On ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ prompted by film director Joel Coen’s latest iteration
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'. | Apple

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the most strikingly modern. When one considers what Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, written between 1600 and 1606, have in common as an overarching theme, it is this: they all center on the crucial conflict of early capitalism between the Renaissance humanist ideal on the one hand and the power-hungry, utterly destructive Machiavellian potential on the other. It is Shakespeare’s genius to have seen and understood this conflicting nature of early capitalism and to have put it on stage.

In the first three of these great tragedies, these two forces are pitched against each other in opposing major characters: Hamlet and Horatio vs Claudius; Cordelia and Edgar vs Goneril, Regan and Edmund; Othello and Desdemona vs Iago. The tragedy lies in the destruction or near destruction of the humanist character(s) at the hands of the Machiavellian one(s). This is Shakespeare’s amazingly perceptive warning. His historical optimism is expressed in the concomitant destruction, against many odds, of the Machiavellian demon.

Macbeth is different. The struggle between the potential for good or evil—for the humanist ideal or the Machiavellian drive for power at all costs—takes place within one character: Macbeth, doubled by Lady Macbeth. Four hundred years later, it seems like our present-day Machiavellians don’t even struggle with a humanist conscience.

Macbeth’s humanist potential, that competes with his Machiavellian ambition, is “the milk of human kindness,” as Lady Macbeth describes his “weakness” in the first half of the play. He understands that he is the destroyer of sleep and that he cannot wash the blood of murder from his hands. Although Lady Macbeth herself does not kill anybody, she urges Macbeth to do so, indeed does her utmost to persuade him to murder ruthlessly. If he wants to be a “real man” and pursue power at all costs, he needs to walk over dead bodies.

The roles are reversed and the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth struggles with her conscience, her awareness of inhuman wrongdoing, in the second half of the play, which ultimately leads to her losing her mind and destroying herself. She cannot live with the idea of having blood on her hands. Interestingly, she knows she too has blood on her hands even as aider and abettor. Macbeth also realizes how his ruthlessness, his tyranny, has brought about his own destruction as a human being. Life has lost all meaning for him when he says,

that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not. (V, III, lines 27-31)

Any production of Macbeth must be considered in this light. How well does it get across this central point? With Denzel Washington as the fated Scottish thane, Joel Coen’s new film The Tragedy of Macbeth does the text considerable justice. It may not be an easy introduction for audiences unfamiliar with the work, but for those who are, it is a visually striking monochrome theatrical production, hinting at earlier screen versions like Orson Welles’s, but also Trevor Nunn’s pared-back staging with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth.

Stefan Dechant’s production design is remarkable. The viewer gets the impression of a stage, with a magnificent use of space, making especial use of height over depth, in a great many Escher-like staircases and other structures. The stark set consists predominantly of the high walls of Macbeth and Macduff’s castles, occasionally a stage-set outdoor scene. Plentiful fog adds to a sense of German expressionist cinema. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography does it proud. The acting for the most part is very good, always focusing on Shakespeare’s text. Frances McDormand excels as Lady Macbeth.

Directors make choices when they work on a text, cutting it, selecting which scenes to include and which to omit. And so in this 105-minute film version of Macbeth, too, Coen’s reading of the tragedy determines which parts are emphasized. In this regard, his understanding of Macbeth as a ruthless Machiavellian dominates the presentation of the character from too early on. Macbeth’s struggle with his “human kindness” is not etched clearly enough. As in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film, Coen shows the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, a scene Shakespeare leaves out for a reason. Lady Macbeth’s development in the second half is much better, but would be more meaningful if the audience were shown that she now is echoing her husband’s earlier understanding of his gruesome deeds.

Another shortcoming is that the porter scene is not properly understood. As is frequently the case, Shakespeare’s comic scenes are simply presented as slapstick, failing to grasp the social criticism contained in them. (Another well-known example of this is the gravedigger scene in Hamlet.) In these scenes, it is the working people who are the only ones to see and tell the truth. It is typical for Shakespeare that these plebeians—at other times the jester, fool or clown, or “mad” character—expresses a truth that cannot be voiced by a member of the upper class. Such truths are frequently disguised as comedy. And so it is the porter who, immediately after Macbeth has killed Duncan, accurately describes himself as the “porter of hell gate.” He goes on to say who might be knocking on hell’s gate, including a man of the law, who “could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” Instead, Coen reduces this man to a shallow, comic figure who makes obscene jokes. This is a sorely missed opportunity.

On the other hand, the witches are very well done. It becomes clear in this production that the witches could easily simply be part of Macbeth’s hallucinations. Apart from Macbeth, only Banquo “sees” the witches, but suggests that they may have taken too much of the “insane root” before battle.

It was Shakespeare’s genius to have grasped the essence of his time and to have produced four tragedies that profoundly expressed his fears about our inherent capacity for inhumanity. His time, historically speaking, was the early years of our own time, when the continents of Africa, the Americas and much of Asia had just been laid open to European plunder. If the Machiavellian characters in their deceitfulness, refined manners and appearances, clever talk, etc., seem to us more modern, then this surely underlines Shakespeare’s insight. This is the deadly potential that capitalism has had from its inception. Its Machiavellian nature has come to be completely dominant to the point that humanist alternatives are deemed utopian, their proponents ridiculed.

Instead, we are told over and over that greed, the rampage for power and destruction is “human nature”—an outright ahistorical assumption. Shakespeare knew otherwise and showed history to be a process in which change is possible and desirable in the interest of the common good, for the beauty of the world. Machiavellianism is the driving force behind resource wars, wars for domination in resource-rich, cheap labor and poverty-stricken parts of the world, the force that ultimately may well destroy the environment for profit. We know this force today all too familiarly, we can easily recognize it. If we had to invent a character that represents this, it would be Macbeth.

I had occasion to delve more deeply into this subject in my book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Nuascéalta, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1536953619). Pardon the shameless promotion, but, you know, there aren’t that many Marxist analyses of the tragedies around!

Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth was released on December 26, 2021, and is now streaming on Apple TV+.

A 43-minute panel with the principals on the film can be viewed here.



Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.