When Birnam Burns: The Silence, Stress, and Sacrifice of Macbeth

I made it back from Austin and the annual meeting of the MLA just in time to catch the second major event of awards season: the Golden Globes. I missed the People’s Choice, where personal favorite Outlander (which I have posted regularly about here on the blog) did very well. At the Golden Globes the show was rebuffed; however, another personal favorite, Mozart in the Jungle, made an excellent showing. With the Oscar nominations announced yesterday, to much (rightful) racial consternation (see #OscarsSoWhite), I was reminded that I had yet to post about the recent film debut of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel and featuring nominee Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Perhaps the first thing to say about this film is that it won’t really work in the classroom. Not that this is likely a metric for production choices,but rather that is to say that there is a great lack of Shakespeare’s text in this version. My impression was that there was about a third of the hypotext used in the film. No new words were supplemented, but simply visual cues and cinematography were asked to carry a lot more interpretive weight. In my heart of heart’s, I am actually alright with this choice. Film is simply a different medium than theatre, one of its properties being the ability to craft stunning shots and sequences that can communication a lot for the overall experience of the film without using language. Certainly there is some precedent for this with Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. It still begs the question: why adapt a Shakespeare text if you aren’t going to use the vast majority of the text?

King Duncan’s (David Thewlis) retinue awaits news from the front.

The other major departure, one which unsettles me somewhat more than the lack of text, is that the entire court and wider Scottish community is made privy to Macbeth’s madness. This happens even before the meltdown at the dinner when he hallucinates Banquo’s presence—or Banquo as a ghost is actually present, depending on your preference. We get a sequence where Lady Macduff and her children are chased through woods by Macbeth’s men. We do not get her humanizing conversation with her son and their debate about what constitutes a traitor. Instead, we get Macbeth announcing to a crowd that he is blessed and divinely made immortal before he proceeds to light a series of stakes ablaze to which are attached the members of Macduff’s still living family. After much consideration, there are two payoffs I can imagine from this stark alteration: (a) as implicating the community in which Macbeth operates in allowing him to enact this kind of violence, and/or (b) to put the blame of his perceived madness squarely on his presumption of mortality. While the former I think is interesting, if not followed up on more consistently in the film, the latter renders one-dimensional the complexity of suffering the figure of Macbeth endures.

Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) looks on as her husband dismantles his own authority.

And in this film, madness is not a release or excuse to license aberrant behavior, but a set of behaviors produced by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it would seem, from a lifetime in and at war. The film fully commits to this argument even down to the small details, which I think is one of its primary strengths. There is nothing otherworldly or magical in this Scotland, except perhaps the landscape itself. (That cinematographic romanticization of the Scottish Highlands is painfully conventional and banal in filmmaking at this point, but nevertheless stunning and effective as spectacle.) The witches are merely the women who follow and clean-up after the battlefield, perhaps wives left destitute by husbands killed in battle. Their group even includes two children, dregs of the people killed on the march. In some ways this is recuperative, as the pre-modern stigma of women attached to magic is also evacuated from this telling. Cotillard is robbed of one of the best speeches for Shakespearean actresses in that she doesn’t get to paw at an invisible spot of blood on her hands while sleep-walking. Instead, parts of that and other speeches are strewn together as she meditates suicide lucidly on the floor of a druidic yet somehow Christian church. This is a community motivated by trauma rather than supernatural superstition and a willing suspension disbelief.

Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) considers her situation on the floor of the community church.

Certainly part of the argument that madness is a product of trauma is located in the robbing of innocence from children throughout the film. The silent establishing shot is that of the Macbeths at the funeral bier of their son. While this is an aspect suggested very tenuously by the text, the film commits to it as a motivating factor for the couple. Part of Macbeth’s desire to kill Banquo in some respects might be that if he has no sons left to inherit the crown, this might signal hope that Macbeth and his lady might yet conceive again. Lady Macbeth also leads a choir of children at the dinner on the night they kill Duncan. It is an image of a young boy soldier Macbeth prepares before an early battle sequence and then finds dead afterwards that hands him the “happy dagger” he seems to hallucinate. (Most of the apparitions from the original text are excised.) And in the final shot of the film, it is Fleance we see, a very small boy indeed who has watched his own father’s murder, that runs into the sunset with an impossibly large broadsword in his hands. He is bound to face Duncan’s sons again in the future to fulfill the “witches'” prophecy, continuing the cycle of communal violence.

King (Michael Fassbender) and Queen (Marion Cotillard) struggle to come to terms with their own violence.

