Macbeth on screen - Macbeth

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Macbeth on screen


Shakespeare could not, of course, have imagined a world in which people would see performances of his plays projected onto large or small screens rather than acted live in theaters, but that has become the case. In the more than one hundred years since the first film of a Shakespeare play was made (in 1899, an excerpt from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of King John), the screen has become Shakespeare’s proper medium no less than the stage or the printed page. If Shakespeare’s works are undisputedly literary classics and staples of our theatrical repertories, they have also inescapably become a part of the modern age’s love affair with film. In a movie theater, on a television screen, or on a DVD player, Shakespeare’s plays live for us, and thereby reach audiences much greater than those that fill our theaters.

It is, however, a development not always welcomed. Some critics complain that Shakespeare on screen is different from (and worse than) Shakespeare in the theater. Certainly it is a distinct experience to see a play in a darkened movie theater with actors larger than life. It is different, too, to see it on a television screen with actors smaller than they are in life, and where the experience of play watching is inevitably more private than in any theater.

But there are obvious advantages as well. On screen, performances are preserved and allowed easily to circulate. If films of Shakespeare may sometimes lack the exhilarating provisionality of live theater, they gain the not insignificant benefit of easy accessibility. In a town without a theater company one can see a Shakespeare play virtually at will. Some newly filmed version of a Shakespeare play is released seemingly every year. A video or DVD can be rented even if the film itself has passed from the local cineplex. And on video we can replay—even interrupt—the performance, allowing it to repeat itself as we attend to details that might otherwise be missed.

Filmed Shakespeare is indeed different from staged Shakespeare or Shakespeare read, but it is no less valuable for being so. It provides a way—and for most of us the most convenient way—to see the plays. For people who cannot get to the theater and who find the printed text difficult to imagine as a theatrical experience, filmed Shakespeare offers easy access to a performance. For students for whom the language of a play often seems stilted and archaic, the enactment clarifies the psychological and social relations of the characters. For all of us who love Shakespeare, his availability on film gives us an archive of performances to be viewed and enjoyed again and again. It is no less an authentic experience than seeing Shakespeare in the theater, for the modern theater (even the self-conscious anachronisms like the rebuilt Globe) imposes its own anachronisms upon the plays (as indeed does a modern printed edition like this one). And arguably, as many like to claim, if Shakespeare lived today he would most likely have left Stratford for Hollywood.

On stage, Macbeth suffers under such a reputation for bad luck that theater folk refer to it euphemistically as “the Scottish play” rather than pronounce that fearful name. Not so in the world of film and television. Macbeth has inspired several memorable versions on screen and at least two that are excellent. With its frightening witches and apparitions, its ghost scene, and its intimate depiction of a conspiratorial murder that leads inexorably to devastating consequences, Macbeth positively invites the kinds of visualization that film and television make possible.

Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948) helped show the way. One must make large allowances for its having been filmed in twenty-three days on a skimpy budget of $700,000, with the result that the sets are huddled together, the costumes a jumble of inconsistency, the spoken words poorly synchronized and bewilderingly uttered in an attempt at Scots dialect, and some of the acting inadequately discharged. The Hollywood studio officials in charge of production so disliked what they saw that Welles’s film was cut to eighty-six minutes. Critics were generally hostile when the film first appeared. Only later, in 1980, when the excised footage was restored to the original total of 105 minutes, did audiences begin to appreciate what Welles had accomplished. Welles’s Macbeth is a man so desperate for power that he only partly understands what he is doing. His act of murder is trancelike, out of control; in the aftermath of this dreadful act, he attempts to submerge a guilty conscience by his heavy drinking. Events are seen from his distracted perspective. We as audience witness the ghost of Banquo over Macbeth’s shoulder, as if through his brain; we experience with Macbeth the appearances and disappearances of the ghost that film can so persuasively present to us as the figments of an overworked imagination. The camera work is, at these times, truly cinematic, though elsewhere Welles draws heavily on his experience in radio (with voice-over soliloquies) and on stage (especially his all-black “voodoo” production of Macbeth for the Federal Theater Project in Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre in 1936 and his later staging of the play for the Utah Shakespeare Festival). Low-angle and deep-focus shots recall the filming techniques of Citizen Kane. As is often the case in Welles’s work, the film is really about him, and some of the supporting roles (Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth, Dan O’Herlihy as Macduff, Roddy McDowall as Malcolm) are uneven. Welles himself is more bombastic than introspective. Also characteristic of Welles is the rewriting of the narrative, with an invented Holy Father (Alan Napier) representing the forces of Christianity doing battle with the forces of paganism in the persons of the three Weird Sisters, ludicrously visualized in a Black Mass.

Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (black and white, 1957, titled in Japanese Kumonosu-Djo or “The Castle of the Spider’s Web”) is one of the great films of its era, Shakespearean or otherwise. After a mournful prelude in which a chorus sings of time’s inevitable destructiveness, and a sequence in which the Duncan figure of this film, Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), receives intelligence reports of the fighting against his enemy and the treason of the Cawdor-like Fujimaki, we watch as Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and his friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) lose their way in a nightmarishly storm-lashed forest and thereupon encounter a ghostlike evil spirit (Chieko Naniwa) who eerily prophesies that Washizu, now the commander of Fort One, will come to rule over the North Mansion and then the Spider’s Web Castle of Tsuzuki. Miki is destined to become the ruler of Fort One, but it is his son who is to be the eventual commander of the castle. Thus does Kurosawa relocate the Macbeth story in the strife-torn, warlord-dominated world of late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Japan. Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is the relentlessly determined wife of Washizu, seeking vicariously through her husband the exercise of power that restrictive samurai customs will not permit a woman. Dispensing entirely with Shakespeare’s text, this subtitled Japanese film does a remarkable job of finding its own words and images to convey the intensity and terrifying beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. Washizu is given no soliloquies, and his wife is as demurely soft-spoken as her wifely role and Noh acting tradition demand; in the taut sequence leading up to and extending beyond the murder of Tsuzuki, no word is spoken for seven breathtaking minutes. Later, a riderless white horse returning to the castle becomes a mute signal to us that Miki has been murdered at Washizu’s instigation. Washizu is finally brought to account by his own troops, transfixed by hundreds of arrows as due punishment for his having so desecrated the samurai code.

The best televised dramatization of Macbeth is Trevor Nunn’s version of 1979, based on his bare-stage 1976 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon’s experimental and low-budget The Other Place. Against a blacked-out backdrop and with few props (with a circle of light surrounded by chairs and darkness taking the place of stools; beer crates had been placed in front of the spectators in the staged version, allowing the actors to sit there from time to time before entering the circular lighted arena), this Macbeth focuses on the intense interplay of husband and wife, as Macbeth (Ian McKellen) and his lady (Judi Dench) work themselves up to murder their royal guest. As portrayed by Griffith Jones, King Duncan is so meek and gracious in his half-blinded old age that the crime is simply horrific in its violation of hospitality and all human decency. The king’s son Malcolm (Roger Rees) is a young man of massive decency, forced by cruel circumstance to prevaricate briefly with Macduff as a test and as a precaution against treachery. Banquo (John Woodvine) is Macbeth’s equal in shrewd intelligence while at the same time able to resist the insidious temptations that he too finds intriguing. Macduff (Bob Peck) is so genuinely pious and loving of his country that his goodness stands out in bold relief against the evils of regicide and tyranny. Yet McKellen and Dench are anything but pasteboard villains. McKellen traverses an extraordinary range of emotions from self-confidence to terror and despair as his conscience wages a losing battle with his ambition. Dench as Lady Macbeth prevails over her husband, despite her unnerving vacillation between resolve and uncertainty, only to collapse later into the hellish nightmare of her sleepwalking. Nunn’s secret as director seems to have been in capturing on television the magic of the staged original by subverting the conventions of television realism. Seldom have the critics been so unanimous in their praise.

