytical and feminist readings next to other numerous interpretations (archetypal criticism included), the conceptual apparatus of these critical approaches is also applied for the investigation of the filmic text, focusing upon a series of elements concerning mainly the characters of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth himself and the three witches, as represented in the film, stressing the hypostases of feminine power over the weaker male.
The analysis of the film has partly relied on psychoanalytical criticism. The conclusions drawn in this respect have been based, more often than not, on arguing and refuting psychoanalytical insights into the filmic text. On the other hand, another set of critical instruments has been provided by feminist criticism, resorted to less to prove the alleged misogyny of the play a valid accusation and rather to use its specific concepts to demonstrate that Lady Macbeth is the voiced part in the masculine/feminine dichotomy and not the other way round, as feminists arguing against patriarchal literature would claim. In addition, where necessary, the Shakespearean text has been reconsidered in critical terms, and recourse to historical sources (Holinshed's Chronicles) has been made to support the conclusions drawn by the feminist interpretation.
Key words: Lady Macbeth, Roman Polanski, cinematography, adapting literature for the screen, psychoanalytical criticism, feminist interpretation.
Released at a time when the general trend in adapting Shakespeare for the screen was that of minimum recontextualization, Roman Polanski's The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) is not revolutionary in this respect. The film directors of the 60s and the 70s simply moved from stage to screen, taking advantage of the development of technology to reach a larger audience. However, Polanski's Macbeth is much more than 'yet another Shakespeare film'; it is, in fact, one of the most influential filmic representations of Shakespeare's play and this paper will provide evidence to sustain this claim.
It is worth pointing out that Polanski's Macbeth can be analysed only by paying much attention to the socio-political background of the 70s. Therefore, before embarking on the film analysis proper, it is necessary to give a very short presentation of the context in which the film was released. One of the public reactions to the Vietnam War was a youth movement that would influence the mindset of entire generations for many years ahead. The newly-growing hippie subculture favoured a philosophical frame that could be traced back to the Cynics of the Ancient Greece, mixing Jesus Christ's and Gandhi's teachings, European concepts of the fin-de-siècle, music and, last but not least, advocating free love as a means for peace. The momentum of the movement was, undoubtedly, the Woodstock Festival (1969): three days of music, sexual orgies, and drug abuse led to mixed reactions on behalf of the authorities and in the media. But“what's done cannot be undone” (Macbeth, V.1): the hippies made a Puritanical America look with a more indulgent eye on sexual liberation, thus attaining a goal that Playboy Magazine had aimed at since 1955.
Unfortunately, during the period, things escalated and what had primarily started as a reaction against the war absurdly transformed itself into a reign of terror on the other side of America, where members of the Charles Manson commune, guided by philosophies misunderstood from The Beatles' lyrics, prophesied an apocalyptical race war. Apparently, this 'family' aimed at triggering the war effectively through their extremely publicized murders. One of their acts of extreme violence was the famous assassination of a pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski's wife. “It will have blood. They say blood will have blood”(Macbeth, III.4.123). Polanski took the Shakespearean line quite literally and, in the context of the rise of the gory horror films with highly explicit sexual content, he managed to create, probably, the most horrific film adaptation of the Scottish Play.
However, the situation in the world of cinema at the beginning of the 70s was less categorical than during the 90s. With all the transformations, rearrangements of the text, interpolations - to be dealt with further on - Polanski's film is, in the end, a classic Macbeth, it is still Shakespeare. Polanski 'operated' on the text heavily from a traditionalist's standpoint, yet slightly from a more permissive perspective. It is all about the perception and the more or less thorough knowledge of the original text. Unless one performs a 'surgical' investigation of the script lines, listening to the actors' voices in the headphones while reading through the play, one may fail to notice all the alternations of the text, except for the obvious ones, as it is the case of the added finale. No one should think that, since hippie liberties, free sex, Playboy and gory films have been mentioned, Polanski's Macbeth is just a sex'n'violence sordid production. It does tackle both concepts of the misunderstood modern anarchy of the period; nonetheless, it is still an above-the-average rendition of the Shakespearean play.
