Review: Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth

I feel like we’re experiencing a resurgence in the popularity of Shakespeare lately. Tom Holland is playing in Romeo and Juliet. Sir Ian McKellen just revisited Hamlet. Both Ralph Fiennes and David Tennant have taken a turn at Macbeth, I hope all of these are filmed so we can share them far and wide.

Luckily I had the chance to see Fiennes’ version as it came through our local theatre in one of those pseudo “one night only” things. Very limited, very short time release. Is it available near you? Check your local theatres!

Witches from Ralph Fiennes' production of Macbeth

Our experience was interesting. We went at 7 pm on a weeknight, and with a 15-minute intermission, the show goes over 2.5 hours. For a while, we (my son and I) were the only ones in the theatre. I wish I’d brought my own edition of Macbeth so I could study up on the text while the lights were still on. But a few minutes before showtime, another family did join us.

So How Was It?

I go into all Shakespeare productions optimistically. There will always be something I like, and hopefully, those bits are more interesting to talk about than those that weren’t so good. This one, I think, ends up pretty middle of the road and overall kind of forgettable.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

  • Too many cuts. This production still went over 2.5 hours, and yet recognizable moments like the third murderer, Hecate, and even the entire Porter scene are cut completely. Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies already. I guess they had to make time for Fiennes’ acting. Those are reasonable cuts that don’t add directly to the action (though I do enjoy seeing how productions choose to interpret third murderer), so it’s not a horrible thing, I just hate looking forward to a scene and having it not show up at all. That’s worse than seeing a bad version, at least we can talk about why a bad version is bad.
  • The audience. If it wasn’t already established, this is a filmed stage production. The first few scenes are completely silent. I honestly thought they were acting to an empty house, which I thought must have been really weird for them. But then — during Duncan’s murder, no less — the audience comes to life. And laughs. Once that seal was broken, so to speak, the audience began laughing throughout the rest of the play.
  • Apparently, you can play Macbeth for comedy. It’s one thing for the audience to laugh awkwardly or randomly. When Macbeth cowers around his wife, telling her he’s afraid to go back to Duncan’s room, the audience laughs. At other times Fiennes mugs for the audience, deliberately doing things worth laughing at. After Banquo ruins the banquet and Macbeth is left arguing with his wife, he does so while circling the table, emptying all the half-full wine glasses into one before downing it. I don’t mind a few laughs – after all, the porter was there for a reason – but the second half had way too many laugh moments and not enough shock and awe for me.
  • Second Murderer. Or maybe he was supposed to be First Murder, I’m just demoting him because the other guy did better and got more to do. This dude, though, went to the I MUST SHOUT ALL MY LINES NO MATTER THE CONTEXT school of acting. I thought it was a joke, maybe the audience should have laughed. They’ve just shown up at the banquet to let Macbeth know that BANQUO IS DEAD MY LORD HE’S LYING IN A DITCH BUT FLEANCE ESCAPED. Thanks chief, the people 10 feet away at the dinner table didn’t quite hear you.
  • Four words, “ghost of Lady Macbeth.”

Things I Did Like

  • I really liked Seyton, who was more “Generic Servant.” You’ve got half the cast military – tough, scarred, dirty – and have royal -prim and proper, fancy clothes and speech. And then there’s Generic Servant, with his shaved and bleached blonde hair and dangly earring, dressed nicely in a suit but clearly looking like he could hit the club when he gets off. This kid crushes it, serving up “I have been a loyal servant to this household and will faithfully execute my job, whatever it may be, but I can see everything apart around me and I don’t how how to stop it.” He shows up to warn Lady Macduff, he talks to the doctor while Lady M sleepwalks, and I’m thinking, “This kid had better be Seyton.” Which they definitely pronounced Satan. And he was. When Lady Macbeth falls to the floor he rushes to her side, at a loss how to help her but instinctually trying to. He was great.
  • Fiennes does act well, I’ll give him that. His Macbeth never really gave “warrior”. I never found him this scary beast or super soldier. He was more natural as a coward hiding behind his wife, who didn’t want to acknowledge that he was a coward. In the end, he does “paranoid and borderline insane” nicely. I just didn’t love this interpretation of the character. I didn’t feel anything for him. No fall, no redemption. Just a guy.
  • Macduff getting the news that his family has died. I am so used to this being an over-the-top hysterical moment that I didn’t know what to do with this one. Macduff reacted … not at all. Silent stare. And I thought that’s it? But as the scene continued I realized that what we were getting was a man in shock. The hysterical Macduffs have immediately realized what’s happened and are processing it. This Macduff basically froze, as if the universe had glitched around him. His repeated asking “all my chickens? all?” was done with lengthy pauses as if he kept getting the answer but couldn’t process the answer. Only at the end does he finally break down and bring the scene full circle. I thought it was outstanding. Never seen it done that way before.
  • The witches always seem to be the biggest blank slate when it comes to interpreting this play. I’ve included a picture. I keep wanting to say that there’s a certain “school girl” look to them but that’s not accurate. Maybe it’s just because they’re all dressed similarly and give off a certain creepy vibe. It’s almost Exorcist-like. They felt possessed. Which is good. The later ghosts are done as possessions of other bodies. Beyond their look, these were witches that wandered randomly throughout the play. Sometimes they were on stage, watching. Never interacting. They even come back at the end, putting a nice bookend on the whole thing. One thing I didn’t like, though, is that there’s a spot where Lady Macbeth clearly looks right at them. That could have been a mistake for all I know, but I have to assume that a filmed version has the opportunity to edit out such things.

