Visions of Blood. Visualising "Macbeth" on Film

Master's Thesis, 2006

104 Pages, Grade: 6 (very good)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Shakespeare’s Visual Language

3. Adapting from Text to Image
3.1. Painting Macbeth
3.2. Illustrating Macbeth I: Illustrated Editions
3.3. Illustrating Macbeth II: Graphic Novels

4. Filming Macbeth 28

5. Macbeth on Film, Television, and Video 39

6. Discovering Visual Themes 47
6.1. “Blood will have blood” (3.4.122)
6.2. “The instruments of darkness tell us truths” (1.3.123)
6.3. “What beast was’t then?” (1.7.47)
6.4. “Take the present horror from the time” (2.1.59)
6.5. “Mock the time with fairest show” (1.7.81)
6.6. “Is this a [gun] which I see before me” (2.1.33)

7. Conclusions

8. Appendix

9. Filmography

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes.” (2.1.48)1

The language of Shakespeare’s plays has inspired film-makers ever since the invention of the cinema. Shortly after the invention of film cameras in 1895, first attempts were made to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Although he could not include the spoken text, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree adapted some scenes from King John for the cinema in 1899. Whereas some of Shakespeare’s plays were produced only very rarely2, others fared far better with film-makers. The popularity of Shakespeare’s works resulted in over 600 film versions3 of William Shakespeare’s plays, some closely following stage traditions others translating the text into foreign languages or transporting them into present-day settings.

Rome o and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello are among some of the more popular plays not only on the stage but also in the cinema. With over 70 filmed incarnations of Macbeth, this play also belongs in this group. The earliest entry on the list of Macbeth adaptations dates back to 1905, when only the duel scene between Macbeth and Macduff was presented in a short film. Approximately ten more silent productions followed. From the 1940s and right through the 1990s the number of productions was fairly steady. The last few years actually saw a significant increa- se in Macbeth adaptations all over the world, many of them being produced on a low budget.

One critical aspect film-makers have to consider when they adapt a play by Shakespeare for the screen, is the relation of the play’s language to its visual image in the film. In my thesis I will examine the ways in which Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been realized by film-makers, focu- sing particularly on how the visual language of the play has been transformed into visual images on the screen. Any of Shakespeare’s plays would have aptly suitable for such an analysis, but my choice of Macbeth has been influenced by the large number of imaginative interpretations over the last few years.4 I will mainly concentrate on productions during the last fifteen years, using some of the older adaptations as reference material.

The selection of the 18 films in my corpus ranges from stage productions of the play adapted for television and quasi-historical renderings of the play in realistic environments to films that used Shakespeare’s story as an inspiration to re-interpret the story as a comedy or a crime film that primarily used the plot and dropped most or all of the text.

Although some of the films use modern-day English, they still incorporate much of Shakespeare’s poetic imagery. There is no denial that Shakespeare’s language is highly visual. Writing for the Elizabethan stage, not able to rely on the same devices that film-makers have to focus on what we finally see projected in front of us, such as close-ups or framing, restricted in the use and choice of visual and sound effects, Shakespeare depended mainly on language to deve- lop his stage world, leading the audience beyond the naked stage. He achieved this effect by using highly precise language, including metaphors, symbols as well as descriptions of characters, customs and sounds to describe the atmosphere of the story and allude to current and historical events outside the tales. How are Shakespeare’s poetic images incorporated into film adaptations? Are the visual images used in the films emerging appropriately from the text? Do the images of the film conflict with the language of the original version, do they simply coexist or do they rein- force the meaning or even convey a more meaningful interpretation and rendering of the play? If at all, how can the success of an adaptation be measured? Are the same parameters applicable to a stage production and a film adaptation or must they adhere to a different set of rules?

Fundamentally, the theatre and the cinema are two very diverse art forms. Yet, although the differences between a stage and a film adaptation are manifold, there are also several simila- rities and some of the decisions a director has to make are exactly the same whether it is a stage or a film production. Likewise, they are faced with the same problems regarding the casting, the securing of finances, obtaining locations, and deciding on a suitable interpretation of the play. Just as a stage director and his actors guide the audience through the story, by putting emphasis on cer- tain passages and words, so a film director commands his audience, by deciding where to put the camera or how to edit the material.

Film-makers are confronted with a number of problems when trying to bring the play to the screen. Whereas, as Peter Holland (English Shakespeares 1ff.) explains, producers of stage productions have several specific aspects to keep in mind, including the length of the play to en- able the audience members to catch their last train home, the capacity of the auditorium or the type of the audience, the film-maker is confronted with different difficulties. For instance, he has to find a distributor who is willing to accept and include his film in his programme, and decide, whether he wants to shoot the film on location or in a film studio.

Apart from solving such organisational problems, the most crucial decision a director has to make, should be how to adapt the play. The director’s choice will influence how the audience will react to the production. Because most audiences will be at least vaguely familiar with Macbeth, both the stage and the film director’s version of the play will most likely be compared to the original text and sometimes to previous adaptations. Producers of Macbeth could very like- ly rely on the popularity of the play to attract and satisfy audiences. Nevertheless, most observers will need additional incentives to remain in their seats. As there is little suspense in watching an adaptation of Macbeth regarding the well-known story, the stimulus has to come from the inter- pretative approach of the director. As Roland Barthes (Image 119) explains, “suspense […] offers the threat […] of a logical disturbance, it being this disturbance which is consumed with anxiety and pleasure.”

A film-maker, who intends to offer an interpretation and not just a representation of Shakespeare’s play, therefore needs to distort the text at least slightly, for instance by inserting new pictures, adapting the verbal images of the written text or by completely relocating the play to a different environment. Jack Jorgens (19) argued that “part of the interest in seeing several dif- ferent films of the same play is in seeing what choices the artist has made in ‘imagining’ Shakespeare.” In analysing the filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays, he categorised and divi- ded them into presentation, interpretation and adaptation. A presentation presents the play with as few alterations as possible, interpretation demands shaping the play according to a specific view, adaptation uses Shakespeare as its source for a related work. How a visualisation relates to the text also depends on which of these modes had been chosen by the film-maker. As we will see, he has to shape his production accordingly.

