A film written and directed by Joel Coen
Reviewed by James Shapiro
Those who have long followed the Coen brothers and their cinematic universe of criminals, nihilists, and overreachers may see in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) a long-deferred reckoning with Shakespeare, who has been there before them. We don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a writer interested in crime stories, but he surely was, from the earliest play in which he likely had a hand, Arden of Faversham — a true crime story in which a wife conspires with her lover to kill her husband — through Hamlet and Macbeth. There are moments in The Tragedy of Macbeth when Shakespeare and the Coens feel in perfect alignment, such as the scene in which Macbeth suborns two nameless murderers to kill Banquo. The hapless pair see the pointlessness and peril of saying no to him, and in their anxious glances and resignation seem to have walked onto the set directly from an earlier Coen brothers film.
A half-century has passed since Roman Polanski’s Technicolor and blood-splattered Macbeth was released in 1971. It was the third major postwar adaptation of the play; the first, a black-and-white version directed by Orson Welles, came out in 1948, and the second, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, also in black and white, in 1957.
These postwar Macbeths were marked by the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, much as Shakespeare’s original had been shaped by recent events: it was written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt in November 1605 to assassinate England’s Scottish monarch, King James I. Welles’s Macbeth, made as the House Un-American Activities Committee was persecuting the Hollywood Ten, feels like a companion piece to his 1937 antifascist stage version of Julius Caesar, which he subtitled “The Death of a Dictator.” As one critic has noted, in Welles’s Macbeth “Shakespeare’s poles of monarchy and tyranny have been replaced by a right-wing world view which can admit nothing other than dictatorship or disorder.”
Kurosawa’s adaptation, conceived while Japan was still occupied by American soldiers and set in the strife-ridden medieval Sengoku period, explores the corrosive effect of imperial ambitions and militarism.
The politics of Polanski’s Macbeth are especially fraught. The scene in which Lady Macduff and her children are terrorized and then murdered by killers sent by Macbeth owes much to what Polanski had experienced as a child in the Kraków ghetto. But the immediate background for the making of the film was the recent and barbaric murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their friends by the Manson gang in August 1969. When his collaborator Kenneth Tynan asked Polanski whether a scene in the film wasn’t too bloody, he replied, “You didn’t see my house last summer. I know about bleeding.”
All of these directors were intent on locating their story in a particular time and place. Polanski insisted on shooting on location in Britain, in natural light. Kurosawa built the set of the castle exteriors, at great expense and labor, in the stunted landscape and fog-bound atmosphere of Mount Fuji. Both Polanski and Kurosawa cared deeply about recreating a specific, medieval world. (Polanski made his Lady Macbeth deliver her sleepwalking scene in the nude — since, he claimed, nobody wore nightclothes back then — earning the film an X rating that hurt it at the box office.)
At much the same time that Polanski’s film was screening in movie theaters, a fourteen-year-old in western Pennsylvania was acting for the first time, in a high school production in which she performed Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. A half-century later, Frances McDormand has reprised the role in Coen’s film. Joel and his younger brother, Ethan, have been making movies together since their childhood in Minnesota in the 1960s. Their first commercial film, Blood Simple, was released in 1984, the same year Joel married McDormand, who starred in it and appeared in seven more of the eighteen films the brothers went on to make together. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first film that Joel has made without Ethan. According to their longtime collaborator the composer Carter Burwell, the reason for the solo effort is straightforward: “Ethan didn’t want to make movies anymore.”
