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A Brief Essay on the Wright-Hill Macbeth

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: August 12th. 2007
Times Viewed: 2,330

The weekend of July 6, 2007, an excellent Australian film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth opened in the United States. Geoffrey Wright, who adapted the screenplay with his wife, Victoria Hill, who plays Lady Macbeth, directs it.

The film is not rated, implying anticipation of such a lack of American interest they apparently did not bother submitting it to the ratings board. Nonetheless, it is a very fine work, admirably re-telling the famous story of the murdering Scottish thane and his “fiend-like” wife.

The clever premise is to treat the Scottish Play as a Sopranos episode, with Macbeth a rebellious “under-boss” whacking Duncan the Don. As with Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet , the fun is to find Shakespeare’s four hundred year-old text re-imagined in a modern context.

The traitorous act that opens the film is a drug-deal betrayal; Cawdor becomes a nightclub gifted to Macbeth by Duncan; Macduff learns of his family’s murder via television; and one has to watch the brilliant resolution of the prophecy concerning Birnum Wood coming to Dunsinane. Fair warning- the unrated film is appropriately violent, coming as it does from a famously bloody source.

The lead actors are excellent, with Sam Worthington a fascinating Macbeth. The danger with playing a man who closes himself off from the impact of his murders is that it can lead to opaque performances; Mr. Worthington’s face remains marvelously expressive throughout.

It definitely helps that he is a handsome man who agreeably spends time shirtless in an interpretation that plays up the lead couple’s sexiness. The aforementioned Victoria Hill offers a disturbing portrait of a beautiful Lady Macbeth who veers alarmingly from glamorous gaiety to hardened cruelty to drug-induced catatonia.

If Macbeth is on one level the story of a man’s very complicated relationship with his wife, and on another level the tale of a murderer’s relationship with his own conscience, it is also famously the story of one man’s relationship with three witches.

For all that Macbeth is the world’s most famous “witch-story” (with the possible exception of The Wizard of Oz ), Wiccans today are apt to find a difficult time with Shakespeare’s depiction of the “daughters of the Goddess.” It should be remembered that Shakespeare was writing Macbeth at the turn of the seventeenth century, at a time (early to mid-1600s) when the Burning Times was entering its most dreadfully violent phase. The new King James I (he of the Bible) was officially anti-witch as a matter of social policy.

Accordingly, Shakespeare (who does not want to get himself or his acting company into any sort of trouble, penalties being severe during the Jacobean Age) “covers his ass” with certain sections here and there, notably the piece at the top of (I.iii), when the Witches plot a revenge they will take (cut from the movie) and the infamous Cauldron Speech (“Eye of newt, toe of frog”). These sections are surely sops towards the then-fashionable Jacobean infatuation with horror and with witches as agents of evil.

It should be considered, however, that Macbeth is a story that pre-dates the Burning Times stereotype of witches; it is therefore at its core an essentially pagan folk-story.

Earliest versions describe the Witches as Celtic magic-women. Shakespeare apparently amends the legend; his text calls them “the Wyrde Sisters.” (They are thought of as “Witches” because that is how the speech prefixes of the Folio indicate them.)

The fact that Shakespeare specifically (and incorrectly, as the setting of the play is Scotland and the Sisters are Anglo-Saxon) designates the Three as “the Wyrde Ones” indicates that we are supposed to think of them as something different from the (at-the-time) popular image of the witch as a malevolent villain.

If anyone is a villain in Macbeth , it is surely the Scottish thane himself, along with his overly ambitious wife. Elsewhere in Shakespeare, only Richard III manages to rack up as high a gratuitous body count as does Macbeth and the essential point of the play to my mind is to see the Wyrde Sisters as pagan expressions of Karma. At the very least, a man should be responsible for acts of murder and it seems to me that the point of the Witches is to make sure that Macbeth understands what is happening when it is time for him to get his.

Wright and Hill first present the Three as Catholic schoolgirls vandalizing a cemetery, a non-Shakespearian interpolation that I could have done without. That notwithstanding, the depiction of the Fatal Sisters as high-school girls exploring occultism is a very interesting take, as apparently one of the fastest growing Pagan demographics are young girls into Wicca (presumably in another ten years or so, Wicca will be a force to be reckoned with simply because so many young women practice it).

A connection with the girls in The Craft is immediate. The fashionable thing with Macbeth in theater is to make the Three look as dramatically different as possible; Wright and Hill revert back to my favored interpretation, which is also the more authentically Celtic one, in making the Sisters look identical and interchangeable.

Another trendy thing is to present the Witches’ Scene as a psychedelic experience. (This may be traced back to the early 1970s Roman Polanski movie, another very excellent film-version of the play, although it takes its cue from Banquo’s line in [I.iii] about eating upon the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner.” As “root” to their mind indicated anything that grew out of the earth, “root” would be a legitimately Jacobean name for a mushroom).

In this Macbeth , both encounters with the Three involve tripping. In the first scene, the Sisters are raving Goth club-kids in an after-hours nightclub; the famous Witches’ Scene takes place upon a yacht named “Vision, ” interestingly.

The candlelit ambience and Macbeth’s general hipster appearance call to mind Val Kilmer cavorting as Morrison with his witch-wife in The Doors movie. The famous prophecies are revealed by the witches in the midst of intercourse with Macbeth, a detail that does have the validity of certain Great Goddess cults to justify it.

Wiccans might find difficult the overt comparisons of Lady Macbeth with witchcraft. (She also is a very sexy temptress; she invokes spirits against a full moon while wearing a flowing robe; she grinds sleeping pills in a mortar to mix as a potion into wine).

It must be remembered that Lady Macbeth and her husband count as very bad people, who are cruel to others. The folklore of ages demands that there be bad witches as well as good, that we may study the difference.

The Anglo-Saxons frequently imagined Fate as weaving a great Web (or cloth). Nowadays, with our appreciation of Eastern Karma, we tend to imagine ourselves as weaving our own webs of fate. If the Witches are the Wyrde Ones (the only reference to them as “witches” occurs in the brief indulgence of Jacobean fantasy in [I.iii]), they are the Goddesses of Fate, meaning the fate that we weave for ourselves.

If we accept the premise of the Law of Threefold Return, then every murder that Macbeth performs counts as a karmic crime for which he must pay threefold atonement. In the surety of its conviction that “evil-doers get theirs in the end, ” Macbeth is as absolute as a Grimm’s faery tale.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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