In Chapter 2 I will start my research by presenting the visual aspects of Shakespeare’s language and looking at how scholars have analysed metaphors and other figurative speech in Shakespeare’s plays. Chapter 3 offers an overview of 400 years of visualising Macbeth in various art forms. The evolution of Shakespeare’s play to texts by other playwrights, paintings, illustra- tions in pictorial editions of the play, and graphic novels offers some glimpse of how film-makers may approach the transformation. Chapter 4 will be dedicated to the theory of film adaptation and other aspects involved in filming Macbeth. In this chapter I will also elaborate on how scholars have viewed the possibilities of adapting the play. In Chapter 5 I will give a brief introduction to the various film adaptations of Macbeth and present how these works have been accepted by critics. Chapter 6 is dedicated to an analysis of the visual themes developed in the play and their realization on the screen and how those visualisations influenced the interpretation of specific scenes.

So far, most scholars have been concentrating on interpreting the images in the films and to expose differences or similarities in relation to the message or essence of the original play, thereby not really focusing on putting the images in relation to the play itself, but on their own interpretations. I intend to show that film-makers have been more innovative than they have been given credit for, in visualising and constructing the play.

2. Shakespeare’s Visual Language

“Shakespeare is uniquely visual (Lemaitre, 30, original emphasis)

Metaphors, similes, symbols and descriptions in the plays of William Shakespeare form a signifi- cant web of images. Much attention has been paid to these images and their function in the plays. In her pioneer study, entitled Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon analyses the recurring image clusters in Shakespeare’s texts and tries to delve into the poet’s mind. Her main argument is that the images in Shakespeare’s plays tell us about his everyday life and the situations he was confronted with. This study by Spurgeon is followed by further research of various aspects of the imagery, among others, by Wolfgang Clemen, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and Edward A. Armstrong. The main focus of all these studies lies on the numerous meta- phors used in the text and their function.

Occasionally the scholars themselves struggle with analysing Shakespeare’s language, since the difficulty of translating the meaning of the words is one basic element of poetry. Cleanth Brooks (3) explains that “the language of poetry is the language of paradox.” Poets set themsel- ves apart from scientists by using a language that violates dictionary meaning and achieves its effect indirectly. In order to express the subtler states of emotion, “the poet has to work by analo- gies” (9). Scholars generally agree that Shakespeare mastered this art perfectly, and that his plays offer an immense wealth of images, metaphorically and otherwise.

How Shakespeare arrived at his expressive poetry is of vital interest to many scholars. Exploring the possible methods of composition, Brooks (23) comments that “Shakespeare’s extended figures are […], we are inclined to feel, spontaneous comparisons struck out in the heat of composition.” Commenting on one passage, particularly rich in imagery, Brooks (29) even asks, whether Shakespeare sometimes could not make up his mind. The passage offers so many possible ways of interpretation that there cannot be just one fixed single meaning. These ambi- guities already indicate one of the difficulties film-makers are confronted with, because Brooks (31) reaches the conclusion, that “we must understand [the symbols] if we are to understand either the detailed passage or the play as a whole.” Changing the symbols thus also changes the meaning, and anyone who attempts to adapt a play needs to be aware of these implications.

Before we can deal with the purpose and function of the images in the text, we have to ask ourselves what kind of images we can find in the text? The answer to this question obvious- ly depends on how an image is defined. Spurgeon (5) defines the image to “cover every kind of simile, as well as every kind of […] metaphor.” According to her definition (8), the different types of images include figurative language such as personification, metonymy, and synecdoche. Counting the images, Spurgeon discovered 208 occurrences in the 2084 lines of Macbeth. A count which is rather conservative.

One example of the imagery analysed by Spurgeon is the famous simile of the “two spent swimmers” (1.2.8). In the second scene of the first act, King Duncan’s company is met by a woun- ded captain, who reports the progress on the battlefield. The reader already learnt from Duncan’s and from the lines of his son, Malcolm, that they are confronted with a revolt, when the captain explains that “doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art” (1.2.7). As the reader already suspects, this description does not apply to a sports event, but to the bloody battle between King Duncan’s forces and the rebel army. Although the “two spent swim- mers” can be presumed to be Macbeth and Macdonald, the leaders of the warring troops, who are later introduced in the captain’s report, this simile seems to refer to all the soldiers of the conflic- ting forces. The liquid element that the simile evokes in the reader’s mind, could, in compliance with the recurring imagery of the “bloody” battle in the captain’s report, refer to the blood spilled on both sides, in which the two forces are now drowning, fighting in close combat. The simile fur- ther explains that the battle, since the soldiers are in such confined skirmishes, is void of any art.

The report of the wounded captain to the king is actually filled with a variety of different similes. He describes Fortune to be showing “like a rebel’s whore” (1.2.15), Macbeth “carved out his passage” “like Valour’s minion” (1.2.19), and the new supplies of their opponents dismayed Macbeth and Banquo “as sparrows, eagles, or the hare, the lion” (1.2.35). As well as containing all these similes, the description of the captain is also steeped in metaphors. For instance, the cap- tain cannot tell whether Macbeth and Banquo wanted to “bathe in reeking wounds or memorise another Golgotha” (1.20.39). This symbolism of the two captains bathing in blood actually emphasizes the already mentioned simile comparing the two opposing forces with spent swim- mers, swimming in the blood of the dead soldiers. Additionally the mention of Golgotha offers an even more horrible image of the battle commemorating Christ’s crucifixion at the “place of a skull” (Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22, and John 19:17).

