analyzing “Macbeth,” my favorite Shakespeare play

Orson Welles, Macbeth

​Orson Welles adapted Macbeth into a controversial film shot in black and white and released in 1948.  Several issues raised by this film that are worth discussion are the relationship between the Macbeths, Macbeth’s drunken state in the banquet scene, and religion.

Relationship between Macbeths

​The first scene that includes both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is from Act I, Scene 5 in the original play.  In this film, Macbeth begins reading the letter he sends to Lady Macbeth and she continues reading it with tremendous passion.  As she reads, Lady Macbeth is writhing with emotion about her bed and then goes to a window where she delivers a demonstrative soliloquy.  This display suggests a deep connectedness between the Macbeths because of the fervor that words on a piece of paper provoked.  Lady Macbeth was depicted in this film as feminine and beautiful, albeit the antagonist.  She is thin with fine facial features and elegantly dressed.  Macbeth, the reluctant participant in the Macbeth’s plot for the throne, is the converse of his wife’s appearance, being large with rugged features and dressing in a grand robe.  Their physicality lends itself to a more romanticized portrayal of their relationship with Macbeth looking masculine and Lady Macbeth looking feminine.  Before and after the beheading of the former Thane of Cawdor, and during the beating of the drums at this execution, the Macbeths share long sensual kisses while they discuss their conspiracy to murder King Duncan and their strategy for that evening.  Throughout this film there is a lot of intimacy between them and sexual undertones, exhibited by kissing, touching, gazes, and standing very closely together.  Their relationship seems to be portrayed more amorously in this film than it was in the play and it is likely glamorized intentionally for the purpose of drawing a movie-going audience and thus having a successful film.  The Macbeths could have been affectionate and sexual in the original play, but without text suggesting this, it is impossible to know whether they were, which allows for a broader interpretation of their relationship.  Orson Welles either interpreted or adapted their relationship, or perhaps he did both, to present film audiences with a Hollywood truism, a couple madly in love with each other. ​

Banquet scene

​After being crowned, Macbeth is shown drinking large quantities of something that is apparently alcohol.  He arrives extremely intoxicated at dinner in the banquet scene, stumbling and slurring his speech.  When he envisions the likenesses of King Duncan and Banquo, it is not certain whether he is hallucinating due to being under the influence of alcohol and feeling tremendously guilty, or whether he really does see their ghosts.  If what he sees are ghosts, and their appearance is for his eyes only, then it may signify the importance of the supernatural world associated with the witches.  If he his hallucinating due to his drunkenness and emotionally deteriorated mental state, it diminishes the power of the witches.  It would also be revealing of what is going on internally with Macbeth, what he is thinking and feeling, how he is desperately struggling to maintain his sanity in the wake of the terrible crimes he and Lady Macbeth have committed, and how he is emotionally breaking down and losing control to the point of using mind-altering substances to tranquilize his afflicted mind.  Whatever the case may be, the front Macbeth has barely been able to uphold crumbles and we see the real Macbeth unmasked and vulnerable and identifiable for most people with an adequate imagination.


​A priest, the “Holy Father”, who was not a character in the original Macbeth play was added to the play in this film adaptation.  Upon the arrival at Macbeth’s castle of King Duncan and an accompanying large group of men, including soldiers, the “Holy Father” holds a prayer for all of the guests who are holding lit candles.  He asks everyone present if they renounce Satan and all his works, and at the end of the prayer everyone blows out their candles.  We do not, however, see Macbeth blowing out his candle, suggesting that he realizes that he cannot deceive God of his sinful intentions with a performance of sincere participation in the prayer.  The actor who plays the “Holy Father” also plays the parts of a Scottish nobleman (i.e. Ross) and a Messenger to Lady Macduff from the original play.  Because he plays these three particular roles, and no other actors were cast in multiple roles, the character of the “Holy Father” could be interpreted as the Triune God according to Christianity, comprising God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

​In the beginning of this film the three witches are standing on a rocky crag, chanting while they mix a boiling substance in their caldron.  From this substance they mold a figure that looks like a voodoo doll representing Macbeth.  One of the witches says, “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!” and places a crown on the head of the figure.  When Macbeth is beheaded at the end of this film, the figure is also beheaded.  This figure seems to symbolize the pagan influence the witches have on Macbeth, and in comparison with the symbols of Christianity, the dichotomy of the two religious beliefs, the sacred and the secular, and consequently, good versus evil as traditionally understood.  Furthermore, Macbeth acts according to the prophesy of the witches, his earthly desires, and the darker side of human nature, but is ultimately doomed and causes major destruction because of it, and through the murders he is responsible for, kills his own spirit.  Had he not, he would have had a clear conscience before God and would have been a noble man to his king.  It is sensible to think that in the tragedy of Macbeth there is a moral lesson.  The witches do not have a large role throughout this film and are noticeable mainly at the beginning and at the end, as if “bookends”, as though they are the dominant force behind the events which take place in this film and the puppeteers of Macbeth.

​When Banquo appeared in the Banquet scene he resembled Jesus Christ, because Banquo had blood running down his face as Jesus had after the crown of thorns that had been pressed onto his head had pierced his forehead before he was hung on the cross to die.  The witches had prophesized that Banquo’s children would become kings, which is the reason Macbeth attempted to have him and his son, Fleance, killed.  Although Banquo was stabbed to death, Fleance escaped, and the witches were not contradicted.  Fleance and Banquo’s other children may symbolize the children of God in Christianity, who according to Bible scripture, are those who are saved and allowed to enter heaven, like Banquo’s children will survive and occupy the throne of the king.



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