Theater requires a particular kind of faith in the audience, given the medium’s abstract and particular qualities: A scrim stands in for a vista, plywood for castle walls, the performance of emotion for the emotion itself. In film, this relationship tends to be more circumscribed, the world it creates both more lavishly real and less dependent on its audience’s belief for its effect. Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the scheming couple, chooses to adopt theater’s set of challenges within the filmic frame. In a recent Q&A, Coen said that his “ambition” for Macbeth was to “keep the feel of it being a play.” The film’s production design was inspired in part by the work of the English set designer and theorist Edward Gordon Craig, the creator of the translucent folding screens and stark, diagonal beams of light in Stanislavsky’s avant-garde 1911 Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet. Coen cites Craig with providing the idea, influential to the film, that staging Shakespeare “wasn’t about realism in any way. It was about…embracing it as a dream.”
Coen’s Macbeth is indeed theatrical and oneiric. Designed by Stefan Dechant and shot in black and white by the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it takes place against landscapes composed of a few elements—sand, rock, scrub—arranged in a shallow depth of field, foreshortened by translucent smoke and mist. Wild, overgrown settings have a man-made symmetry, and the film’s palace intrigue plays out in a sparsely decorated architecture of vaulting arcades, towers, and scaffolding that bisect courtyards into geometries of light and shadow. The lighting cues evoke the theater: Banquo performs a soliloquy in the glare of a circular spotlight; silhouettes create the impression of a feast behind an illuminated window. In the post–Lord of the Rings era, Coen’s Macbeth is the rare film dealing with medieval combat that uses just a group of actors to suggest an army; the eeriness of the three witches comes from fantastically creepy birdlike movements by the veteran actor Kathryn Hunter rather than special effects. Macbeth’s final duel with Macduff takes place on an angular parapet wreathed in mist, as if the scene were playing out on a plane above the terrestrial battle below.
These choices make Macbeth an incredibly beautiful film: There is nothing here that allows viewers to take the fabrications of the story for granted, no sweeping drone shots of moorlands or extras in historically accurate peasant garb to lend the significance of verisimilitude to a battle over Scottish monarchical succession. There’s no mediating narrative device either, no historical analogy made by transposing the bard’s play to an anachronistic but more familiar setting, like 1990s Los Angeles or 2000s New York. The focus is on the play—on finding the particular meaning within this set of abstractions—which makes its protagonists’ downfall all the more acute.
Coen’s adaptation focuses primarily on the relationship between the play’s title character and his spouse, a couple who, despite their unified political interests, diverge in their tactics as Macbeth’s paranoia overwhelms his strategic sensibility. Washington and McDormand are cast as an older couple—Shakespeare’s verse is slightly altered to indicate that they are past their reproductive years—which creates a sense of battle-tested concordance. One has the impression that their conspiracy is neither’s first political plot, nor the first time Lady Macbeth has smuggled a handful of daggers around the castle. After Macbeth relays the witches’ prophecy that he will become the king of Scotland, the speed and pragmatism with which McDormand’s Lady Macbeth devises a plan to accomplish this seems informed by experience, past attempts and disappointments, as does her frustration with Macbeth’s errors in implementing it.
The play’s central couple share many forms of hubris, but in Coen’s film he transforms them into something new. Macbeth becomes a man trying to speedrun a prophecy, a term from video game culture that refers to completing a list of objectives as quickly as possible, regardless of other considerations. Becoming the king, eliminating rivals, and keeping the throne are ends unto themselves, which Macbeth, coached by his wife, pursues with reckless urgency. Lady Macbeth is ready to commit regicide from the moment she receives her husband’s letter; when the ghost of Banquo, a potential rival that Macbeth has had assassinated, haunts him during a feast, the guests who witness the scene are sent away before they can even eat dinner. When Macduff flees to England, fearing an assassination attempt, Washington’s Macbeth, energized by his frustration, resolves to act more quickly and ignore any further checks on his instincts: “From this moment, / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand. And even now, / To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done.”
Coen presents this narrow-visioned haste as Macbeth’s downfall. Macbeth misapprehends the prophecy’s end point for its substance, and once he becomes king, he doesn’t know what to do; he has no real allies, no plans to enact beyond plotting. His singular focus on obtaining the crown ensures that he will fail to keep it. In the spareness of the world Coen creates, there is little context for why Macbeth and Lady Macbeth want the monarchy, other than vague gestures at prestige and wealth: After being crowned, Macbeth appears on a reasonably sized throne, wearing a narrow circlet and a cloak unembellished with jewels or fur. He shows up late to his one state dinner; there is little hedonism or material excess on display. The pair have no children to inherit the throne, and adopting children doesn’t figure into their plot. What, then, motivates their single-minded pursuit?
Quests for power that run on instinct and id feel relevant to contemporary politics, and it is perhaps a boon for Coen’s Macbeth that it premiered after the end of the Trump administration, when comparisons to White House intrigue would have been easy and obvious. Watching it now, the film’s commentary on the workings of power seems broader. Macbeth is often characterized as the story of a couple fatally blinded by their desire for influence, and in Coen’s version, power itself functions as an abstract goal, poorly understood by those who pursue it. It is, fundamentally, the ability to make things happen, one that works more effectively when the force behind it is threatened rather than actualized. A monarch who must frequently call on the might of the state to enforce his will—as with Macbeth, fighting a losing battle against rival claimants—will exhaust his resources, and his rule will fail.
In a 2017 lecture on kinship in Euripides’s The Bacchae, Judith Butler describes a type of relationship that gains its significance in part from an idealization that it is permanent and inviolable, which renders it “invariably marked or haunted by the possibility of failing or fading.” “Ghosts are always populating kin relations, and tragedy is one of the places where we see that most clearly,” Butler notes. I returned to this idea of a bond held so strongly that it creates the conditions for its own collapse while watching Macbeth, both in terms of the central couple’s destruction—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are an unwavering pair until their shared plot results in both of their deaths—as well as their goal. Attaining the crown would give Macbeth the kind of power that makes him unassailable, so he kills the king to get it. To gain a position of idealized security, he first has to violate it, undermining the efficacy of that ideal when he possesses it himself.
Macbeth was written at a time when the idea of a monarch’s infallibility was both sacrosanct and vulnerable. Some historians believe the play references the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a conspiracy to assassinate the Protestant King James I by blowing up Parliament, and its themes of self-destructive comeuppance following the murder of a king reflect Shakespeare’s royal patronage and the pragmatic value in creating works that shore up the taboo on regicide. That taboo did not stand: Some four decades later, in the English Civil War, King Charles I was executed. (Eighteen years before the Gunpowder Plot, Mary, Queen of Scots—the mother of James I—had been executed; Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days, was executed in 1554.) Monarchs cannot be killed, it seems, until they can.
The sparseness and symbolism of Coen’s film brings the illusory nature of power into even sharper focus. The effects power has in the world are real—in Macbeth, it results in a great many deaths—but the thing itself is a contradiction, one that he and Lady Macbeth miss in their rush to claim the throne. Power cannot be all it promises, especially absolute power. It is constituted of the belief of those who participate in its workings; it contains the possibility of failure if that belief is not maintained—and belief, in Macbeth, is incredibly fragile.