Film critics almost unanimously praise The Tragedy of Macbeth as one of the classics among the productions based upon this particular play. Internet Movie Database - IMDB - lists about 50 films entitled Macbeth. Polanski's film opens the list, accompanied by a tag that labels it as “one of the best versions of a Shakespeare play that [one] ha[s] seen”. Of course, the film has many flaws, starting with some rather hilarious renditions of the supernatural - excusable because of the year when the film was made, but still hilarious and disposable. Unfortunately, the special effects in Macbeth - the glowing dagger (A7), to be more specific - remind of the effects used in the films for children and that can hardly stand as a compliment for Polanski or his editing team. But then again, to pass a fair judgment, this is a 1971 film and the eyes of the film-goer at the beginning of the millennium should look more tolerantly on the special effects of the time.
On the other hand, what can be judged - regardless of the year of production - is the acting style, especially that of the protagonists, which is, here and there, inconsistent and unprevailing. It is well-known that it is not recommendable to recite Shakespearean blank verse too emphatically; that is a rookie's mistake acceptable only in an outlandish theatre. Shakespeare is emphatic, his verse is usually rich, but 'enriching' it even more by a poor exaggerated performance may easily lead to ridicule. The cast of The Tragedy of Macbeth is not made of rookies, therefore they are not emphatic at all. On the contrary, some of them are flat and linear even during the most dramatic moments. Francesca Annis, the actress cast in one of the leading roles, is, unfortunately, the best example in this respect. She is beautiful, but her performance is inexpressive and does not do justice to her character, one of the most interesting in the entire Shakespearean gallery of women. Despite her youth, (she was 26 when cast in Macbeth), one would have expected Francesca Annis to be more gifted in dealing with the complicated changes of her character's state of mind from ambition and evil-doing to insanity.
Maybe it would be relevant at this point to mention that Polanski had another actress in mind for Lady Macbeth's part, but he had been refused because of the controversial sleepwalking scene, which, in this production, reveals Lady Macbeth stark naked (A14). This was, apparently, one of the conditions set by Hugh Hefner, the owner of Playboy, who actually paid for the whole production. Polanski did not see this as too high a price to pay, although purists claim that the Shakespearean text is thus severely altered with this very 'omission': “Gentlewoman: Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed; throw her night-gown upon her....” (Macbeth, V.1, our emphasis). Alongside Lady Macbeth's sensuality while enticing her husband into murder (A5), the sleepwalking scene is, roughly speaking, responsible for the sexuality that this production of Macbeth stands accused of. Nevertheless, Polanski's casting (more or less willingly) Francesca Annis as a leading actress might have proven a high price after all, precisely because of the ultimate result i.e., a modest performance. Well-acted, Lady Macbeth's character has all the means to surpass her husband's; nevertheless, Francesca Annis offers only seldom moments of this kind. On the other hand, Polanski insisted that the scene of sleepwalking had been conceived with Lady Macbeth naked only because she would have looked more fragile that way. This statement is meant to subversively undermine all implications of feminine power, pointing rather to a patriarchal perception of femininity. In this particular frame, the naked woman does not point to sexuality, but to a form of regressum ab utero, where the adult woman is reduced to the status of an infant, functioning and reasoning exclusively at the level of pulsations. Not only is the woman silenced, and allowed to express herself only when found in a state at the edge of reason, but she is also made to regress.
In the light of Lady Macbeth's portrayal, on the whole, in Polanski's film, the statement above seems rather incongruous. Although the sexual revolution was in bloom, Polanski might have feared the voices of the Shakespearean purists, who could have condemned him for allowing Playboy Magazine to get involved in the production and then this statement can be but an excuse. It is unreasonable to believe that a magazine such as Playboy would have been interested in producing a film after Macbeth, probably the least sexually enticing Shakespearean play, just for art's sake. Playboy needed something in Macbeth to attract their target-customers and undressing Lady Macbeth proved to be the least aggressive intrusion in the Shakespearean text. Therefore, rather than looking for misogynist implications in the scene and in Polanski's statement, one should regard the sleepwalking scene as a commercial compromise and nothing more.
