It is said that Shakespeare's Macbeth is a play that people return to in troubled times. Anton Stigermark discusses Justin Kurzel's recent cinematic adaptation of the play and what it tells us about Macbeth's tragic circumstances.

It is said that during dark times, times when people are caught up in a collective feeling that something is not quite right, they regain an interest in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Considering that we do indeed live in a troubled time, it is only fitting that a film adaptation of this tragedy was recently made, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth. There are always risks involved in trying to make a new adaption of an old masterpiece, often having much to do with the political correctness of the times, as well as the inability to cope with tragedy that is likewise strong in our culture.

Jonathan Bowden remarked in his speech, ‘Western Civilization: A Bullet Through Steel’, that the Left, meaning the Left of the 1960s and ’70s, wanted to have their own versions of the classic dramas. In his speech, Bowden referred to Steven Berkoff’s version of Agamemnon (1971) and the adaption of King Lear made by Edward Bond (1971). The Left, according to Bowden, wanted to co-opt some of the primal energy that lies in these cultural forms and use it for their own purposes.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Reading an old text or watching a classic play is like embarking on a sort of time travel, where you go to a certain point in our history and take in what was going on at that time from the viewpoint of an individual author. For the Left, which is often obsessed with history, it’s been important to assume control of the past by editing and changing cultural works from earlier times. Therefore, it is not uncommon that modern adaptions of older works have been passed through certain filters, and been altered according to certain ideological preferences.

The most important factor in such adaptations seems to be the matter of representation; the fact that the vast majority of the roles in the old dramas were written for European actors is deemed unacceptable in the exciting times in which we live. Kurzel’s version of Macbeth is true to the tragic nature of the piece, and to the fact that this play features Europeans. Leftist manipulations are nowhere to be found in this work. We can therefore safely leave this topic and move on to the much more interesting task of unpacking this amazing story.

Macbeth is a tragic work, and watching it is like staring into the heart of darkness. There are many layers to the story, but at the centre of everything is the character Macbeth, and how he is driven by demons to commit various transgressions. At the beginning of the story, Scotland is in a terrible civil war because many of its nobles have decided to take up arms against their sovereign. The King has his back against the wall and his army is mustered into fighting one last battle; a battle that will settle things once and for all. The leader of this army is Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, who remained loyal to his sovereign when others did not.

By fighting with the utmost bravery and ferocity, Macbeth and his warriors triumph on the battlefield, and Macbeth does away with the leader of the rebellion. By spilling his blood, he wins the crown for his King and peace for his people. Afterwards, Macbeth meets the King – the kind and good-natured Duncan – and Macbeth is praised for his loyalty, and is rewarded by being appointed the Thane of Cawdor. The previous Thane of Cawdor was impaled with arrows to punish him for his treachery. Macbeth, as a loyalist, thus received that which was taken from the traitor as retribution for his treachery.

At this point in the story, a few important facts are established regarding the character of Macbeth. To begin with, he remained loyal to his King even though it wasn’t in his self-interest to do so, considering that the odds were against the loyalists. Furthermore, Macbeth fought with bravery, and it was he who led the soldiers who turned the tide of the war and crushed the uprising. Macbeth is also seen caring for his men, and he sees the faces of some of those who have died in his dreams. At this stage, there is no reason to suspect Macbeth as being anything other than a ferocious warrior with a brave and noble heart.

But let’s not forget that this is a tragedy, and after the initial period of happiness, things quickly darken for Macbeth and those around him. There are two reasons for Macbeth’s downfall, and both of these reasons result from the evil hearts of women. Macbeth’s wife, lady Macbeth, schemes in the background and whispers treacherous words in his ear. He should be the King, she says, and encourages him to kill the King and take the crown for himself. Lady Macbeth is utterly ruthless, and she possesses a lust for power that her husband does not initially share.

Coupled with this, Macbeth and his friend Banquo receive a prophecy on the battlefield from three mysterious witches. Macbeth, they say, will become King one day. When Banquo inquires as to his own fate, they tell him that he will one day father a line of kings. The witches disappear, and it is after this strange meeting that Macbeth and Banquo goes to see the King and are praised for their loyalty and valor.

