The tragedy begins with the witch.
Was it one witch? Or three? But perhaps it doesn’t matter. She talks to her sisters Gollum-like, limbs twisting, capes turning crow, awaiting Macbeth and Banquo, loyal thanes to Scotland’s King Duncan.
Macbeth and Banquo’s Scottish army has just vanquished an army featuring the combined might of Norway and Ireland led by the traitorous Macdonwald. Now the two walk home through a treeless wasteland, talking about the weather. But they’re interrupted by the witch. Or three.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!” she says.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!” she says.
“All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” she says.
Macbeth is surprised by this greeting. Sure, he’s the thane of Glamis, no doubt. But someone else fills Cawdor’s house. And king? That’s crazy talk.
Banquo wonders if the witch(es) have any prophecies for him. “Lesser than Macbeth and greater,” they say. “Not so happy, yet much happier.” Banquo himself will never be king, they tell him. But his sons will be.
Soon after, the witches depart, and Macbeth and Banquo are left alone—to perhaps smile inwardly at whatever craziness picked at the edges of these weird sisters. But as they banter over these unwanted fortunes told, another thane rides up—and pronounces Macbeth thane of Cawdor.
The witch’s prophecy was a bright one, it seemed—full of future success and golden glory. And perhaps had Macbeth never heard it, the future would’ve remained bright. But with part of the prophecy fulfilled, Macbeth and his wife turn their attention to fulfilling the rest.
And their futures are mortared with blood.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable villains, but the guy didn’t start out that way. I imagine that as he walked through this deserted, witch-infested spot with his friend, Banquo, he was what the King thought him: loyal and brave (though perhaps easily corrupted).
Many of the characters in Macbeth are far more virtuous than the play’s titular character. Macduff is probably the most important: When the [Spoiler Warning] king is found dead in Macbeth’s castle, Macduff immediately suspects the hosts are behind the bloody deed. And he eventually brings Macbeth’s bloody reign to an end.
Let’s begin with the witches (three in Shakespeare’s original play, but the number’s somewhat malleable here). These are not women just hanging about telling harmless fortunes. They are evil—instruments of temptation and chaos—and portrayed as servants of a greater evil yet. In Macbeth, supernatural forces are alive and real: Here the witches can appear, disappear and even change form (into crows). And they call upon even darker, murkier forces to foretell Macbeth’s dark future.
But if you’ll excuse this odd phrase, here’s the theological beauty of what Shakespeare does (and which the movie neatly echoes). While dark, evil forces are indeed alive and well, they don’t make the characters do anything. The witch simply reveals a tiny bit of Macbeth’s future. Macbeth and his wife take that information and twist it into inhuman monstrosity, just as we so often do. We don’t need a lot of encouragement to do evil: Our own fallen natures are quite often sufficient. As the witches famously say, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” They’re not referring to themselves, but rather to Macbeth.
Shakespeare was writing in a much more pious time, and references to God and faith are pretty frequent. We hear references to spirits and hell, and Macbeth talks about seeing a ghostly blade. Characters pray and ask for God’s blessing. But Lady Macbeth seems to call on more diabolical forces (“spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”) to steel her to commit a most heinous deed. And later, when that deed (and all its terrible aftermath) corrodes Lady Macbeth’s mind and soul, a doctor observes her nocturnal wanderings. “More needs she the divine than the physician,” he says. “God, God, forgive us all!”
We hear a reference to the liver of a “blaspheming Jew” being used as a potion ingredient.
A porter makes a pretty lewd speech about three things that alcohol “especially provoke.” Alcohol, he says, has an uneven effect on “lechery.” “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” an observation he emphasizes with suggestive hand gestures.
Lady Macbeth calls on spirits to “unsex” her: A woman, she believes, would be too gentle and piteous to follow through with the deed she plans. “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall,” she goes on.
Macbeth’s drama flows parallel with its blood, and this cinematic treatment, albeit in black and white, rarely looks away. [And if you’re not familiar with the play, expect spoilers in this section.]
Macbeth personally commits the first murder, stabbing King Duncan in the throat. It’s not pretty, and we see blood drip from the fingers of the lifeless corpse. The next morning, Macbeth promptly dispatches the two servants who were supposed to be watching Duncan: He slits one’s throat (we see the pull of the knife) and pushes another down the stairs after stabbing him.
These are far from the only murders Macbeth commits. Once in power, the killings accelerate. He hires two thugs to waylay his one-time friend Banquo and his son. (The son escapes, but Banquo does not.) He sends killers to slaughter an entire family, including several children. (One child is tossed from a tower floor and disappears into a smoky inferno.) Eventually, Macbeth’s enemies go to war against the Scottish usurper, and we see plenty of swordplay (and a few deaths) result.
A woman apparently falls or jumps to her death. (We see the body on the pavement.) Someone is beheaded in battle, and his bloody head is carried by the victor. Someone else is executed via beheading. We hear some pretty grotesque potion ingredients, including the “finger of birth-strangled babe.”
We hear “d–n” about three times (in various contexts), as well as the word “p-ss.”
Lady Macbeth takes a swig of alcohol to give her “courage” before drugging the drinks of Duncan’s servants to ensure they’ll be asleep when her husband sneaks in. The next morning, the porter talks about three things that alcohol provokes: “nose painting, sleep and urine.” (The first refers to the color the nose turns when one drinks, by the way.)
Banquets are accompanied by alcohol, of course, and we hear many a passing reference to drinking.
The whole play is based on treachery, and we see plenty of that at work. Macbeth is a terrible host to Duncan, obviously, and he often pretends to think the world of someone when he’s secretly plotting to murder him. As Macbeth himself says, “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”
When I first became an English major in college, I wasn’t all that enamored with Shakespeare. And then I read Macbeth, and I realized the old bard knew what he was doing after all.
It’s still my favorite Shakespeare tragedy, and this version does it justice. With Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in place as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, this black-and-white showcase gives us some riveting visuals—swooping crows, sharp-angled castles, starkly shadowed halls—to go along with the star wattage and Shakespeare’s own timeless play. It feels both contemporary and classic, and watchable for even those of us who don’t relish a lot of thees and thous in our movies.
But it’s a reminder that even 400-year-old plays (Macbeth was published in 1623) can come with content concerns.
Macbeth was written in a far more pious age, of course. That’s reflected in The Tragedy of Macbeth. But the 17th century was also an age when more bestial aspects of man ran much closer to the surface, too. Many folks in Shakespeare’s time didn’t have bedroom doors to close when an intimate moment called. Sewage often ran unchecked in the streets. And Shakespeare—knowing his audience—was no stranger to a raunchy turn of phrase. We see evidence of that here. And while it seems crazy to take issue with Shakespeare’s language, let’s face it: Plugged In is duty-bound to say that we would prefer if Lady Macbeth said, “Out, out, darn spot.”
And as for violence? Blood? Yeah, fake heads rolled on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater stage, and this Tragedy of Macbeth follows suit.
Of course, the special effects these days are far better than they were in Shakespeare’s day, and cameras take us far closer to the gore. The Tragedy of Macbeth is rated R for its blood and violence, and indeed it can be jarring on screen—even in black and white.
Washington and McDormand’s Tragedy of Macbeth does indeed translate Shakespeare’s writing well. But some modern viewers might be surprised just what Shakespeare wrote in the first place.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.