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Essay on Macbeth: Alternative view of witches through power relations.
           Mason Gray 2015          


'Macbeth is a statement of evil.'  (L.C. Knights, Reader, p.119).  Does Roman Polanski agree?  Make detailed reference to both film and written text in your answer.

This essay will discuss all aspects of the debate that Macbeth is a statement of evil.  Various facets of the debate will be reflected upon critically with reference to actual play text as well as relevant commentary from key writers.  Longstanding subject positions that hold opposing views will be evaluated and used to inform the summative conclusion.  The conclusion will briefly revisit the primary points raised and then present the evidences in an overarching emerging view.

New-Historicists such as Greenblatt hold the notion that discourses leave an indelible mark on history at such time as they are written and effectively on later events.  As such the ideas imbedded in the Macbeth text inform subject positions on certain ideologies such as for example Machiavellian power politics (Greenblatt, 2008, p.2752).  The argument in favour of Machiavellian 'necessary evils' is one that has evolved through feudal times, the modern age and exists in capitalist ideals.  L.C Knights idea of a 'statement of evil' goes beyond this idea in a sense that it challenges A.C. Bradley who is principally concerned with Shakespeare's prowess in characterising evil with poetic subtlety (Danson Brown, 2000, p.116).  Knight's rebuttal of Bradley is one that rejects the poetry as incidental but rather reads the play as a poem and then applies a thematic textual analysis that interpolates what he sees as a statement of evil.

In any case the themes of Macbeth do deal with acts of an atrocious nature.  However it can easily be argued that the evil theme is massively down played when the play is viewed through a contemporaneous lens of the time it was written.  If the lines 'foul is fair and fair is foul' (1.1.10, Norton 2nd edition, p.2580 ) are taken as a prelude to the ensuing events in a literal sense then clearly the semantics of evil and good are reversed or at least played down.  Shakespeare's play addresses ideas that centralise evil practices of state presented against supressed subcultures such as witches.  Witches were persecuted intensely at the time just prior to James I's ascension to the throne (Ryan, 2000, p.90).  The punishment for practitioners of witchcraft was burning at the stake, an indescribably painful and inhumane execution method and a worse fate than for treason.  Ryan (2000, p93) proposes that in order to take a neutral stance regarding the witches 'we might try to imagine them as the embodiment of all the anxieties, hostilities and fears that so-called civilized society habitually represses.'  By this view it is possible to see how Shakespeare placates a pagan subculture driven underground while the ruling classes enact atrocities far more evil in the name of the Divine.

The opening scene of the play is quite strange and ritualistic in either filmic or theatrical modes of Polanski or Shakespeare.  Polanski has the wealth of liberal visual means so that the overall composition of the scene has a sumptuous engrossing effect.  Editing, set design, props and casting provide an elaborate scene setting that is not short of impact.  Polanski interprets the witches as ranging from the young, the middle aged and the grotesque crone.  Prosthetics and heavy makeup are used to convey a sinister looking senior witch whose crooked staff draws a circle in the sand as the opening act using symbolism of cyclical tyranny of warfare.

