It is incredible to think that Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) was only the fourth Hollywood sound production to adapt Shakespeare — made after Welles failed to get Alexander Korda to fund a production of Othello — and that the film is such an achievement is difficult to fully comprehend without understanding its history. To begin with, it was one of the first instances of a director boldly daring to edit Shakespeare: certainly not by modern cinema standards, but Welles’ theatrical and cinematic reworkings of the Bard were considered akin to heresy in his day. He was also going up against Olivier’s second Shakespeare adaptation, the masterful Hamlet (1948), with a meager budget, leftover sets, and only a few weeks of shooting time. Needless to say, critics hated his film and he was driven to Europe to try to find funding for future projects.
But despite these obstacles, Macbeth is every bit as beautifully stylized and genre-infused as The Lady from Shanghai (1947), though instead of elaborate camera tricks and a nihilistic noir sensibility, Welles essentially turned Macbeth into an expressionist horror film. Though his sets enraged critics, they represent the same type of sensibility found in films like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) or Häxan (1922). In Le Figaro, Robert Bresson said, “I love too much natural settings and natural light not to love also the fake light and cardboard settings of Macbeth.” And it is precisely Macbeth’s cheap artifice that Welles uses to his advantage, creating an eerie backdrop for a tale of witchcraft, murder, rebellion, and damnation.
This is also, at its heart, a war film, and much of its horror is concerned with the violent overthrow of a government by a totalitarian ruler motivated by greed, ambition, and a fundamental sense that he is entitled to lead; albeit one operating under the umbrella of Early Modern monarchy. Some of the film’s most effective sequences involve Macbeth’s betrayal of his closest confidant, Banquo (Edgar Barrier), and the attempts of the rebel forces (led by Dan O’Herlihy’s Macduff and a young Roddy McDowell’s Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne) to put an end to his reign. Welles fully embraced the play’s themes of betrayal, death, madness, and grief, and it is his reliance on genre themes that resulted in such an exquisite, if grim final product.
Like several later adaptations of Macbeth — including Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Polanski’s 1971 film — the emphasis here is on horror. Welles himself called it “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein” and his adaptation certainly borrows from Murnau’s Faust (1926) more than it does from a production of the day like Olivier’s Henry V (1944) or Hamlet — titles that effectively set the standard for cinematic adaptations of the Bard. Overwrought but undeniably eerie, the stark chiaroscuro play of light and shadow — frequently offset against matte paintings of a still yet artificially swirling sky — borrows heavily from German expressionism, and the insane camera angles include almost constant shots of actors, generally Welles himself, looking severely up at or down on the rest of the cast — or positioned enormously in the foreground — evoking both film noir and Gothic cinema.
Themes of death and violence pervade the dialogue — words like “knives,” “wounds,” and “darkness” are repeated frequently — and Macbeth’s monologues are given in voice over, adding a believable edge to his encroaching madness. The low budget set — which was filmed on a soundstage, apparently using leftover pieces from a Western film — is barren, hellish. Macbeth’s soundscape matches its stark visuals and is likely an example of Welles working creatively against time and budgetary limits: though the sound has a hollowness to it, almost an echoing quality, it is somehow incredibly effective, and the limited soundtrack is made up of occasional drumming, booming door knocks, animal noises, thunder, and screams.
Additionally, Welles’ use of visual symbolism is far from subtle; for example, when Macbeth and his Lady (Mercury Theatre regular Jeanette Nolan) are first reunited, a rotting, hanged corpse lingers in the background. Heads on crosses, implausibly high up on pikes, litter the background of several shots, and much of Shakespeare’s offscreen violence is put in the forefront: Cawdor’s execution is front and center, the scene of Duncan’s murder is captured by a beautiful and lengthy tracking shot, Macbeth is present for the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, and Lady Macbeth’s suicide is presented directly, even flagrantly, on screen.
Shakespeare himself was undoubtedly aware that many of the elements of Macbeth were within a literary and theatrical tradition that could be described in contemporary terms as belonging to the horror genre. In Our Naked Frailties, Paul A. Jorgenson wrote, “Murderers, witches, and other disturbing and exciting phenomena were grouped by writers in a classification that suggested a dark, foreboding kind of mystery, threatening to man’s sense of security in his sinful state. Indeed, one of the age’s largest bodies of popular writing concerned ‘strange’ happenings. Many of these, like those on murder and witchcraft, are so germane to Macbeth that the suspicion is warranted that Shakespeare, for motives which were doubtless of the highest, seems to have knowingly drawn upon almost the entire repertory for his play” (25).