Perhaps the only string left dangling with these choices to render madness as a logical product of trauma rather than influenced by the otherworldly is Birnam Forest. In the hypotext, the wood is cut down for pikes to literally march on Dunsinane castle, a clever trick by Macduff. Here, Birnam is set ablaze so that the smoke and ash will ride on the wind to Dunsinane and cover troop movements. It’s an equally clever military ruse and allows for the blaze of gold and fire to spectacularize the cinematography of the final sword fight of the film. In the play, when the supernatural elements are kept, that Birnam comes as not a product of magic but as a clever military tactic Macbeth should have anticipated, it completely dismantles Macbeth’s faith in the prophecies. In some ways the story comes full circle in this regard, returning him to the position that produced the trauma, as warrior. Without the magic elements, perhaps we can read this moment as Macbeth accepting his madness, acknowledging his trauma, and rehearsing its source again in the battle against Macduff. But that the film ends with fleeing Fleance suggests that this confrontation is all for not, that there is no way to end such cycles of violence once caught in the feedback loop.

Within his crown, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) fights off the spiders of his mind.

Perhaps such questions of violence and its repetitions are not something answerable by a single film. A question it does try to approach: What is the story of Macbeth without the supernatural? The answer seems to be that Macbeth’s madness can’t be something without logic or explanation, but rather madness is a name for something else: PTSD. Oddly, then, this film is not unlike the recent National Theatre stage production of Hamlet featuring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. For Macbeth, madness is a product of military trauma; for Hamlet, it is a product of mourning. In both, madness is the manifestation of a short-circuit in the human psyche, an inability to cope. In this light, madness becomes question of ability as it is linked to one’s self-identity, and in these case, the self-identification with capability of two men. Therefore trauma and mourning still remain outside the allowable experience of masculinity despite remaining at odds with what we perceive as mental wellness. We might say that this Macbeth sacrifices text and the complexity of masculinity identity in the service of an invective against war. Hard to tell which is the lesser evil, which a more mad proposition.

Shakespeare, Spectacle, and the Whedonesque; or, “Much Ado About Nothing”

“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig,
a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot
and hasty like a Scotch jig—and full as
fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a
measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes
repentance and with his bad legs falls into the
cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”
– Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, II.i.60-6

Many years ago in Chicago I went to a theatre company’s trunk show, a kind of fundraiser-cum-preview of the new material they were working on that season. It took place in the foyer of one of those massive old midwestern theatres, whose two-winged grand staircases are now only rattled by tweens on their way to a concert. Over the staircase the troupe had hired a pair of acrobats to do the kind of ring and rope work that we see in the masque scene of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I had seen such rope-dancers before, not only at theatrical events like that done by Strange Tree Group or Redmoon Theatre, but also the very occasional swank holiday party. To me they signify the kind of experimental entertainment, the “extartheatricals” Erika T. Lin calls them, that is cutting edge in that it is finding a new popular audience again (like puppetry, as I mentioned in my last post). With their inclusion in Whedon’s adaptationI found myself contemplating the sensation incurred by these kinds of theatrical feats, very much of the present and avant-garde, yet somehow essential and universal.

In her book Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Lin notes that in early modern usage, rope-dancing, those “balancing acts performed on a tight or slack rope,” was a form more common to playgoers than scripted drama (107). While “Shakespeare and his contemporaries are best known today for their scripted drama, records of payment…suggest that both representational theatre and spectacular physical displays were offered by the same performers at the same events and to the same audiences” (107). Whether or not Whedon knew this fact in particular, or has a nose for aesthetic tone, his incorporation of the rope dancers and the crooner at the piano inculcates the kind of theatre-going experience Shakespeare imagined for this play. To give these elements more weight beyond the spectacular, I think she makes two other points worth mentioning:

