Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ Is Sinister Jazz

Like a jazz performer playing a classic tune, Roman Polanski takes Shakespeare's classic text and offers slight but crucial emphases, inspired no doubt by his own personal turmoils.

The history of Shakespeare in the theater… is a history of adaptation: the notion that Shakespeare’s plays have an inner logic and should be performed “as they were written” is a purely modern idea.

— William B. Worthen, “Introduction to ‘Medieval and Renaissance Drama in Performance and History”, in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama Sixth Edition, 271

The beauty of Shakespeare is in his malleability. To this day, scholars and dramaturgs continue to dive into the Elizabethan record to get a vivid image of how the Bard’s plays were initially staged. The task is no small one, as the defining fact of his plays, even in their early days, is their adaptability. The time period immediately following Shakespeare’s passing saw several of Shakespeare’s plays get adapted in ways that, in varying degrees of success, twisted Shakespeare’s original text treatments. From John Dryden’s tamed-down interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra to Nahum Tate’s staging of King Lear, which famously involved both Cordelia and King Lear surviving their originally doomed fates, the plays of Shakespeare have proven themselves amenable to the countless cultural shifts that have happened since the Elizabethan era.

As Paul Yachnin and Anthony B. Dawson point out in their volume The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare’s England: A Collaborative Debate, attempts to make “totalizing accounts of the cultural position of Shakespeare’s theatre” are ultimately unsatisfying (1). There has never been one Shakespeare, and there never will be. Even ostensibly “orthodox” interpretations of the Bard, such as the staid films of Laurence Olivier (Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III), in some way represent a new spin on the half-millennium old playwright’s work.

Certain plot machinations and tropes do bring to mind the phrase “Shakespearian”, but what makes him an author that has remained pervasive in the Western literary consciousness is his works’ ability to give directors great material whilst also allowing those directors to give back to the text without betraying its spirit. Shakespeare is the rare author that maintains his identity while constantly being rewritten and reimagined.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) falls somewhere in between “traditional” and “revisionist” takes on Shakespeare, assuming one can legitimately make that distinction. On the one hand, Polanski’s plot treatment, cowritten with the great English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, does great justice to the primary text, save for a few changes in emphasis that, while not unimportant, do not represent a significant modification of the original text. This textual faithfulness is unsurprising, given that Polanski and Tynan’s task was to adapt one of the Bard’s more comparatively straightforward dramas.

As Terrence Rafferty notes in his essay included in the Criterion edition of Macbeth, the play’s lean-and-mean nature is due in part to the fact that “there aren’t as many characters to introduce (and keep track of) as there are in, say, Hamlet,” “the soliloquies are pretty short”, and “the Elizabethan wordplay isn’t nearly as dense as it sometimes is in Shakespeare.” Polanski’s vision of the story runs at 140 minutes, but there’s nary a wasted moment on screen. Rafferty is right when he claims that “it looks and moves as if the story had been originally conceived as a film.”

On the other hand, while Macbeth does do justice to the original text in the most general terms, it’s also undeniably a product of its time and of its director. This has everything to do with the personal life of Polanski, who made the film during the darkest period of his life. In 1969, while he was working on The Day of the Dolphin (which would later be helmed by Mike Nichols), his wife Sharon Tate, at the time eight and a half months pregnant with their child, was brutally killed along with several others in the grisly Manson family murders.

Polanski, in a deep depression following Tate’s killing, abandoned The Day of the Dolphin and, not long after, began conceptualizing his vision of Macbeth. The result is a movie notorious for its bloody violence and relentlessly bleak moral vision. (By 2015 standards, the gore quotient here is not particularly high, but it is nonetheless acutely felt, even still.) Scotland is, of course, not a land renowned for its sunshine, but as captured by Polanski the country is perpetually draped in gray.

If one had no knowledge of Polanski’s life circumstances when watching Macbeth, she would have no reason to think the film anything more than an exceptionally made, reasonably straightforward take on the tragedy. Certain choices, such as the changing of the play’s soliloquies to internal monologues, are understandable given the psychological aspects of the play. Polanski and Tynan’s decision to elevate the character of Ross (John Stride) from an otherwise unassuming role into one of a scheming henchman does represent a clear “addition” to Shakespeare’s text, but this move does little to alter the meanings drawn out in this particular film. In fact, this move enhances the meaning of it all.

Here, Ross becomes a Macbeth in Macbeth’s own camp; though he happily joins the malevolent Scotsman as he kills his way to the throne, by the end of the film he turns against Macbeth, seemingly for the same power-hungry reasons that drove Macbeth on the path to power in the first place. This theme of betrayal is reinforced in the movie’s final moments in another addition to the original text, wherein Donalbain (Paul Shelley), the son of Duncan, goes to the same Witches that foresee Macbeth’s rise to power at the beginning of the film. Betrayal, much like power, is a cyclical process for Polanski. One murder begets another, just as one bloodthirsty leader will find a kindred replacement.