What is the basic purpose of this imagery? The playwright has various reasons to appeal to the imagination of his audience. Caroline Spurgeon (9) argues, that images “give quali- ty, create atmosphere and convey meaning.” Instead of having simple conversations, the playwright has his characters opening the stage to all sorts of elements, inviting the audience to participate in a journey to places removed in time and space. This function of the language can immediately be detected in the first few lines of the play. The logical answer to the witches’ ope- ning question “When shall we three meet again?” (1.1.1) would simply be “tonight.” However, instead of replying with a straightforward answer, the reader will learn much more from the res- ponses. Following her question, the first witch apparently offers a vague forecast of the weather, “In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (1.1.2). This obvious evasion indicates that the three weird sisters are indeed witches.5 Coming closer to an indication of time, the second witch answers that they will meet again “when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost, and won.” (1.1.3f.). Obviously the reader still does not know, when exactly the witches will be meeting again. Instead, additional information is suggested. These lines entice the audience into the world of Macbeth, where the weather is foul and battles are being fought, a world of chaos and the supernatural. This function of the language can be observed throughout the text.

Another role can be deduced from the frequent recurrences of specific imagery in sever- al parts of the play. Images reappear not simply by accident, instead they expand the new scenes by building up tension in relation to previous acts, reminding the reader of the preceding events and offering new aspects to the imagery, or as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (120) explains, “infor- mation and attitudes presented at an early stage of the text tend to encourage the reader to inter- pret everything in their light.” Wolfgang Clemen (3), therefore, placed the importance of the ima- ges in the play on the context: “Every image, every metaphor gains full life and significance from its context.” Banquo’s apparently simple question “How goes the night, boy?” (2.1.1) reveals its full meaning from the context of the unfolding plan to murder the king. This “night’s great business” (1.5.66) is of capital importance to the play. After leaving the king, who had announced that he will spend the night in Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth asked the stars to “hide [their] fires” (1.4.50), setting the stage for Banquo’s question about the night and his own observation in his reply. After his son Fleance responds that “the moon is down” (2.1.2), Banquo warns, that “there’s husbandry in heaven, their candles are all out” (2.1.4). The darkness of the night sets the stage for Macbeth to now act on his “black and deep desires” (1.4.51). Darkness prevails not only because of the action of the play, but more importantly because of the imagery of the language. As Spurgeon shows, blood, ill-fitting clothes, animals, and the forces of nature are some of the constant companions of the characters and the reader. Thus, “the images become an inherent part of the dramatic structure” (Clemen, 89). Images help to explore various themes with greater inten- sity.

One aspect of the imagery which is often neglected are the passages of description and summaries of events. Since there are almost no passages which are not filled with subtle images and ambiguities, it could be argued, that they do not need special attention. There are indeed only a few lines in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that are (almost) certainly neither visual nor unambiguous, such as Ross’ report to the king:

That now Sweno

The Norways’ king, craves composition.

Nor would we deign him burial of his men

Till he disbursèd at Saint Colm’s Inch

Ten Thousand dollars to our general use. (1.2.58-62)

This vocabulary of this report is highly functional and, although, it reflects the impor- tance of the demands and the historical dimensions, it is not quite as visual as most of the other dialogue in the play. This report, however, still evokes images which are not represented on stage. The reader will see a defeated king, who needs to pay a large sum of money in order to bury his dead. Such examples are, as matter of fact, rather difficult to find. For film-makers such lines still offer the opportunity to show what is only described in the play, shifting the focus from the victorious Macbeth to the defeated Sweno, already foreshadowing Macbeth’s own fate.

Even the most simple descriptions of places, characters, and events reveal important significance in the choice of vocabulary and structure. Banquo, for example, describes the appearance of the witches, “withered and so wild in their attire,” having “choppy fingers” and “beards” (1.3.38). In the theatre, this description performs several functions. On the one hand, the audience hears how Banquo sees the witches and, probably, how each audience member should picture them, even if their seat is too far removed from the stage to actually discern their appearance. On the other hand, the description also demonstrates Banquo’s repulsion of the wild creatures obstructing their path. When such characteristic descriptions in the play are visualised in art forms, the artist has to chose whether he wants to stay within the limits of a theatrical production, exploring the same visualisation demanded of the reader, or whether he wants to sepa- rate the language from the image.

Sometimes a playwright simply has no other choice but to rely on the power of the lan- guage. Narrating a battle, the stage offers few choices but to describe the events. Consequently, the text has to effectively reproduce the extreme experience of a soldier on the battlefield. In this way, even a seemingly simple line like “till he unseamed him from the nave to th’chaps” (1.2.22) presents rich options for interpretations, going far beyond the act of one soldier killing another. What imagery does this line contain apart from the literal description of a battle? Obviously, there are no seams on Macdonald that Macbeth could “unseam,” his sword is not a needle and he is not a tailor. Instead, the verb implies his skilled use of weapons. Ambiguous is the last word in the line, as the folio edition reads “chops,” most editors of modern editions concur6, and few favour the alternative “chaps.”7 The two versions elicit slightly different interpretations to modern readers, but they are, nonetheless, significant. Both evoke animal parts, particularly parts of a pig, therefore implying that either Macbeth is cruelly butchering his opponent or that he deems his foe to be like a pig and, therefore, deserves to be butchered. The simple description of Macbeth killing Macdonald produces rich imagery. It reaches beyond simply narrating the events but instead it illustrates them as well.

Another level on which the imagery unfolds its significance is the communication bet- ween the characters. According to Clemen (91), misunderstandings between the characters in the plays leads to “significant tensions between what the audience knows and what the characters are saying.” Macbeth and Banquo are repeatedly talking about their meeting with the witches but do not seem to really understand each other’s meaning. At times they seem to conspire to kill the king, at other times they seem uncertain of their objective. Furthermore, the reader knows more about Macbeth’s intentions than Banquo through Macbeth’s asides and conversations with Lady Macbeth.

Another character who seems to have less knowledge of his position than he thinks he does, is Duncan. Although he explains that “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” (1.4.11), he fails to read the intentions in Macbeth’s face, which is, according to Lady Macbeth, “a book where men may read strange matters” (1.5.60). Instead of feeling apprehensive when entering Macbeth’s castle, Duncan comments on its “pleasant seat” (1.6.1), unaware that it will be the place where he will lose his seat, meaning the throne.

