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.