Joel Coen, who shot the film on a soundstage in Los Angeles rather than on location, is not interested in recreating realistic landscapes or in situating his film in a specific past. We never even glimpse the exterior of the Macbeths’ castle. In this sense, his film is closer to the empty stage on which Shakespeare’s play was first performed, in 1606 — the soundstage more of an inventive space than a literal one. If anything, the film lands instead on the period that really fuels Coen’s imagination: the cinematic world of the 1940s. With its stylized sets, stark lighting, and playful use of perspective (are we looking up or down at circling birds?), his Tragedy of Macbeth signals its indebtedness to German Expressionism and film noir. It is shot in black and white in a nearly square format, similar to the “academy ratio” used by Welles and Kurosawa and familiar to fans of midcentury cinema. The richness of the film is stunning, its complex tones, from blackout to blinding white, mirroring the shades of meaning in what Shakespeare wrote.
The haunting soundscape, composed by Burwell, is of a piece with its visual effects — not just the music but also the sounds of echoing footsteps, dripping (water and blood), and, especially, knocking. The words “knock” or “knocking” occur nineteen times in Macbeth, and that sound effect is nowhere more unnerving than the knocking at the gate heard after Macbeth kills Duncan. (Denzel Washington, as Macbeth, handles the murder scene chillingly, putting a finger to his lips as a trusting Duncan awakes, then silently sliding a dagger into his jugular.) At this pivotal moment in the play, as Thomas De Quincey explained two centuries ago, in the repeated knocking
the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.
The Coens’ recurrent interest is that staple of film noir, “an uneasiness with male weakness and female perfidy, as well as a skepticism about the promise of the…dream of psychic wholeness, fulfilled desire, and attainable affluence” — words no less applicable to Shakespeare’s tragedy. They came to mind in the film’s rendering of the scene in which Lady Macbeth must persuade her wavering husband to go through with the murder of Duncan, his king, kinsman, and guest. When Macbeth, still unsure whether to act, asks his wife, “If we should fail?” she replies, “We fail?”
Every actor who has played Lady Macbeth has effectively summed up her ambition and her marriage in how she says these two words. That question mark derives from the 1623 First Folio text of the play, the earliest printed version, at a time when it could also be used to signal exclamation. In 1709 Nicholas Rowe changed the line to “We fail!” and subsequent editors have offered a more neutral “We fail.” McDormand opted for an adamant so-what: “We fail.” We die trying. This is our last shot at realizing our long-frustrated hopes. Polanski, who was still in his thirties when he filmed Macbeth, cast actors in their twenties in the leads, and Tynan supported the decision: you can’t “have Macbeth and Lady Macbeth performed by 60 year-olds,” Tynan said. “It’s too late for them to be ambitious.” Coen thinks otherwise, and McDormand and Washington, who are both in their sixties, bear him out: their ambition still burns fiercely.
Coen’s attentiveness to Shakespeare’s plotting has me rethinking my reading of the play. Take, for example, the scene in which Macbeth kills the two grooms who had been guarding the sleeping Duncan, which takes place offstage in Shakespeare’s original. All we know is that Lady Macbeth has drugged them, then returned after the murder and smeared their faces with Duncan’s blood. When the assassination is discovered, Macbeth explains to those gathered that he has gone back and killed “the murderers, / Steeped in the colors of their trade, their daggers / Unmannerly breeched with gore.” “Who could refrain,” he adds, “That had a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage to make’s love known?”
I had always taken this action as precautionary, part of the Macbeths’ plan. But as Washington recites the last lines, looking directly at McDormand, she shoots him first a quizzical and then a devastating look that says, “I told you the plan, you agreed, and now you are going off-script; get a grip.” What Coen and his stars manage so deftly here is locating an otherwise undefined moment in the play when the Macbeths, until now of one mind, begin their inexorable drift apart. As the cocreator of Blood Simple well knows, plans go awry and relationships unravel once blood is spilled.
The Tragedy of Macbeth was made during a period of national turmoil. Filming began in February 2020 but was halted the following month because of the pandemic. It was completed in July, after the murder of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matter protests swept the country and Donald Trump and Joe Biden fought for the presidency.