The pair of rope-dancers work above the mingling crowd. The attendees, performers themselves in masks, stop to appreciate the performance integrated into the party lights, even interact with the performers, and then move on.
  1. Double Space: “Spectacles of this sort existed in a kind of double space: even as they operated within a given play’s fictional narrative, they also served as legitimate entertainments in their own right. Jean Alter refers to these complementary aspects of of theatre as its ‘referential’ and ‘performant’ functions: theatre as semiotic system, employing both mimetic and non mimetic forms of representation, and theatre as spectacular show, akin to sports or the circus” (109). In short, we are asked to be simultaneously engaged in the awe of the feat as well as cogitating on the content of the play’s text.
  2. Show, Please, Delight:Delight is linked to physical nourishment and activity [in the Renaissance]: to the eating of sweetmeats, the sports of hunting and hawking. It is also connected specifically with presentational spectacles, with ‘triumphs’ and ‘shews’…Distinguishing the seeing of ‘showes’ from the hearing of verse, early modern writers underscore the notion that the popularity of displays of physical skill onstage lay in the pleasures they offered to the eye” (113). In other words, to behold with the eye engaged both the physical response of awe and the cognitive process of taking in.
Claudio gets exceedingly drunk as he watches Don Pedro court in his stead. He becomes increasingly paranoid in his stupor, and the acrobats replicate his worst fears.
There are two specific episodes in the film that I think draw out this doubled cognitive process, of being in awe and delight at a theatrical feat that then triggers more complex cognitive processes. The first is the masque, of course, both celebrating the victorious return of the soldiers and giving Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) an opportunity to court Hero (Jillian Morgese) in Claudio’s (Fran Kranz) stead. Some critics have suggested that Whedon’s pressure on alcohol as the source of much of the confusion in the film flattens the agency of the characters. (Note the now rather ubiquitous promotional image of Claudio in goggles—*cough* beer goggles *cough*—holding a martini glass in a pool.) I actually like the implication of misprision (Shakespeare’s word) being at first caused by the party atmosphere, but also that the condition of masking and male competition are equally culpable social norms that induce Claudio’s jealousy. This is conveyed not through dialogue, but editing of non-verbal cues. We listen to the song “Sigh No More” while we get a number of shots, entirely without dialogue, of Claudio anxiously watching Don Pedro between taking shots. We then see Don Pedro lean in and Hero smile and giggle: obviously he has won her, the champion and military man that he is, for Claudio. But then the film immediately cuts back to the rope-dancers executing a complex move wherein they balance one atop the other, a positioning mildly suggestive. Whedon implies here that the thought that Don Pedro has won Hero for himself is in Claudio’s mind long before the villainous Don John expresses it to him. In this way Claudio is rendered more complex, more human and susceptible to the vicissitude of emotion rather than a man merely and easily manipulated by next voice that whispers in his ear.
Even to the last, Claudio struggles to perceive beyond the mask.

The second episode is that of the funeral-wedding, where again we get a song lofting over a presentational scene that does more of the meaning-making than the text. The women are all again masked, this time in white lace funeral shrouds they will also adorn at the wedding ceremony. Hero and Beatrice (Amy Acker) watch from above as Claudio leads the funeral procession, the weight of his choices and the power of his hateful words seemingly coming to roost by his “confirm’d countenance.” Hero sadly smiles, as if in hope for her wedding day. At the wedding itself the women remain enshrouded; for, “a woman masked, like a covered dish, gives a man curiosity and appetite” (III.i, The Country Wife, William Wycherley). If we are convinced by the previous interlude scene that Claudio is repentant—as in the epigram Beatrice suggests is part of that which renders the course of love less than smooth—then we can find something satisfying and recuperative about his union to Hero. In her taking on the mask and feigning death, we can also find some agency for Hero: she has learned to accept that identity is itself inherently performative, and finally participates in the actual masking that is courtship.

I think in the playtext this is hard to see, and I often prefer adaptations like that of ShakespeaRe-Told and Funk It Up About Nothin’ that provide a Hero that rejects Claudio and resists repentance. While Claudio clearly has a character arc, in her resistance Hero can have as clear an arc, too. (I also prefer productions that stress Beatrice and Benedict (Alexis Denisof) over Hero and Claudio, but found the reversal here refreshing.) This is the only aspect of the film I would have changed, and was a change I actually expected out of Whedon. It has been nearly a year since the film began making the festival rounds and causing a stir, and I have hesitated writing about it precisely because the film portends to have everything I love: the cheek and style of Whedon, the language of Shakespeare, and the gritty piquancy you get when one makes a film in twelve days, in one’s home, using your best friends. (And what friend of Nathan Fillion wouldn’t want to seem him take on Dogberry.) Because the film encompasses the spectrum of tastes I so enjoy, I felt it would be impossible to get any kind of distance from it to say something substantive. Yet now I think it is precisely this quality, that Whedon’s work really does encapsulate an inherent sensibility of Generation X—those late-20s-/early-30s-somethings reared onThe Fresh Prince, Phish, Buffy, and Pearl Jam, who watch in horror at the political apathy of their younger Millennials—whose balance of camp, sophistication, quality, and bite make his films worth watching.


  • CITATION: Much Ado About Nothing. Film. Adapted and directed by Joss Whedon. Written by William Shakespeare. 14 June 2013. LA: Bellwether Pictures, 2012.
  • As of this posting this film is streaming both via Amazon Prime Instant and Netflix. See the US trailer below: