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The Tragedy of Macbeth

Putting On the Putin

Apple TV+, Monday, March 21, 2022
Directed by Joel Coen
A24, IAC Films, 2021

Denzel Washington as Macbeth looking contemplative in royal robe with curtained background (black and white photograph).

Francis McDormand as Lady Macbeth sitting on a bed with with her knees bent up to her torso, wearing night dress, pillow in the background (black and white photograpm).
Denzel Washington as Macbeth, top, and Francis McDormand as Lady Macbeth in Joel Coen's film version of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth. Photos courtesy of A24 and Apple TV+.

When Joel Coen released The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2022, did he know he had filmed a biopic of Vladimir Putin? When Denzel Washington turned his calculating Macbeth into a regicidal despot in one pivotal scene, was he channeling the Russian dictator raging at Volodymyr Zelensky’s government? When William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, did he have the war in Ukraine in mind?

The first two questions, probably not, but I can definitively answer that last question. Shakespeare portrayed human nature in all its dimensions, dimensions that haven’t changed in 500 years. Shakespeare didn’t exactly write—and Washington didn’t necessarily play, nor Coen specifically direct—Macbeth to be Putin, but that’s what emerges out of the darkness if you view Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth today. That’s the thrilling yet unsettling relevancy of Shakespeare’s compositions. Even with textual cuts bringing his movie in at 108 minutes, Coen unpacks Macbeth’s universal truths in traditional and novel ways.

Though Joel Coen and his brother, Ethan, are among the most distinguished cinematic auteurs of the past 35 years, Joel takes a theatrical approach to Macbeth. He filmed on stage sets of hyper-sized arches, Escher-like stairways, bulky battlements, and a medieval army camp atop imposing cliffs overlooking a desolate beach. Filmed in black-and-white and costumed in bland Medievalish garb, the action plays out amid stark shadows. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the production design by Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh deservedly earned Oscar nominations.

With Coen, theatricality does not mean fourth-wall staginess. Camera angles and edits immerse us in a psychologically disturbing environment. Coen pairs the play’s “what’s foul is fair” theme with a visual allegorical arc of what’s real is imagined: daggers become door latches, ravens become specters, a sandy beach and a stone floor become apparition-reflecting pools of water. Knocking on doors is an aural metaphor for footsteps, dripping water, or blood hitting the floor. Simple special effects make psychologically effective visuals. The English army really looks like Birnam Wood moving toward Dunsinane, and when the messenger delivers this news to Macbeth, the raging tyrant opens the window and suffers a torrent of leaves blowing in the wind.

“When shall we three meet again?” A woman whispers on a black screen before three ravens circling in a thick mist above the camera opens the film. These ravens are a repeating motif. Characters peer up at the circling birds at key moments, Macbeth and Banquo encounter ravens as well as the witches on the heath, and a raven may or may not be playing the part of Banquo’s ghost.

Kathryn Hunter as a witch in black hood and ground-lengh robe on a foggy beach with in the backgroun bodies lying on the sand and six flags stuck into the ground (black and white photograph).
Kathryn Hunter plays the witches—and a raven—in the Joel Coen-directed film version of William Shakespeare's The Trafegy of Macbeth. Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple TV+.

No stretch of imagination is needed to identify the ravens as the Weird Sisters; Kathryn Hunter playing the witches uses her contortionist’s capabilities to mimic a bird before meeting Macbeth and Banquo. When she does meet the two warriors, it is across a pool of water reflecting two distinct figures of the single witch standing on the sand. Another inexplicably appearing and disappearing pool, this one in a castle room, serves up the prophetic apparitions to Macbeth—visions that may be Macbeth tripping out on a potion Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) has given him.

Such cinematic verve makes great Shakespeare if the acting is solid. This film gives us a mixed bag. Washington earned an Oscar nomination for his Macbeth, but not from the start of his performance. Through the play’s second act, the action is mostly inside Macbeth’s head as his soul roils over how to approach the witches’ prophesy that he will be king. But textual cuts and Washington’s lethargic verse readings undermine the central purpose of these scenes. He recites the verse mechanically with so little inflection as to suggest an actor not fully understanding what Macbeth is thinking. He’s war-weary, perhaps, looking for a little down time after a couple of busy days unseaming guys from the nave to the chops. He encounters supernatural forces with a smirk and seems to give the prophecy little consideration until King Duncan names his Prince Malcom as successor to the throne. After taking a courteous leave of Duncan, Macbeth strides from the king’s tent grumbling “That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, for in my way it lies.” Not so much an intent as bothersome red tape.

McDormand, Coen’s wife and the film’s co-producer, tries for a poetic delivery, but it, too, seems like guesswork. In closeups she uses a sudden cock of the head or sideway glances to add tension to Lady Macbeth’s train of thought. McDormand edges into pantomime of suspicious behavior, even as she welcomes Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) to her castle, leaving us to wonder why Duncan doesn’t immediately skedaddle.