Coen drew on actors with extensive training in the theater (“the Yale and Juilliard mafia,” as Washington put it). The preparation for the film owed more to stage practices than to how movies are usually made. The company had a chance to rehearse for three and a half weeks, unusual for a film, and during table work Coen asked his actors to read a different role each time. The cast knew the entire play, not just their own parts. “Covid,” Coen said, “made us into a company.”
No Black actor has previously appeared in a commercial film of Macbeth. Coen chose Black actors for several of the leading roles — Macbeth, and also the Macduffs, played by Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram. Coen told the audience at the New York Film Festival, where it premiered, that not only “is there diversity in the casting, but also there’s diversity in the dialect,” as Irish accents mix with British and a wide range of American ones.
That’s true, but for a production with an interracial couple as the leads, completed while the nation confronted such deep divisions in the aftermath of the Floyd murder, it seems almost at pains to avoid the subject of race. I was left confused by the film’s ostensibly colorblind casting. If race doesn’t figure, and casting is truly colorblind, why are the Macduffs and their children all played by Black actors? And if race does matter, what might that say about the personal and political challenges the Macbeths face as a couple? Should we read anything into Macbeth’s decision to send a Black man to kill Macduff’s family? And are we meant to overlook race when Washington’s Macbeth, frustrated at being passed over by Duncan, mutters to himself, “Let not light see my black and deep desires”? I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions, but that doesn’t mean that a Shakespeare film can all but ignore them, because audiences won’t.
Coen shows far greater interest in Shakespeare’s language than his cinematic predecessors, and his accomplished cast speak Shakespeare’s verse comfortably and naturally. While Welles and Polanski opted for soliloquies to be spoken in voice-over, Coen has his actors recite them aloud, usually while in motion. McDormand reads aloud Macbeth’s letter (in which he shares with her the Witches’ prophesy that he shall be king) while walking down a long corridor, her action later matched by Washington, who recites “Is this a dagger which I see before me” as he walks steadily toward the sleeping Duncan’s chamber.
Speeches that in the theater are part of group scenes take on the quality of soliloquies here, spoken directly to the camera. It’s a technique that invites us to focus on the words, even as we study facial features and, in a play rich in equivocation, the speaker’s sincerity. Silences matter in Shakespeare, gestures too, and Coen is attentive to both. McDormand, in a memorable scene in which we see how much Lady Macbeth has declined physically and mentally after Duncan’s murder, pulls gently on a tuft of her hair, which comes away in her hand. McDormand refuses the well-worn paths of playing Lady Macbeth as manipulative, fundamentally evil, or aligned with the Witches. Her love for her husband is genuine, as is her frustration with him. Hers is a determined yet devoted Lady Macbeth.
The Witches have long been a directorial challenge. If Macbeth is seen as a tragedy of fate, the supernatural has to be believable; but if the actions of the play are attributable to human agency, what’s the point of paying much attention to the Witches? They dominated Welles’s film from beginning to end. Polanski played down their role, acknowledging the demonic but locating the source of the tragedy in the main characters themselves. Coen takes a more ambiguous approach, casting a single extraordinary actor, Kathryn Hunter, as all three Witches, and in the opening scene we witness her contort herself into a bird — mimicking the circling crows or ravens with which the film begins — leaving us dazzled by the performance and curious about the extent to which the Witches and the birds are aligned. But there is never a question here of fatedness: Coen is interested in how humans are responsible for their own downfalls, and the supernatural in the play — from the dagger that haunts Macbeth to his visions of Banquo’s ghost and future royal line — is the projection of an overheated imagination or a potion-induced hallucination.