It has been repeatedly remarked that Macbeth is the most misogynist Shakespearean play, partly because of the evil nature of the women involved, partly because of the indecisive character of Lady Macbeth, proven weak after the murder by her insanity and subsequent untimely death. Although Freud tried to analyse Lady Macbeth's behaviour on the grounds of incomplete womanhood due to childlessness, her transformation in the original text seems somehow to lack consistency, the very few hints at her humanity being insufficient to raise such a level of guilt. At first, Lady Macbeth even seems superior to her husband, who, although proven courageous in battle, reveals a cowardly lack of determination. So, she is the one who assumes the role of the leader, whereas her husband only submits to her homicidal requests, more or less against his own will, taking the unflattering part of an agent of the woman's desires. Starting as a full member of Shakespeare's gallery of great feminine characters, seemingly filling in the missing part of the “villainess”, Lady Macbeth gradually loses importance (within the plot of the play) and mental sanity to the point of a death suggested as undignifying. Her downfall parallels Macbeth's ascension towards the status of a tragic hero who made a fatal mistake. To some extent, her destiny mirrors Katharina's - the 'shrew' is “tamed”, silenced by a playwright who can be conveniently interpreted as a misogynist from this point of view.
One of the innovations of Roman Polanski's filmic representation of Macbeth is that of using a very young cast. Previous adaptations used middle-aged actors for the parts of the two protagonists, occasionally opting for a Lady Macbeth visibly older than her husband, in order to explain her power over him or, maybe, her connection with the three witches. Polanski did not do away with this connection completely: for one thing, one of the witches is also young and, at a first sight, she can be mistaken for Lady Macbeth herself, for another, the film emphasises the sensation of a woman's sexual power over her mate. Polanski chose to cast a very beautiful young woman as Lady Macbeth, arguing that “directors always present Lady Macbeth as a nagging bitch. But people who do ghastly things in life, they are not grim, like a horror movie” (qtd in Macbeth: An Exploration of Horror, web). The statement is virtually correct, for the sake of verisimilitude, and even more striking in the context of “unsex me” (A6), which has been explained by various scholars as a wish for amenorrhea. To avoid making things too complicated, one may simply refer to an element of intertextuality emphasised by Douglas Brode: “Polanski's interpretation gradually took shape during the period following Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, a film that proved the commercial possibilities for Shakespeare and produced with the young audience in mind” (2000: 187). Therefore, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth may stand as a malicious counterpart of the young Verona couple (A11). Although Polanski's film is far from being a crowd-pleaser, this may be indeed an element added for commercial reasons; nonetheless, one would rather stick to considering this decision of the director as a means to insinuate into the filmic text strong sexuality that triggers gender power relations.
An awkward contrast with the gloomy atmosphere of the settings is provided by the white outfit Lady Macbeth wears, a gown almost bridal, which, once spotted with the blood of Duncan (A10), enhances the director's vision of the character (quoted above): she is a fair, young, strawberry blond woman in a white dress. None of these features could possibly announce the evil inside her, the cold-blooded murderer that she proves after all to be, despite her rather incidental twinge of conscience in Act II, scene 2. The scene with the preparations for Duncan's murder, when she says: “Had he not resembled, my father as he slept, I had done't.” (II.2) is actually unique in the play and completely missing in the film, and the sole hint at a conscience that will eventually awake to her downfall. Of course, there can be another possible interpretation of this quotation, from a psychoanalytical perspective, surprisingly, unnoticed by Freud himself in his analysis of Macbeth. Thus, Lady Macbeth, voicing her repressed affection for her father, may have been fixated on the father figure since the phallic stage and this, according to Freudian theories, represents the famous penis envy, which, in turn, determines woman's future development as dominatrix and may lead to forms of neurosis such as hysteria. While it would be far-fetched even to ascribe this logic to Shakespeare, it would not be that surprising for Polanski to have known psychoanalytical theories, and to have conscientiously removed any psychoanalytical connotations from the construction of his feminine protagonist.
In addition, by casting so young an actress, Polanski seems to reject completely the Freudian theory according to which Lady Macbeth's evil nature is actuated by her impossibility to be a mother. The lines so frequently quoted from Lady Macbeth's soliloquy, “Come to my woman's breasts, /and take my milk for gall” (I.5.47-48), as well as “I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me” (I.7. 54-55), are completely and carefully removed from the script. Polanski seems to dare the critics to find at least one hint in Lady Macbeth's lines to draw psychoanalytical conclusions.