The environment of the play in general reflects the encroaching world of darkness. Nature is warped by both witchcraft and rebellion. In his seminal Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley wrote, “In Nature, again, something is felt to be at work, sympathetic with human guilt and supernatural malice” (337). From the beginning of Macbeth, until Duncan’s murder is revealed at the end of act II, nature become steadily more vicious and loathsome. In I.i there is thunder and lightning, and “fog and filthy air.” In I.ii the Captain mentions “Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders,” and the battlefield is “another Golgotha.” I.iii opens in thunder, the Witches discuss a tempest one of them has caused, Macbeth describes the earth as “blasted,” and the Witches have become “breath into the wind.” Rosse also says that Macbeth’s praise came “as thick as hail” and they “pour’d them down” before Duncan. The day is described as “rough” and the word “strange” is used by almost everyone in the scene. In I.iv Macbeth calls upon the night sky to blacken itself so that the stars may not be witness to his “black and deep desires.” Lady Macbeth evokes “thick Night” in I.v, and commands it to bring forth the “dunnest smoke of Hell.” Macbeth says, in I.vii, that the air will “blow the horrid deed in every eye, That tears shall drown the wind.”
Act II begins the real descent into evil, when Macbeth says that “nature seems dead,” and Fleance and Banquo cannot see the stars. “Nature is here seen as spawning unnumbered evils, and notable among them is the first of the evils defined in the play, rebellion” (Jorgenson 44). Indeed, Macbeth’s speech evokes images of witches celebrating, and the wolf and Murther roaming the night, ghostlike. Lady Macbeth only hears the shriek of the owl, and the Porter becomes the “Porter of Hell Gate.” In Witches and Jesuits, Gary Willis stated that even the Porter’s speech imitates the Witches, that it is “a reverse conjuration” as the Porter draws three demons down to Hell, rather than the Witches calling their three familiars up forth (98). In this scene, II.iii, the other thanes report their strange nights. Lennox says:
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,
New hatch’d to th’woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous, and did shake (II.iii.52-60).
This passage appears right before Macduff discovers the murder of Duncan, and reflects both the Witches’ role, as well as the involvement of Macbeth and his wife. The wind that blows down their chimneys is connected to the many passages discussing the Witches’ connection with wind, and in Renaissance beliefs, they were supposed to have magical control over the weather. The “prophesying” also recalls their meeting with Macbeth. “The obscure bird” is surely Lady Macbeth’s raven, and the earth shook with fever, because of the terrible deed of regicide. As can be seen in Lennox’s language, Bradley connects the Witches to the larger images of darkness, evil, and malice that are repeated through out the very world of Macbeth (337).
One of the few ways that Welles altered Shakespeare’s play — which oddly serves to emphasize these “images of darkness, evil, and malice” — was to add a strange folk horror element in the form of a clash between pagan and Christian religions. An old man character is transformed into a Holy Man, who chants ominously as King Duncan arrives at the castle. The King asks his soldiers — all kneeling and holding candles — “Dost thou renounce Satan and all his works?” There is an uneasy ritualism at play and Welles seemed to determined to capture the Holy Man’s assertion that the characters are all bearing witness to “hours dreadful and things strange.” And of course, as in Shakespeare’s text, the overriding visual is that of the Witches. The film opens with a shot of them — three gray-haired, cloaked women on a narrow precipice, shrouded in fog — working magic around a large cauldron, which is represented by contrasting images of fire, water, and what looks like bubbling mud, the very elements of the earth. They pull a misshapen lump of clay from a pot and begin jointly working it with their hands, sculpting it into a rough, man-like shape.
Their spellcasting and prophecies do not make up a significant portion of the film’s running time, but they become the overall unifying theme and the few shots of them are unforgettable. From the moment Macbeth — recently returned from battle to meet up with other commanders on a desolate, muddy field — enters the fog to find the Witches after they have made their prophecies about his future greatness, they begin to have a corrosive effect on the film, infecting everything from Shakespeare’s language to the visual world of Welles’ production. Many critics have followed Bradley’s suggestion that the Witches, and in particular their prophecies, symbolize “the evil slumbering in the hero’s soul” and “all those obscurer influences of the evil around him” (347-348). The Witches’ prophecies whisper to this insidious evil inside Macbeth and awaken it, like a latent virus, until he is consumed by his own diabolical ambition.