Conclusion

One scale to use for judging filmed productions is, would you recommend it to someone? Would you bring it up in conversation? As far as Macbeth’s go we all talk about Ian McKellen’s and Patrick Stewart’s, and even the more modern Denzel Washington and Michael Fassbender versions are often in the conversation, though perhaps precisely because they’re the more modern ones. Then you’ve got your classics, your Roman Polanski, your Orson Welles.

I just don’t see this one in that pantheon, even though it’s arguably now the newest and should be (by the Fassbender Washington rule) the most discussed. It will soon be more like, “Oh, yeah, Ralph Fiennes did Macbeth, too. I forgot about that one. It was all right.”

College Geeklet: Zendaya is the newest Lady Macbeth

I grew up watching “Shake it Up” on Disney Channel. In fact, I grew up watching Disney Channel in general, but there were certain shows that just stuck with me into adulthood. I now find myself obsessed with how Bridget Mendler from “Good Luck Charlie” was able to get like seven degrees, how Sabrina Carpenter from “Girl Meets World” is now touring the world with Taylor Swift, and more particularly, how Zendaya has taken over the world. 

When I saw Zendaya was going to be in the new movie “Challengers” by Luca Guadagnino, I knew I had to watch. I’ve loved everything that she’s been in since her time on “Shake It Up”, and as a former theater kid, I saw Mike Faist was going to be in it as well which sealed the deal for me. But going into the movie, I had no idea that there would be similarities to Macbeth in it.

The whole movie isn’t a modern retelling of Macbeth like “10 Things I Hate About You” or “She’s The Man.” The only real connection is the main female character, Tashi Duncan. 

The gimmick with Tashi is that she’s an obsessed artist. Sort of like Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, or Nina Sayers in Black Swan. Tashi is a tennis prodigy whose entire existence is wrapped around tennis. She spends her free time analyzing players moves and every conversation she has with a character is related to tennis. She can’t even talk to her own boyfriend in the movie without it being about tennis- I’m not kidding. They get into a huge fight because he doesn’t want her to criticize him anymore, and they end up breaking up over it. 

I don’t think the intention was to make her a modern day Lady Macbeth, but she shares too many similarities to not notice. For starters, from the way the movie was marketed, and even at first watch of the story, Tashi Duncan is the villain. She gets in between two best friends and makes them hate each other so that she can watch a good game of tennis between the two. This is very similar to the surface level treatment that Lady Macbeth gets. Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to kill King Duncan, therefore she’s the bad guy. Right? Both characters are strongly villainized by readers and viewers. 

Both of them use their power to manipulate the men around them. Lady Macbeth uses Macbeth’s masculinity to manipulate him to kill Duncan, questioning his manliness if he does not want to kill. This works because masculinity was a huge aspect of a man’s identity at that time, and if they didn’t appear as the stereotypical man, they could be shunned by society. It is this manipulation that landed her the role of “villain” according to many readers. Tashi similarly manipulates the two men in the movies, Art and Patrick. She turns the two of them against each other with romantic entanglements that serve as a means to exert control over them. While Lady Macbeth’s goal was to become queen, Tashi knew that if they turned against each other, she would get to watch some good tennis. Art and Patrick were both so good together that she knew if they played against each other it would be a legendary match. And that’s what she got in the end. 

A lot of female characters who feel very strongly about something, whether it be their careers or goals, are often victims of attacks from audiences. I wrote my final paper for my gender studies course on this. Powerful female characters make [mostly] male audiences uncomfortable, even if some people don’t want to admit it. This is for several reasons, but the larger theme is that they feel threatened in their own masculinity, and seeing a woman so comfortable and able to knock down barriers to get what she wants makes them uncomfortable. 

There are several instances of this in literature that I noted in my paper; Eve from the Bible, Amy Dunne from “Gone Girl”, Cathy Ames from “East of Eden”, Bellatrix Lestrange from “Harry Potter”, Amy March from “Little Women”. This isn’t denying that some of them committed horrible acts, but they all matched that definition of female characters who feel super passionate about something but are clumped together as villains. Both Lady Macbeth and Tashi feel very strongly about something, Lady Macbeth feeling strongly about becoming queen, and Tashi feeling strongly about tennis. While they both do questionable things, their passion makes it easy for audiences to call them the villains of the story without looking at their other character traits.