Despite her final scene(s), the Shakespearean Scottish Queen stands, at least in Polanski's rendition, for a representation of power, a reversed image of what feminist criticism claimed to be a victim of patriarchy. As Hélène Cixous put it,
“Woman is always on the side of passivity. Every time the question comes up; when we examine kinship structures, whenever a family model is brought into play […] as soon as there is a will to say something. A will; desire, authority, you examine that and you are led right back - to the father. You can even fail to notice that there is no place at all for women in the operation! In the extreme, the world of 'being' can function to the exclusion of the mother.” (in Lodge, 1988: 288)
That is definitely not the case with Lady Macbeth in Polanski's film. One could go as far as stating that it is not the case in the Shakespearean play either. It is highly debatable whether even Macbeth himself bears masculine attributes. He is weak-willed, driven by feeling rather than intellect, manipulated by the woman's dark desires, indecisive. By contrast, Lady Macbeth stands, both in the play and - more obviously - in the film, for activity, logos, intelligence, progress, will. She is the new he. Perhaps, once having all the signs of the Lady's weakness in the original text removed, Roman Polanski strove to recreate the character as a more powerful woman than that which Shakespeare - caught in the prejudices of his age - could have portrayed. Adding the ingredient of sexuality - more often than not, an element made to control the man and not the other way round - one can conclude that Lady Macbeth deconstructs, or better said, demolishes all the theories on Macbeth as a misogynist play.
What does remain 'unresolved' in this respect is Lady Macbeth's downfall and premature death: “She should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word”(V. 5) (A16). Of course, Roman Polanski could not have altered the course of the play; a director may modify the source of the adaptation to a certain extent. Crossing the line results in atrocious parodies (as it is the case with Hamlet 2 (2008)). Therefore, powerful or not, main character or not, Lady Macbeth must go insane and die in the film, as she does in the play. One can but rely on the Shakespearean text solely when analysing this part, since Polanski's filmic text is just an accurate transposition at this point. Harold Bloom sees Lady Macbeth's getting off the stage “after Act III, scene 4, except for her short return in a state of madness at the start of Act V” (1998: 517) as a means for Shakespeare to make Macbeth the dominant figure. However, looking at Lady Macbeth from a historicist perspective, she should have died - here or hereafter, it is less important. Macbeth is a political play, meant to please James I, after all, supposedly a king from Banquo's lineage, therefore Banquo's enemies should have been eliminated. Since the source of the Shakespearean play, Holinshed's Historie of Scotland, barely mentions Macbeth's wife , Shakespeare needed an effective way to dispose of this particular character. Insanity and death had already proven efficient enough in Hamlet and it is a common device for the Renaissance tragedies, anyway.
Lady Macbeth's evolution throughout the play is doomed to end in decline. Tormented with ambition, Lady Macbeth is, as even Holinshed had pointed out, before Shakespeare, the main manipulator of Macbeth's mind. Her lines bear stereotypes of manliness. Apart from the soliloquy in which she invokes the spirits (I.5.39-54), Lady Macbeth may seem only to shrewdly manipulate her husband into doing the deed with recurrent references to his manhood. He is, in turn, stuck within the same stereotypical mould - not only has he “done the deed” less from ambition and more to wipe away her “infirm of purpose” imprecation, but he makes use of similar means to convince the two men to become the murderers of Banquo and Fleance. He manipulates the two hired killers just as his wife manipulated him. The language of the two is not able to offer a clear distinction in the issue of masculine/feminine dichotomy. A new question could be raised: is Lady Macbeth masculine or is Macbeth feminine? This is a situation similar to the one posited by Cixous in her article - “[a man] who [does] not repress his femininity and [a woman] who […] inscribes [her] masculinity” (in Lodge, 1988: 289) and it remains practically unanswered, because of the semiotic, which negates precise meanings and fixed signs of male power (God, father, authority, etc, in general, husband, in this particular case.). Thus, the Scottish Play slips from a tragedy of ambition towards a story which, paraphrasing Kristeva, explores sexual hybridity and ambiguity (2005: 155).
The roles are definitely reversed up to a point that corresponds with the crowning of Macbeth as King of Scotland. After this moment, Lady Macbeth retreats to her 'natural' position imposed by patriarchal rules: she is only a wife. The crown, a symbol of power, restores male authority. The moment can be seen as a political allegory of the contemporary events. The playwright puts woman 'in her place' starting with the coronation. It should not be forgotten that the crown - and, implicitly, power - was held by a woman throughout the last decades of the sixteenth century and at the dawn of the seventeenth century. With the coronation of James I, the age of feminine power comes to an end. The visual text is very relevant at this point: Macbeth is crowned in an open space reminding of Stonehenge, suggesting that he has got the ancestors' approval and that patriarchal order is reestablished.