Clemen (98) concludes that the “imagery is an integral component of the thought.” To understand the characters and the play, we either have to decode the images in the text or at least feel their meaning. The language of the characters is an essential part of their personality. Whereas the already discussed description of the combat by the wounded captain is highly visual, the immediately following report on the status of the battle by Ross is fairly straightforward, ending by “and to conclude, the victory fell on us” (1.2.57). Instead of culminating the captain’s descrip- tion with even more elaborate metaphors and similes, Ross either chooses not to recount his own detailed account of the battle or simply is not capable of relating such a colourful story. The lan- guage in this context serves as an instrument for characterisation.

The complexity of these short passages, together with some not so simple lines, shows the infinite meanings in the dialogue and the diverse functions the language has to perform. The reader could easily be confused with regard to the meaning. William Empson, who focuses on ambiguity in the text, found it almost every word. He points out, that these meanings “cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read it” (50). This observation raises again the que- stion of the purpose of the imagery. A spectator at the theatre cannot be expected to comprehend the full meaning of the lines being recited on stage, not having the same possibility of rereading a line as a reader does. According to Empson, the text should not necessarily be analysed, but it should offer the “main sense, the main form and rhythm.” (57)

A further complication for today’s reader exists in the passage of time between our pre- sent-day environment and Shakespeare’s world. Although Shakespeare depended on a “language of immediate and vivid communication” (Murray 35), his audience does not share the same back- ground as today’s readers. In this context, Armstrong (135) alludes to the lost references in Macbeth. As an example, he explains that in the Porter’s speech, “a farmer” referred to the alias used by Garnett the Jesuit who had been hanged for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. This political reference, and similarly the English doctor describing the healing powers of the English king to Malcolm and Macduff, will most likely remain obscure to the majority of a modern audi - ence. Just as certain parts of the vocabulary are no longer customary and need to be explained in the printed editions, directors have to assess how many of these gaps they want to confront the audiences with.

Ambiguities, lost historical references, and shifted meanings of the vocabulary are still just some of the difficulties readers and audiences encounter when being faced with the text. In characterising his personae, Shakespeare often made references to mythological people and places. The mythological significance of Neptune and Golgotha may be familiar to many readers, the reference to Bellona, however, most likely poses an obstacle to most readers. Few will reco- gnise her as the Roman goddess of war, a connection already hinted at in her name, derived from the Latin word bellum (war). Some may have heard of Mark Anthony and Caesar, or of a Gorgon, few will know who Tarquin was. Rosemund Tuve (107) explains that “mythology enables us to communicate by symbols rather than by naked words.” The interpretation of the play, therefore, not only depends on the understanding and interpretation of the reader, but even more so on the knowledge that he brings to the play. Someone who does not know who Bellona is or what Golgotha conveys will not realise the significance in the play. No one is capable of deciphering all the images during one presentation of the play. Artists, therefore, have to find ways to present the basic premise of the play in a well-reasoned approach, by using symbols and metaphors modern audiences will understand.

Finally, Kenneth Muir (53) reminds us, that we always have to remember, that the play first and foremost is a play. No matter how much the imaginative language in the passages are stu- died, “we must not imagine […] that Macbeth is merely an elaborate pattern of imagery.”

3. Adapting from Text to Image

“Adaptations are an established feature of the history of art.” (Bazin What Is Cinema? 56)

Throughout the history of literature, not only film-makers, but also painters, musicians, compo- sers, and many other artists have adapted novels, poems, and plays. The necessity for adaptation, however, is never more obvious than when we are dealing with a play. The basic premise of this particular kind of text is that it has to be staged in a theatre. Although plays are also read and stu- died in their printed form, they are fundamentally blueprints for production. Bazin’s claim that adaptations are so customary “that it would be next to impossible to question their existence” (Adaptation 19) is not only an observation in this context: the text of a play exists for adaptation.

Taking this for granted, artists have been inspired to create Shakespeare’s plays in their art form. Macbeth is not only limited to strictly visual interpretations. Before I plunge into the figurative visualisations of Macbeth, I will look at the works of some writers who translated the verbal images into their own language. Just as Shakespeare used Holinshed’s chronicles as a source, other playwrights used Macbeth as their inspiration. Like visual artists, playwrights who intend to present a new reading of the tragedy need to take into account the meaning of the ima- gery. Using examples from three texts, a burlesque, a satire, and a tragedy, I will illustrate how playwrights mix Shakespeare’s poetic images with their own inventiveness and readings of the play. The burlesque is by the British comic writer Francis Talfourd, who wrote the first edition of his Macbeth Travestie in 1848, Barbara Garson adapted the play into the political satire MacBird! in 1965, where the American president Lyndon B. Johnson acted the part of Macbeth. The tragedy is Eugène Ionesco’s ironic play Macbett, first performed in 1972.

Two centuries ago, parodies of Macbeth were by far more frequent than faithful rende- rings. As Stanley Wells (vii) explains in the preface to his collection of Shakespeare Burlesques, travesty, or burlesque, was a favourite form in the nineteenth-century theatre. Wells asserts some of the burlesques authors to be “witty in the manipulation of Shakespeare’s lines, fertile in word- play and in the puns” (vii). Francis Talfourd was one such author of a Macbeth burlesque. The two-act play follows Shakespeare’s story fairly close, however, Talfourd incorporates popular songs and resurrects all victims by the end of the play. Although his Macbeth Travestie is prima- rily an exercise in puns, Talfourd also offers some inspired variations on Shakespeare’s imagery.