The theatrical mode is not as malleable in terms of visual effects that can convey mood and portray themes in the way the filmic mode can.  However the script provides an alternative source for the visual imagery.  Notably omitted from the Polanski filmic script are Greymalkin, Padlock and Anon whom it is believed are pagan 'familiars' or demon companions (Ryan, 2000, p.92).  In other parts of the film at equivalent junctures more wholesale omissions of Hecate and the Spirits is a significant point to note.  While the filmic mode is concerned with editing in accord with time constraints of a linear narrative Hollywood film format, the play on the other hand foregrounds the cult of the witches.  Greymalkin and Padlock provide an opening of suspense that culminates in the introduction of Hecate and Spirits in various interludes of the text for example 3.5 (Norton 2nd edition, pp.2608-2610).  The play presents Hecate as the Queen of the Witches and this is perhaps Shakespeare placating supressed paganism.  Since Hecate, an ancient Hellenic Goddess and benevolent deity of a tripartite nature was the goddess of three way crossroads.  Championed in medieval witchcraft for being the goddess of demons and magic also, supressed paganism may have driven popularity of cult practices. This makes a case for Shakespeare's sympathy to the cause of supressed liberties.  Shakespeare could be seen to be doing a number of things that escalate the status of the subclass namely the witches rather than making a statement of evil.  Firstly the three witches have an uncanny symbolic parallel with the tripartite Hellenic goddess Hecate.  Secondly Shakespeare gives the apparition of Hecate an exalted voice that transcends the materialism of the kings best exemplified in 'he shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear- his hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear: And you all know security- is mortals' chiefest enemy.' (3.5.30-34, Norton 2nd edition, p.2609).  Given the play begins by suggesting 'fair as foul' (1.1.10, Norton 2nd edition, p.2580) and vice versa then by this reversed logic the witches take on not a sinister but indeed an exalted role.  Then the witches can be seen merely as 'strange interlocutors in a narrative of violent and reckless self-destruction' (Ryan, 2000, p.93).  Some commentators go as far as to say that the witches are heroines such as the cultural theorist Terry Eagleton (cited in Ryan, 2000, p.94).

The witches pervade the air as mere interlocutors then A.C Bradley's idea of characterisation and exaggeration (Danson Brown, 2000, pp116-117) becomes more opulent in the debate than L.C. Knight's 'statement of evil' idea.  Evil takes on the characteristics of hyperbole and thus the focus shifts toward Macbeth's pitiful self-destruction.  Macbeth replies to Banquo by saying 'two truths are told' (1.3.126, Norton 2nd edition, p.2584), speaking of the witches prophecy.  Macbeth then alludes to say that in murderous events reality is far more fearful than nightmare. Macbeth thus appears to suggest that the course he takes is a pathological one and the witches' prophecy a self-fulfilling one.  Paths and multiple truths seem to act as justification in Macbeth as later in the play Macbeth claims 'I am in blood- Stepped so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er' (3.4.136-137, Norton 2nd edition, p.2608).  Furthermore the blood symbolism is central to the interpretation of evil.  Theatrical and filmic modes are hinged on the imagery of the blood as a statement of evil to some extent.

Polanski's filmic mode is quite clearly preoccupied with style and format and hence applies a distinct set of filmic rules to the overall composition.  Polanski's Noir style toys with contrasts and juxtapositions and central to the reflection is an allegorical narrative of good versus evil.  Time lapse cinematography hastens the night and day cycle. Daylight filming is obscured by fog or takes on a blanched effect.  The skies are picturesque, luminescent and reminiscent of renaissance art while in stark contrast with the ground that is portrayed as bleak, dark and gloomy.  Juxtaposition of the divine and the material is evident in many scenes.  The bleak darkness within the edifices of the castle battlement is contrasted with the bright sky of the teetering precipices of the parapet scenes.  Noir principally surrounds pessimism of the human condition and centralises cynical anti-heroes whose downward spiral provides characterisation.  Inevitably given the Faustian nature of noir as Polanski's style, Macbeth is perhaps the most amenable Shakespeare play to adaptation through Polanski's default lens.  Yet just the Faustian nature of the play falls short of Polanski's motivations it seems as Pearlman (Danson Brown, 2000, p.143) relates more personal reasons that made Macbeth Polanski's focus.  Pearlman relates that Polanski equates the hired killers that ravage the MacDuff castle with SS troops that raided Polanski's home during his childhood.  Pearlman's information surrounding Polanski's shared lived experience perhaps gives a close definition of a 'statement of evil'.  An almost palpable commonality of the essence of evil emerges in Polanski's comparison of events of his childhood and the murder of Macduff's family and servants.  The imagery of the film is not shy in depicting those scenes.  Polanski clearly interprets the political sway of tyrannical power as evil.  Polanski's vision easily aligns with Knights' view.