Although she has determined Duncan's death, she is kept in the dark about Macbeth's plans: “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed”(III. 2. 45-46). These lines epitomize the concept of phallogocentrism: the man has been returned the Phallus, “the transcendental signifier, the marker of gendered difference, a symbol of power and authenticity” (Green and LeBihan, 1996: 179) and the logos (Cixous in Lodge, 1988: 287). Macbeth's newly found authority and need to protect his wife may spring for his new position, either that of the King or that of the murderer. Either way, the balance has been restored between the 'natural' position of the stronger male and that of the weaker female, and the play carries on along these coordinates. Insufficiently developed, the woman may just disappear. It happened to Ophelia, too, if one strives to look for recurrent patterns.
Polanski felt an urge to stress the guilt, therefore he added a scene in which Lady Macbeth is depicted re-reading her husband's letter (from Act I) (A4), right before her suicide (A15) (which, surprisingly enough for the violent manner of the film, is not shown until completed). The dead body lies on the ground (A16) during Macbeth's famous speech
“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. “ (V.5)
One must not look upon Polanski's interpretation of Lady Macbeth as so divorced from Shakespeare's, as least not to the extent that other productions (e.g. Mickey B, Scotland PA or the Australian 'gangsta' Macbeth) display. Despite his undeniable personal touch in the interpretation and portrayal of the character - as Lady Macbeth's age is actually left at the director's discretion - Roman Polanski followed William Shakespeare's text closely. Considering intertextuality an exercise of parody or pastiche, one may notice that neither of these descriptions applies to the Polanskian rendition. It would be more appropriate to describe Roman Polanski's Macbeth in Genettian terms as the co-existence of two hypo- and hyper-texts or, even more accurately, to see it in the frame of Roman Jakobson's theory of intersemiotic translation.While the lines are only slightly modified, the sound and the image come to enrich the experience, no matter if the focus is on characters, key events or elements of setting.
As stated in the second chapter, Macbeth - the play - may be approached from various critical perspectives. So may Macbeth - the film. The interpretation of the film in psychoanalytical and feminist terms could be completed by comments on certain choices at the level of the visual text that contribute to representing alterity. Thus, the wild and uncivilised settings filmed by Polanski on location reveal a barbarous Scotland as the territory of the other that, at a first sight, might point, if seen in postcolonial terms, to the fact that the director intended to create a negative hetero-image of the Scots. However, re-evaluating the choice of the setting and taking into account that The Tragedy of Macbeth is a rather faithful adaptation of the Shakespearean play, one cannot reasonably accuse Polanski of xenophobic attitudes against the Scots. It is obvious that the territory of Scotland during the years described not by Shakespeare, but by Holinshed in his chronicles, was anything but refined and civilised, therefore this is only realism and verisimilitude at work in Polanski's film and nothing more.
Roman Polanski has been repeatedly referred to as the kind of director that is not banal but rather anti-canonical (his film Rosemary's Baby, 1968, gained him this label). Therefore, one would expect a Polanski film to break the barriers of the genre, at least in a few definite aspects. Polanski reinterpreted Lady Macbeth's part in a way that would have simply puzzled Shakespeare's contemporaries. Furthermore, he chose to leave the storyline unfinished with an anticipatory end that depicts Donalbain in a hypostasis very similar to that of Macbeth at the beginning of the film, i.e., the encounter with the witches, “upon the heath”. He connected intertextually with Othello, putting Ross in Iago's shoes and increasing his importance in the plot. Last but not least, he lent realism to the play, cutting scenes and rendering soliloquies as voice-overs.
Ultimately, Polanski had to render, as conveniently as possible, two major characteristics of Macbeth as atragedy that has its action develop during the dark, mediaeval times and that does not aim in the least at realism, but makes use of magic and symbolism. His realism is painfully real, whereas magic is hallucinatory and unreal. Thus, clearly divided, the two come eventually to intertwine, creating a Tragedy of Macbeth close enough to the one that the original text unveils beyond its many ambiguities. The next pages will discuss the extreme violence of the film, detailing on how it was rendered and, more important, justified.