In several passages he transports it from the cosmic to the local, like in Macbeth’s new monolo- gue after killing Duncan. Looking at his bloody hands, he regrets that:

Were all the waters of the Serpentine With those of the New River to combine- Were e’en the potent Thames to lend its aid, And Regent Park’s canal–I am afraid, Failing to wash from off my hands this gore, They’d make red what mud-coloured was before. (19)

Instead of washing his bloody hands in “all great Neptune’s ocean” (2.2.63) making the green seas red as Shakespeare’s Macbeth did, Talfourd’s Macbeth is trying to wash his hands in the mostly muddy waters of the city of London. Using a combination of a lake for the Royals’ entertainment (Serpentine), an aqueduct to bring clean water to London (New River), the main river through London (Thames), and a canal to transport goods (Regent Park’s canal) removes the scene far away from the influence of the Roman god of the sea. Macbeth is no longer dependent on the faith of deities, he references man-made rivers and lakes, thus his guilt can no longer be blamed on fortune. At the same time, Talfourd is poking fun at the cleanliness of the rivers and lakes in London, offering his audience local instead of cosmic references.

The blood in Macbeth also inspired playwright Eugène Ionesco to write his grotesque tra- gedy Macbett. Macbett exclaims in one monologue “The blade of my sword is all red with blood.” (14) In a staggering confession of his guilt, Macbett describes how he killed dozens of men with his bare hands, had hundreds executed by firing squad, and in the end how his battles had caused ten million to die of anger, apoplexy, or a broken heart. He concludes that “the bloated bodies of the dead have sucked up all the water from the lakes in which they throw themselves” (15).8 The blood spilled by Macbeth and the water from Neptune’s ocean have been mixed in Ionesco’s ima- gery. Whereas Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a brave warrior, who does not reflect on the justification and consequences of his battles, conducting himself honourably until the murder of Duncan, when he is misguided by forces outside his control, Ionesco’s Macbett constantly realizes the conse- quences of his actions and feels guilty for all war casualties on and off the battlefield.

Barbara Garson also makes extensive use of the imagery of the model for her satire. The three-act play was written after the assassination of the American president, John F. Kennedy, who was succeeded by his vice president Lyndon B. Johnson. In Garson’s play, the two political figu- res play the roles of MacBird and John Ken O’Dunc. The conspiratorial satire exposes how MacBird plotted to have John Ken O’Dunc (and his brother Robert Ken O’Dunc) assassinated to become king. The war in Vietnam and the political protests in the United States figure prominently in the play, which follows the basic structure of Macbeth. The figurative language of Macbeth is also reflected in the play. In a response to a reporter’s question after the assassination of his pre- decessor, President MacBird compares the act of governing a nation to cultivating a garden:

This land will be a garden carefully pruned. We’ll lop off any branch that looks too tall, That seems to grow too lofty or too fast. And any weed that springs up on our soil, To choke the plants I’ve neatly set in rows, Gets plucked up root and all, by me, MacBird. (54)

Garson takes the frequent symbolism of planting and growing scattered throughout Macbeth and lets MacBird become a mix of various characters, combining the characteristics of Banquo, Duncan and Malcolm, as witnessed in the blending of dialogue in this speech. After the witches greet Macbeth as future king, Banquo wants them to “look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow” (1.3.56), Duncan welcomes Banquo after the battle, telling him that “I have begun to plant thee and will labour to make the full of growing” (1.4.28). Macbeth later informs the murderers where to “plant” themselves (3.1.128), and before meeting the witches in their cave asks “who can […] bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root?” (4.1.95). In the English garden Macduff declares that Malcolm’s pretended avarice “grows with more pernicious root than summer-seeming lust” (4.3.86), and in the final speech, Malcolm announces that he will consider “which would be planted newly” (5.8.32). In Garson’s version, MacBird takes control of the garden metaphors, establishing himself as the “head gardener of the state.”

The quotation from MacBird! contains also a reference to Birnam Wood moving towards Dunsinane. By cutting off the branches that look too tall, MacBird can prevent the approaching army from hiding behind the branches. Unfortunately for MacBird, in Garson’s play the witches do not warn him of a moving, but of a burning wood coming to Washington. The prophecy is in the end realised by protesters setting “every cherry tree in Washington aflame” (105), thus dest- roying Macbird’s carefully cultivated garden.

Whereas playwrights depend on the same approaches as Shakespeare did, painters, illustrators and film-makers have other ways to mirror the language of the play. But why should they visualise the language in the first place? They could either chose to simply show a presentation of a stage pro- duction or, if they take the play outside the theatre, they could rely on the dialogue for their ima- ges. Clemen (103) argued that Shakespeare “compresses into one short sentence an astonishing wealth of association.” By creating their own images, stemming from the play, visual artists can build on these connections and add another level of interpretation, indicating how they define the play and which associations are relevant to them.

Spurgeon (7) argues that “it is only by means of hidden images that the greatest truths can be grasped by the human mind.” Artists in this field have tried to uncover these truths and have offered their personal readings of the text. Since these interpretations vary vastly, it is not surprising that the question of fidelity to Shakespeare’s play surfaces in almost every discussion of the visual reproductions. One of the main objections raised results from the need to realise and visualize images that on the stage existed only in the mind’s of the audience, destroying the “fruit- ful ambiguity” (Stephen Leo Carr 376) of the source. Desmond Shawe-Taylor (115) cites how Charles Lamb complained about being offended by the paintings in “Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.” Similarly, almost every film version has been attacked for inaccuracies, omitted scenes, wrong casting or simply for misrepresenting the spirit of the play.

Painters, film-makers, and other artists will be relieved to know, that even stage produc- tions are usually intensely hated. Shawe-Taylor (115) refers to the 19th century painter of history Benjamin Robert Haydon and essayist Charles Lamb, for whom “actors get in the way of the ima- gination of the reader.” Whoever the reader imagines in the roles, the actors in a performance will almost never comply to the reader’s imagination. According to Holland’s devastating judgement, Richard Eyre’s production of Macbeth at the Royal National Theatre in 1992 was “simply awful” (156). Holland took particular offence at the actors’ performance.