Pearlman suggests that Polanski presents the narrative as Christianity 'systematically being replaced by Satanism' (Danson brown, 2000 p.143).  Lady Macbeth takes on the persona of a femme fatale yet her madness and suicide are used to centralise Macbeth's downfall in the filmic mode.  The scenes where Lady Macbeth plays accomplice in Duncan's murder seem a distant memory when Macduff arrives to take vengeance.  Classically Lady Macbeth's contorted body littering the courtyard is a metaphor of Macbeth's fall from grace.  Macbeth's 'last syllable of recorded time,' (5.5.17-28 Norton 2nd edition, p.2628) soliloquy forms the pinnacle in both characterisations on stage and screen.  The stage version amplifies his loss in the face of imminent arrival of forces against whom he is ill prepared other than his pitiful introspective reiteration of the witches' curse.  The screen frames this soliloquy as one that amplifies Macbeth's cynicism and highlights a critical flaw in his psychology.  Macbeth sees life as a 'walking shadow' (5.5.24 Norton 2nd edition, p.2628) and equates life with a 'poor player' who enacts a tale 'told by an idiot' that ultimately signifies nothing (ibid).  The pessimistic world view held by Macbeth is neither a statement of remorse nor a defiant justification of his actions; it is merely a glimpse of his lack of belief, the crux of his anguish.

In the battle between Macduff and Macbeth nearing the close, Macduff is an embodiment of wrath in the written text.  When Macduff is given the news of his wife and children's fates he is encouraged to fight it like a man yet he insists on feeling it like a man (4.3.221-223, Norton 2nd edition, p.2623).  The scene then culminates with Macduff asking the heavens of Macbeth 'within my swords length set him. If he scape, Heaven forgive him too' (4.3.236-237, Norton 2nd edition, p.2623).  Malcolm affirms that this is the correct sentiment for battle by saying 'this tune goes manly'.  How Macduff's masculine wrath is in stark contrast with Macbeth's enveloping madness is the theatrical modes means of closing the tragedy.  However Polanski's filmic mode uses the final battle to lend Macbeth a further power trip by allowing him to conquer Macduff in sword combat.  Macbeth spares Macduff by stating that enough of his blood is spilt already.  This can be taken as a cue for Macbeth seeking mercy or Macbeth having a brief reprieve from his blood thirst.  Pearlman sees the blow that kills Macbeth as a 'favourite contemporary clich that all events are merely accidents of an indifferent universe' (Danson Brown, 2000, p.145). By contrast Macbeth's actions and soliloquys form the greater focus of the narrative as an insight into unconscious motivations of greed and power lust as evil.  Donalbain's visiting the coven in a bolted on epilogue in the filmic mode completes the symbolism of the opening scene by alluding to the cyclical nature of evil and tyranny.

In conclusion Macbeth has all the hallmarks of an Aristolean tragedy that Bradley extols as characterization factors.  Bradley positions the tragedy as a cathartic pastime and highlights how the audience is imbued with a sense of waste and impending doom as the central character perishes and is devoured by self-destruction. Knights rebuffs Bradley and invites Macbeth to be read as a poem whose central theme is a statement of evil.  Yet when the play is seen through a new-historicist contemporaneous lens and assessed for motivations and political value it emerges that supressed subculture namely that of the witches is brought to the foreground.  With witchcraft as a victim of state persecution, the focus shifts to Macbeth's characterisation.  In the theatrical mode a tragedy plays out with divine right under scrutiny.  In the filmic mode a statement of evil does emerge in the channelling of power in an evil atrocious manner given the allegorical structure of film.  The theatrical mode culminates in the power lust and greed of the tyrannical Macbeth being overcome by the wrath of Macduff with the effect of purging. The filmic mode culminates in the visual downward spiral of Macbeth's downfall and his death accidental with an emphasis on the cyclical nature of evil tyrannical power.  The written text is not easily argued as statement of evil yet in Polanski's vision it is manipulated to reflect evil as a statement as in the 1971 film.  Polanski does appear to agree with the idea that Macbeth is a statement of evil primarily through blood symbolism


Brown, R. D. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2000) A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E. and Maus, K. E. (eds) (2008) The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, New York and London:  W. W. Norton.

Polanski, R. (1971). Macbeth.

Ryan, K. (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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