The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review: Part I The Three Witches

Joel Coen is an artistic genius. He and his wife, Frances McDormand, have produced and he has directed one of the most extraordinary productions of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Released in theatres (a limited release) on Christmas, it has as of 14 January been streaming on Apple TV.  It is a MUST see.

A thane is a Scottish lord. Backed by the Norwegian King Sweno, the Thane of Cawdor organized a rebellion against King Duncan; Macdonald was the military head of the uprising. After a see-saw battle in which Fortune seemed at first to favour Macdonald, the rebellion is put down by Macbeth, the head of Duncan’s army. Macdonald was killed. Not just killed. Macbeth “unseemed him from the nave to the chops” and presented his severed head as a trophy. And Macbeth then repelled the Norwegians. He is a military hero. He is a Stoic, like Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.” However, Macbeth’s ambition proves to be the extent of his greatness.

Why did Cawdor rebel? According to Duncan, he was a man of integrity and honour; he courageously accepted his punishment by getting his head cut off. But why did he rebel in the first place? Was Duncan a corrupt king? An incompetent one? We are not told. And as presented in the opening scenes of Coen’s movie (and Shakespeare’s play), there is no indication that Duncan was anything but a noble and upright ruler. This adds to the ruthlessness of Macbeth. Otherwise, how could he do what he did next – kill the king himself, assume the throne and then instigate an endless bloodbath.

Macbeth is not just an ambitious man. He is a superb warrior, “valour’s minion.’ But in the stark misty landscape that has little resemblance to the Scottish highlands, he has also reenacted Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem. Who is Christ in the play? Macdonald? The Thane of Cawdor? We have no idea as the opening witch scene throws no light on the politics that gave rise to the rebellion and then the doubly traitorous act of brave Macbeth. All is ambivalent and confusing. And that is a point of the play – ambivalence.

For how can Macbeth be ambitious if it is foretold by the witch that Banquo, not he, will give rise to a line of kings? Besides, he (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) are childless and seem too old to bear children. Thus, the irony. He wants the throne, but it is a passion without a future.

Usually, the opening scene of the play with three witches reciting Shakespeare’s immortal lines sets the stage for what follows but does nothing to clarify the instigation of the action. Coen does something unique. The movie opens with one high-flying crow. Then a second appears among the clouds when the first is at the bottom of the screen. Then a third flies out from the viewer into the scene startling a lonely traveler who goes on to report the results of the battle to King Duncan.

Macbeth and Banquo appear out of the mist and discern a black figure beside a pool in which two other black figures are reflected. The first shape-shifts into an old contortionist hag whose scrawny limbs can bend and twist like pretzels with one leg slung over her shoulder. Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in an award-winning performance on a misty rough unreal terrain. She looks like an old crow, acts like one as she jerks her head back and forth, and incites the famous incantation. She is truly weird, or “wayward” as Shakespeare spelled it, the weirdest and most harrowing witch I have ever seen. No long bent noses here. No steaming pot in the middle with frogs legs.

The Anglo-Saxon term “wyrd” means destiny or fate. But Shakespeare offers a twist. The witches are wayward, more like Delphic oracles than witches who offer spells and feed a person magical potions. They are sinister, not because of what they do, but because of what they say, and what they say and look like projects the inner state of a man’s soul.

Hunter turns from a raven into a stone that is a black Golgotha and then into an animated crow-like hag in a masterly exercise in magical realism that raises the whole scene to the level of epic surrealism. You know the witches are creatures of Macbeth’s mind because the one becomes three, each with a unique but, at the same time, identical smoky voice, that is also the voice of a fourth male character who appears later. The first witch who looks ancient and haggard predicts the future that hypnotizes Macbeth with its optimism, even though driven by an ill-understood and ageless id. The second witch is ironical and wry in adumbrating how that future will unfold. Then the third, angry and chastising, the superego that will deliver the mental turmoil that will doom Macbeth. The third witch is the “harpier,” a harpy, a loathsome monster in Greek myth with the head of a hag but the body of a predator bird. The three witches are three aspects of one being and in the movie are played as one person.

Here is Shakespeare’s versions of Act I, Scene 1 set in “a desert”

[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First WitchWhen shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second WitchWhen the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third WitchThat will be ere the set of sun.
First WitchWhere the place?
Second WitchUpon the heath.
Third WitchThere to meet with Macbeth.
First WitchI come, graymalkin!
Second WitchPaddock calls.
Third WitchAnon!
ALLFair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

In this mesmerizing chant in which the witch herself is summoned by her guardian spirit, a gray cat (graymalkin), we are introduced to the topsy-turvy world of Macbeth where evil rather than the pursuit of the good reigns and Macbeth is bewitched. There is no other way to explain his behaviour.

In Shakespeare’s play, the witches do meet again in Act 3, Scene 5.

[A banquet prIn the Middle Etepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH, ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]
[Thunder. Enter the three Witches meeting HECATE]
First WitchWhy, how now, Hecate! you look angerly.
HECATEHave I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done10
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.
But make amends now: get you gone,
And at the pit of Acheron
Meet me i’ the morning: thither he
Will come to know his destiny:
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
I am for the air; this night I’ll spend20
Unto a dismal and a fatal end:
Great business must be wrought ere noon:
Upon the corner of the moon
There hangs a vaporous drop profound;
I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
And that distill’d by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear30
He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
[ Music and a song within: ‘Come away, come away,’ etc ]
Hark! I am call’d; my little spirit, see,
Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me.
First WitchCome, let’s make haste; she’ll soon be back again.

The three witches are wayward, beldams, crones who have traveled on their own path without direction from Hecate, that is, without a moral compass. They do not guide the action as much as reflect it. They are bold, saucy and themselves rebellious. Hecate may be mistress of their charms, but these witches do not work through charms. They do not contrive or create harms. They are reflections rather than real agents of the action. They do not operate through magic nor are they responsible for Macbeth’s confusion. Most of all, Hecate is wrong. Empty ambition, not the quest for security, is portrayed as mortals’ greatest enemy.

It is no wonder that Joel Coen excised Hecate from the play; she was superfluous and, in the end, misleading.

In Scene 1 in Act IV when the witches return a third time, after a preview in the movie, the recitation begins – “double, double” for the play is about inversion and doubling that instigates the trouble for doubling entails deception. The witches do not enter but sit on cross beams above the action and the first drips one magical item after another in the pool of water on the castle floor.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: Act IV, Scene 1

Enter the three Witches
(in the play but not in the movie; there, only the first witch speaks. After the introductory verses, she looks up to the ceiling and begins the famous incantation: “Double, double…”)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]

Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, but also of childbirth, appeared first in Act III, scene 5 in Shakespeare’s play (though perhaps not in the original version) to reprimand the three witches for leaving her out of the action and for interfering with Macbeth without her approval. But she was MIA, missing in action, for Lady Macbeth has been barren. Yet in the scene above, she contradictorily congratulates the witches.

I assume, to avoid the confusion, Joel Coen excises Hecate in the film. And the witches are left to drop their charms from the rafters into a boiling pool of water down below. In that water, the face of Biancho’s son appears wearing a crown. While Macbeth promises his death, the voice from the depth predicts that he will be king. Macbeth’s ambition will be truncated.

(To be continued: Set, Lighting, Score and Costumes)


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