When compared with the powerful achievements of Kurosawa and Nunn, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), funded in large part by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Productions and coming in the wake of the 1969 murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by cult members of the Charles Manson “family,” seems partly calculated to appeal to prurient interests. Nor does Polanski skirt the least opportunity for sensationalism. The witches are nude, albeit grotesquely unattractive enough to frustrate the expectations of Playboy regulars. Bloody violence predominates in actions that Shakespeare chooses to hide from view: Macbeth (Jon Finch) slaughters King Duncan (Nicholas Selby) with repeated gashes; the body of the murdered Banquo (Martin Shaw) floats head downward in a stream with an ax buried between his shoulder blades; in the banquet scene, Banquo’s ghost bleeds from a slit throat; Macduff (Terence Bayler) beheads Macbeth with a decisive blow. Macbeth hallucinates a babe being “untimely ripped” from the womb. The violence and bloodshed that are assuredly at the heart of Shakespeare’s play are never mitigated in Polanski’s grim saga. The film’s political vision is also unrelentingly dark in the vein of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary: Ross (John Stride) is no loyal follower but a cunning opportunist ready to outdo the villainy of Macbeth himself, while King Duncan’s younger son, Donalbain (Paul Shelley), seethes with frustrated ambition, so that we are to understand that the cycle of violent overthrow with which the play is so concerned will continue to plague Scotland. An epilogue shows Donalbain visiting the Weird Sisters, drawn irresistibly to their malevolent counsel. Picturesque landscapes and medieval fortresses, filmed in Wales and Northumberland, visually offset the horrors enacted within the stony precincts of these castles. Rich furnishings, livestock, and sound effects keep the scene in continual motion. Warfare is for Polanski a theater of cruelty made up of gallows, hanging corpses, and butchery. At twenty-eight years of age, Finch plays a very young Macbeth opposite an even younger Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis, age twenty-five). Their soliloquies are delivered for the most part as voice-overs. Annis is naked for her sleepwalking scene. At their best, husband and wife suggest an insidious symbiotic relationship between eroticism and power. The whole effect seemed trendily poised as a commentary on the violent confrontation and disillusionment about Vietnam and American political life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For his 1982 contribution to the Shakespeare Plays series, the director Jack Gold cast Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire as a fiercely dynamic Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, well supported by Ian Hogg as Banquo, Tony Doyle as Macduff, and Mark Dignam as Duncan. Yet the production was considered murky by most critics, to whom Williamson’s voice seemed strangulated, rasping, and harsh, in an interpretation that came across as conscience-stricken, self-deceived, and schizophrenic. Lapotaire, in the view of some critics, gave a memorably sexualized interpretation of her “unsex me here” speech; to others, the effect was embarrassing. This production was, in short, controversial, falling below the standard set by the BBC earlier in a stirring interpretation broadcast in 1970 and again in 1975, with Eric Porter as a Macbeth who grows as his character descends into evil and Janet Suzman as a Lady Macbeth whose performance captures the sexual vitality that the part requires. An even earlier televised production of note, presented by Hallmark on NBC on November 28, 1954, in pioneering color transmission, starred Judith Anderson as a Lady Macbeth of considerable grandeur and Maurice Evans as a somewhat disappointing Macbeth; both tend to orate. A second Hallmark production with Anderson and Evans, filmed in color on location in Scotland, was broadcast in 1960; it became for a time a staple of classroom use.

Macbeth has inspired adaptations and spin-offs of note, none of them remotely worthy of comparison with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Joe MacBeth (1955) stars Paul Douglas in the title role as a Chicago mobster who is rewarded by the boss, Big Duca (Grégoire Aslan), with a splendid mansion on Lakeview Drive for rubbing out a troublesome rival; abetted by his attractive wife, Lily (Ruth Roman), Joe takes advantage of Duca’s visit to a house party at the MacBeths’ to murder the boss as they are swimming in the lake. Men of Respect (1991) is a New York gangster thriller about a certain Mike Battaglia (John Turturro) who claws his way to the top in partnership with his ambitious wife Ruthie (Katherine Borowitz) by killing the godfather of his Mafia empire, Charlie d’Amico (Rod Steiger). A cycle of violence ensues in which Mike’s friend Bankie (Dennis Farina as the Banquo equivalent) is taken care of, though Bankie’s son Philly manages to escape. Eventually another godfather takes over. A filmed production of Verdi’s opera, Macbeth, of uncertain date, is obtainable on video.



1. 1908


J. Stuart Blackton, director

Macbeth—William V. Ranous

Lady Macbeth—Louise Carver

Macduff—Paul Panzer

Duncan—Charles Kent

2. 1911

Cooperative Cinematograph Co.

Frank R. Benson, director

Macbeth—Frank R. Benson

3. 1916 (not extant)

Reliance Motion Picture Corp.