It’s up to you if you think she is similar to Lady Macbeth…I certainly think so. Other sites have picked up on these similarities as well, such as Sports Illustrated, Ensemble Magazine,  Glamour U.K., and more. You’ll have to watch for yourself to see!

Dead, My Lord, The Queen Is

This post is brought to you by My Own Personal Shakespeare: Macbeth Edition, our newly released book, now available on Amazon! Recapture what Shakespeare means to you.

Over at the Bardfilm blog, our good friend KJ put up a lengthy post dissecting scenes of Macbeth in the Max series Barry. If you’re a fan of either Macbeth or Barry (or Bill Hader, who stars) it’s definitely something you’ll want to check out.

I want to grab a piece of that post and expand on it. In the scene, Bill Hader plays Seyton, entering in Act V Scene V to deliver his line:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

Instead, it comes out

My lord, the queen is dead.

Here’s the thing: I really like that second one better. It’s an example you don’t often imagine—it’s not changing any words, leaving them out completely, or giving them to another character. It’s just flipping the order. Without the script in front of you, you’d be hard-pressed to remember which is the original.

But once you see them both delivered, the change is obvious. As written it feels way too formal to me. Like Seyton has no personal feelings on the matter He’s all formal. He interrupts, he remembers that he has to properly acknowledge Macbeth, then he continues his message. I suppose you could almost imagine him bursting into the room with the intent to just yell, “The queen is dead!” but he can’t do that, he’s got to throw the “my lord” in there.

Flip it, though, and it changes so much. Now it feels like he’s breaking the news. He addresses Macbeth not out of formality but because he’s got a message for him and wants his full attention. You could drag out the pause here as long as you like, depending on how difficult it is for Seyton to deliver the line. He’s about to tell Macbeth that his wife is gone.

Consider when Ross has to deliver a similar message to Macduff, that his wife and children have been slaughtered. He can’t even do it at first. Macduff is so excited to see him, asking for news, that Ross lies:

MACDUFF How does my wife?

ROSS Why, well.

MACDUFF And all my children?

ROSS Well too.

MACDUFF The tyrant has not batter’d at their peace?

ROSS No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.

It’s only after Macduff presses him, knowing that something’s up, that he is able to deliver the real news. Unlike Seyton, he goes on about it in great detail. Seyton has to pack all of his feelings on the matter into one line, just four words. By shifting a few words he goes from neutral observer to emotionally invested in the scene.

Where are some other good opportunities, in this play or others, where a similar re-ordering of words can make such an unexpected impact?

The One Where Fleance Comes Back

So my daughter and I are working on a secret project (more soon!) that involves a deep reading and markup of Macbeth. For our purposes, I got the plain text, public domain copy from Project Gutenberg. I made her a copy, made myself one, and over the Christmas break we’ve been going about our business making our notes, periodically comparing.

Until yesterday, when we were driving to visit relatives, with the whole family in the car, discussing various things like college majors and literary theory and Shakespeare. “I thought you said Fleance doesn’t come back,” I hear her say.

“He doesn’t,” I say, driving. “Some adaptations insert a scene of him returning, to reinforce the prophecy about Banquo’s children. I think the Fassbender movie version does that.”

“No,” she continues, “he’s in the final scene.”

“No,” I insist, “he’s not.”

“When we get back home I’ll need to show you. He has lines. It’s in my copy.”

“If that’s true, that would be a giant mistake.”

Well, giant mistake confirmed.

I do what I always do in these situations – I call Bardfilm, my friendly neighborhood virtual Shakespeare resource library. While I’m waiting to hear back (he is traveling for the holidays as well), I start checking other versions. Everywhere I can find, this line is Ross’s. Ross has delivered the previous line, and Siward is in conversation with him. There is no indicator that this should be, or ever has been, Fleance’s line. Even if we imagine him in this scene (there is no stage direction to show him entering), why would he deliver that line?

I’ve written to Project Gutenberg with our correction. I’m sure in their world, this happens all the time; they have an actual address and ticket system set up for errata. But this isn’t a typo. Stuff like this bothers me. The stats say that almost 3000 people/month download that file. Presumably, mostly students. How many of them read that and just assume, no matter how confusing it is, that Fleance makes an appearance at the end? Arguably, it’s a trivial thing, but not to us. If you read Macbeth or any Shakespeare, and you have questions, you’re entitled to answers to those questions. It’s not fair for the answer to be, “Yeah, that’s just wrong, you got a bad copy. Ignore that.”

If anybody needs me, I’ll be re-reading my copy with a First Folio (and maybe an Arden) sitting in my lap.

