The Different Representation of Lady Macbeth’s Character and Performance in a Stage and a Film Production

Term Paper, 2016

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Lukas Jan (Author)



1 Introduction and Question

2 Powerful Lady Macbeth - between femininity and masculinity
2.1 Samantha Spiro as Lady Macbeth – between femininity and masculinity
2.2 Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth – only femininity and no masculinity?

3 The influence of children for Lady Macbeth’s character

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction and Question

“In showing how Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth has haunted America from the founding of the United States to the present, the two centuries intervening between Abigail Adams and Hillary Clinton seemed to contract […].“ (cf. Smith, 2010, p. 183). The use of “Lady Macbeth” as a byname nowadays is very common, especially in politics. Her special role, her courage, pride and demeanour impress us in such a way that we still compare a fictional character to real women who have similar characteristics, like the First Lady for example. The power and influence the First Lady has on her husband the President is sometimes underestimated, as it also happened with Lady Macbeth in the tragedy. In the United States, the role of the First Lady is more important than anywhere else. During the election campaign, she supports and encourages her husband and also assists him in the presidency. Edith Wilson, for example, substituted for her husband Woodrow Wilson when he was ill in 1919, and adopted the executive power of the U.S. government (cf. Cook, 2010, p. 691). The reason Smith and Cook compare Mrs. Wilson and other First Ladies with Lady Macbeth is not arbitrary. Already in the original of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, first performed in 1606, he represented Lady Macbeth as a very strong and influential woman and wife with a special firmness of character. The popularity of the character and the tragedy itself brought forth many different productions and adaptations. There are a lot of ways to understand, interpret and implement Shakespeare’s tragedies into movies and stage productions. Each production pursues its own concept in staging and how the story shall be presented. Therefore, the production company chooses a director and cast who can opine their conception in the best way. Hence they have the difficult and honourable task to implement this distinguished piece of work into a film or theatre production. Marion Cotillard and Samantha Spiro, who were both cast for a Macbeth production, are two completely different actresses in their mannerism, look and acting style, but the companies thought that they were perfectly suited for the role of Lady Macbeth and so they had the difficult task to play her. Marion Cotillard had already received many awards for her acting and became a very popular Hollywood actress during the final years. She played Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender in the 2015 film production by Justin Kurzel. Samantha Spiro played Lady Macbeth at the Globe theatre in London in 2013. This production was the directorial debut of Eve Best. Best is a very experienced actress, not only because she had a lot of different theatre, film and television roles in her career, but she also played Lady Macbeth in the Globe Theatre in 2001 by herself. With Samantha Spiro and Joseph Millson as Macbeth, Best featured two very skilled actors. All in all, the theatre production has completely different requirements than the film adaptation. While the film adaptation, for example, has more attempts for a scene, the live performance on a theatre stage right in front of the audience gives no chance to correct mistakes, but still the actors have to represent the same characters. How do Marion Cotillard and Samantha Spiro each play Lady Macbeth? Where are the differences in their acting and are there possible similarities? And how is Lady Macbeth, who shall stay close to Shakespeare’s original, changed by the director and by the actresses but without modifying her too much? And finally what role does the overall concept of the production play?

In the following, these questions will be discussed based on the two mentioned productions, the 2015 “Macbeth” film production and the 2013 “Macbeth” stage production. The aim of the thesis is to explore the Lady Macbeth character as a woman, as a wife and as a probable mother. It will also compare the detailed characterization of both Lady Macbeths by investigating and interpreting their behavior in some selected scenes.

2 Powerful Lady Macbeth - between femininity and masculinity

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, like in other plays, the sex of the characters plays an important role. Sometimes women are dressed like men or men play a female role. Shakespeare also operated with a special effect on the character of Lady Macbeth. “Macbeth is probably the Shakespearean character with the most vivid imagination; his fantasy-making is, in fact, responsible for his fate“ (cf. Bloom 1991, 1). Lady Macbeth’s character is pretty much the same as Macbeth’s himself, so you could project the characterization on both of them. Shakespeare created a dynamic character by changing her attitude between masculinity and femininity. In some situations she can be characterized as a very female, petite woman. Most of the time though, she is a consequent, self-reliant woman with male character traits (cf. McPherson, 2000, p. 304-306). This is one more reason that Lady Macbeth has such a formidable character. The character of Lady Macbeth can be analyzed from different perspectives. Some critics consider her to be more a loving wife where others consider her as more like a witch and so the directors interpret it differently (cf. Rahmann Tajuddin, 2015, 129). How does Samantha Spiro put this task into action?

