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Polanski's interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth

Critical Study: Macbeth

Roman Polanski- 1971

What is the context of this film? Who is the intended audience?

Polanski’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was produced in the context of the early nineteen seventies. The turn of the sixties decade introduced a period of great change and advancement within society. It was the era of ‘The Man on the Moon’, Women’s Liberation, free sexuality and Communism. Polanski incorporated many of these pressing themes into his work. In particular he chose to highlight the role of women, through the portrayal of the three Witches as such powerful and influential characters in regard to the development of the plot of the film. Polanski’s interpretation of the ending to the story also reflects upon the context in which it was directed. As the Witches are reintroduced at the conclusion of the film, it signifies the continual or cyclic state of unrest within the world. By including such relevant themes in the film, Polanski draws interest from a more modern and educated audience.

How does the opening establish in terms of context, setting and interpretation?

The opening scenes of the film establish a strong connection with the audience in terms introducing the characters, the plot, and the context in which the film was set and directed.

The establishing shot of the film introduces the three witches, who together play a very significant part in the controlling the events which unfold in the film. The witches gather on a rugged coast against a backdrop of a raging storm and tearing ocean. As the witches possessively chant a super natural and unsettling theme is established. At the same time a feeling of reality is introduced as the camera draws in on the witch’s physical characteristics and the hand they are burying in the sand.

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As the image of the witches fades, the audio of a raging battle becomes the main focus of the audience. The audio piece sets the scene and establishes a context and theme within the film. The audience is immediately drawn into an unsettled world of violence, commotion and conflict, key elements in Polanski’s interpretation of the Macbeth.

The open planes over which the battle takes place and the. Apart from the words spoken by the witches, the first conversations of the film establish a great understanding. The conversation that takes place introduces the plot and the key characters involved in the storyline. The context of the film is reinforced through the way the characters speak, their clothes and their values. The open plains, hills and rugged coastline place the events in an isolated and uncivilized setting.

The opening scenes of Polanski’s Macbeth clearly establish in the audiences mind the context in which the film was set an directed. It further more establishes an insight into the plot and the characters who have a significant impact upon its outcome.

How does the climax highlight this context and interpretation?

The climax of the film refers to the siege that is forced upon Macbeth in his castle, resulting in his death and the crowing of Malcolm as King. The main element focused upon in this scene is the extensive amount of violence and brutality present. Such a theme represents not only the context in which the film is set, but in which Polanski’s interpretation was based.

The film is set in medieval times, in approximately the fifteenth century. The violence and brutality displayed in the climax help to emphasise the uncivilised and dark period in which the film is set. The setting and the supernatural idea that relate to the climax similarly display such context.

Polanski’s interpretation is heavily based around gruesome and brutal violence, the climax being the ultimate display. His interpretation linked closely to he nineteen seventies; the period in which it was being directed. The nineteen seventies decade marked the beginning of heightened change and development in the world. Similarly the fight that took palce between Macbeth and was rapidly intensifying. Like the world, their one on one battle had peaked and could have fell in either direction.

Polanski was personally effected by a violent tragedy before his production of Macbeth. Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate was brutally murdered in ritual cult driven murder by a group of followers of Charles Manson. The vicious and unruly violence featured in the climax can be seen as a link between is grievance and his wife’s death.

The violent and fierce nature of events that unfold in the climax further display the context in which the film is set and interpreted.

How are the following Represented?

Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a powerful and sensual woman of sharp ambition. She is first introduced as a gentle and loving woman of great stance. A low camera angle highlights Lady Macbeth’s importance as does her flowing blue dress in contrast to the dull and dreary background. As she reads Macbeth’s letting outlining his meeting with the witches Lady Macbeth appears softly spoken and innocent. As her thoughts are seized by the prospect of power and wealth her tone immediately changes…”for us to fear the nature, to full of human kindness”. Lady Macbeth’s villainous traits are further established as she uses her sexual power and her position as a loving wife to force Macbeth into murdering Duncan. "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it." While Lady Macbeth maintains callous personality and a dominating power Macbeth, she is evidently revealed to be a woman of feeling and conscience. The nude shot of Lady Macbeth not only reflects upon the sexuality of her character but her realness and feelings as a person.

Macbeth is portrayed throughout the film as a multidimensional character. Greed, power and ambition eventually rob Macbeth of his moral, diligent and respected characteristics. The beginning of the film portrays Macbeth as a noble man and friend. Riding with Banquo, it is one of the few camera shots in the film that display Macbeth and his company at similar angles. After his meeting with the witches, he wonderers in awe about their prophecies…”The thane of Cawdor…It cant ever be”. He speaks softly as if in disbelief or uncertainty. As his mind ponders he quickly stands… “I am thane of Cawdor”. His rapid change of thoughts display the different perspectives in which Macbeth takes throughout the film, highlighting his insecurity as a person. As Macbeth is encouraged by his own personal yearnings as well as his wife’s, he is encouraged to do whatever it takes to become king. Eventually being portrayed as an obsessive and gullible man, Macbeth’s world falls apart.

The witches are consistently portrayed as dark and eerie and eccentric women. Their appearance portrays them as outlaws form society as does their isolated presence. The witches and events that relate to their prophecies are constantly accompanied by fierce weather and darkness .A representation of disruption and an unnatural balance.

As they speak in rhyme the witches appear to be possessed or of a supernatural being. Similarly the witches represent the ancient tale of the three monkeys; Hear no evil, see speak no evil and hear no evil. In contrast to their supernatural features, constant physical factors are alluded to create the idea of reality. For example the mans hand they burry in he sand.

What values and attitudes are implicit in the interpretation? Are they still relevant to the 2008 audience?

Polanski’s interpretation of Macbeth is primarily based around ideas of rapid change, the cyclic world, violence, greed and power. Such themes were very prominent issues in society in the early nineteen seventies. Therefore they not only influenced his interpretation of the film, but also the audience that wit would appeal to. For example, the portrayal of lady Macbeth as such a dominating and sexual person can be viewed as a reflection of the women’s liberation movement occurring at the time. These values and attitudes that Polanski utilizes in his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are still relevant in today’s society. As s global society were are still experiencing rapid change as part of the technological revolution. Greed, violence and power continue to be the root of all disruption in the world and the cycle of unrest continues.

Compare the film to Shakespeare’s reading.

-Does it support your reading?

-Are there differences in how you imagined the representation of a character, setting, theme etc.?

-Were the themes you believed to be most important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth highlighted? Were others?

Polanski’s interpretation of Macbeth supports Shakespeare’s reading from many different aspects. Apart for the alternative ending and slight differences in character portrayal, both the play and the film follow the same basic plot. Watching the visual representations of the play helps to further understand not only understand the plot and the characters but the Elizabethan language which is used in both pieces.

Polanski’s film highlights different themes to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He does so according to the modern context in which he directed the film. Polanski’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a beautiful young lover differs to the harsh and vicious wife in the play. The witches and there significance is more commonly referred to and highlighted in the film than it is in the play.

The main themes in Shakespeare’s play revolve around ideas of power, greed and tragedy. Polanksi’s interpretation incorporates all of theses themes but displays them in a less obvious manner, often disguising them behind violence. Violence and brutality was a theme constantly incorporated into Polanski’s film, while it was also present in the original Shakespearean play, it was not as graphic or as commonly addressed.

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