The continuous availability of film versions has resulted in even more heated debates on the merits and particularly demerits of filmed Shakespeare. Discussing the history of film adap- tation, James Naremore (2) sums up this conflict as the result of looking at the adaptations in terms of high culture versus mass culture, and the original versus the copy. I will discuss how these distinctions have influenced the reception of film adaptations in Chapter 4. First I will present a study of visualisations in paintings and illustrations.

3.1. Painting Macbeth

Theatrical painting was not very common in England in the 16th century. Not until a hun- dred years after Shakespeare’s death, did painters start to be interested in documenting their impressions of stage productions and setting the scenes in natural environments, a custom initia- ted by William Hogarth and John Gray.9 For painters, passages from the play serve as a stepping stone to transplant the characters in a relation to the entire play, translating the “temporal pro- gression of the action […] into a spacial one” (Orgel 24). The reasons for visualising the play are similar to the intentions of film-makers when adapting a play. As David Alexander (24) puts it, painters intended “to bring those images to the eye, which the writer has given to the mind, and which, in some instances, is not in within the power of the theatre.” Stuart Sillars (13) looks at the Shakespeare paintings as a means of critical interpretation of the 18th century. As I will later show, the same argument can be applied to the film adaptations.

The paintings, drawings and engravings based on Macbeth are too numerous to be inclu- ded in this text. A short selection will show which scenes were most attractive to the painters and how they represented the imagery of the language on their canvases. The paintings disclose a clear preference for three particular scenes: Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches, Macbeth mee- ting Lady Macbeth after killing Duncan with the daggers in his hands, and Macbeth encountering the apparitions on his visit to the witches. Sillars (10) attributes the predominance of the witches to contemporary interest in the supernatural. The third scene, with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, is arguably the most essential turning point in the play.

Analysing John Wootton’s Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Weird Sisters (dated 1750, ill. 1), Sillars shows how the fury of the elements in the first act appear in the painting. The scenery is almost more dominant than the figures of Macbeth, Banquo and the witches. The clouds exposing the approaching storm in Shakespeare’s tragedy are as obvious as the bent back and broken trees and the impending darkness, protruding from the witches’ cave. Small details in the painting relate to further imagery from Macbeth, particularly the variety animals, such as a mag- pie, an owl, and two dark birds, probably the crows making “wings to th’rooky wood” (3.2.51).

One of the paintings discussed by Sillars in more detail is Joshua Reynolds’ Macbeth and the Witches (1802). Sillars illustrates, how this highly imaginative painting, depicting Macbeth’s visitation of the witches in their cave, alludes to aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings of the Vitruvian Man (referring to Macbeth’s declaration “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none” [1.7.46]) and Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist. Reynolds evidently uses iconography from earlier paintings and the history of art to illustrate Shakespeare’s language. Another pro- minent feature of the painting is the duplication of the witches, on the right as ugly hags, on the left as beauti- ful women floating around a cauldron. The same doubling of the witches as in this painting, as objects of beauty and of ugliness, is also employed by various film-makers.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 1: Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Weird Sisters.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 2: Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 3: Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers.

The most prominent painter of Shakespeare was the Swiss native, Henry Fuseli. His fascination for Shakespeare’s plays already started in Switzerland, where he translated Macbeth into German. In London, he observed stage interpretations by David Garrick and Hannah Pritchard. As Maria Grazia Messina (62) explains, Fuseli approached “Shakespeare not just as source material to be translated into painting, but as a kind of sparring partner with whom to compete in psy- chological penetration and dramatic intensity.” Thus, even the paintings of Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard acting on stage are not simply representations of the perfor- mance observed in the theatre, but they are rather psy- chological explorations of the major visual themes in the play. Fuseli’s Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (c. 1766, ill. 2) is a companion piece to his Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (exhibited 1812, ill. 3), showing the two actors on stage. In the later painting, darkness is dominant, almost enveloping Macbeth who resembles a frightened skeleton. The dark red on the two daggers is the only colour in the picture,10 Lady Macbeth appearing like a spectre from the right is lea- ning towards Macbeth, motioning him to be quiet with her fingers on her lips, her breath visible as smoke rushing towards Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s appearance and posture should also remind the beholder of the wit- ches, who lay their fingers on their lips, when Macbeth and Banquo first encounter them. The text is not the only connection to the witches, as Fuseli himself had painted the witches with their fingers on their lips in his painting The Weird Sisters (c. 1783, ill. 4). Much the same as Lady Macbeth, the witches are depicted with their left arms pointing towards something, probably Macbeth, who is not shown.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 4: The Weird Sisters.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 5: The Three Witches.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these visualisations by painters is, that numerous paintings exist in different versions. Fuseli was one of the painters, who frequently returned to the same subject. Another portrayal of the just mentioned painting The Weird Sisters is entitled The Three Witches (1783, ill. 5). The position of the witches is almost identical. There are, however, two important differences. The darkness in The Weird Sisters is dispersed by fog and clouds in The Three Witches, bringing more light into the painting, making the exact position of the pointing hands more visible. A more dramatic difference is the animal added in the background. Flying away from the witches, as if exhaled from their mouths, is a death’s-head hawk moth (Acherontia atropos). Although moths do not appear in Shakespeare’s text, the insertion of the insect takes on meaning in relation to the story. The name Atropos relates back to the Moirai or Fates from Greek mythology. Atropos was the cutter of the thread of life. She chose the manner of a person’s death, just like the witches destined the lives in Macbeth. Later, Macbeth takes over this role himself, when he kills Duncan and has Banquo and Macduff killed.

Variations of the same motive also exist also in the paintings of the Italian painter, Francesco Zuccarelli, and the Austrian artist Joseph Anton Koch. Like many other painters, they both depic- ted Macbeth’s and Banquo’s first meeting with the wit- ches, Zuccarelli three times in the 1760s, Koch another three times in the 1830s. Components similar in all six paintings are the stormy weather, trees blown down and bent backwards by the wind, and a castle on a hill in the background struck by lightning. These elements actual- ly spring from Macbeth’s monologue recited before his visitation to the witches, first conjuring up those who “untie the winds,” “though trees [be] blown down” and “castles topple” (4.1.51ff.). Macbeth and Banquo are accompanied in all paintings by their soldiers, but in Koch’s versions they are placed less prominently than in Zuccarelli’s.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 6: Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 7: Landschaft mit Macbeth und den Hexen.

