Macbeth Movie Analysis: From the small page to the big screen.
The great thing about Shakespeare is that it's supposed to be performed rather than read. So the text itself is basically just dialogue and a few bits of stage direction (including the ever awesome "exit, pursued by a bear," which shows up in A Winter's Tale). Beyond that, you can do whatever you like when putting on a show: crazy costumes, anachronistic sets, actors best known for playing bald starship captains. As long as you stick to the text, anything goes. That helps Shakespeare stay relevant and demonstrates why his writings still speak to us in the 21st century.
What's the Same
Take Rupert Goold's 2010 version of Macbeth, for example. He sticks to the dialogue straight from Shakespeare, though he cuts a few lines here and there and moves some scenes around. Within that frame, he's free to play with all kinds of cool ideas, many of which weren't around when Shakespeare penned the play in the first place.
Goold moves the setting from the hose-and-doublets era to a weird combination of Scotland and a World War II-era Soviet Union. So Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) sports a Joseph Stalin mustache and an AK-47, while throwing up giant posters of himself when he's king. The play mostly takes place in underground bunkers with that distinct "drop a nuke on us" charm, and the witches are a trio of nurses who wander around in the background.
Speaking of the witches, they take their cues from modern-day horror movies with time elapsed photography to make their movements super-freaky, and a habit of yanking bloody entrails out of wounded folks on the hospital beds. They show up in scenes where Shakespeare doesn't list them, never talking, but watching Macbeth and everyone else with their spooky, spooky eyes.
This tweak violates the text since Big Bill never put them there. On the other hand, they don't have any dialogue in those scenes, and the fact that they always seem to be lurking in the shadows emphasizes their status as unseen puppet masters. In that sense, Goold made a staging choice that still fits in the framework of the play, and makes the witches a lot scarier as a result.
What's up to Date
Beyond that, the production makes some casting choices that speak to our 21st century world in pretty definitive terms. Look, for example, at Scott Handy, who plays Malcolm. The character has a line in the play, "I am yet unknown to woman" (4.3.126-127), which suggests that he's a virgin. Most productions tend to cast a teenager or someone else who you can buy as having never done the nasty before. But Handy was over forty years old when he made the film. There aren't a whole lot of virgins running around at that age… but you can be gay at forty and still be "unknown to woman." Suddenly, we're talking about contemporary issues, and we're doing it without changing a single word of Shakespeare's dialogue.
A subtler example occurs with Lady Macbeth's casting. She's played by Kate Fleetwood, who was in her late thirties when she made the film. Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, was almost seventy—about twice as old as she was. Could she be a trophy wife for Macbeth, a piece of arm candy paraded around just because she looks pretty? Would that perhaps make her the butt of a lot of jokes, as people snicker behind their hands at her and wonder what happens when Macbeth wants to trade up for a younger model?
If so, that might make her awfully cranky—cranky enough to help kill someone, become queen, and then deliver a righteous smackdown to everyone who ever laughed at her. And suddenly, with this subtle change, the play is delivering deep dishy bits of soapy drama straight off of the CW network. (Only, you know, with blood and witches and whatnot.)
Both these casting choices hinge not on the play itself, but on this particular production, and on the decisions that the producers made for it. They both say things about the story and make changes to the meaning to the drama without changing the drama itself. It's almost like making a whole new play, and yet it couldn't be anything but Macbeth. That's the strength of Shakespeare; that's why we're still reading him after all this time.
Long, long ago (read: 1948), the late, great Orson Welles got his hands on Macbeth and churned out his own version. He didn't have a ton of dough to get it done, but he did have plenty of bona fide Scottish accents. He swapped the text around a bit (the witches' chant acts as a kind of prologue here), and he stressed the forces of paganism over Christian goodness in his version.
Then Roman Polanski made a version of Macbeth in 1971, after his wife and unborn child were murdered by Charles Manson and his cronies. As you may have guessed, it's a wee bit dark. (Also, the witches are naked and not in a sexy way.) It's very cool, but definitely for grown-ups.
A few years later, the BBC went for a classic take on the play with their 1979 version of Macbeth. If stodgy is what you're after, then check out a very young Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in this faithful interpretation.
In addition to straight-up adaptations, plenty of people have taken the basic story and done very different things with it. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood turns the whole thing into a Japanese samurai story, while Geoffrey Wright's version sets it in the scary world of organized crime. Perhaps the weirdest version is Scotland, PA, which sets the story in 1970s America and makes Macbeth a scheming fast food employee trying to take over his boss's restaurant. Oh, and Christopher Walken plays Macduff. Yes, really.
So which wacky setting fits the play best? Shmoop amongst yourselves.