Saturday, February 5, 2022


Macbeth, often superstitiously referred to as "the Scottish Play," was the first Shakespeare play I ever seriously watched. It was late 1961 or early 1962, and our high school English class was required to watch a TV performance of the play. Coincidentally, the last live Shakespeare play I attended was a performance of Macbeth in Central Park a few years back. It is Shakespeare's shortest play, which presumably lends itself to more frequent performance and hence popularity. It is the basis for the acclaimed new (2021) American film The Tragedy of Macbeth, written and directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, which I watched last night. Washington, perhaps one of our era's greatest actors, shines (if that is the right word when playing such a reprehensible character) as the authentically skilled but pathologically ambitious politician. McDormand displays appropriate ferocity as the malignant motivator for Macbeth's unstoppable steeping of himself in blood.

The Tragedie of Macbeth (Shakespeare's play's full original title) was probably composed in connection with the accession in 1603 of Scotland's King James VI to the throne of England as King James I. While Macbeth himself was a real person, his companion Banquo is a fictional character. In Shakespeare's time, however, Banquo was part of the Macbeth legend and was believed to be an ancestor of Scotland's Stuart dynasty (an important consideration for Shakespeare writing after the accession of the Stuarts to the English throne). Shakespeare apparently based the play on Holinshed's version of the legend, in which Banquo's son, Fleance, flees to Wales, where he fathers a son who later becomes the first hereditary steward to the King of Scotland, from which the House of Stuart was ultimately derived

Completely contrary to the familiar version of the story, the historical Macbeth succeeded King Duncan in 1040 after defeating Duncan in battle (not killing him in his sleep). Moreover, Macbeth's reign appears to have been relatively unchallenged until, after getting involved in war with the English, he was finally defeated and killed and soon after succeeded by Duncan's son, who later became King Malcolm III, in 1057. (In 1066, Malcom married Margaret, and English Princess, who became the famous Saint Margaret of Scotland.)

The challenge of any Shakespeare film is how to translate a recognized masterpiece of a stage play into a comparably monumental cinematic performance. Filming in black-and-white may seem like an artistic affectation, which perhaps it is. Along with the slimmed-down set, however, it definitely helps here to create a particular ambience of menace. The distinctive atmospheric special effects (above and beyond "the weird sisters") convey an air of gloom and fright that befits a tale that seems destined to end so badly.  for its principal protagonists. My only reservation about the foreboding special effects is that they can at times overshadow the dialogue, which - in any play, but especially in this short play - is ultimately the heart of it all.. Watching it, ironically brought back memories of that first exposure to Macbeth on TV 60 years ago, which was also (of course) in black and white.

The figure of Macbeth, the valiant nobleman, and his evil wife, both tragically flawed by uncontrollable ambition excited by demonic temptation and powerless to extricate themselves from the endless sequence of criminal acts they have unleashed, remains perennially appealing to audiences for all sorts of obvious reasons. It is the genius of this short play (and of this particular production) to to make the dramatic connection with those recognizable resonances.

Macbeth is but one of Shakespeare's plays that explore the potential for political disorder due to corruption at the top. A well-governed kingdom depends on a multitude of factors, but above all, Shakespeare repeatedly reminds his audiences, on the spiritual and more health of its head. That undoubtedly accounts for this play's persistent salience as societies seemingly so different from medieval Scotland and Jacobean England prove so similar in the plague of spiritual and moral dysfunctions that challenge the possibilities of virtuous leadership and stable political order.

The original play ends in a medieval present in which the new King, prior to being crowned at Scone, promises a restoration of order. In this ideologically modern production, while Malcolm is acknowledged as the rightful new king, the focus instead is on some implied utopian future pregfigured by the fleeing Fleance.

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