The differences show that Zuccarelli’s re-creation is more closely rooted in art history, whereas Koch produces images from the play itself. Zuccarelli’s portrayal of Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches (mid-1760s, ill. 6) resembles a mock-pastoral. The witches are depicted as mai- dens, in the background on the left, a fourth maid is chasing a cow. The maidens actually look ter- rified by the weather or the soldiers, bearing little resemblance to the witches described in Macbeth. Zuccarelli’s Macbeth Meeting the Witches (1760) offers a clear contrast. The witches look rougher, their ragged clothes barely wrapped around them. At least two of the witches carry sticks, around one of them is a serpent, recalling the frequent use of serpent and snake images in the play.

Koch, on the other hand, does not depict the scene in a country setting, but has the witches standing with their backs right next to the edge of an ocean. Their position and posture reflects the witches in Fuseli’s paintings, placing their fingers upon their lips, pointing with the other hand towards Macbeth and Banquo. Whereas two versions remain fairly naturalistic, Landschaft mit Macbeth und den Hexen (1835, ill. 7) adds some features which are taken straight from the lines in Act 2. In the ocean Neptune foreshadows the blood on Macbeth’s hands and his desperate question “will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (2.2.63). In the sky in front of the castle there is a procession of witches holding a crown, and the clouds approaching from the ocean are almost clasping and devouring the castle. These symbols aptly reproduce Shakespeare’s language.

Another variation on repeated motives are paintings by different painters depicting the same motive, such as Fuseli’s Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and John Zoffany’s Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard in ‘Macbeth’. According to Stephen Leo Carr and Peggy A. Knapp (839) both painters illustrated not only the same scene of Macbeth returning to Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan, but the same production of the play in 1766. Fuseli’s painting is very similar to the already acknowledged psychological study of this scene in his Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. Macbeth or rather David Garrick is entering a room, apparently frightened by Lady Macbeth, raising his arms and pointing the daggers towards her. Lady Macbeth lays her finger upon her lips and extends the other hand towards Macbeth. The clothes clearly indicate that the production was performed in the 18th century.

Zoffany’s painting actually exists in two versions. One of them shows Macbeth rather motionless, Lady Macbeth just having removed the daggers from his hands, holding them in the hand closer to Macbeth, pointing the other hand towards Duncan’s chamber. In the other, Lady Macbeth holds the daggers in the hand farther away from Macbeth, pointing the other hand towards Macbeth, presumably chiding him for bringing the daggers, while Macbeth recoils from them, his hands, however, still drawn to the instruments of death. Whereas Fuseli shows Macbeth scared to death, since the “sure and firm-set earth” (2.1.56) could not take the “present horror from the time” (2.1.59), Zoffany’s Macbeth looks indeed “infirm of purpose” (2.2.55), which reveals his uncertainty.

Assuming that Fuseli and Zoffany did paint exactly the same production of the play, the vast differences are striking. Whereas the actors in Fuseli’s painting are shown in a sparsely fur- nished scene that could be an imaginary stage setting, Zoffany envisages the actors in a Gothic hall with a carved door on the left giving a contrasting impression of the production. Moreover, the lightning seen through a window in the background suggests that Zoffany adapted the setting to his own vision of the play.

Although Carr (375) observed that “transforming a text into an image opens up much the same kind of opportunities for revising the original source as does a translation from one lan- guage to another,” there has so far not been much revision of the paintings discussed. Instead, the painters offered a wealth of readings, filling their visual translations with incisive components from the play. I will return to some of these painters and their renditions of Macbeth in Chapter 6 to look at how some of them have influenced and inspired film-makers, and how some of the same motives recur frequently in many of the films.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 8: Frank Howard.

3.2. Illustrating Macbeth I: Illustrated Editions

The term “illustrated novel” nowadays usually refers to graphic novels and children’s books. However, even before the “invention” of the graphic novel, editors were eager to include illustrations in their editions of plays. In this chapter, I will discuss some of those illustrated or pictorial editions of Macbeth, while the following chapter will be dedicated to graphic novels.

Many of the paintings discussed in the previous chapter were actually commissioned to be included as engravings in pictorial editions. One of the editors who included illustrations was Frank Howard in his 1833 edition. In the preface to the five volumes of Shakespeare’s plays he explains that

the dramatist, who is limited in the time for representation on the stage, exhibits in his scenes those occurrences only which he consi- ders most important, and best adapted for theatrical effect; but the painter, by making the story of the play complete in a series of designs, arranged as the events are supposed to have taken place, and by filling up what the nature of the drama compels the poet to leave undefined, shows the author’s ideas in a new light. (vf.)

Howard also explains that he wants to capture the “spirit of the play.” This is insofar a fitting definition, as there is one constant characteristic part in his illustrations of Macbeth: the witches appear far more often than in the drama, watching Macbeth as he approaches Duncan to kill him, watching the crowning of Macbeth11 (ill. 8), the killing of Banquo, Lady Macduff and her son, watching (in the company of a boy with a branch) Malcolm’s army approaching Birnam Wood, and finally watching how Macduff kills Macbeth. The weird sisters are interpreted by Howard as a constant presence.

Other aspects that Howard included in his twenty illustrations range from a bird of prey catching another bird (a martlet?) on the arrival of Duncan at Macbeth’s castle, foreshadowing the fate of the unsus- pecting king, and what appears to be a bat, in the scene of Macbeth visiting the witches. Howard also depicts the apparitions and shows Lady Macbeth on her death- bed, a crown placed on a stool.

In 1880, Charles Knight did not illustrate spe- cific scenes. Instead he primarily offered visual atmo- sphere through pictures of the locations such as Inverness, St. Colmes’ Inch, Glamis Castle, and Cawdor Castle in their present condition, showing them as a tourist would have seen them at the time of publication. Instead of illustrating the language, Knight intended to offer a critical interpretation of the text, in addition giving graphic information of the setting.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 9: Charles Knight.

