Macbeths Two Macbeths: An Analysis of Shakespeare Research Paper

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Two Macbeths: An Analysis of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" and Roman Polanski's 1971 Film

Interpretation is essentially the lifeblood of dramatic art, especially when utilizing any script that has been previously produced and performed in some form or another. It is only through interpretation that a new director, group of actors, or other individual(s) are able to keep such scripts fresh, exciting, and even relevant to their own contemporary audiences. Few plays -- arguably no good plays, and possibly none at all -- are fixed in the ways that they must be viewed and the meanings that they convey, and many living authors show a marked reluctance to nailing down and making permanent such meanings. It is possible that they have a sense of the artificial limits that this will place on their work's lifespan; what is certain is that once the authors themselves are gone the work becomes ripe fodder for the public's imagination.

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Few playwrights have so inspired the imagination and ongoing interpretation as William Shakespeare. His plays have been produced almost continuously since the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Shakespeare himself was still alive, and they continue to be re-imagined and re-contextualized to fit -- or sometimes to directly oppose -- modern sentiments, values, and beliefs. Some plays have proven to be more adaptable than others in this regard, with simpler scripts remaining more strongly rooted in a given historical time and place. Macbeth, at first glance, appears to be one of these latter scripts; it is a relatively straightforward play full of action and set rather firmly in medieval Scotland, despite efforts to modernize dress, sets, etc.

TOPIC: Research Paper on Macbeths Two Macbeths: An Analysis of Shakespeare's Assignment

This does not mean that continuing reinterpretations of Macbeth have not persisted for centuries, however, nor that such reinterpretations are unwarranted. In 1971, in his first film project since the brutal murder of his pregnant wife and several friends at the hands of Charles Manson and his followers, Roman Polanski directed a version of Macbeth that, while remaining largely true to the play's historical setting, takes certain other liberties with the script in both style and direct changes to dialogue and the structure of the plot. The end result is an interpretation of Macbeth that essentially tells the same story, but that does so in a far more psychologically profound and disturbing way than is included in the script itself, creating subtly different and more concretely defined motivations for the driving of the plot and the ultimate internal crumbling of the central characters, Macbeth and his wife.

Changes to Dramatic Structure

One of the ways in which Polanski adapts the script of Macbeth to achieve this heightened sense of psychological realism and disturbance is through changes to the presentation of certain scenes. Specifically, there are several instances where a scene appears in a different order than what is given in the script, and though these changes have relatively little impact on the overall plot of the story, they major effects on the way that the audience perceives the story. In this way, what Polanski does both manages to preserve and to alter the play that Shakespeare wrote, using the same basic construction and conflicts to tell a story that is more relevant and compelling to modern audiences with a psychological awareness.

One key scene where this re-juggling of scenes takes place is when Lady Macbeth re-reads the letter first sent to her by her husband early on in the script (in Act One, scene five of Shakespeare's play), telling of the witches' prophecy and the events that had already befallen him. At this point in the action of Polanski's film, Lady Macbeth ahs already begun to succumb to a psychological crumbling; Shakespeare shows her to be somewhat if not completely insane by the end of the play, largely out of feelings of guilt; Polanski's decision to have her read this letter again in a highly different context suggests more a bewilderment and confusion on the part of Lady Macbeth that leads to her insanity -- she seems completely at a loss as to how things could have progressed to the extremes of horror that they have.

This reading of the added letter writing scene is given credence by the fact that a great deal of bloody violence is shown in the film in a way that would have first been impossible in Shakespeare's day onstage due to technical limitations, and second was not included in the onstage action of the play for dramatic reasons as well. The visual depiction of violence in Polanski's Macbeth is, in fact, one of the most salient features of the film and a point of significant departure -- at least in certain scenes -- from the text that Shakespeare wrote. Violence is definitely a significant feature of the original play of Macbeth, and there is no shortage of violence occurring onstage, but Polanski includes several additional scenes of violence, and makes all of the violence that appears in the film quite bloody and gruesome. This further accentuates the nightmarish feeling shown by Lady Macbeth and generally observable.

Vision, Blood, and Violence

In making his version of Macbeth, Roman Polanski appears to have thrown subtlety quite completely out the window, favoring extreme visceral responses in both his actors and his audiences to any more subtle intellectual interpretations. This does not diminish the psychological realism of the film, however, and in fact in many ways this realism becomes even stronger as the audience is forced to watch horrifically bloody scenes that are dealt with in Shakespeare's script in a more neat, refined, and in many ways purposefully ignored manner. Instead of sweeping certain moments of violence and horror offstage, as Shakespeare does in his script, Polanski makes sure that each image appears onscreen with as much gore and detail as possible, thus altering the effects that these actions have on the characters that undertake or instigate them and providing alternative motivations in the latter half of the play.

The first truly significant addition of visual violence in the film is scene of death at Macduff's family's home. Though these murders are mentioned in the play itself, Polanski actually goes so far as to show the murdered wife and children -- characters that never enter the action of the play, or appear in the film except for this instance -- in an especially brutal scene that makes the truly horrific acts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their ambition far more clear. Scholars have noted that the selection of specific visual elements to accentuate over others greatly influence the viewer's interpretation of otherwise textually balanced material, and this certainly occurs in Polanski's added scene of murder and death (Ehses 1984).

This scene of violence, by making the true requirements of Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's ambition clear to both the audience and, somewhat ironically and impossibly through the lens of the audience's eyes, to the characters themselves, provides a new understanding of the apparent psychological crumbling of both characters. From the script, it is unclear whether it is true feelings of guilt or simply a sense that things have gotten out of control that leads to the breakdown of Lady Macbeth, and the question of the degree of Macbeth's own breakdown is much more in question. This scene leaves little doubt, however, it is guilt -- or perhaps something even more primal and internal, a sort of disgust with themselves on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that they could be capable of such actions. By accentuating the violence of the story even more than it already exists in the script, Polanski is definitely showing the Macbeths in an extremely brutal light, wherein they lose some of the sympathy that is inherent to the script (Ehses 1984).

At the same time, this loss of sympathy is not total or absolute, nor does it necessarily persist throughout the course of the film. Another significant moment of added violence, namely the beheading of Macbeth himself, makes it clear that this violence and brutality is a part of the world that these characters inhabit. It is true that Macduff is avenging not only the slain king and others harmed by Macbeth's traitorous acts, but also his own slain wife and children. Still, Polanski's decision to have this beheading occur onscreen rather than offstage as in Shakespeare's version virtually eliminates any sense of Macduff's civility or calmer demeanor.

The result of all of this added onscreen violence is twofold. First, it makes the film more psychologically effective for the audience, rendering in crisp colors the realities of the acts merely described in Shakespeare's script. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these additional scenes of violence serve to accentuate more deeply certain psychological aspects of the Macbeths -- namely their ultimate lack of a capacity for such frank and disturbing violence, despite their initial willingness to have such acts carried out. In the second half of the play, this is seen as the major contributing factor to each of these characters' psychological… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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