Hunter plays another role in the film: the Old Man, bearded, aged, looking like King Lear on the heath. We are left to wonder if this is another witchlike transformation, or whether she is simply doubling the part. After Duncan’s murder, Ross visits the Old Man’s hovel, where Hunter speaks lines that may give those steeped in Shakespeare a jolt, for they are lifted from the ditty spoken by the Fool in King Lear, written immediately before Macbeth — lines that underscore that life consists of hardship and struggle:
He that has and a little tiny wit —
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain —
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
There’s a further twist, for the actor who first spoke these lines in King Lear, Robert Armin, had recycled them from an earlier Shakespeare play in which he had recited a nearly identical refrain as a different fool, Feste, in the closing lines of Twelfth Night. Hunter played the Fool in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear in 2010, and I wonder whether it was she or Coen who was responsible for this canny interpolation, in a film so aware of antecedents, that beautifully sets up the ending of the film. Whether spoken by a witch or an impoverished old man the message is the same, and familiar to admirers of the Coen brothers’ films: life is dark; get used to it.
Shakespeare pulls a bait and switch at the end of Macbeth. While the Witches prophesy that Banquo shall be father to a long line of kings, the play ends with Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, succeeding Macbeth as Scotland’s king. Film directors in particular have made much of this, inventing new endings. Coen’s take turns on the character of Ross.
In the original text, Ross is one of several unremarkable characters who drift through the play; he appears in eleven scenes, mostly asking for news or sharing it. The idea of expanding his role can be traced back to M.F. Libby, a Canadian schoolmaster who in 1893 published Some New Notes on Macbeth, in which he argued, without much evidence, that Ross was in fact “an ambitious intriguer, a man of some ability but no moral worth, a coward, spy, and murderer.” Libby also claimed that Ross was the unnamed Third Murderer dispatched by Macbeth to ambush Banquo and his son Fleance.
Libby’s ideas circulated and found traction among directors, including Polanski. Coen has said that he wanted to see if what Polanski had done with Ross “could be pressed further.” Alex Hassell plays an inscrutable Ross in the new film and carries much of its political weight: his Ross finds himself in a treacherous world and maneuvers accordingly. Like Polanski, Coen casts Ross as the Third Murderer, but rather than seeking to butcher Fleance, his Ross spares the young boy’s life, not out of kindness but to hedge his bets. When Ross visits Lady Macduff just before she and her children and household are massacred, he glances out the window, sees killers on horseback approach, and excuses himself, saying with punishing self-knowledge, “Cruel are the times, when we are traitors / And do not know ourselves.”
Had he come there to warn her? To be able to share with her husband (as he soon does) details of the slaughter? His self-preservation contrasts sharply with the selflessness of Lady Macbeth’s servant, who, in a scene invented by Coen, overhears Macbeth’s plans and rushes to Lady Macduff’s castle to warn her but is unable to prevent the murders there, including, we suspect, her own. Only the unprincipled Rosses of this world manage to survive, and thrive.
The film comes to a close with Ross holding Macbeth’s severed head in one hand and his crown in the other, which he passes to Malcolm, saying, “Hail, King of Scotland!” The film could have ended there, as Shakespeare’s play does, but Coen has one more task left for Ross: he returns to the hovel of the Old Man, where he has hidden young Fleance, and we see him pull the future ruler of Scotland onto his horse and ride toward us, disappearing momentarily in a dip in the road. In making what looks and feels like a timeless film, Coen may have wanted to sidestep our political moment, but in the end he confronts it. The way this scene is shot, we expect to see Ross and Fleance reappear as the road rises, but before they do, before the final blackout, we are unexpectedly confronted with a horrifying flock of black birds — a “murder of crows” — startled no doubt by Ross’s galloping horse. The maddened, shrieking birds fill the screen in a nod to the terrifying flock in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). “Light thickens,” Macbeth had said, “and the crow / Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.”
Coen’s birds signal that between Malcolm’s coronation and Fleance’s — and long after — there will be more violence, more horrors, more pointless and destructive conflict. His film, which could seem an exercise in nostalgia for midcentury cinema, is also a repudiation of a different kind of nostalgia: the American fantasy that things were once different and better, and will be again — a fitting message for our perilous and equivocating time.
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia. His most recent books are The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 and Shakespeare in a Divided America. (January 2022)