Shakespeare actually gave Welles (and other directors, whether cinematic or theatrical), quite a bit of flexibility when it came to portraying the witches themselves, as textually he reveals very little about them. In Stephen Booth’s King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, he wrote, “As we watch the play, the witches have definition, but we cannot afterward say what that definition is. We know what we cannot know; we possess knowledge that remains unattainable. That kind of paradoxical capacity is, I think, what the play gives us that makes us call it great” (102). Shakespeare leaves many unanswered questions about the witches: are they male or female, human or supernatural, real or imaged?
The opening of Macbeth is only a short, twelve-line scene that does little more than introduce the Witches and their intentions to meet Macbeth. Jorgenson argues that, to early modern audiences, witchcraft was “a subject of frightening spiritual concern. Shakespeare could be confident that his Witches would be viewed as more than spectacle” (23). Though the Witches are not named directly as practitioners of witchcraft, there are several obvious indications. For example, the first two witches call upon “Graymalkin,” and then “Paddock,” while the third Witch calls to someone, or something, with “Anon!” In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Macbeth, Kenneth Muir cites that Graymalkin is a “grey cat… a common witches’ familiar,” and Paddock refers to “a toad,” which is another animal associated with witches (4).
In order to really explore Shakespeare’s intentionally vague description of the Witches and Welles’ subsequent use of them on screen, it is necessary to understand their role in the Renaissance world. Stephen Greenblatt wrote, in his essay, “Shakespeare Bewitched,” “In the early seventeenth century it was impossible to contain a depiction of witches strictly within the boundaries of art, for the status of witches – the efficacy of their charms, their ability to arm, the reality of their claims or of the charges brought against them, their very existence – was not a fixed feature in the cultural landscape but a subject of contestation” (22).
While connections have been made between Welles’ Macbeth and his earlier Federal Theatre Project outing, a 1936 stage production with an all-African American cast, known as “Voodoo” Macbeth, some of the seemingly voodoo-related elements he includes in the film can also be traced to Renaissance beliefs about magic. In Brian P. Levack’s The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, he wrote “This type of magic would include the killing of a person by piercing a doll made in his image, inflicting sickness on a child by reciting a spell, bringing down hail on crops by burning enchanted substances, starting a fire by leaving a hexed sword in a room, and causing impotence in a bridegroom by tying knots in a piece of leather and leaving it in his proximity.These acts were usually referred to in Latin as maleficia and in English were sometimes called witchcrafts” (4).
Shakespeare also provides historical context: in a reference made by the first Witch to the sea and disturbing ship travel that is likely intentionally reminiscent of an episode with King James I. James, who had married Anne of Denmark by proxy, desired her to sail to Scotland, but each time she attempted the journey, she was prevented by a tempest. The Lord High Admiral, the Earl of Bothwell, was ordered to send a ship, but neglected James’s orders, until James was forced to make the trip himself. There were severe storms on the trip to Denmark, and when the newly united couple eventually returned to Scotland, their ship was destroyed by a massive storm. “As James was later to discover, the storms had been preceded (and allegedly caused) by incantations of the witches of North Berwick, and the man who had instigated the witchcraft activities was… Bothwell, who was King James’s cousins and who considered himself heir-presumptive to the throne” (Wentersdorf 435).
Apparently after James’s safe return home, the witches continued their foul acts against the King, involving a waxen image and poison. The witches were discovered, and forced through torture to confess their crimes, and it was then that they implicated Bothwell. They were burned to death and Bothwell was eventually exiled. These events would have been known to James’s subjects, and they introduce another idea that is vital to the play: witches were frequently connected, particularly by James, but even by Elizabeth’s court, with plots against the throne, assassination attempts, and rebellions. These attempts at rebellion, first introduced in Macbeth I.ii by the unsuccessful Macdonwald, were directly connected with the damned and the work of the Devil.
