Did we need another Macbeth?

Khushi Jain discusses the new adaptation of Macbeth by Joel Coen

The question is simple and straightforward: did we need another Macbeth? The answer is slightly slippery No. And yes. Shakespeare’s predominance in English literary and drama syllabi is mostly matched by his presence in the film industry. From Kenneth Branagh’s realism of Henry V to Baz Lurhmann’s postmodern pastiche of Romeo + Juliet to the animalistic and animated Hamlet-based The Lion King, the Bard keeps getting a makeover. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, released on 25 December 2021 for a limited period and streaming on Apple TV, is yet another addition to this repertoire of Shakespearean adaptations. And it does not disappoint. 

Opening with the word “WHEN” (exactly like the play), the film poses a question that looms large and sets a tone of uncertainty. Deeds foul and fair literally hover through fog and filthy air. Shot entirely in monochrome, Macbeth feels like waking up in a dream (or perhaps a nightmare). A story of intense ambiguity is told through the very binaries it is challenging – black and white, light and shadow. Barring a few dresses of Lady Macbeth, there was absolutely no colour on set. To Bruno Delbonnel’s masterful cinematography, Stefan Dechant adds his beguiling dystopian landscapes. Geometric lines and lofty arches and castles curtained in mist and fog host Coen’s Macbeth. All sense of time is lost to the chiaroscuro of sharp lights and shadows and the film screams desolation. The ultimate effect is a disconnect from reality.

“The film collapses cinema and theatre; it operates exclusively on sound stages, uses theatre lights, has minimum camera movement, and incorporates a stillness in its production design.”

Set in a world of its own, Coen’s Macbeth dares you to question the most basic premise of cinema: the fiction of representational truth. The film collapses cinema and theatre; it operates exclusively on sound stages, uses theatre lights, has minimum camera movement, and incorporates a stillness in its production design. The result is an acute self-awareness of its own nature as an artistic medium. WHEN does cinema end and reality begin? WHEN does reality end and cinema begin? And most importantly, WHEN do we start believing? 

For Macbeth too, it is all a question of this “WHEN”. In walks Lady Macbeth with the certainty of the sun, carrying the answer now. A powerfully enigmatic character, her first appearance marks her as an appendage of her lord husband. She enters reading Macbeth’s letter, his words are her voice. Complimenting the elaborate cinematography and set is the genius sound design. Carter Burwell captures the softest of whispers and highlights them under a sonic spotlight. The knocking in Macbeth is particularly arresting; loud and deep, they shake the very tectonic plates of this world. They underscore Macbeth’s role as the host, someone who has the grave responsibility of taking care of his guest and upholding his guest’s trust. It is only fitting that they replace the sounds of Duncan’s dripping blood and Macbeth’s dripping wine as startling reminders of Macbeth’s layered betrayal; the former was his  kinsman, king, and also his guest. In direct contrast to these resounding gong-like knocks is the haunting noise of crows, recurrent as omens of impending doom and inescapable fate. 

Closely linked to the symbolism of these birds is a series of metaphors littered throughout. Adapting a literary text, Coen has been careful to translate all metaphors into a striking visual language. Birds, windows and flight are his holy trinity, symbolising everything from witchcraft and freedom to the imprisoning effects of guilt. Liquids are ubiquitous in the text and run rampant in the film as well. Duncan’s blood is mimicked in the wine Macbeth spills and water dominates both prophetic conferences. This fluidity emphasizes the precariousness of power, central to Macbeth’s plot. 

Another visual marker worth noting is Lady Macbeth’s hairdo. Throughout the film, her hair is piled up on her head, resembling a crown. It is only in her final scenes that she appears differently   hair long, open and unkempt. The unsexed wife of the Thane of Glamis seems to be wearing a crown even before the film begins. Her maddening guilt and death are a tragic return to her womanliness, marked by her exposed and loose feminine hair.

“Kathryn Hunter, playing not one but all three of the weird sisters, is splendidly haunting.”

In Lady Macbeth’s final scenes, Frances McDormand is absolute perfection. Denzel Washington too, shines in the titular role. But there is someone else who eclipses these two powerhouses. Kathryn Hunter, playing not one but all three of the weird sisters, is splendidly haunting. Hunter’s creaking voice and body contortions give the witches an extraordinarily unearthly and demonic essence. She is such that her presence is felt even in her absence. She (or they) lingers, unforgettable, like a cunning and vengeful, but seriously talented spirit.  

While the witches exist beyond all notions of time, Macbeth is caught in a tussle between the past, present and future. Coen marks the beginning of the end with “TOMORROW” echoing Macbeth’s “Life’s but a walking shadow” speech. Time in the film is a double-edged sword; monochromatic contexts demand a complete disobedience to it, whereas the division into “WHEN” and “TOMORROW” compels one to listen closely for the ticks of the clock. The problem with adaptation, especially one of such a popular story, is one of surprise. When the audience already knows the end, how do you surprise them? Coen does something startlingly brilliant in response to this issue. The lady in front of me actually yelped. I leave it to you to see the film and experience it.

“A particularly favourite adaptation of mine is the Bollywood classic Maqbool, which sets Macbeth in the underworld of Mumbai.”

Coen’s Macbeth is aware that it is an adaptation. It is humble and respects its source text. As a literature student, I do appreciate this fidelity. At the same time, I am apprehensive of film as a medium of its own. Film scholar Linda Hutcheon rightly remarked that a film is “a derivation that is not derivative a work that is second without being secondary.” In this sense, Coen’s Macbeth is not only responding to Shakespeare but to all other adaptations preceding it, the most recent being Kurzel’s 2015 epic historical drama Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. A particular favourite adaptation of mine is the Bollywood classic Maqbool, which sets Macbeth in the underworld of Mumbai. Quoting Hutcheon again, adaptations are “repetitions but repetitions without replications.” 

I believe that there are two ways of adapting a literary text: representing it in its particular cultural and temporal context, or contextualising it in an entirely new landscape. 2015 Macbeth did the former and 2021 Macbeth and Maqbool are doing the latter. Merchant-Ivory Productions pride themselves on their contextually faithful adaptations of texts like Maurice and Howard’s End. Adaptations start becoming redundant and actually repetitive when they stop experimenting. And a prime example of this would be Little Women. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version (even the 2017 BBC miniseries) has nothing new to offer after Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version. If anything, it merely had a bigger budget. It is the Hindi web series Haq Se that refreshes Alcott’s novel by giving it an entirely new and challenging context in the tumultuous setting of 21st-century Kashmir.  

Coen’s Macbeth is a victory for me. It is clever, subtle and sensitive. It is second to the literary text but is not a repetition. Cinematically and technically, it is a feat and deserves celebration every step of the way. As far as its place in the repertoire of Shakespearean adaptations is concerned, it has certainly made its mark as a liminal collapse of film, theatre and literature. So yes, we did need this Macbeth.