There are only two scene-specific illustrations of Macbeth in Knight’s edition, the first one offering a interpretation of the lines “and Duncan’s horses […] turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, contending ‘gainst obedience as they would make war with mankind” (2.4.14). At the centre of the etching ten horses are stampeding two of which are foaming at the nostrils (ill. 9). In the background, large mountains are rising. Above them two birds are soaring, one of them appearing to be an owl, the other one looking like a turkey, although it should pro- bably represent the “falcon tow’ring in her pride of place” (2.4.12) that was killed by the owl. At the bottom of the art work two men are sitting on the balustrade of a castle, onto which the title of the play is inscribed. One of the men vaguely resembles Shakespeare, the other could represent Ross, who claims to have witnessed the horses turning wild. The second illustration by Knight offers a view of Lady Macbeth before or after “gilding” the faces of the grooms with blood. There are drops of blood on the dagger in her hand, her gaze a mix of fear and determination.

Undoubtedly the most famous illustrator of Macbeth is the Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dalí. In twelve illustrations for a 1945 edition of Macbeth some of Dalí’s recurring images turn into sym- bols for the mental states of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Crutches, drawers, melting objects and trum- pets appear as obvious signs. Like Knight, Dalí also chose the wild horses as the motive for one of his most impressive illustrations (ill. 10). It focuses attention on two horses fighting each other, both of them have bones sticking out of their legs. At the bottom of the picture, a few more horses are tangled up in a confused mass.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 10: Salvador Dalí.

In his depiction of the soldiers hewing down boughs of trees, Dalí has the soldiers melting into the wood, tying large branches to their backs, trees growing on their heads. Some of the illustrations, like the meeting of the witches, are so densely crowded with symbols, that an interpretation proves just as difficult as an explanation of Shakespeare’s metaphors and the connection between the two is not always apparent. Here Dalí’s visualisations have to be sensed like Shakespeare’s language.

3.3. Illustrating Macbeth II: Graphic Novels

In the 20th century, the increasingly more popular graphic novels also used Macbeth as a source. Just as films have adapted Shakespeare to gain respectability, so have graphic novels attempted to adapt the play to their own medium to silence the accusations of corrupting the morals of teena- gers. As Michael Anderegg (5) clarifies, this attempt was not always successful, resulting in cri- tics accusing the comics of violating Shakespeare. Whereas engravings in an illustrated edition of Macbeth accompany the words and depict certain scenes, graphic novels narrate the story visual- ly, and the words accompany the illustrations. Four editions will serve as examples for the vari- ant styles which were chosen to illustrate the play.

In 1955, issue 128 of the Classics Illustrated series was one of the first graphic novels to adapt Macbeth. The abbreviated text essentially offers the most straightforward elements of the story, visually there are virtually no deviations from the figurative language of the play, except for the crowning of Macbeth at Scone, just mentioned, but not described. This interpretation is a clear indication that the series was primarily intended for children and teenagers, especially as the style of the illustrations is fashioned after the very popular adventures of Prince Valiant. The main readers of this publication demanded that the illus- trator did not indulge too much in the violence of the play, draining it literally of all blood (ill. 11). There is no blood on the daggers or on the hands of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and none of the people killed seem to be bleeding.

In 1982, the graphic novel illustrated by Von was advertised as the “first panel-by-panel version of the folio edition,” declaring that every word of dialogue is preserved. Von’s vision of Macbeth in full colour offers a fundamental contrast to the earlier version. He does not repress horror and gore, letting the blood flow almost as frequently as Shakespeare, showing Macbeth in full battle, later drowning him in darkness, and at the end, presenting his decapitated head in the hand of Macduff. This version presents some fascinating options as to how film-makers can transform the lan- guage into images.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 11: Classics Illustrated, 10.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Ill. 12: Von, 3.

The description of the battle takes the reader to the battlefield, showing Macbeth’s brandished steel in action. The narration of the wounded cap- tain (ill. 12) is divided into four panels, the first one showing Macbeth “carving out his passage,” the second one revealing Macbeth facing Macdonald. In the third we see Macbeth “unseaming” Macdonald from stomach to his chin, blood clearly visible. Macbeth’s action is so energetic that he juts out over the edge of the panel. A smaller fourth panel depicts Macdonald’s head fixed on a pole on the battlements.


1 All quotations are taken from Macbeth edited by A.R. Braunmuller.

2 To this day, Beerbohm Tree's King John actually remains the only film adaptation of this particular play.

3 The Internet Movie Database (, the self-declared «earth’s biggest movie database,» lists 635 films with William Shakespeare mentioned as a writer, although some of those films are far removed from Shakespeare’s plays. On the other hand, Shakespeare is, as we will later see, not credited for every film inspired by one of his plays.

4 Moreover, since the introduction of DVD, the availability of diverse productions of Macbeth has steadily increased.

5 Witches were popularly supposed to cause rain, hail, tempests, thunder, and lightning.

6 Evans, Miola, Watts, Muir, and Harbage.

7 Lamb and Braunmuller.

8 The exact same monologue is shortly afterwards also recited by Banco, Ionesco’s Banquo.

9 For an outline of the beginning of theatrical painting in England, see Alexander and Allen.

10 Sillars (222) describes the darkness surrounding Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and her dress as «dark umber to sickly green-ochre.»

11 Two scenes which do not appear in the text.

Excerpt out of 104 pages


Visions of Blood. Visualising "Macbeth" on Film
University of Zurich  (Philosophische Fakultät)
6 (very good)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Eine 6 ist die höchste Note im Schweizer Schulsystem.
Shakespeare, Macbeth, Film, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, Elke Heidenreich, Henry Fuseli
Quote paper
Thomas Hunziker (Author), 2006, Visions of Blood. Visualising "Macbeth" on Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Visions of Blood. Visualising "Macbeth" on Film

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free