Yet even though Macbeth is a superficially straightforward adaptation, it also cannot escape its context, which is inseparable from its gory vision. Much like Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago will never escape the “heartbroken guy in the woods” mythology from which it sprung, so too will this Macbeth be forever bound with the bleak place from which it sprung in Polanski’s life. Polanski’s fixation on unquenchable bloodlust of the titular king (Jon Finch) is hard to imagine as unrelated to his attempt to understand why a man as amoral as Charles Manson would do what he did.

There are subtle cues that hint at Polanski’s personal turmoils. Notably, the most distinctive signpost for violence throughout Macbeth is the scream of a woman. Here one’s mind cannot help but imagine Polanski conjuring the sounds of the screams he was not there to hear. The silence that haunted him became a scream.

Ultimately, though, Polanski’s attempts to understand evil and its destruction are never given definitive resolution in this film. This can be seen in the excellent portrayals of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The latter is particularly fascinating to watch as the Scotsman’s rise to power grows increasingly blood-soaked. The “Lady Macbeth type” has become quite popular in cinema and television; Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards is a popular recent example. In Polanski’s Macbeth, Francesca Annis depicts the scheming queen as a woman caught in a whirlwind of emotions.

Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth

At the beginning of the movie, once Macbeth’s regicidal plot is set in motion, she displays a kind of doe-eyed excitement at the prospect of power. Once the collateral damage kicks in, however, she takes on an increasing psychological torment; where once her wide eyes were greedy for the throne, now they gape out of moral terror. Macbeth also suffers a similar mental struggle, as evinced by the numerous framing shots of his troubled visage throughout the latter half of the film. But his woes are far less opaque to watch unfold than his wife’s. His fears are obvious: he has become the person that, not long ago, he himself would have saw good reason to oust violently. By contrast, the locus of Lady Macbeth’s mental state appears to be always shifting, even slightly, up until her onscreen death — another difference from the play, where she dies off-stage.

Macbeth is Polanski’s attempt to frame and understand the sources and behaviors of deep evil. Lady Macbeth, then, embodies the ever-shifting grounds from which evil might spring: in one moment, it will be sure it wants the throne; in another, the evil will suddenly recede, leaving its vessel in a state of inner turmoil. The drive to power that so consumes Macbeth in the first half of the story, quite possibly the same kind that drove Charles Manson, is not a constant force, always bearing down upon its victims. Rather, it waits, striking at opportune moments and receding when the time is right — only to strike when one mistakenly lets his guard down, as Macbeth does.

Trying to understand the movement of evil is tricky, which is what makes watching Polanski’s Macbeth so enthralling. At any point evil stands to give advantage of disadvantage to the titular king, and in the end he suffers because he was not able to anticipate the ebb and flow of evil.

Movement is particularly relevant in Polanski’s case, based on a comment he makes in one of the Criterion bonus features. In describing the relative ease of adapting this play for the cinema, he explains, “You have great freedom [as a director] because the stage directions are very laconic. “Enter”. “Exit”. “Is slain”. So he could be slain in any way you imagine. It’s a little bit like jazz, where you have a theme and you can improvise on that theme.”

There’s a delightful dark humor in this quotation, even though Polanski delivers it in deadpan. (Which, in turn, makes it even darker, and even funnier.) More importantly, however, this observation nicely encapsulates two facets of what makes this Macbeth such a memorable take on a play that no doubt has its fair share of memorable takes. Firstly, this idea of “Macbeth as jazz” relates to the aforementioned concept of the movement of evil. Just as jazz performers must take certain musical anchors (e.g. a melody or a motif) and improvise from them, so too does evil freely roam, beginning with a single ostensible goal but then moving in shifty yet ultimately cyclical ways. Both the jazz musician and Donalbain in Macbeth return right back to the beginning: the former, to the tonic; the latter, to the Witches.

Secondly, and meta-cinematically, Polanski’s metaphor about jazz succinctly defines what makes his Macbeth a distinctive version to this day, one certainly worth the excellent Criterion packaging it has now received. The focus on death and depravity in this film raises the obvious question: why focus on those things, and not others? Certainly, Shakespeare’s original text offers a wide range of interpretive focuses: from feminist angles focusing on Lady Macbeth to mystical readings based on the role of prophecy, this tale of a murderous Scot does not actually have to be about the murder of it all.

Here one comes back again to the context of this specific vision of the story: while an interpretation wherein Finch’s Macbeth is a stand-in for Manson may be an overreach, it’s impossible not to see the places where Polanski’s mind was going when watching the gory kills of this tale come to pass. His choice to emphasize the bloodshed is, much like a well-placed rubato, a stylistic choice that may initially seem like not much at all, but in the end represents a unique spin on a ubiquitous text. With Macbeth, Polanski inserts himself comfortably into the legacy of the Bard’s plays and their countless interpretations, taking the jazzy art of variation on a theme and turning it sinister.

RATING 8 / 10