2.1 Samantha Spiro as Lady Macbeth – between femininity and masculinity

Lady Macbeth’s first entry is in the fifth scene of act one. She receives a letter from her husband, which tells her of his victory and the prediction of the Weird Sisters. In the beginning, Spiro’s facial expression is surprised and happy but switches in a short time to thoughtful, and finally she is in an angry and aggressive mood. (“Macbeth”. 2013: TC 00:17:45 – 00:21:15). She also raises her deep and smoky voice and intensifies the meaning of her monologue: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!” (Macbeth, 1.5.39-42). Lady Macbeth begs the spirits for giving her the strength to convince Macbeth of her cruel plan and to undertake it. This utterance shows her profound confidence and determination that the prediction will come true and her husband will definitely be the king (cf. Rahman Tajuddin, 2015, 129). The acting of Samantha Spiro in this scene absolutely reflects what she says and it seems as if she transforms from a female and feminine character into a more strong, harsh one in the very same moment she is saying it. “Scholars have traditionally read this invocation as evidence of Lady Macbeth’s attempt to seize a masculine power to further Macbeth’s political goals“ (cf. Chamberlain, 2005, 72). Her soft face changes into a hard one and you can see her head becoming sanguine. Her body language runs through more stages beginning with more and more gesticulation. The turning point is when she falls on her knees and begs the spirits. Here, she closes her eyes, her voice becomes rough and in her flight into frenzy she scrunches the letter up. When standing up again, the transformation seems to be accomplished. The genuflection and when she stands up again symbolizes the act of a death, a transformation and a rebirth as a mentally unsexed person. Spiro additionally visualizes Lady Macbeth’s monologue with this performance and strengthens her wish not to be weak and not to shy away from cruel doings. With her acting, she does not seem to be only mentally unsexed, but her body language also changes into a more masculine one, which you can see later in this scene, when Macbeth, played by Millson, enters the stage. In comparison to his fellow actor, he is very tall, but Spiro still seems more sturdy and self-confident due to her body language. They joyfully embrace each other, after they have not seen for a longer time. But this happiness quickly turns into seriousness and Lady Macbeth suggests her plan to murder king Duncan to her husband (Macbeth, 1.5.60-68). Spiro precisely transfers the masculine power of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy by acting very dominantly, like a counsel in times of war, walking around Macbeth and pointing at him. Filled with conviction, she illustrates the future and what they have to do for it. Millson embodies uncertainty and a flagging reticence, which Lady Macbeth tries to overcome by looking astonished and appalled, because he probably never experienced his wife in such a furious mood (cf. Chamberlain, 2005, 72). “The scope and sweep of her [Lady Macbeth] evil passion is tremendous, irresistible, ultimate. She is an embodiment – for one mighty hour – of evil absolute and extreme” (cf. Knight, 2001, p 173). This scene is the very first of Lady Macbeth and it already shows the audience a lot about her. Wilson Knight uses extremes not only to describe her, but with this statement he also reflects the feelings and impressions of the viewers. Although there was no evil act by Lady Macbeth yet, her monologue and thoughts evoke fear and uncertainty. Normally, with such a person who already shows her bad side right in the beginning of a story, you would be uncongenial and dislike her. She planned the murder of a king, motivated only by self-interest and desire for power, and convinces her husband to carry it out. Eventually she helps him with this cruel murder and hides all the evidence. For all that, we still have sympathy for Lady Macbeth. Between these bad features, we believe in a good, gentle, wholehearted side of her. There are parallels between her reading the first few lines of the letter and when hugging her husband. In these two short moments she appears like a normal, feminine, happy wife, who just loves her husband and is very content in her life like an ingénue. When they both meet again, Joseph Millson and Samantha Spiro, you can feel their real pleasure to see each other. She sobs with joy and he lifts her and carries her around on the stage and they both seem to just be happy lovers (“Macbeth”. 