The weird sisters in Macbeth are never delicate in their cooking. Only in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of 1971 do they take pains over the hell-broth, though the lingering shots might have something to do with their nakedness (the film was produced by Hugh Hefner) as opposed to their collective Julia Child tendencies. While the witches go about their business, the eye of newt and the toe of frog appear fresh from that morning’s market, while the wool of bat and tongue of dog are dropped into the brew with the kind of culinary panache that would, one suspects, make the hags quite welcome on the Food Channel. One ought to remember that in Shakespeare’s time, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, it was not merely impolite but a criminal act not to believe in witches, and any production of the play worth its salt—or its root of hemlock—must cleave to the diabolical, allowing human motivation to be lost and found in the mists of enchantment.
In 1599, James VI of Scotland—soon to be James I of England—published his book Daemonologie. Not only had the king been a witness to the North Berwick witch trials less than a decade before, but he had interrogated several of the East Lothian residents who were indicted, before seeing them tortured until they confessed, then executed at Edinburgh Castle. In 1606, when Shakespeare is believed to have written the play, witchcraft was in the air, and so was regicide—the Gunpowder Plot had been foiled only months before, and it was less than twenty years since the beheading of James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
And yet film productions of Macbeth have tended not to linger on the magic, with directors more interested in getting down to the hurly-burly of real-time ambition and bloodletting. Polanski’s witches, as was noted at the time, were a kind of Manson family manqué, it being only two years since the murder in Beverly Hills of the director’s pregnant wife, along with some of their friends. The violence in that film seems meaningless. But the violence in the play is always there to excite what A.C. Bradley called “supernatural alarm”: monarchs and children and loyal swains are murdered for their goodness, or for revenge, or due to the exigency of “vaulting ambition,” but Shakespeare was rigorous in his animation of a universe where fate and prediction are cooked up by spirits, the kinds of spirits who tend to come alive in the dark hollows of the human mind.
The newest Macbeth adaptation to reach the screen is directed by Justin Kurzel, a man who believes in mists but doesn’t believe in ghosts. This is a fair predicament, except that we quickly learn that Kurzel wants Macbeth to be a love story, when some of us have grown up thinking it the greatest hate story ever written. Is it for love of her…
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