A Merciless 'Macbeth'

By Jami Ake
Senior Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities
Assistant Dean, College of Arts & Sciences

The latest film adaptation of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel, admirably grapples with the horrors of Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy. With few deviations from the 17th-century script, Kurzel somehow makes this Macbeth even more gruesome and hopeless than Shakespeare’s bloody original, constructing a familiar tragic plot with an intensity that tests our own cinematically muted consciences along the way.

From its opening scenes, the film offers up a world of mourning, violence and utter desolation, so that even before we hear a word of dialogue, we witness both the measured funeral of a child and a bloody battle fought on an expanse of heath that hardly seems worth conquering. As the setting for the 11th-century story of murder and ambition, the bleak Scottish countryside becomes more than merely a backdrop, reminding us, on one hand, of the hopelessness that prompts aspiration and, on the other hand, of how little here is to be gained in winning.

IKurzel's unsettling witches are more human than supernatural in his adaptation of <i>Macbeth</i>.n spite of both the appetites of present-day film audiences for all creatures supernatural or magical and the early modern cultural obsession with witchcraft that surrounded the play’s first productions, Kurzel's film seems much less interested in supernatural sources of evil than with thoroughly human ones. While Shakespearean critics continue to disagree about whether Shakespeare’s witches are mere harbingers or active instigators of Macbeth's tragic fate, Kurzel locates the logic of the play's action firmly within the realm of human desire and decision-making. Whereas Shakespeare’s play famously opens with a conspiratorial gathering of witches anticipating (or is it scripting?) the action yet to come, Kurzel's film opens with a distinctly human ritual: the funeral of the Macbeths’ infant child — a scene nowhere to be found in the original play. The witches, who seem more like itinerant mystics than the strange bearded women Banquo questions in Shakespeare's play, walk into the scene through the Scottish mist with their cryptic greetings and equivocal prophecies, but are neither particularly malevolent nor especially otherworldly in their powers.

After opening scenes of funeral, slaughter in war and mysterious prophecy, what innocence that remains is undermined by the pervasive joylessness in the world of the film, even —and perhaps most poignantly — among the play’s many children. Well before Macbeth’s killings begin, even the youngest of the children we see at the edges of the action look haunted, burdened with a seriousness beyond their years. At the same time, like Shakespeare’s play, Kurzel’s film insists we see that there is much more at stake than the individual casualties of Macbeth’s growing ambition and paranoia. In his relentless and increasingly vicious killing of other people’s children, Macbeth violates nature, generation and time itself.

To be sure, Kurzel takes his cue from Shakespeare’s determination that we see for ourselves the murder of innocents — and innocence — most unmistakably in the slaying of MacDuff’s wife and children. Shakespeare’s Macbeth sends murderers to perform the slaughter — an act of killing that the theater audience witnesses directly in a scene that includes the pathos-filled death of MacDuff’s young son as he futilely attempts to protect his mother from his murderers. Kurzel manages to amplify the cruelty here and elsewhere, seeming to supply his insatiably murderous protagonist both with a constant supply of children to massacre and with increasingly horrifying techniques to do so.

Kurzel’s Macbeth does not leave the killing to his unnamed assassins. In the moment where the film’s protagonist finally moves beyond all redemption, Macbeth himself lights the fire that burns MacDuff’s wife and all of his “pretty ones” at the stake. Hardly a private and cowardly act orchestrated out of public view, this execution becomes a spectacle of cruelty performed publicly for a dwindling audience of terrified supporters. The scene also provides a rationale for why even the notoriously hard-hearted Lady Macbeth begins to suffer from an awakened conscience; overwrought at the appallingly gruesome execution, Lady Macbeth next appears compulsively cleaning the daggers that Macbeth used to kill his king and that she herself had strategically placed in the hands of Duncan’s sleeping guards.

Unfortunately, the deaths of the MacDuffs also becomes a turning point for Macbeth’s tragic intelligibility in a way that begins to threaten Kurzel’s larger narrative purposes. If part of the continuing appeal of Macbeth as a tragic figure is his profound struggle with conscience — his keen awareness of the emotional and soul-killing consequences of homicide and his ultimate determination to kill nonetheless — the extraordinarily cruel deaths of the MacDuff family make it difficult for the film’s audience to reinvest in the ongoing drama of Macbeth’s wrestling with his own mind, including his deep concern about losing his conscience and the specifically human emotions that accompany it.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: their marriage, writes Jami Ake, "is arguably one of the best in the Shakespearean canon full of precarious and questionable matches." Perhaps because no one in the film seems to possess the capacity for pleasure, let alone joy, Kurzel’s film misses an opportunity to investigate complexity and depth of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — a marriage that is arguably one of the best in a Shakespearean canon full of precarious and questionable matches. The film — and many productions, eager to showcase the emergence of madness over the loss of intimacy — sidesteps the importance of their emotional and intellectual compatibility. As a result, their relationship seems nothing but perverse for most of the film — a perversity most clearly on display as the couple has sex on the altar of the village church while Lady Macbeth smoothly scripts out the regicidal plot. This particular scene’s conflation of homicidal vow and erotic consummation at (or on) the altar crystallizes the Macbeths’ particular perversity: their vows and consummation bring forth only death.

The altar is the same one where we have seen Lady Macbeth calling on the dark spirits to “unsex” her in preparation for Macbeth’s homecoming. And only a few scenes later, Duncan’s corpse is laid out to be mourned at this very spot before the altar. Much later in the film, we see Lady Macbeth’s torment lead her back to the same church altar as the “spot” she cannot stop rehearsing in her imagination. Kurzel’s choice not to depict a clichéd sleepwalking and obsessively hand-rubbing Lady Macbeth invites us to understand her distraction as one burdened as much by time as by contamination. Witnessing Lady Macbeth returning to the church altar in an apparent attempt to choose an alternate course of action also ensures that we become more than pitying spectators of a pathetically unhinged Lady Macbeth. We, too, are trapped in the nightmare of reliving the horror, of seeming to move forward only to return relentlessly to the same “spot” with no hope of changing the future.

As he concludes his film, Kurzel adds an extra layer to Shakespeare’s already symmetrical plot structure. Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins as it ends, with the death of a traitorous Thane of Cawdor, a symmetry that might suggest an inevitably repeating cycle of aspiration, violence and short-lived stability. Kurzel’s film begins and ends with a child — the first about to be buried after an all-too-brief life, and the second, Banquo’s son Fleance, carefully extracting the dead Macbeth’s sword from the dead king’s body before escaping unnoticed into a thick mist ominously forming under a blood-red sky. It is difficult to tell whether Kurzel wanted to offer us a glimpse of hope in Fleance’s furtive exit, or whether this young boy, haunted by the murderousness that has orphaned him and bloodied Scotland, will meet the witches on the heath as grips the sword of the tyrant.