Jenny Farrell reviews The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen
Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the most strikingly modern. When one considers what Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, written between 1600 and 1606, have in common as an overarching theme, it is this: they all centre on the crucial conflict of early capitalism between the Renaissance humanist ideal on the one hand and the power-hungry, utterly destructive Machiavellian potential on the other. It is Shakespeare’s genius to have seen and understood this conflicting nature of early capitalism and to have put it on stage.
In the first three of these great tragedies, these two forces are pitched against each other in opposing major characters: Hamlet and Horatio vs. Claudius, Othello and Desdemona vs. Iago, Cordelia and Edgar vs. Goneril, Regan and Edmund. The tragedy lies in the destruction or near destruction of the humanist character/s at the hands of the Machiavellian one/s. This is Shakespeare’s amazingly perceptive warning. His historical optimism is expressed in the concomitant destruction, against many odds, of the Machiavellian demon.
The milk of human kindness
Macbeth is different. The struggle between the potential for good or evil, for the humanist ideal or the Machiavellian drive for power at all costs, takes place within one character: Macbeth, doubled by Lady Macbeth. Four hundred years later, it seems like our present day Machiavellians do not struggle with a humanist conscience.
Macbeth’s humanist potential that struggles with his Machiavellian ambition, is “the milk of human kindness”, as Lady Macbeth describes his ‘weakness’ in the first half of the play. He understands that he is the destroyer of sleep and that he cannot wash the blood of murder from his hands. Although Lady Macbeth herself does not kill anybody, she urges Macbeth to do so, does her utmost to persuade him to murder ruthlessly. If he wants to be a “real man” and pursue power at all costs, he needs to walk over dead bodies.
The roles are reversed and the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth struggles with her conscience, her awareness of inhuman wrong-doing, in the second half of the play, which ultimately leads to her losing her mind and destroying herself. She cannot live with the idea of having blood on her hands. Interestingly, she knows she too has blood on her hands even as aider and abettor. Macbeth also realises how his ruthlessness, his tyranny, has brought about his own destruction as a human being and life has lost all meaning for him when he says
That which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.
Any production of Macbeth must be considered in this light. How well does it get across this central point? Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” does the text considerable justice. It may not be an easy introduction for audiences unfamiliar with the tragedy, but for those who are, it is a visually striking monochrome theatrical production, hinting at earlier screen versions like Orson Welles’, but also Trevor Nunn's pared-back staging with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth.
Stefan Dechant’s production design is remarkable. The viewer gets the impression of a stage, with a magnificent use of space, making especial use of height over depth, in a great many Escher-like staircases, and other structures. The stark ‘set’ consists predominantly of the high walls of Macbeth and Macduff’s castles, occasionally a stage-set outdoor scene. Plentiful fog adds to a sense of German expressionist cinema. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography does it justice. The acting for the most part is very good, always focusing on Shakespeare’s text. Frances McDormand excels as Lady Macbeth.
Directors make choices when they work on a text, cutting and selecting which scenes to include and which to omit. And so in this 105 minute long version of Macbeth, too, Coen’s reading of the tragedy determines which parts are emphasised. His understanding of Macbeth as a ruthless Machiavellian dominates the presentation of the character from too early on, and Macbeth’s struggle with his “human kindness” is not etched clearly enough. As in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film, Coen shows the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, a scene Shakespeare leaves out for a reason. Lady Macbeth’s development in the second half is much better, but would be more meaningful if the audience were shown that she now is echoing her husband’s earlier understanding of his gruesome deeds.
The working people see and tell the truth
Another shortcoming is that the Porter scene is not properly understood. As is the case all too frequently, Shakespeare’s comic scenes are simply presented as slapstick, failing to grasp the social criticism contained in them. (Another example of this is the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet.) In these scenes, it is the working people who are the only ones to see and tell the truth. It is typical for Shakespeare that these plebians, at other times the jester or clown, or ‘mad’ characters, expresses a truth that cannot be voiced by a member of the upper class. These truths are frequently disguised as comedy. And so it is the Porter who, immediately after Macbeth has killed Duncan, accurately describes himself as the “porter of hell gate”. He goes on to say who might be knocking on hell’s gate. This includes a man of the law, who “could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”. Instead, Coen reduces this man to a shallow, comic figure who makes obscene jokes. This is a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, the witches are very well done. It becomes clear in this production that the witches could easily simply be part of Macbeth’s hallucinations. Apart from Macbeth, only Banquo ‘sees’ the witches, but suggests that they may have taken too much of the “insane root” before battle.
It was Shakespeare’s genius to have grasped the essence of his time and to have produced four tragedies that profoundly expressed his fears about the capacity for inhumanity inherent in those times, which are the early years of our own time. If the Machiavellian characters in their deceitfulness, refined manners and appearances, clever talk, etc., seem to us more modern, then this surely underlines Shakespeare’s insight. This is the deadly potential that capitalism has had from its inception. Its Machiavellian nature has come to be completely dominant to the point that humanist alternatives are deemed utopian, their proponents ridiculed.
Instead, we are told over and over that greed, the rampage for power and destruction is ‘human nature’ – an outright ahistorical assumption. Shakespeare knew otherwise and showed history to be a process in which change is possible and desirable in the interest of the common good, for the beauty of the world. Machiavellianism is the driving force behind resource wars, wars for domination in resource rich, cheap labour and poverty-stricken parts of the world, the force that will ultimately destroy the environment for profit. We know this force, we can easily recognise it. If we had to invent a character that represents this, it would be Macbeth.
Jenny Farrell is the author of Fear Not Shakespeare's Tragedies, Nuascéalta, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1536953619
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.