Willis calls Macbeth “one of the great male witches of drama,” and the character does take on a Faustian aspect for the second half of the play, one that connects the themes of supernatural evil and martial rebellion (Willis 74). Welles certainly played up this element: his frame moves ever closer to the camera in the second half of the film, as if he is claustrophobically asserting his dominance over the world itself, his jagged crown often appearing like horns, particularly when his face is cast in deep shadow. At about the halfway mark, Macbeth’s crown is placed upon his head while he’s looking into a warped mirror, which marks a dramatic turn in his personality as he begins to slip towards madness, an event that began in earnest with his murder of Duncan. Much like rebellion against the crown, murder itself is connected to witchcraft by several documents from Early Modern England and Europe. For example, in Nicholas Remy’s “The Persecution in Scotland” from 1591, he states that: “From the very beginning the Devil was a murderer, and never has he ceased to tempt the impious to commit slaughter and parricide. Therefore it is no wonder that, once he had caught men in his toils, his first care is to furnish them with the implements and instruct them in the practices of witchcraft.”
Macbeth’s “instruction” seems to begin immediately after he meets the Witches for the first time in I.iii, when they vanish “into the air and what seem’d corporal, Melted as breath into the wind” (I.iii.81-82). They do dissolve into the air, but, operating like Renaissance notions of the bubonic plague, transform into “filthy air” that infects Macbeth, whose moral and spiritual defenses are already weak, due to his treacherous thoughts. This evil infection spreads to everything that is associated with Macbeth: his wife, his castle, and even the natural environment that surrounds him. “The vocabulary of the Witches, depending upon whether we take these strange beings to be originators or merely responsive aspects of evil, either prompts or reflects the vocabulary or thought of the human actors” (Jorgenson 45).
It is likewise implied that they drive him to repeated acts of murder, generally symbolized by a dagger: whether a physical dagger, a hallucinated one, or repeated uses of the word in dialogue. In II.i, a hallucinatory dagger appears before him, showing him the way to murder. This sentiment is again echoed in III.ii, before the death of Banquo, when he invokes the night to “Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond/ Which keeps me pale!” These invocations of evil seem to grow exponentially as Macbeth becomes more dependent on the language of witchcraft. Jorgenson argues that he does not just use their words and themes, but also begins to pick up their linguistic rhythms. “Macbeth’s incantatory speeches, notably the later ‘Come, seeling Night’ (III.ii.46), have the function almost of conjuration; and in imitating partly the rhythm, with some of the ritual, of the Witches, they serve to commit Macbeth to the evil” (Jorgenson 64).
Welles underlines this transition from war hero to warlock in typical Wellesian fashion: in a later scene, he shouts for his servant, Seyton, but his booming voice sounds a lot like he’s yelling “Satan”; moments later the man is revealed to have hanged himself, resulting in yet another body dangling by the neck from a rope in the background, all while Welles delivers the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. These seemingly diabolical intonations mark both an increasingly mad man, a defeated one (Welles seems in turns drunk and exhausted in the second half of the film), and one who has given himself over to the diabolical. The ending of the film is notably different from conventional stagings of the play: Macduff is shown to decapitate Macbeth outright, rather than cutting off his head after he’s dead; he then flings it off the castle ramparts, echoing Lady Macbeth’s earlier suicide — where Welles brazenly depicts her launching herself over the castle walls and plunging to her death. Welles ends the film with a final shot of the Witches, who declare “the charm’s wound up,” implying that though Macbeth has met his fate at the hands of Macduff, they are ready to begin again.
It’s tempting to see this film as a story that briefly paralleled Welles’ own fate — at least in the sense that it’s about a man damned by his own monstrous ambition — as it would be his last Hollywood film for many years. Despite the fact that he got the film made in record time and with a pitiful budget, it was critically panned and its reputation wouldn’t be revalued for several decades. Fortunately, Welles would go on to make other Shakespeare adaptations like Othello (1951) and Chimes at Midnight (1965) with European funding, though I tend to read Macbeth less as part of a Shakespearean trilogy and more as belonging to a WWII-influenced series with Journey into Fear (1943), The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and even The Trial (1962): films about persecution, paranoia, madness, and betrayal.
Macbeth has been given an all-star Blu-ray treatment by Olive Films in a two-disc version that includes a restored print of the original 1948 version (with the unfortunate Scottish accents in place, though these are easy to get used after a few minutes), a great audio commentary track from Welles’ biographer Joseph McBride, and loads of special features on the second disc. Included is the only version available for many years, the 1950 cut of the film (which is a whopping twenty minutes shorter), interviews, documentary excerpts, and more. In a year with some absolutely spectacular releases, it’s definitely on the list of my favorites (and gives the recent Criterion release of Chimes at Midnight something of a run for its money).