In the beginning of this chapter, Sharon Tate's name was mentioned. Victim of one of the most famous murders of the twentieth century, she was Roman Polanski's wife and, judging by the effect on the masses, one can easily imagine the devastating effect on her husband. Since The Tragedy of Macbeth was the first film Polanski made after this unfortunate event, critics unanimously connected it with the unleashed graphic violence of the film. However, Macbeth was not the first 'bloody' film of the Polish director. The overflow of gory horror movies of the same decade might as well indicate his submitting to the demands of his contemporary audiences, in other words, sheer consumerism. Of course, this is highly debatable, since this is about Shakespeare, on the one hand, and Polanski, on the other; still, it is a hypothesis worth mentioning.
Although far from an in-depth film analysis, this chapter is ultimately about a film, hence, before going on speculating on Polanski's reasons, it would be appropriate to describe the most horrific scenes and to illustrate them with eloquent images. The first one is the Thane of Cawdor's death, a detailed execution completely missing from the original text (A3). Of course, Shakespeare could not foresee technological progress or that his works would endure over the next four centuries, therefore he did not write anything that actors could not show on the Renaissance stages. But the gallows are significant not because they are horrid, but due to an image of the dead body hanging that lingers in Macbeth's eyes, while his thoughts start knocking off in the known direction. It is almost a warning, which will be rounded off in the end of the film, when Macbeth is beheaded (A17). An anonymous user of IMDB has as eloquently commented on this particular scene:
“Polanski (…) makes use of some interesting camera techniques. The most remarkable is the point-of-view shot from Macbeth's severed head. We actually see through his eyes for some time, although his vision is (understandably) blurry. Then, as his head is paraded around atop a pike, the sound gradually fades out. A very creepy moment, indeed, as the audience watches Macbeth die from his own perspective.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067372/)
Two other scenes are actually horrific and may entitle film critics to connect Macbeth - the film with Polanski's own life experience, i.e., the treacherous murder of King Duncan and the massacre of Macduff's family. The former begins with burdensome silence, in darkness, with only some pale light flickering on the face of the murderer to be. Polanski 'allows' the king to face his assassin. In the Shakespearean text, the murder is not rendered explicitly, it obviously took place between the first two scenes of Act II, but for the reasons indicated above, it is not brought visually to the stage. However, Polanski did not want to make a determined man out of his personal Macbeth, but (as already shown in the discussion concerning Lady Macbeth) a weak character, driven by his wife rather than his own ambitions. Therefore, he 'opens' the eyes of Duncan, who even utters a perplexed “Macbeth” and this is actually the spring that sets off the murder - Macbeth could no longer escape, once seen with the knife in his hand near the king's bed. The crown falls off the bed (A9), effective visual symbol of the regicide, the ultimate subversion of authority, and the king is stabbed eight times (A8). This is the closest image to Sharon Tate's death, whose autopsy revealed a strikingly similar murder. Polanski, however, repeatedly denied any connection between his wife's murder and his Shakespearean film:
“Most American critics assumed that I'd used the film for some cathartic purpose. In fact, I'd chosen to make Macbeth because I thought that Shakespeare, at least, would preserve my motives from suspicion. After the Manson murders, it was clear that whatever kind of film I'd come out with next would have been treated in the same way. If I'd made a comedy, the charge would have been one of callousness.” (Polanski, 1984: 297, qtd. in Bamber, 2008: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/cteq/macbeth/#10)
Polanski brought in an argument that could be easily accepted - when making a film about murder, one has to actually show the murder, for the sake of verisimilitude. In support of his idea of a highly realistic Shakespeare, he stated that: “If you use the screen as a medium, then what you tell has to be told by visual means” (Dubois, “Playboy Interview: Roman Polanski”, vol. 18, no. 12, December 1971, p. 96, qtd. in Bamber, 2008: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/cteq/macbeth/#10).
The next scene to be brought into discussion seems to follow the same pattern, that of the need to show murder. The scene of the murder of the Thane of Fife's family, enriched with an allusion to Ross' involvement, inexistent in the Shakespearean text, is the one that attracted the most vehement critics due to its extreme brutality inflicted on children. The images speak for themselves, so do the mind-penetrating screams. Contradicting previous statements regarding personal implications in the production, Polanski declared that this particular scene originated in a childhood memory:
“My treatment of another scene was based on a childhood experience. This is the moment in Act IV when the murderers dispatched by Macbeth burst in on Lady Macduff and her young son. I suddenly recalled how the SS officer had searched our room in the ghetto, swishing his riding crop to and fro, toying with my teddy bear, and nonchalantly emptying out the hatbox full of forbidden bread. The behavior of Macbeth's henchmen was inspired by that recollection.” (Polanski, 1984: 291, qtd. in Bamber, 2008: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/cteq/macbeth/#10)
After such a statement, Polanski's claims of detachment from his personal experiences are preposterous. Moreover, critics seem to have regarded the final frame of the scene that shows the bloodied baby in the cradle as an image of Tate and Polanski's unborn child (A13).
