Thespians, a superstitious lot, insist that "Macbeth" should never be directly referred to inside a theater. If an actor accidentally forgets to call Shakespeare's malevolent masterpiece "the Scottish play," an elaborate ritual is required to prevent all hell from breaking loose.
But a theater critic can tell you the real reason "Macbeth" is cursed. Of all Shakespeare's great tragedies, this is the one that most often disappoints onstage.
"Macbeth" on-screen doesn't have the same jinxed reputation, thanks to Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, all of whom successfully put their auteur stamps on the play. One of this fall's prestige releases is Justin Kurzel's film version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
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If the prospect of this latest "Macbeth" doesn't fill me with dread, it's not because I've finally gotten over the memory of Ethan Hawke mumbling his way through "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" on Broadway. Film, counterintuitively for such an outrageously theatrical work, has an advantage when it comes to meeting the play's spectacularly fiendish demands.
To understand this, one must consider why "Macbeth" so often proves dissatisfying onstage. Runaway expectations are no doubt part of the problem. The play generates enormous excitement in theatergoers, many of whom (if I can extrapolate from my own experience) had their teenage imaginations set ablaze by Shakespeare's audacious genius in this work.
"King Lear" may be harder to pull off because of its monstrous scale. "Hamlet" may be eternally in search of a lead actor who can contain the Danish prince's contradictory multitudes. But theatergoers have, if not an awareness of these challenges, a keen sense that a degree of boredom is built into these prodigious tragedies.
By contrast, "Macbeth," with its ruthless velocity and diabolical intrigue, seems like a theatrical slam-dunk. The great speeches, when first encountered on the page, demand to be recited. Although my high school English teacher forced us to memorize Hamlet's most famous soliloquies, I came to know those of Macbeth and his conniving queen through speaking their lines aloud as I returned again and again to my favorite scenes.
God knows what my family thought hearing me ask the evil spirits who prey on mortal thoughts to "unsex me here" while ostensibly studying for exams. But suffused with occult mischief and murderous mayhem, Macbeth demands to be read with histrionic relish.
Theatrical flamboyance, however, isn't tantamount to dramatic effectiveness. Macbeth's challenging character trajectory, moving from a decorated war hero to a spiritually deadened killing machine, would have been frowned upon by Aristotle, who had fixed views on this sort of thing. Drama critic Kenneth Tynan summed up the quandary brilliantly in a 1955 review of Laurence Olivier's Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon: "Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature."
For Tynan, Olivier miraculously succeeded in holding our interest by zeroing in on "the anguish of the de facto ruler who dares not admit that he lacks the essential qualities of kinship." This is but one approach to playing the usurping Thane. There is no assured path, but an actor must somehow clarify Macbeth's slippery interior journey. The moral makeup of the man — all that is tragically lost — is revealed through sidelong glimpses of hesitation, wavering and remorse.
These subtle shifts are easy to overlook onstage amid all the witchery and bloodshed. Film's ability to glide from the supernatural panorama to the eyes of the protagonist is a boon for a play in which the outer world uncannily mirrors the unconscious life of the protagonist.
"Macbeth" has always struck me as Shakespeare's most psychological tragedy. But it's not psychological in the introspective way of "Hamlet," in which the melancholy Dane unpacks his soul in soliloquies.
Macbeth is distinguished by his bravery, not his intellect. A soldier accustomed to demonstrating his mettle with deeds, he acts out rather than analyzes his inner drama.
He begins caked in the filth of war but aglow in victory. Duncan, admittedly not the best judge of character, calls Macbeth "valiant," "noble" and "worthy," and though Duncan will be slaughtered by him, he is not mistaken in identifying those attributes that set his general apart on the battlefield.
Shakespeare draws associations between the language, imagery and special effects of the play and the secret goings-on in Macbeth's mind. The evil that exists in the world is too real to be dismissed as a figment of his fervid imagination. But the wicked cabal only throws into relief the wayward desires already pulsing within him.
It must be remembered that no demon proposes regicide as the way to realize the witches' prophecy. In demanding her husband "catch the nearest way," Lady Macbeth makes explicit what Macbeth has already been contemplating: the murder of Duncan. When he first encounters the weird sisters and hears that he shall be king, his buddy Banquo asks, "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?"
Macbeth's twitchy reaction is often eclipsed onstage by the spectacle of the ghastly witches. But an alert actor will recognize this as an opportunity to illuminate an embattled conscience.
Close-ups can help us get inside a character desperately trying to escape his own tortured mind. But it is necessary to follow the unspooling thread of Macbeth's humanity. Too often in the theater the final third of the play seems like a mechanical march of evil. Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knights, picking up on an image in the play, compares Macbeth at the end to a "bear tied to a stake." The difference, of course, as Knights recognizes, is that Macbeth has tethered himself.
There should nevertheless be pathos in that self-imprisonment, a sense that he has become more and more ensnared in an evil that no longer permits him to choose a better course. (It helps to cast an actor younger than middle age in the role, as the sin of vaulting ambition is more poignant under 40.) But this is rare emotion in "Macbeth" productions, the vast majority of which have left me numbly waiting for the head of the "dead butcher" to be carried out.
The most successful encounters I've had with the play have curiously both come from Japan: Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Kurosawa's film adaptation, "Throne of Blood," which was clearly a major influence on Ninagawa. Both works ritualize "Macbeth" into a stylized allegory without sacrificing any of the visceral horror.
Shakespeare's language is lost, but a harrowing visual poetry fills in the gap. The theater is still the place where the play's verbal richness can best be honored. There's dark power in the seductive words of the Macbeths, whose loathsome deeds are conveyed in irresistible rhetoric. But tapping that sorcery in the theater has left scores of actors and directors badly burned.
Welles made great use of his prowess as a stage actor to motor his low-budget affair. Polanski left us spellbound with an atmosphere thick in eroticism and appalling menace. But the willingness of film directors to unseam the play and thereby expose the dramatic skeleton may be what has allowed a notable few of them to elude the curse on-screen.