Prior to discussing its validity, Pearlman’s assertion requires some clarification. It is understood to suggest that through the depiction of tenth or eleventh century Scotland, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Polanski’s cinematic version of it, present particular views of the political world. 1 The issues, which the play and the film raise, are generic, in that they can apply beyond the specific setting.
Although Pearlman records Polanski’s own observation that the scene in which Macduff’s castle is invaded draws on his own life experiences,2 his assertion does not suggest that the play and film represent the comprehensive worldviews of Shakespeare and Polanski respectively. This would require close interpretation within the context of their bodies of work, absent from Polanski’s essay. Pearlman argues that Shakespeare’s view of the political world expressed in Macbeth is characterised by optimism, while criticising Polanski for his pessimism.
This view is largely, though not wholly sustained, the locus of disagreement being that Shakespeare’s play does also incorporate elements of pessimism. In the context of this argument, Shakespeare’s Macbeth suggests that instances of ambition leading to political disloyalty and the resultant tragedy are limited to unique individuals, with political harmony ultimately restored after a period of violence.
Polanski’s version of Macbeth is ‘remarkably pessimistic’ in contrast, because it portrays a pervasive capacity for disloyalty among the political class, driven by ambition and the weakness of political society and leading to ‘endlessly recurring conflict’. 3 The play and film are considered in conjunction, largely chronologically, focusing on specific scenes, theatrical or cinematic techniques and characterisation. The early scenes of Polanski’s Macbeth mirror and expand upon elements of pessimism in Shakespeare’s play.
The opening scene of the film reinterprets that of the play by focusing on the impending demise of Cawdor and prefacing the transfer of the mantle of ambition and disloyalty from Cawdor to Macbeth, which Shakespeare’s text subsequently implies. The beach on which the three witches meet is the same beach on which the fighting is later shown to have taken place and Cawdor captured. The circle, which they draw in the sand, symbolises Cawdor’s fate drawing to a close and the beginning of another cycle of disorder through Macbeth.
The burying of a hangman’s noose previews Cawdor’s death, which Polanski dramatises later in the film, while the severed hand holding a dagger which is laid over the noose also previews that ‘dagger’ which ‘marshall’st’ Macbeth to murder Duncan (2. 1. 33 & 42). 4 Thus, ‘ere the set of sun’ and ‘When the hurly-burly’s done’ / When the battle’s lost and won’ Cawdor’s fate will be sealed and it will be time for the witches to ‘meet with Macbeth’ (1. 1. 5, 3-4 & 8). Amongst the possible interpretations of the role of the witches, which Shakespeare’s text permits, the opening scene of Polanski’s Macbeth emphasises their role as ‘weird sisters’ (3. . 132), instruments of fate.
They can be viewed as the symbolic manifestation of the individual psyche and, specifically, the ‘(t)hriftless ambition, that will raven up’ (2. 4. 28) both Cawdor and Macbeth, and which later appears nascent in other characters. Beyond the control of the individuals this ambition becomes their fate. Polanski reinforces this interpretation through the rearrangement of the text, translating Shakespeare’s dramatic irony into the suggestion of a psychological connection between Macbeth and the witches: line 10 of the first scene is moved to the beginning and the first 35 lines of 1. . are cut, so that the opening of the film, with the witches chanting ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (1. 1. 10) is mirrored by Macbeth’s first words, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ (1. 3. 36). Polanski draws out Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony to strengthen the association between Cawdor and Macbeth, which is implicit in the play.
An instance of this dramatic irony is the labelling of Cawdor as a ‘rebel’ and ‘slave’ (1. 2. 10 & 20) followed by Duncan’s instruction to Ross to ‘greet Macbeth’ with Cawdor’s ‘former title’ (1. 2. 65). Macbeth’s own recognition that ‘I am Thane of Cawdor’ (1. 3. 132) comes amidst his initial murderous thoughts, ‘that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair’ (1. 3. 133-4). Polanski physically installs Cawdor as a character in the film, juxtaposing him with Macbeth. At the end of 1. 2. Cawdor is shown, captured, prostrate on the ground. The next shot is a close-up of Macbeth’s face, with traitors being hung in the background. As Macbeth departs to his castle to prepare for the arrival of Duncan, he pauses to observe Cawdor, hanging.
The two men are framed together, and as Macbeth speaks of his ‘black and deep desires’ (1. 4. 51), his failure to associate the potential result of these desires with the fate of Cawdor is replete with dramatic irony. The association of Cawdor with Macbeth implicit in Shakespeare’s text points to his own pessimism, Macbeth assuming the same attributes as the man he has just slain. Polanski’s deeper pessimism emerges in making this association more explicit; the consequences of Cawdor’s ambition are clearly shown to Macbeth, yet he fails to heed them, perpetuating the cycle of disloyalty and political disorder.
One of the notable aspects of Polanski’s film, as Regan notes, is that the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are underplayed, enabling Polanski to ‘broaden and diversify the attention given to the social sphere that all the characters inhabit. ‘6 Polanski focuses attention on characters besides the two principals and shows that the capacity for disloyalty extends beyond Cawdor and Macbeth. An instance, where evidence of this emerges, is the scene in which Malcolm is named ‘Prince of Cumberland’ (1. 4. 39).
Regan has noted how this act recognises that succession in Scotland was not automatically hereditary. 7 Shakespeare acknowledges the potential for the absence of a formal system for the transfer of power to be a destabilising factor, in the response of Macbeth to the naming. Having considered that ‘chance may crown me / Without my stir,’ (1. 3. 143-4) the naming of Malcolm becomes ‘a step/On which I must fall down or else o’erleap’ (1. 4. 48-9), blocking a natural succession by Macbeth and compelling him to act on his ‘black and deep desires’ (1. 4. 1).
Polanski’s expands the scope of scene to suggest that it not only Macbeth’s ambition, which is thwarted by Duncan, the camera briefly shifting to Donalbain, his face half-buried in shadow, bearing a grim expression, suggestive of potential rivalry for the succession between the two brothers. Banquo’s response to Malcolm’s naming is to unenthusiastically mumble ‘Hail, Prince of Cumberland’, his eyes raised to the roof. Polanski’s overall characterisation of Banquo arguably draws more upon the source material for Macbeth than does the play itself.
In the play, Banquo does represent a potential source of future political disorder, for in the witches’ prophecy that ‘Thou shall get kings, though thou be none’ (1. 3. 65) Shakespeare leaves open the possibility of future conflict between Banquo’s heirs and the reigning monarch. The source material, upon which Shakespeare drew for Macbeth, states that Banquo was Macbeth’s accomplice in his deeds, Shakespeare characterising him more positively. 8 But Polanski hints that Banquo himself, were he to live, could represent a challenge to Macbeth. One of these hints is his muted response to Malcolm’s naming.
During Banquo’s soliloquy, when he trusts that the witches may ‘be my oracles as well/And set me up in hope’ (3. 1. 9-10), he appears isolated, his facial expression remaining dark and grim throughout the formal investiture of Macbeth. Further, during the murder of Banquo, Polanski removes the references to ‘light’ (3. 3. 8 & 13), which the murderer’s ‘strike out’ (3. 3. 19) suggesting that Banquo is not the one-dimensional positive character presented in Shakespeare’s play. That potential disloyalty is widespread in Scottish political society is given most explicit form in Polanski’s reinterpretation of the character of the Thane of Ross.
Polanski turns Ross, a fairly minor character loyal to Duncan and subsequently Malcolm, into an opportunistic schemer and traitor. 9 Ross’s acknowledgement that the ‘heavens’ are ‘troubled with man’s act’ (2. 4. 5. ) suggesting an awareness of the evil of regicide, are cut by Polanski. He is introduced as the Third Murderer of Banquo; and he is pictured leaving the castle of Macduff, his facial expression indicating awareness of the intent of the approaching riders, to ‘Seize upon Fife, give to th’edge o’th’ sword/His wife, his babes’ (4. 1. 67-8).
