As I sat down to watch the new film of The Tragedy of Macbeth from director Joel Coen, out in theaters and now streaming on Apple TV+, I realized that I have seen Macbeth more than any other Shakespeare play. While the popularity of some of Shakespeare’s work comes and goes with shifts in cultural taste, over the past 30 years Macbeth has remained reliably in the No. 3 slot, content to allow King Lear and Hamlet to duke it out for the top prize. Its steady popularity and cultural relevance make a certain kind of sense. Macbeth is among Shakespeare’s most tightly plotted and efficient plays. It can be directed into any number of recognizable genres from supernatural horror to feudal political thriller to revenge tragedy. It comes chockablock with famous lines. And its tale of ambition, violence, madness, and the limitation of individual free will speaks to us no matter what our current crisis is.
But the play’s lasting popularity is also odd because Macbeth is among Shakespeare’s most hopeless works. At the end of Hamlet, much of the cast lies dead, but we can at least hope that Fortinbras and Horatio could manage to cobble together some new, more stable, and just nation out of the broken pieces that remain after King Claudius’ reign. Macbeth takes place on an ever-spinning wheel, one that cannot be escaped. For all the brutal violence of the play, nothing has been accomplished by its end: The play begins with the defeat of a traitorous Thane of Cawdor and the redistribution of his lands and title, and it ends with the defeat of a different traitorous Thane of Cawdor and yet another redistribution of lands and titles. In the early 17th century, the noun success contained more definitions than it does today, meaning an achievement of something, the result of something, the progress of time, and the succession of heirs. Shakespeare, who couldn’t resist a good pun, organized the play around these multiple meanings. Macbeth has succeeded beyond his wildest imagination by assassinating the king and succeeding him onto the throne. But he lacks an heir to succeed him, and thus his successes turn to ash in his mouth. Hamlet learns that because life is finite, “the readiness is all.” Macbeth’s great epiphany before he dies is that all success means is that you are next in line to be succeeded, and the inevitability of death means that life “is a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing.”
Although it’s tempting to imagine that Macbeth originates in a middle-aged Shakespeare becoming the preeminent playwright of his time and having a midlife crisis, the play’s hopelessness likely has political and cultural origins. In the three years prior to Macbeth’s premiere, Shakespeare had seen a plague kill one-fifth of the population of London, and he had also lived through the Gunpowder Plot, a failed insurgency by religious extremists that nearly destroyed Parliament. Emotionally, these events are all too familiar to us today, yet director Joel Coen isn’t interested in finding these kinds of contemporary resonances. As in his previous work with his brother, Ethan, Coen opts out of trenchant political commentary to return to one of his favorite themes: the struggle of the individual to exist in an inscrutable, capricious universe. The Tragedy of Macbeth is very much a film by a director who inserted the title card “Divine Presence to be Shot” in one of the films-within-a-film in Hail, Caesar! and had Richard Kind wail at the injustices of the universe in A Serious Man.
Joel Coen is part of a generation of filmmakers who—thanks to the licensing of old film libraries to television—grew up far more film-literate than any who came before. He’s spoken in past interviews of spending hours with his brother, Ethan, in front of the family television in suburban Minneapolis, watching any movie that happened to be showing, and learning that all genres of film were simply different means of expression. His filmography bears this out. In the 38 years since his first film, Coen has directed westerns (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), a sex farce (Burn After Reading), a picaresque (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), screwball comedies (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty), realist period dramas (A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis), and several noirs, including my personal vote for most underrated of his films, The Man Who Wasn’t There. For Macbeth, he has turned to new genres, attempting his first classic play, and filming it in a German expressionist style, with black-and-white cinematography, high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting, and sets that eschew verisimilitude and reflect the subjectivity of the characters.
The results are hermetic—Macbeth is the most suffocatingly controlled of all of Coen’s work—but deliberately so. The fates of the characters of Macbeth cannot be escaped. They are trapped, and a doom has been pronounced upon them, one that is reflected in a 4:3 aspect ratio that confines the characters in a tight little box and in spaces that never disguise their artificiality. Whether indoors or out-, the environments feel constructed on a soundstage. Instead of any attempt at realism, we get cinematography so sharp and starkly lit that the spaces have a vertiginous quality. The walls lack all decoration. Everything is cut with shadows and overwhelmed with fog. Scenes transition in and out of one another in slow cross-fades that cause the environments and people to bleed into one another. Watching the film, you cannot shake the feeling that this Macbeth takes place in a series of spaces absolutely hostile to human life, spaces in which joy, love, loyalty, and honor could not possibly grow. The earth looks burned. It is a blasted heath destroyed by war, a land of paranoia and cold, bloody power games.
The deliberate staginess of the film also solves a major problem of many cinematic Shakespeare adaptations. Shakespeare’s plays were written for very specific spaces and circumstances, and those origins are embedded in the texts themselves and often quite difficult to shake. Movies that try to force his scripts into a purely cinematic—and mostly realistic—visual vocabulary often have the unfortunate side effect of emphasizing how uncinematic the text really is. By basing the film’s visuals on the most theatrical movement in cinema history, The Tragedy of Macbeth takes an essential problem in the project of adapting Shakespeare and turns it into a conscious choice. We’re never taken out of the world of the film by the material’s inherent theatricality. Instead, we remain imprisoned in it along with its characters.
And it is that feeling of being stuck in a world we do not fully understand and cannot control that The Tragedy of Macbeth is most interested in. Of all the versions of the Scottish play I have seen, this one is by far the scariest, a work of cosmic horror in which supernatural beings pursue their own games, delighting in their ability to manipulate and destroy the mortals caught it their web. As the witches, Kathryn Hunter, a virtuosic shapeshifter and Shakespeare veteran largely unknown to moviegoers, is genuinely uncanny, her body curling around itself, her voice scraping the very bottom of her register. By going all-in on this idea, the film downplays the original’s other themes of the destructive and ultimately hollow nature of ambition. The screenplay omits Macbeth’s “to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus” speech, which is the moment the character realizes that he will never be content, even though he is king. Instead of raging against the world and his fate the way that Toshiro Mifune does in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, Throne of Blood, Denzel Washington plays Macbeth in a much lower key. Washington’s Macbeth is an older man, weary of the world, afraid in every moment that he might misstep and bring destruction down on him and his wife, and only rarely channeling the volcanic defiance we expect. As Lady Macbeth, Frances McDormand—who has played the role previously on stage—brilliantly traces the arc of a character who begins as the instigator of the conspiracy to assassinate the king and rule Scotland but gradually breaks with her husband over his murder of Banquo, and then falls into guilt and madness over what she has done. They feel more human than most portraits of the Macbeths, and not unlike the protagonists of Coen’s beloved noir films, who always think they’re one step ahead of everyone else, only to find they’re two steps behind.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is for people already familiar, perhaps even well versed, in the original play. The interpretational choices the film makes, which include changing its plot by knitting together several parts into the character of Ross (an incredible Alex Hassell), only read as particularly significant if you know what they’re reconfiguring. The actors set aside the telegraphing that audiences are used to in Shakespearean performance and deliver the lines almost like everyday speech, playing their scenes to their partners rather than the crowd.
What lingers in the mind after this version of The Tragedy of Macbeth is not specific line deliveries or bravura acting moments—although the cast all acquit themselves well—but images and sounds. The smear of blood on Macbeth’s cheek. The circling crows. The fog out of which characters emerge. The ominous strings of Carter Burwell’s score. The dripping and knocking and pounding. These fragments remain, like the shards of a dream, one you’re happy to have awakened from but also long to return to, so you can discover what profundities lie within.