The passion between the Macbeths is missing: a vacuum, even. The first hint of their marital dynamics is Lady Macbeth describing her husband as “too full o’th’milk of human kindness” in the way someone might complain about a spouse more inclined to watch the game on TV than help with the dishes. Indeed, upon Duncan’s arrival, McDormand's Lady Macbeth seems aggrieved that her husband is credited so highly by the king. For Lady Macbeth, kindness is a fault when her interests aren’t the priority. Once Macbeth does return home, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth immediately begins bossing him about. “You shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch,” she says, and Washington’s Macbeth realizes that while he has just been accounted a national hero, his wife has zero respect for his capabilities.

These awkward verse readings end up serving Coen’s vision for Macbeth. Washington literally strides into an Oscar-worthy performance with “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?” What he sees is the latch of a door to the king’s chambers at the end of a long, arched hallway. Washington speaks his dagger-vision speech as he walks down the corridor, and on “As now I draw,” a blade slips out of his sleeve and into his grip. He uses that blade to pierce the awakened king’s jugular, which explains all the blood Lady Macbeth complains of. We also see the astonished though stoned chambermen witness the murder and whisper, “Amen,” which Macbeth cannot repeat.

Washington finally gives a clear view of Macbeth’s troubled soul after reporting back to Lady Macbeth, but something shifts in him by the time Macduff arrives and discovers Duncan’s body. The subsequent hubbub of alarm and grief is instantly silenced when Macbeth reveals that he had just killed the king’s chambermen suspected of doing the murder. At first he claims rashness. “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in an instant? No man,” he says in a meditative tone. “The expedition of my violent love outran the pauser, reason.”

The rest of this speech, however, coalesces into two purposes, starting with his vivid description of a scene only two people present can fully comprehend and ending with an incisive double entendre. “Here lay Duncan, his silver skin laced with his golden blood, and his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature for ruin’s wasteful entrance; there, the murderers, steeped in the colors of their trade, their daggers unmannerly breeched with gore. Who could refrain, that had a heart to love, and in that heart courage to make his love known?” Washington’s sturdily cadenced delivery holds within it an ominous consequence to anyone who would doubt his willingness to let “violent love outrun reason.” But his question's two references to "love" indicates who specifically he is addressing: Lady Macbeth, challenging her to challenge his manhood now. Her reaction is to faint, which McDormand does not play as a feint.

Macbeth still has some soul-reckoning adjustments to make, and Washington works this transition persuasively after Banquo’s ghost appears (albeit, too briefly) at the banquet. “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,” he says, permanently establishing the new power dynamics in their marriage. This passage leads to Washington subsequently characterizing Macbeth with contemplative tyranny in Dunsinane’s halls and raging lunacy on the battlements. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth diminishes. In her sleepwalking scene, McDormand turns her wailing into imagining she’s holding a baby in her arms. This hints at how the loss of the “babe that milks me”—the phrase she uses back in the first act when she berates her husband for hesitating to murder Duncan—had perhaps altered her life’s meaning. McDormand also suggests Lady Macbeth is not sleepwalking but knows her gentlewoman and doctor are spying on her. A scene in which Shakespeare so expertly portrays depression’s effects comes off instead as Lady Macbeth engaging in counterespionage against her husband.

Washington is an actor of immense range, including Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing (his Shakespeare stage roles include Brutus in Julius Caesar and Richard III). His Macbeth is reminiscent of his Oscar-winning performance as Detective Alonzo Harris in 2001’s Training Day: subversively evil, coolly menacing, unabashedly confident, as demonstrated by his (brilliantly choreographed) disinterested fight with Young Siward. “Wast thou born of woman?” Macbeth asks, altering the line after he kills Young Siward in the play into a rhetorical question before the fight in the movie: certain of the answer, he approaches Young Siward accordingly. By movie’s end, Macbeth is resigned to his fate but, despite the ultimate failure of his reign as king, he intends to play the role he has made for himself to his very end—ultimate despotism no matter the consequences. You don’t want this Macbeth with a nuclear trigger at his fingertips.

Coen contributes other keen perspectives into Shakespeare’s play, including his treatment of Macduff. This starts with casting Corey Hawkins in the role. Macduff is a non-speaking extra in one scene before he aurally arrives in the play knocking at the castle door immediately after Macbeth murders the king. The actor must immediately impress upon the audience that fate has shifted, even though it’s a comic scene with the Porter (Stephen Root) sandwiched between Duncan’s murder and the murder’s discovery. Hawkins has that in his countenance which accomplishes this impression: authority.

