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.

The Hollow Crown 1.2: “Henry IV”

Coming to look on you, thinking you dead-
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were-
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore thou best of gold art worst of gold.
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in med’cine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honour’d, most renown’d,
Hast eat thy bearer up.’

– Hal to his father, Henry IV

In the fim criticism of Hal’s exploits, filth and cleanliness have become important interpretive cornerstones. Olivier’s Henry V was famous as a WWII rally-cry for a nation at war, more interested in the play’s metatheatrics and commentary on honor than depicting the “perforced decay” of war itself. Branagh’s breakout smash of the same text is notorious now for the murk, gore, and even tinted film stock used to convey a nation in conflict, decaying from the inside out. But these are the stories of Hal at his best. It is partly what makes it easy to love Henry V as a play. But Richard Eyre took on the challenge of telling the story of Henry IV’s reign, embattled by riot from the Welsh and his own son. By contrasting these seditions, the parts one and two trace not the evolution but the revelations of Hal: the realization of who he needs to be as a monarch, and the epiphany of the sacrifice that crown will ask of him.

In this dark and greasy portrayal of early modern London life, the paces to sobering epiphany are marked by Henry very damply. It is as if the film itself is a Falstaff, made of piss, grease, and cheap ale. In fact, cleanliness is the very thing that pisses off Hotspur from the start and ignites the action of part one: one of the king’s cronies, “fresh as a bridegroom” and having not participated in a battle against the Welsh come demanding captives from Hotspur who is badly caught his breath or cleaned his blade from battle. This world of “cracked crowns” is “as gross as butter” indeed, to the point that the dirt and poverty looses its carnivalesque hue and takes on a gravity that we, in age of start wage disparities, empathize with. And Hal, as he walks through his small dominion of the Boar’s Head, meditates on just this through voiceovers of internal monologue. Voiceovers have long been out of fashion in cinematic Shakespeare, often used for soliloquies that, while indeed conveying motivation, do have a kind of audience in mind that stream-of-consciousness does not. However, coupled with direct addresses to the camera, it is actually largely effective here. (I suspect that the usefulness of the device by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards might also be representative of a larger trend and approach to direct address as a sophisticated rather than campy device.)

Hal (Tom Hiddleston) goads the tavern boy after a bath of sack.

Before Hal can be taken out of his little room of great reckoning, he must first practice his answers to the King as a truant son with Falstaff. Having robbed Falstaff of his small modicum of honor in the thief jest, the air is tense to begin with. Hiddleston, drenched from head to toe as if he barely survived a keg stand, imitates the spittle and moisture of Iron’s enunciation if a brilliant moment of impersonation. Here, just as on the battlefield against his foil Hotspur, honor and muck collide as if ends on the same continuum. To be without honor is something viscerally disgusting, and “the body of our nation how rank it is” suggests that England as a whole is without honor. From this “fattest soil” must Hal emerge and be something more than merely “food for worms.”

Hal (Tom Hiddleston) weighs the loyalty of Poins (David Dawson) as they recover from their wounds in a London bath.

But “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” and Hal resists having to make this transition alone, unable to distribute some of the burden. It is clear that Falstaff, particularly in his nabbing the honor of killing Hotspur for his own betterment and then promising his friend Shallow that he has power to get him a title too, can no longer father Hal through this transition. In battle and in counsel, Poins is a close confidant, able to mingle among those of lowest and highest degree. But even he is ratted out by Falstaff, bragging to others that he has the ear and persuasion of the king, enough to get him to marry his sister. The nation is still “a body yet distempered” from which Hal must extract himself in order to prune and plant anew.

Thinking his father dead, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) crumbles under the weight of a crown whose responsibility he may not entirely want, may not be entirely entitled to, and has killed his father.

The DVD box set of The Hollow Crown packages both parts of Henry IV together, making up a four-hour middling narrative to the more theatrical bookends of Richard II and Henry V. Where Richard reveled in his monarchy although he wielded it poorly, Henry IV understands its stakes and is consumed alive by it. A long-time fan of Jeremy Irons (even as Leicester to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth I), I was sure he would steal the role. It has been a long time since he played a frontman so exclusively as in The Mission, but even here he understands that despite having the title role, in reality these are steps in Hal’s story and he plays but a part. He too challenges our notions of kingship by linking it with disgust: even at the moment of victory against the Welsh on the battlefield he throws up phlegm  before making his rounds a-horse. At least in this way he is far more the embodiment of the state of the commonwealth ever more than Richard was.

Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) counsels his son (Tom Hiddleston) on the strategies he must deploy if his inheritance of the monarchal state is to be a smooth one.

What Irons does do is emphasize the notion than an heir must be “worthy” of a crown, a interesting and potentially seditious component in the play. In some versions Henry IV is played as sniveling and incompetent, a man who has bitten off more than he could chew. But here, the anxieties of legitimacy still linger from Richard II, making his desire for Hotspur rather than Hal as his heir more compelling, more justified and less un-fatherly. In his last moments he finds Hal has put the crown on his head as if “to try with it—as with an enemy / that had before my face murd’red my father—the quarrel of a true inheritor.” He is still unsure of whether his son is worthy of the weight, has the measure of honor necessary to carry the burden of the crown having grown up in a world of taverns and wenches. But as we are to learn, it is precisely that self-elected upbringing that has made Hal capable.

So while Hal’s riotous youth was a self-selected course, his ascension to the throne and his small band of younger brothers are not. His life is no longer his own, and in this moment Hal seems all wiser in having lived out his freedom early and well. No one else knows how to take this transition and what king he will make. Tyrannical? Incompetent? Excessive? His younger brothers wear their concern on their collection sleeve. To them Hal says:

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.
Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear.
This is the English, not the Turkish court.

It is for the final installment of the miniseries, the rise of Henry V, to which we are oriented to judge what final kind of king Hal means to be.


  • “1 Henry IV” and “2 Henry IV.” The Hollow Crown. DVD. Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by William Shakespeare. 27 September/4 October 2013. California: NBC Universal, 2013. PBS.