Slow and steady “Macbeth” wins the race

This past week PBS aired director Rupert Goold’s filmic imagining of Macbeth, part of the Great Performances series and the companion piece to the earlier Hamlet, both featuring Patrick Stewart. The production was nearly three hours long: a very pragmatic exposition, Stewart developed slowly a sane and considered Macbeth who sparked with madness rather than worked up to it as in a crescendo. I wonder if the successful stage production also took the near three-hour duration, as the film did not take advantage of the creative act that is adaptation (and abbreviation), which, on the other hand, meant the film really trusted audiences to stick with it despite the slow exposition.

The characterization of the weird sisters typically sets the tone for a production of Macbeth. In recent adaptations over the last few years we have seen bin men, traditional mystics, and now WWII-era nurses with semi-monastic habits. Their presence in the film–as food servers, nurses, in the morgue, or performing their supernatural obligations–is ubiquitous and threaded throughout nearly all the ensemble scenes. Their presence, like Macbeth’s madness and the influence of fate, is everywhere and at all times. This clever “threading” of the witches throughout the production threw into relief Macbeth as an individual, his skill as a leader as well as his ever-present conscience.

The magnification of Macbeth as a character somewhat overwhelmed the ensemble’s cohesion, which was one of the strongest qualities of the recent PBS Hamlet. This production was clearly one earmarked for Stewart–a directorial choice that cuts both ways. It provided Stewart with some much-deserved space for moments of virtuosity, but also meant we had to deal with his character for nearly the entire film, solid, which does get wearisome. I was confused initially with his casting: Stewart turns 70 this year, and while the final scenes displayed muscles that matched a worn professional soldier’s might, his delivery was that of an older, more patient, more considered man. This may also have been my conditioning to more youthful casting choices for a play that does not require really one or the other. Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) thankfully wrought a powerful performance that balanced his deliberateness with a sense of force, sensuality, and passion.

The most interesting choice on Goold’s part for the production was the continual emphasis on food, another visual element that worked its way into nearly every scene somehow (and when not, different kinds of appetites were definitely at the fore). This is true for two scenes in particular. First, Macbeth makes a sandwich while he gives his orders to the two murders as to how they shall murder MacDuff and his son, Fleance. At the end he shares the sandwich with the murders, presenting a dramatic contrast between the mundane (of making lunch) and the extraordinary (killing an entire family). During the Dinner Scene–positioned as the catharsis of the play for this rendering–the camera also focused on the fleshy food and red wine that the ghost of Banquo has to maneuver as he walks across the table towards Macbeth. The use of food, especially in terms of luxury and gluttony, highlights one of the central premises of the play: namely, the confusing or mistaking of the natural, ordinary, and predictable for the supernatural.

While a strong and thoughtful performance, a viewer has to be completely committed to watching it, at times more for Goold and Stewart’s execution rather than entertainment or pleasure. Knowing, this, the production is absolutely worth the watch, particularly for its unique version of Macbeth as a central character and the repositioning of traditional production emphases. One could even call this a radical Macbeth as a production opting for the thoughtful rather than the razzel-dazzle.


  • Watch this film online in its entirety at PBS’s Great Performances website.
  • This film is also available for purchase in its standard DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

UPDATE 12 OCTOBER 2010: You can now also watch the really interesting interview with Patrick Stewart that aired immediately after the production online as well (which I have included below).

Use shakespeare successfully at your next wedding: A Guide

Hear my soul speak.
Of the very instant that I saw you,
Did my heart fly at your service
The Tempest 3.1

Inspired by his own marital experiences, discussions from ShakespeareGeek.com forums, and conversations with professional wedding planners, Duane Morin this week published Hear My Soul Speak: Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare. The eBook format is ideal for this nifty little guidebook to using quotations from the works of William Shakespeare effectively  throughout the marriage process. Developed for and by a web-oriented community, Morin is acutely aware of the audience for which he is aiming. Far more than merely a compilation of quotes, the most useful sections of this book are those that provide layman explications of sonnets and particularly difficult quotations, whom should recite them, and how.

The book is organized into categories related to whom or when certain passages could be used. It opens with a section on sonnets because they are so versatile and self-contained, requiring no extra context in order to be understood, and thus ideal for a ceremony or simply a private moment during the course of the big day. His explications of each sonnet are quick, witty, and readable, although sometimes inconsistent in the amount of time and explanation spent on each. Most handy are the suggestions as to whether a sonnet should be read from one to another or by a third party, as dictated by the content of the poem.

The second major section is that of useful quotations organized into subcategories: “Proposals and Vows,” “Toasts and Blessings,” “Father of the Bride,” “Thoughts on Love,” “But Seriously Folks” (comedic), “At The Reception.” Organizing the quotations by play may not be the most streamlined method of indexing, but these quick and cogent lists are well-considered and yet avoid overwhelming the reader with options. Morin makes necessary brief notes throughout for passages, often noting which ones support contradictory meanings within and without of their original contexts. He makes suggestions as to which are handy for decorations and invitations, welcoming guests, or breaking the ice. The “toasts and blessings” section is particularly oriented for the best man and bride of honor and provides directions and options for recitation, but the “But Seriously Folks” section is the most thorough.

What makes this book more than a cleverly arranged compilation is Morin’s penultimate chapter, “Tips for Reciting Shakespeare.” Here he provides the crucial follow-up component that makes this more than a reference tool by discussing how to recite poems by looking for the rhythm, the importance of going “off book”, and other layman basic tips for delivering a heartfelt performance. Included are Shakespeare-specific memorization tips and practical advice for the one-time recitation. I appreciate that Morin emphasizes that this is a performance and memorization reflects how much you value the person whose wedding you are attending, but also note that “you’re just trying to get through a wedding, you’re not staging Timon of Athens.”

The last item is a brief biography of William Shakespeare focused on the facts and most famous controversies related to his marriage and family life. While I am not sure the inclusion of this human-interest story is entirely necessary in the scope of the book’s project, it is a nice touch and remains relevant to the preceding content. Because of the guidebook-like stance of this text, I can foresee it really benefitting from further development of the layout and design to increase the book’s usability and readability; I hope digitized editions are in its future.

I would have also liked a slightly longer reference list including what text editions Morin worked with to compile his list of quotations, and what sources he may have referenced when developing his explications of the sonnets. The author makes a point to note that he is not a professional scholar, but a computer programer, which in essence makes him somewhat ideal for this kind of project. He has a kind of critical distance from the material and so can conceptualize the needs of the average wedding attendee without succumbing to professional anxieties.

Morin does a good job of putting Shakespeare’s passages in context of the modern wedding ceremony, providing recommended texts, ways in which to understand them, and then tools on how to convey the poems’ meaning to others. A good example of this is when he briefly addressed the debate over what gender certain sonnets are addressed to and from. Rather than hastily explaining early modern sexuality and gendered aesthetics, Morin appeals to their universality, stating that this ambiguity and flexibility makes them particularly ideal for both heterosexual and homosexual couples. I definitely recommend Morin’s Hear My Soul Speak to get you through your next nuptial predicament.