In the England scene, the Thane of Ross (Alex Hassell) arrives with the latest news from Scotland including the raid on Macduff’s castle. Hawkins maintains steady stoicism as he tells Ross to “Keep it not from me, quickly let me have it.” As Hawkins plays it, Macduff is girded for bad news and even “guesses at it.” He perhaps guessed his wife was killed, but he certainly didn’t think all his children would be slaughtered. After four lines-plus of stunned silence, Macduff’s first words are, “My children too?” Hawkins plays Macduff’s uncomprehending grief with bottled agony. “Did heaven look on and would not take their part?” he asks. There’s no logical answer in his faith, so he blames “sinful Macduff,” calling on his tainted soul as motivation to strike back because Macbeth “has no children!” to revenge upon.

Alex Hassell as the Thane of Ross, in chainmail shirt and cloaked shoulder with his finger up to his lips in a "silence" gesture (black and white photograph).
The Thane of Ross, played by Alex Hassell, is a mysterious character in Joel Coen's film version of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shakespeare, however, does put Ross in the middle of so many of the play's key plot points that Coen suggests he may have some supernatural powers of his own. Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple TV+.

Coen raises the Thane of Ross to major character status. I never before realized how Ross is something of a Chorus in Macbeth. He brings Duncan news of Macbeth’s victory over Norway. He delivers the title of Cawdor to Macbeth. He mysteriously enters with Macbeth and Lennox as they come from the scene of the murder. He engages in conspiracy-hinting conversations with the Old Man (Hunter) and Macduff after Duncan’s murder. He visits with Lady Macduff before her castle is attacked, and he delivers to Macduff word of his family’s slaughter. He tells Siward of his son’s death.

Coen excises the last but otherwise expands Ross’s role beyond Shakespeare’s script. Ross lingers to overhear Duncan’s sons discuss fleeing Scotland in the wake of their father’s murder. Ross serves as the third murderer to ambush Banquo and Fleance (but his role in this scene requires a spoiler alert: click here for the reveal.) At the film’s end, Ross finds the crown and delivers it and Macbeth’s head to Malcolm with the title of king. As played with enigmatic reserve by Hassell in his monk-like robe and hood, Ross skirts the supernatural world of the play as a shadowy force of good.

The one Coen interpolation I can’t endorse is how he presents Banquo’s ghost at the Macbeths’ banquet. Though Bertie Carvel gives Banquo a strong presence in his scenes with Macbeth and when contemplating Macbeth’s turn, he doesn’t get much of a chance of a ghost. We glimpse him passing by the banquet hall’s door, and Macbeth fends off a franticly edited attack from the ghost, but this turns out to be a raven trying to get out a closed window. Given the film’s other otherworld depictions, Coen could have done so much more with Shakespeare’s most Hitchcockian scene (Coen does use a classic Hitchcock reference for the movie’s final visual, a bookend to the movie's opening visual).

I’m not quibbling, just disappointed in what more this movie could have been, especially what more Washington could have accomplished with a deeper psychoanalytical dive into Macbeth’s thinking after meeting the witches. Then again, does it matter whether Putin has a soul or does not have a soul? Either way, we are where we are today in the pervasive shadow of the human dimension Shakespeare portrays in Macbeth.

Eric Minton
May 21, 2024


 Corey Hawken in tunic and dark shadow on his face with a couple of other men in the background against a wall (black and white photograph).   Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff in profile looking out a window with the wall in dark shadow behind her (black and white photograph).
Corey Hawkins, left, and Moses Ingram play the Thane of Macduff and Lady Macduff in Joel Coen's film version of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth. Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple TV+.
What is a Traitor?

Macduff's son asks Lady Macduff, "Was my father a traitor, mother?"

"Ay, that he was," she replies, exasperated that her husband has escaped to England without them.

"What is a traitor?" the boy asks.

Good question. William Shakespeare's Macbeth provides a discussion on treason I'd not paid much attention to before the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

By legal definition, Macduff is a traitor to his king. However, the Thane of Ross describes Macduff as "noble, wise, judicious, and best knows the fits o' th' season." As with Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindma, President Trump's allies accused him of being a traitor for exposing Trump's self-serving strong-arm tactics against Ukraine. Vindman, though, was noble, wise, judicious, and best knew the fits of the season. He did his Constitutional duty, sacrificing his professional and personal life in doing so.

I've seen the word treason and traitor glibly tossed about on both sides of America's political divide. Let's all remember this: America’s Founding Fathers were, legally, traitors. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence could have been executed and, in Shakespeare's time, had their heads placed on London Bridge—and, under Macbeth's rule, had their wives, babes, servants all slaughtered. These were noble, wise, judicious men who best knew the fits of the season when they signed a piece of paper and had to defend themselves against the consequences of an angry king.

As traitor is increasingly used as a label for people who disagree with your politics, remember what Macbeth did when "Macduff denies his person at our great bidding," showing us the slippery slope from perceived slight to slaughter— Eric Minton



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