Shakespeare’s Horror Story: The Foul and Fair of ‘Macbeth’ | Part 1
By Brian Keiper
Witches, madness, gore, ghosts, beheadings; make no mistake, Macbeth is a horror story. It is an exploration of ambition, murder, and the tormented conscience, a play filled with tensions and contradictions, paradoxes and equivocations. Nothing in Macbeth is ever so cut and dry as pure good or evil. It explores the push and pulls between fate and free will, duty and ambition, even sacred and profane. It is a poetic, nuanced, blood-soaked masterpiece of the darkness that dwells deep in the human heart.
Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair
Paradoxes appear in Macbeth’s first line “so fair and foul a day I have not seen” referring to the horror of battle and the fact that he and his companion Banquo have won the day. It is an echo of the witches' first scene “fair is foul, and foul is fair hover through the fog and filthy air,” illustrating that the day’s weather is also foul on the war-blasted heath where much of the play’s action is set.
It is an uncomfortable play. We are forced to identify with Macbeth. To relate to his desires and understand his deeds. As noted Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom writes, “we are to journey inward to Macbeth’s heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly…” Macbeth is the archetype of the anti-hero, the villain we are asked to understand even as we are appalled by his actions. He is the prototype of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or perhaps most apt, Michael Corleone in The Godfather films. His ambition eclipses his sense of morality but if we are honest with ourselves, we know why he does what he does, and may well be in his position at least tempted to do the same.
There have been dozens of film versions of Macbeth dating back to French and Italian one-reelers made in 1909. Some are direct from Shakespeare while others are free adaptations. It has been set in every time and place imaginable. Scotland PA, one of the best free adaptations, is a black comedy set in the 1970s at a roadside burger joint. The 2005 Shakespeare Retold version starring James McAvoy takes place in the world of modern fine dining and Gordon Ramsay is cheekily referred to as “the Scottish Chef.” A direct adaptation made in 2006 directed by Geoffrey Wright is set in the world of organized crime, while the 2015 film starring Michael Fassbender seems to run parallel to the story of Braveheart. A number of memorable versions have been made for television including the 1961 CBC version starring Sean Connery, the BBC’s Royal Shakespeare Company telecast starring Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, and Bela Tarr’s 1983 version shot on video in two long takes. Because it would be impossible to cover them all, I have chosen five films that are notable for leaning into the inherent horror of the story.
The Affliction of These Terrible Dreams
Orson Welles was well known for his love of Shakespeare, mounting some of the most famous stagings of all time including Voodoo Macbeth and the fascist Julius Caesar, as well as three of the greatest Shakespeare films: Macbeth, Othello, and Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff). Despite his reverence for the Bard, Welles was also not precious about editing the plays — cutting large sections, moving scenes around, and in the case of Macbeth even adding a character that does not exist in the play. Welles trims the already lean play to a tight hour and forty-seven minutes, which was later cut even further to ninety-five minutes by the unhappy distributors.
Welles presents his Macbeth as a fevered dream. Filmed on a shoestring budget for a poverty row studio on minimal sets, the film has some of the feelings of the classic Universal monster movies. Welles utilizes an Expressionistic shooting style of extreme angles, dark shadows, and deep focus making it clear that this is the work of the director who helmed Citizen Kane. Actors are often surrounded by fields of darkness while standing alone in small pools of light or dwarfed by massive, though economically built, sets. The madness of Macbeth and his wife caused by insomnia places the film in some kind of waking nightmare with the two leads looking haggard throughout. Dark circles under their eyes and deep lines on their faces emphasize the fact that “Macbeth hath murdered sleep.”
Welles also cleverly employs a number of experimental techniques to underscore the subtexts of the play. The “is this a dagger I see before me” speech is cut with masterful edits across defocused shots. The murderers sit in wait for Banquo like vultures on a tree branch. Jeanette Nolan is electrifying as Lady Macbeth and delivers the “out damned spot” speech like no one else, punctuating it with song, squeals, and practically drunken shouts as she experiences the waking dream that haunts her nightly. Macduff and Malcolm's army emerges from Birnam Wood in slow motion with fog making the few extras the production could afford look like hundreds. Welles would achieve a similar visual miracle years later for the battle scenes in Chimes at Midnight. The “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is delivered by Welles’s disembodied voice over a screen filled only with swirling mists.
Macbeth was released in 1948, the same year as Laurence Olivier’s Best Picture-winning film Hamlet. But while that film has grown stoic and cold over the years, Welles’s Macbeth still feels fiery and even a bit dangerous to this day. It has the edge of an exploitation film and the sense of a project of passion that its creator was determined to make on his own terms. The result is an unnerving, nightmarish minor masterpiece that should not be ignored in the pantheon of striking work created by the genius that is Orson Welles.
Confusion Now Hath Made His Master-piece
Sometimes a loose interpretation of a literary work gets to the core of said work better than a more faithful adaptation. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Claire Denis’ Beau Travail captures the essence of their source material on a deeper level. The same can be said for Akira Kurosawa who made three loose adaptations of Shakespeare. The Bad Sleep Well, his take on Hamlet, is probably the least known but still an excellent film. His late-era masterpiece Ran, an exploration of war through the lens of King Lear is truly one of the most magnificent films ever made. Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s vision of Macbeth is named by many the best version of the play ever filmed and by some the best Shakespeare film, period.
All the main beats of the story are here, though sometimes altered to serve Kurosawa’s thematic purposes. He uses his unparalleled imagery along with his own poetic sensibilities to create a true masterpiece of fate, blood, and destruction. In it, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) fills the Macbeth role as a feudal lord who, along with his bride Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) murders the Great Lord in order to usurp his throne. The murder of the Great Lord is a particularly effective interpretation of the scene. It is a long, dialogue-free sequence punctuated only by the sound of Asaji’s silk kimono swishing on the polished wood floors.
The witches are represented by a forest spirit in the form of an old man at a spinning wheel singing of the insignificance of man and the evils of his heart. In Throne of Blood, this spirit and destiny itself is an inescapable force of nature, a common theme and image in Kurosawa. Wind, rain, storms, fog, and a flock of birds flying into Spider’s Web Castle all remind us that the characters are on a steady journey toward the grave. Piles of skulls and bones in the realm of the forest spirit are clear harbingers of Washizu’s fate. His death in a hail of arrows from his own soldiers is one of the bloodiest deaths ever committed to film culminating in an arrow piercing Washizu’s neck and the sound of wind as he dies. The fortress then fades to ruins in a passing fog. This is Shakespeare’s tale “full of sound and fury signifying nothing” illustrated with visual poetry that has never been equaled.
Though Kurosawa’s vision has never been topped, there were many excellent adaptations of Macbeth on the horizon. With the demise of the production code, the play would soon be committed to film far more graphically than ever before. Though the work of Shakespeare is so often thought of as measured and distant, the next great adaptation to come would be born of deeply felt grief and anger. 🩸
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.
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