Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if we did not have reasons to argue about him. Part of what makes his plays so enduring is their ability to tolerate the conjunctions “both … and …” However, it does make writing about him always a challenge, even though thousands (millions, if you include students) have done so before. One doesn’t really know where to start. Worthy as all of his plays are to be read, very few of them are familiar to the public because they do not all adapt equally to the screen.
However, when it comes to adaptations, there is no shortage of Macbeth’s. We have seen it adapted for film and television, and there is no shortage of filmed stage productions. To understand how prolific this has been, consider that the four actors currently filling the roles of the X-Men franchise’s Magneto and Professor Xavier have all starred as the Red King in widely available media: Ian McKellan in a 1979 staged television movie; James McAvoy in a 2005 “Shakespeare Retold” BBC special; Patrick Stewart in a “Great Performances” episode in 2010; and now Michael Fassbender in a feature film from director Justin Kurzel.
The role of Macbeth doesn’t have to be a challenging performance because, unlike many of Shakespeare’s other heroes and anti-heroes, his complexity is not compulsory. Macbeth is, in a manner of speaking, a living embodiment of the Peter Principle: He is an omnicompetent warrior incompetent at statecraft. In this sense, he is in the same boat as Richard III and Coriolanus, those other Shakespearean protagonists who found that they were unfit for times of peace. Their tragedy is the fact that they died hereafter. (Henry V just got lucky.) This makes Fassbender’s decision to play Macbeth as afflicted by post-traumatic stress more cogent and less contemporary than it sounds; he is a man who has been made irrelevant by his achievements.
This does not mean that Kurzel’s treatment of Macbeth is straightforward. The director attempts to provide a backstory, giving the thane a son and a son-like protégé, both of whom die before he utters a single line of dialogue. This is not a bad decision—and it is not a particularly radical one either. Nonetheless, there is little in the play’s text to cope with the implications of it. But Kurzel is still able to create poignant moments from dialogue in ways that many Shakespeare admirers probably had not imagined. When Macbeth says “Come, let me touch thee” he Is not speaking of the dagger which he sees before him, but the apparition of the boy soldier whose death still haunts him. When Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) utters her “to bed, to bed, there’s a knocking at the gate,” it is not to thin air but to her vision of her departed infant.
The film also tries to downplay some of the elements that previous directors, like Roman Polanski, tried to make more provocative. Macduff’s family is killed in a public execution which is only implicitly portrayed. When the Weird Sisters appear on the heath, Thomas Middleton’s rhymes are nowhere to be heard. While there is no universal way that a Shakespeare play ought to be adapted, this seems a wise decision as it allows the audience to focus squarely on Fassbender’s Macbeth who comes, increasingly to resemble the overbuilt, hollow stone edifices which he occupies.
His evolution to insanity reveals the uncomfortable truth that peace, like strife, also kills many warriors. This is accentuated by a theme which is hinted at through images and set pieces, although Shakespeare’s dialogue references it only obliquely: This is a world straddled somewhere between the disappearance of the pagan gods and the emergence of St. Andrew’s Scotland. Official business is now sanctioned by Christianity, but the murder of Duncan (David Thewlis) can only be blessed by those “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts”. And, though it is never directly stated, the disappearance of the pagan gods forebodes Macbeth’s decline as well. His descent into insanity is echoed by Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography; the heath is universally grim, but the sturm und drang doesn’t start to rumble until the fourth act, only outdone by the inferno of the fifth.
One of the ironies of Macbeth is that his future is only confirmed by the fact that he knows what it is. Presumably, he would not have killed Duncan had the Weird Sisters not told him that he was destined to be king. Kurzel’s telling calls this into question, giving the tragedy an (anachronistic) Scotch Presbyterian spin. And, seeing Macbeth fall before the landscape saturated red by the flames from Birnam Wood, one cannot help but wonder that men like that might have been destined for hell all along.