Magic and superstitions play an undeniable part in the entire Shakespearean work. Fairies, magical potions, magi, ghosts or witches populate his worlds, sometimes at the edge of men's realm, inhabiting the woods, and the islands, sometimes interfering and - questionably - influencing the mortals' lives. The presence of the supernatural in the works of the Renaissance playwright should constitute an argument in itself against any critical tendency to regard and, subsequently, interpret Shakespeare as a creator of realist drama. Macbeth, marked more than any other play by the interference of the feminine supernatural, becomes enticing for gender studies scholars not only with regard to the Scottish queen, but also to the three “wyrd sisters”. The question most often posed is whether the feminine influence exercised upon Macbeth from the two directions is a symbol of the evil that lies in women's heart or a sure sign of the feminine power. These two interpretations do not exclude one another, otherwise, and this gives way to endless debates upon the assumed Shakespearean misogyny. For regarding woman as inextricably evil is almost as inappropriate, in the eyes of anti-patriarchal radicals, as placing her in an inferior position, in the shadow of man. Such perspectives are deleterious to the entire history of literature, not only to Shakespeare or his Macbeth in particular.
This chapter has set out to refute the accusations of misogyny against Shakespeare and to demonstrate, subsequently, that the gender struggle in Macbeth favours, more often than not, woman, her power and, going back to the French feminists' theories, her being the voiced part. The four films develop, to different degrees, along, roughly speaking, the same lines, and this is one of the very reasons why they have been selected from the immense list of adaptations or interpretations of Macbeth for the screen or television. The feminine characters of the original play gain power through sexuality in Polanski's Macbeth, due to the influence of the sexual revolution in the 60s. This was hardly the case with the Bard, therefore the sexuality at work in all the four films analysed is one of the major departures from the original play and, at the same time, one of the most obvious instances of hypertextuality connecting the 1971 film with the twenty-first century ones.
In Polanski's film, sexuality as an expression of feminine power, however timid, is exclusively Lady Macbeth's part. The witches are not the bearded creatures Macbeth and Banquo encounter - “you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so” (I.3.45-47); yet, they are not sexually attractive either. The innovation consists in introducing a very young third witch, alongside the very old ones (A2). This young weird sister has no other apparent role than to complete the triad from the original text, but the physical appearance of the actress playing that part may lead to the speculation that Polanski purposely looked for a certain resemblance to Francesca Annis, Lady Macbeth in the film. This is, otherwise, the only hint at the critical interpretation of Lady Macbeth as the 'fourth witch', therefore Polanski rather seems not to embrace this particular interpretation, allowing the two sets of feminine forces to exert their influence upon Macbeth's conscience independently from one another.
Following the original text closely, the opening of Polanski's Macbeth belongs to the three witches and their short anticipatory dialogue, rendered in reverse order of the lines: the famous chiasmus “Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (I.1.10-11), which ends the first scene is, in fact, the very first sentence uttered in the film. The two lines in the dialogue referring to Greymalkin (the witch's attendant spirit, a grey cat - Barnet, 1963: 37) were deleted as irrelevant. The setting is chosen by Polanski, since the Shakespearean text only indicates “an open place”. Polanski's open place is the seashore, with wet sands, at a blood red dawn and his witches' actions are visually effective in acquiring proleptic overtones: they bury a dead man's hand holding a knife, pouring blood and chanting (A1). The ritual, obviously witchcraft, suggests that the events in Macbeth are not predicted by the three weird women, but triggered by supernatural forces.