College Geeklet Stories: Macbeth

Hello! It is so cool for me to be writing for my dad’s blog after reading stories about me as a young kid reciting Shakespeare and the fact that I named my dolls Goneril and Regan before I had even read King Lear. There is something so full circle about this, and I’m so excited.

I’m in college, studying English with a Creative Writing concentration and Journalism. Unfortunately, I have no plans to be a Shakespeare academic (right now). I’m actually leaning more toward the journalism path. But of course, when I saw a Shakespeare class offered, I knew I had to take it. Learning Shakespeare again in college has been so fascinating as someone who grew up with Shakespeare. I have so many thoughts now that I’m old enough to have a deeper understanding of the plays.

My college offers two Shakespeare classes, one from the beginning portion of his life, focusing on comedies, and another on the second half of his life, focusing on tragedies. The tragedies course was the only one offered this semester, so I signed up. So far, we’ve read Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello. Currently, we’re reading King Lear, and we still have Antony and Cleopatra and, finally, Pericles.

I had read the first three before the course, which made rereading them at a college level interesting. I didn’t have to focus on understanding the plot at first because I already knew the summary of these plays. That’s why when I read Othello, I interpreted it a lot slower because I wasn’t as familiar with the characters and story the way I knew Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet from the heart. Not that I didn’t love Othello, but it’s much easier to take away specific details when you know the basic summary of the story by heart.

The most significant discovery from this class was how much I love Macbeth. If you were to ask me my thoughts on Macbeth pre-college, I wouldn’t have thought much about it. To me, Macbeth and Hamlet were very interchangeable, and I would have preferred to discuss Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. I think I was more familiar with comedies because while my dad always taught me about tragedies, it’s hard to teach a little kid a story about a guy who wants to kill his uncle for revenge compared to a guy who turns into a donkey.

My new love for Macbeth came from my class’s in-depth analysis of Lady Macbeth and gender. Reading Macbeth in high school, the complexity of Lady Macbeth never crossed my mind. But when I sat down and read her monologue, I was blown away. When she said, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,” I knew that this character was different than any character I had ever read. Most of Shakespeare’s women I had read were very restricted by the gender norms of the time. Now that I’m thinking out loud, most of the comedies I read are heavily romance-driven. This was one of the first plays I had read that not only had zero romance but also a female character who took on the male characteristics of the time.

This led to me being fascinated with how exactly Shakespeare can challenge gender roles in some of his plays while also reinforcing them in others. I would say Taming of the Shrew is a pretty blatant example of him enforcing the rules, but most of the tragedies I’ve read break away from the gender rules. Except Ophelia, that I know of. I wrote my first paper for the course about the irony of Shakespeare’s strong female characters being in the tragedies, almost symbolizing that women who defy what society expects from them will meet tragic demise.

In my essay, I wrote about how women at the time were associated with Eve for being manipulative and needing a man to control them so they would not cause harm. I took this to explain why Lady Macbeth is villanized by most readers, rather than being a woman who knew what she wanted but was frustrated by the limits of her gender. Growing up reading Macbeth, I fell victim to this, and I thought she was the story’s villain. And while I obviously think murder makes someone a wrong person, I have a better understanding of why she wanted to kill Duncan so severely. I used to think she was crazy for wanting to kill Duncan so badly, but she is such a complex character.

Frankly, her character makes me sad. She isn’t afraid to face the challenges her gender presents her. Still, in the end, she falls victim to her biological gender (Though I do have questions about this, I think this was Shakespeare’s intention). In my essay, I wrote,


“Lady Macbeth mentally recognized that she needed to take on male characteristics to get what she wanted, but this was not something she could maintain, as she died shortly after going mad, presumably by suicide. Shakespeare believes that the cruelty that Macbeth can maintain naturally as a man is not something Lady Macbeth can hold on to for a very long time.”

The idea that she was doomed from the beginning is frustrating. She felt guilty about the killing, and she wasn’t entirely inhumane. There are several cases where she expresses her worry for Macbeth, which shows that she isn’t sociopathic but does show emotions and regret.

In the other plays I’ve read so far, there have been women who strayed from the gender norms of the time, but I have yet to find a character who stands out to me the way Lady Macbeth has. The comparison between Emilia and Desdemona in Othello is probably a close second for me. They weren’t as intense with their gender defiance the way Lady Macbeth was, but the small moments throughout the play interested me. When Emilia announces that she believes women should be allowed to cheat on their husbands, I was kinda like…oh wow, that was not something I would ever expect a Shakespeare character to say. I found Desdemona frustrating, but the fact that she married Othello despite society being against interracial marriage I thought was interesting. Though if she actually loves Othello, that’s an entirely different question that I will try and figure out for my second essay on Othello.

This is a lot of writing, so I’ll cut it here. But I’ll continue to brain-dump my thoughts on relearning Shakespeare as a college student regularly!