2013: TC 00:21:20 – 00:21:40). This is another reason why Lady Macbeth wins our favor. We recognize that she is dazzled by power and glory, and because of that she forces herself to change her character or rather let it be changed by some spirits because it is not in her true nature to be cruel. The change between the two facets of feminine kindness and masculine cruelty goes through the whole storyline. For example when king Duncan arrives, she plays the role as a friendly host, bowing to him, falsely praising him and lulling him in safety with a hidden agenda to murder him in the night (“Macbeth”. 2013: TC 00:23:15 – 00:24:30). In the seventh scene of act one, Spiro morphs into the unsexed person again, brainwashing her husband, although he already turned away from the plan. She had a venomous speech to convince him, pointing and shouting at him. It is like a pre-game situation where a coach spurns on his players for the match or when a mother wants her recalcitrant child to do something. Millson acts exactly like this unstable, awed child and finally is persuaded by Spiro who operates dominantly and confidently and she retains control of the situation. She also shows her power over Macbeth in the scene, when he returns from the murder: “Why did you bring these daggers from the place? They must lie there: go carry them […].” Macbeth answers: “I’ll go no more: I am afraid to think what I have done […].” “Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers” (Macbeth, 2.2.48-54). She communicates the original words in a furious, passionate way. She blows up her lungs and her fierce facial expression shows how she is beside herself with rage. She yells at him, giving him instructions and dresses him down like a child who has done something terribly wrong. At that she humiliates him because of his weakness and wrenches the daggers out of his hands to bring them back by herself (“Macbeth”. 2013: TC 00:37:40 – 00:38:20). The turning point of Lady Macbeth happens in Act 5, Scene 1. This is also her last entry on the stage and we discover a different Lady Macbeth. She plays a very active and decisive role in the first two acts of the play, but she isn’t any longer the strong, powerful, ambitious woman she was. And Spiro, who was so full of energy in the play, acts enervated, exhausted and she suffers from all the cruel things that happened. She looks disheveled, unkempt and she wears dirty clothes. The dynamic of her character is finally completed here. This sleepwalking scene, where she is talking to herself, is the most decisive moment. It highlights Lady Macbeth’s delicate feminine nature. She is higher-minded than Macbeth but also fragile and so she is overwhelmed by the unbearable weight of her crimes, while Macbeth becomes more resistant the more cruel things he does (cf. McPherson, 2000, 304). The real Lady Macbeth can be seen now, when she is totally alone. Her feminine side is shown in a very extreme manner. She awakens to all the bad things she did but they already have driven her so far that she loses her mental balance, became bewildered and deficient and finally commits suicide to relieve her conscience of these burdens (cf. Choudhury, 1998, 39). Spiro precisely embodies these characteristics through many changes in her mood. First she sobs, then it changes and she is very teeming and shouts at herself, in the end she only stammers something (“Macbeth”. 2013: TC 01:52:45 – 01:55:10). Samantha Spiro’s way of playing the character of Lady Macbeth is definitely the frequent change between femininity and masculinity and the other different facets which distinguishes Lady Macbeth.