The scene in which Macbeth hears the actual predictions (I.3) is concentrated to a minimum, the nursery rhymes uttered by the witches prior to the encounter being deleted in the filmic text. The original soundtrack composed by the Third Ear Band takes over, in an anticipatory tune reminding of operatic overtures, while the camera focuses, throughout the entire scene, on the images of the two men, in a medium-shot that leaves the witches out of the sight, their voices being superimposed. The supernatural effect is thus enhanced and the combination of image and sound has a powerful impact, although it is partially annulled by the witches' exit through a door, with the youngest witch inexplicably showing the men behind her, and by Macbeth's mismatched and disposable words about their vanishing: “Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted/ as breath into the wind” (I.3.82-84).
On the other hand, the witches' third scene, corresponding to the second encounter with Macbeth (IV.1), is excessively based on hallucinatory visual effects, pertaining, despite the nakedness of the women, not to sexuality, but to grotesque (A12). Influenced by the probable interpolation of the goddess Hecate in the original text (“Enter Hecate and the other Three Witches”- IV.1.39), Polanski chose to represent the first scene of Act IV as a demonical 'congressum', casting a significant number of old women, to assist the three witches in preparing the magical brew. The scene prefigures the witchy orgy in Geoffrey Wright's Macbeth, nonetheless; nothing of the sort takes place in Polanski's production. It is but another argument in defence of the idea that the production is not 'sold out' to the requirements of a sexually-driven market, as the involvement of Playboy might suggest. The prophecies are shown kaleidoscopically, fairly difficult to follow at a normal pace, but a trained eye should notice that the first apparition, “an Armed Head”, is Macbeth himself, that the second, “a Bloody Child” is actually the same image to be seen later in the film during the massacre of Macduff's family, while the boy resembles Macduff's elder son. An interesting case of prolepsis, the exclusive merit of Polanski that has nothing to do with the Shakespearean text, is the instant image of Macbeth's severed head, the very image that would be frightfully shown in close-up at the end of the film.
Interestingly enough, the image chosen for the cover-artwork of the DVD, released in 2002, is not an image of the two protagonists, but it belongs to this very scene; more specifically, it is Banquo, wearing a crown and holding the mirror for Macbeth to see the line of the eight kings. Since this very important paratextual element should function as a synthesis of the entire film in one single image, the film critic might consider Polanski's film as revolving around the murder of Banquo and the question of the lineage. Nevertheless, as already proven, The Tragedy of Macbeth is much more than that, meeting Shakespeare's vision in so many points, interpreting it and appropriating it in so many others, that it can be unmistakably considered one of the most successful adaptations for the screen of this bloody tragedy of treason and ambition. Despite minor flaws, owing mainly to technical possibilities in the film industry of the 70s (such as the special effects), Polanski's production remains even nowadays, forty years after its release, a reference text in the analysis of the Shakespearean plays transposed into film and a source of inspiration for directors and scriptwriters approaching William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
“The woords of the thrée weird sisters also (of whome before ye haue heard) greatlie incouraged him herevunto, but speciallie his wife lay sore vpon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.” (Holinshed's Chronicles, Volume V: Scotland, p. 269, available at www.shakespeare-navigators.com/macbeth/Holinshed/Holin269.html.
- Shakespeare, William (1997) Macbeth in A. R. Braunmuller, (ed.), The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Shakespeare, William (1963) Macbeth, edited by Sylvan Barnet, The Signet Classic Shakespeare, New York: New American Library.
- Holinshed, Raphael (1808) Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Volume V: Scotland, London: J. Johnson et al., available at www.shakespeare-navigators.com/macbeth/Holinshed/Holin269.html (accessed on November 24, 2010).
- Polanski, Roman (dir.), The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), a Columbia Pictures/Playboy production, USA/UK.
- Bloom, Harold (1998) Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead.
- Bamber, Martyn (2008) “Macbeth”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film in Senses of Cinema, Issue 46, available at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/cteq/macbeth/#10 (accessed on April 22, 2011)
- Brode, Douglas (2000) “Fatal Vision” in Shakespeare in the Movies. From the Silent Era to Shakespeare in Love, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 175-187.
- Cartmell, Deborah(2000) Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen, London: Macmillan.
- Cixous, Hélène (1975) “Sorties”, in David Lodge (ed.), (1988) Modern Criticism and Theory. A Reader, New York: Longman, pp. 286-293.
- *** “Macbeth: an Exploration of Horror”, available athttp://celluloidwords.blogspot.com/2008/08/editorial-for-oct-07-newsletter.html (accessed on April 22, 2011).
- *** “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, IMDB, available at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067372/ (accessed on April 22, 2011).