Ross’s actions appear driven by his own ambition, for it is only when it becomes apparent that Macbeth does not intend to reward him for his service that the he transfers his allegiance to Malcolm. It is significant that, prior to Ross’s arrival at Malcolm’s camp, the initial 153 lines of 4. 3. are cut by Polanski. These lines serve as Malcolm’s test of Macduff’s loyalty, in which he suggests that, were he king, he would Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, Uproar the universal peace, and confound All unity on earth. (4. 3. 99-100)
Macduff ultimately confirms that his primary allegiance is to Scotland, ‘O nation miserable’ (4. 2. 104). In Shakespeare’s play, this dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff suggests that the former is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of his father. He has learnt from Duncan’s assertion that ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’ (1. 4. 12-13) and that men may, in the words of Lady Macbeth, ‘look like the innocent flower. / But be the serpent under’t’ (1. 5. 63-4).
Alan Sinfeld has noted, however, that at the end of Macbeth, ‘Macduff… tands in the same relation to Malcolm as Macbeth did to Duncan… the kingmaker on whom the legitimate monarch depends’. 10 Sinfeld mirrors Polanski in that he sees in Macduff the potential for the recurrence of events, possibly symbolised through Macduff meeting the witches,11 itself implying that the stability with which Shakespeare’s play concludes is vulnerable. Nevertheless, the dialogue between Macduff and Malcolm does indicate that Malcolm has indeed drawn on the mistakes of his father in forming a healthy suspicion of his kinsmen.
Polanski, in excising the dialogue between Macduff and Malcolm, removes any sense of hope that the monarch can learn from the mistakes of a predecessor; Malcolm remains as nai?? ve as Duncan. This interpretation is, indeed, deeply pessimistic. It argues that political society is doomed to a cycle of disloyalty and disorder. In conjunction with the association of Cawdor and Macbeth, it also argues that man in general is incapable of drawing lessons from the fate of others.
The contrasting conclusions to the play and the film reinforce the divergence of Polanski’s view from that of Shakespeare as the play progresses. Following the death of Macbeth, harmony is restored in Shakespeare’s play. ‘The time is free’ (5. 11. 21) declares Macduff, and Malcolm announces that all will be taken care of to restore order ‘in measure, time, and place’ (5. 11. 39). Polanski undermines this restoration of order.
Following Macbeth’s death, it is Ross who picks up the crown and passes it to Malcolm, as Pearlman suggests ‘a gift to the new king by a murderer and a machiavel’. 2 Ross’s face, as he salutes Malcolm king, mirrors his expression as he formerly saluted Macbeth king and is one instance, among many, of Polanski’s use of close facial shots to reinforce meaning. Thus, Polanski suggests that, at the very beginning of his reign, there are those by Malcolm’s side the loyalty of whom cannot be trusted. The final, closing shot of Donalbain approaching the witches also fatally undermines Shakespeare’s optimistic conclusion, reintroducing the witches as the representation of Donalbain’s own ambitions.
The discordant music, tempestuous weather and bleak landscape replicate that which accompanies Macbeth’s first approach to the witches and reinforces the beginning of a new cycle of disorder. Pearlman argues that ‘Shakespeare’s cycle is from one legitimate king to the next. ‘ While this argument can be sustained, as the play moves from the reign of Duncan, through Macbeth, to Malcolm, a more appropriate interpretation is perhaps that Shakespeare’s play follows a linear trajectory from disorder to order, from the ‘hurly-burly’ of the opening scene to the ‘grace of grace’ which marks the close of the play.
While elements of pessimism do appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the view expressed through the play is predominantly optimistic in that order is restored and individuals learn from experience. In contrast, Polanski’s film does suggest a cyclical pattern, disorder interspersed with periods of order. Polanski’s pessimism lies in the suggestions that ambition, and disloyalty, are prevalent in Scottish political society; that men fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors; and that the combination of these two factors with the inherent weaknesses of Scottish political society remove the hope of a stable political future.