Macbeth has poison poured in both his ears, his wife in one and the witches in the other, and it is interesting to note that it is exclusively women who begin to cause Macbeth to abandon his position as a noble warrior, and to become something else entirely. There is thus an anti-feminist strand to this story, especially when it is viewed in the context of our time, in which feminism is a dominant ideology. Let’s not forget that women are supposed to be the dominated sex, the innocent sex, and the sex which is defiled in the evil world that men have created for them. This is not the case in this story, where the strongest lust for power is found in the dark soul of a woman.

There is one powerful scene where the couple argues, and the lady tries to persuade her husband to kill his King. The way she does this is interesting, by calling him a coward and questioning his manliness, telling him that a man should stretch out his hand and take what he wants. What she is really saying is that silly things like honour and loyalty should not distract him from the truly important thing; namely, satisfying her needs. In the end, Lady Macbeth of course gets her way, and Macbeth kills his King in cold blood by stabbing him in the gut with a knife. The deed is blamed on two pages, whom Lady Macbeth soon murders by poisoning their wine.

The prophecy that was given by the witches is also important, and it too serves to drive Macbeth away from the path of honour and towards an unchecked will to power. Macbeth later returns to the witches for more information, and they tell him that his line will end with him and that he cannot be killed by anyone born from a woman. These prophecies are, in the end, self-fulfilling prophecies in the sense that Macbeth comes to believe them and acts them out. There may indeed be a spark of real magic in them, since they do correctly predict that no children will be born to carry on his line, and indeed, Lady Macbeth gives birth to no children. The prophecies are utterly destructive and by acting them out, Macbeth destroys both himself and those around him.

After killing the King, something happens to Macbeth; he loses himself. This is only natural, because Macbeth is not a bad person to begin with. Rather, he is driven to commit his terrible deeds by external forces: his wife and the witches. Macbeth is a brave and ferocious warrior on the battlefield, but he doesn’t really have the stomach to kill his King, and barely manages to force himself to do it. In the aftermath of the murder, he becomes King in Duncan’s place, and the whole of Scotland rallies under his banner. But none of this gives him any satisfaction, and in a way he has cursed himself by trading away his honour for power. The guilt is eating away at him, and he becomes more irrational; his lust for power increases and his once-noble character withers away completely.

The stage is thus set for Macbeth’s downfall, and the downfall of those around him, including his scheming wife, who caused him to transgress the boundaries of his honour to begin with. Watching the latter part of this film is like starring into an abyss, and one is filled with a sense of tragedy when the darkness of Macbeth’s trajectory is seen on the big screen. I think that the real tragedy of this story is that it depicts a brave and noble soul being destroyed by a lust for power that wasn’t really in him to begin with. It was planted in him by the treacherous whispers of women. But in the end, of course, Macbeth held the knife that killed his King, as well as many other people along the way, and it is just that he receives punishment.

This scenario is more powerful than it would have been if the story had revolved around someone whose soul was rotten from the very beginning. We can compare it with the contemporary serial House of Cards, which revolves around the machinations of the power-hungry politician Frank Underwood, and his equally scheming wife, Claire. But Underwood had no sense of honour nor nobility in his heart to begin with, and, unlike Macbeth, Underwood never lost himself; he just carried out what was in his treacherous nature from the start. If Macbeth had died the moment after the initial battle, he would have been remembered as a man who was loyal to King and country – not as a treacherous madman.

I very much recommend this film. Kurzel has done an excellent job in depicting Macbeth’s downfall, and Fassbender does an excellent job in portraying this tragic character. This is a dark and treacly story of the downfall of a brave soul, the treachery of women, and the grand power of destiny.

About The Author

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Anton Stigermark earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at Lund University and is currently pursuing his master’s degree at Uppsala University. As a writer of essays his main interest lies in culture, old and new, political theory, and intellectual history in the more general sense.