D. W. Griffith, producer

John Emerson, director

Macbeth—Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Lady Macbeth—Constance Collier

Malcolm—Lawrence Noskowski

Macduff—Wilfred Lucas

Banquo—Ralph Lewis

Duncan—Spottiswoode Aitken

4. 1922

Master Productions

H. B. Parkinson, producer and director

Macbeth—Russell Thorndike

Lady Macbeth—Sybil Thorndike

5. 1946

Willow Productions

David Bradley, producer

Thomas A. Blair, director

Macbeth—David Bradley

Lady Macbeth—Jain Wilimorsky

Macduff—William Bartholomay

Duncan—Louis Northrop

6. 1948

Republic Pictures and Mercury Films

Orson Welles, producer and director

Macbeth—Orson Welles

Lady Macbeth—Jeanette Nolan

Malcolm—Roddy McDowall

Macduff—Dan O’Herlihy

Banquo—Edgar Barrier

Duncan—Erskine Sandford

7. 1954

Hallmark Hall of Fame (TV)

George Schaefer, producer and director

Macbeth—Maurice Evans

Lady Macbeth—Judith Anderson

Malcolm—Roger Hamilton

Macduff—Richard Waring

Banquo—Staats Cotsworth

Duncan—House Jameson

8. 1970, 1975


Cedric Messina, producer

John Gorrie, director

Macbeth—Eric Porter

Lady Macbeth—Janet Suzman

Macduff—John Woodvine

Banquo—John Thaw

9. 1971

Playboy Productions and Columbia Pictures

Hugh Hefner, producer

Roman Polanski, director

Macbeth—Jon Finch

Lady Macbeth—Francesca Annis

Malcolm—Stephan Chase

Macduff—Terence Bayler

Banquo—Martin Shaw

Duncan—Nicholas Selby

10. 1979

Thames Television (TV version of 1976 production by RSC)

Trevor Nunn, producer

Trevor Nunn (stage), Philip Casson (television), directors

Macbeth—Ian McKellen

Lady Macbeth—Judi Dench

Malcolm—Roger Rees

Macduff—Rob Peck

Banquo—John Woodvine

Duncan—Griffith Jones

11. 1982

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Raymond Crinkley, producer

Sarah Caldwell, director

Macbeth—Philip Anglim

Lady Macbeth—Maureen Anderman

Malcolm—John Vickery

Macduff—J. Kenneth Campbell

Banquo—Fritz Sperberg

Duncan—Neil Vipond

12. 1983

BBC/Time-Life Television

Shaun Sutton, producer

Jack Gold, director

Macbeth—Nicol Williamson

Lady Macbeth—Jane Lapotaire

Macduff—Tony Doyle

Banquo—Ian Hogg

Duncan—Mark Dignam

13. 1988

Thames Television

Charles Warren, producer and director

Macbeth—Michael Jayston

Lady Macbeth—Barbara Leigh Hunt

Malcolm—David Weston

Macduff—Gary Watson

14. 1997

Cromwell Productions

Bob Carruthers, Shona Donaldson, David McWhinnie, George Mitchell, and Gary Russell, producers

Jeremy Freeston, director

Macbeth—Jason Connery

Lady Macbeth—Helen Baxendale

Malcolm—Ross Dunsmore

Macduff—Kenneth Bryans

Banquo—Graham McTavish

Duncan—John Corvin


1. 1955, Joe MacBeth

Film Locations: A Frankovich Production

Ken Hughes, director

Joe MacBeth—Paul Douglas

Lily MacBeth—Ruth Roman

Big Dutch—Harry Green

Duca—Grégoire Aslan

2. 1957, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-Djo, or “The Castle of the Spider’s Web”)

Toho Company Ltd.

Akira Kurosawa, director

Taketori Washizu (Macbeth)—Toshirô Mifune

Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth)—Isuzu Yamada

Miki (Banquo)—Minoru Chiaki

3. 1991, Men of Respect

Central Film City / Arthur Goldblatt Productions

William Reilly, director

Mike Battaglia—John Turturro

Ruth Battaglia—Katherine Borowitz

Bankie Como—Dennis Farina

Duffy—Peter Boyle

Charlie D’Amico—Rod Steiger