2.2 Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth – only femininity and no masculinity?

Marion Cotillard addresses this exact phenomenon, that you feel sympathy for a normally cruel person and the change between the good feminine side and the bad masculine side, in an interview with W. Magazine: “[...] This opposition of violence and humanity, of evilness and humanity that is eating her is very interesting to experience and I had never experienced such a dark character [...]. But at the same time, you find humanity in a person who does monstrous things, too, and to explore her fears and pain and to find the roots of her madness in the fact that she doesn’t face any of her issues, she just tries to escape and cover her fears with the illusion of power” (cf. Cotillard, W. Magazine, 2015). The French actress played Lady Macbeth in the film adaptation of 2015. Cotillard’s acting differs in many ways from Samantha Spiro. The first big difference between them is their look. While Spiro is very small with a robust physique, Cotillard is more petite and feminine. At 45 years old, Samantha Spiro was only five years older than Cotillard when she played Lady Macbeth, but her look and behavior was more adult. Cotillard still looks very young in the film and embodies Lady Macbeth as a young woman, although in real life she is 40 years old. In The Telegraph, she confirms that she is a well-tempered person by nature: “I don’t like killing. I couldn’t even kill an insect“ ( cf. Cotillard, The Telegraph, 2015). But this role in Macbeth has a very specific difficulty and the more tough and experienced you are in your life as an actor but also as a normal human, the better and especially easier it gets for oneself. “Well at one point I thought that I would love to play Lady Macbeth on stage, but then I thought that it was maybe not a good idea… because the experience that I had with her was really intense and I think I’m done with it“ (Cotillard, W. Magazine, 2015). In the beginning of the interview, she described that she always wanted to play Lady Macbeth and even when the film was shot, she wanted to play her one more time on stage. The fact that she backtracked shows how much energy and nerves this role cost her in the end. The first scene with Lady Macbeth in the film adaptation is, in comparison to the stage production, not that emotionally played. There is less movement and the variety of feelings, the numerous jumps between happiness, love, perniciousness, obsession with greed, madness, etc., which existed in the Globe production, was minimized. Lady Macbeth kneels in a small, gloomy church or chapel for the whole scene (“Macbeth”. 2015: TC 00:18:35 – 00:20:42). She reads the letter of her husband in a whisper but neither with excitement nor emphasis. She stays very calm and for the audience it seems at first, that it doesn’t affect her at all until she pauses for a short moment and then goes on with this sentence: “Hail, king that shalt be!” (Macbeth, 1.5.9). Now she slowly recognizes, what this letter shall tell her. Her original monologue was shortened to the point where she begs the spirits to unsex her. But this transformation and the whole monologue of Lady Macbeth gets lost in the shuffle; at least the external change of her mannerism is not visible for the viewer. There is hardly a change in her voice or her body language. Also the music in the background, playing for the whole scene, clouds the importance of the verbal content. Merely her mimic changes from unseeing eyes without expression to big, rounded, staring eyes, as if she wants to riddle something with her glances. To bring at least more movement into the scene, the camera perspective changes from close up to extreme close up to high angle shots. There is no enhancement of this important monologue and the masculine side of Lady Macbeth stays hidden inside her. So there is only the transformation to a masculine mannerism in her head, which she does not show in her acting. She still stays very feminine, also when Macbeth returns. When they see each other again there is no feeling of desire. They look at each other without saying a word. Lady Macbeth forces herself to a tired smile, no real enthusiasm, but later on, she presents herself as a very affectionate, considerate wife, helping him to take off his armor. Macbeth is visibly battered and exhausted from the battle and also by the prediction by the Weird Sisters. In contrast to Spiro, who was in rage of all those events, Cotillards behavior stays calm and she treats him carefully and lovingly and talks to him with a soft voice (“Macbeth” 2015: TC 00:22:40 – 00:23:50). Another big difference between Lady Macbeth in the film and the stage production is also caused by the guideline of them. In the Globe production the main focus is on the spirited mood, the characters are brisk and the voices and gesturing are very variable. This is also the result of the specialty of a stage production where you have more factors to consider, like the stage design or the live performance and they do not have the possibility to use different camera settings or replay a scene. However you could almost say that this production is “one of the warmest productions of ‘Macbeth’ you’ll ever see“ (cf. Halliburton, TimeOut, 2013). The opposite can be seen in the film adaptation. There is dark, gloomy, sad scenery. The calmness of the characters and the way of representing this particularly scene is due to the whole presentation of the film. The scarce use of light strengthens the feeling of the absolute serious tragedy. They don’t use anything, which is comic or humor in any way, even scene three of act two was left out, where the Porter brightens up the atmosphere in the audience with fooling around. There is another scene (Act 1, Scene 7) in which Lady Macbeth is portrayed differently than in the Globe production. She acts again like the loving wife; she stays calm but her argumentation seems more constructive on each other point and the main focus lies more on the content. Fassbender and Cotillard are eyeball to eyeball with each other, whispering and he holds her face softly in his hands. Then the situation changes and the body contact becomes more intimate. They start kissing and then having sex meanwhile Lady Macbeth still explains the plan of the assassination, which seems bizarre. The act of love is combined with the act of murder. This dichotomy reflects the level of madness they both already achieved. And the director makes use of a typical cliché of a tantalizing woman who seduces a man with her female charm. Macbeth responds to that and afterwards agrees to the plan. Therefore Lady Macbeth’s actual persuasive power of her speech is overshadowed by the sexual act and the effect of all her verbal arguments gets lost. With the decision to interpret the scene like this, Lady Macbeth is shown in a rather unflattering light but on the other hand it is also a way to show once more her very feminine side (“Macbeth”. 2015: TC 00:28:40 – 00:32:00). When Macbeth brought the daggers with him by mistake, the dialogue is extremely shortened and Cotillard only says: “Why did you bring these daggers from the place? They must lie there” (Macbeth, 2.2.47). Here other lines were cut out because of the same reason as before: to show Lady Macbeth as a very appreciative, loving wife, who is only worried about her husband and doesn’t want to hurt him. A short convenient description of the Macbeth’s in the 2015 film adaptation is: “The Macbeths are, ironically, a rather tranquil and committed couple. They quarrel briefly; only the implication exists that Lady Macbeth has a defined sexual authority over Macbeth“ (Ferleman, 2009, 3).


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The Different Representation of Lady Macbeth’s Character and Performance in a Stage and a Film Production
University of Tubingen
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ISBN (Book)
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Lady Macbeth, Macbeth (Justin Kurzel 2015), Macbeth (The Globe Stage Production 2013)
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Lukas Jan (Author), 2016, The Different Representation of Lady Macbeth’s Character and Performance in a Stage and a Film Production, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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