Macbeth: Polanski and Shakespeare

By Berlin, Normand | Literature/Film Quarterly, Fall 1973 | Go to article overview

Macbeth: Polanski and Shakespeare

Berlin, Normand, Literature/Film Quarterly

It is not possible to present a great dramatist's work in another form, like film, and still be altogether faithful to that work. Since the dramatist's greatness depends on the fact that his drama is the form, changing the form will distort the work. This must be granted. But this does not mean that the new work cannot have its own value or that this new work cannot tell us much about the original drama. This is precisely the case. I wish to argue, with Roman Polanski's screen version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. We may wish to regret that tragedy has become melodrama, that the camera has replaced the word, and that Shakespeare's play has been reduced both morally and metaphysically. But these regrets should not blind us to the virtues of the film, not only its energy and visual excitement, but its value as an interpretation of Shakespeare. How Polanski sees (or reads) Macbeth indicates the rich suggestiveness of Shakespeare's art; it also indicates Polanski's personal vision of the modern world.

My concern here is what Polanski does with (to?) Shakespeare, how he uses what Shakespeare presents or suggests, and to what purpose. I should add that my concern here was my concern when I viewed the film, for if this movie were treated by itself, without thought of the original, it would be little more than a romp, visually exciting but essentially thin. However, with Shakespeare's play as the underpinning, as the point of reference throughout, the film becomes interesting and original as an interpretation of Shakespeare and as a view of life in our time.

Both Shakespeare and Polanski begin with the witches, and, for both, the witches set the emotional climate. Thunder and lightning punctuate their entrance in Shakespeare, and one witch asks. "When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" The witches are described two scenes later as "withered" and as having "beards." They are usually played as old hags, with raspy voices, mannish (they "should be women," says Banquo, but their beards make him unsure) and sexually repulsive. From their skinny lips comes the phrase that serves as the keynote for Shakespeare's play, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," a phrase which underscores the play's most important theme - confusion of values, life as ambiguity, puzzlement, equivocation. The witches disappear, usually together in a cloud of smoke, as they prepare to "hover through the fog and filthy air." Fog and filth set up the physical conditions for Shakespeare, most of the play taking place in the haziness of fog or the darkness of night. Because Shakespeare's scene is firmly planted in the viewer's mind. Polanski's opening sequence shocks by its difference. No thunder or lightning, no thick fog. but a day that is hazy, and three women in the middle of what seems to be a wet sandy beach, with no trace of sea. As they utter Shakespeare's words they are busy burying a severed hand in the sand. Two of the witches are old hags of the Shakespeare variety; one is a young girl. Surprisingly, after the initial shock to one's expectations, it seems right that one of the witches is young. Her youth (seventeen or eighteen) and good looks indicate "fair." whereas her company and her action indicate "foul." Her age makes one realize that witches possess an on-going quality in time; a particular witch grows, matures, dies, but witches remain forever, and the young learn from the old. When Polanski's witches leave, instead of disappearing together, they separate - the young witch, pushing a wheelbarrow containing who knows what kind of grotesque items, traveling with one old witch, the third witch walking alone - and the camera, stationary, watches their paths as they walk in two separate directions in a V pattern, isolated figures in a bare landscape, stretching from a buried hand to encompass a wide space. Polanski's point, it seems clear, is that the witches cover a lot of space; in fact, they cover the world. Shakespeare's words indicate that they are separating to meet again, but only in Polanski - if my memory of previous stage and movie versions serves me - do they literally separate. …

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