Macbeth: A Rorschach Test

A cinema trip can be a pretty revealing sort of Rorschach test. One of the best parts about going out to see a film is dissecting it afterwards over a drink and hearing the different ways in which people have interpreted the film. Who will notice what? Who will think the film was about the subjugation of women (me watching Jurassic World) and who will think the film was about motorbikes and dinosaurs (everyone I went to see Jurassic World with)? The different ways in which we interpret a film speak volumes about our preoccupations and fascinations. I went to see the new Macbeth film, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, twice. Once with a friend as a belated birthday present, and again with colleagues and a group of undergraduate students taking the historicist Seventeenth Century module we teach. Unsurprisingly the post-mortem on Fassbeth (as it has become known) went very differently each time.

My birthday trip to see Fassbeth at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham, a lovely building with a very appealing refreshments counter, was prefaced by much giggling about the handsomeness of Michael Fassbender and by a G&T. I did let out a guffaw in the middle when Macbeth emerged from a tarn in nothing but a pair of historically inaccurate white boxers (a response that I managed to contain on my second trip). So when our post-film conversation began as follows, I thought it was part of the same frivolity.
My friend: “Well he didn’t last very long, did he?”
Me: “Were you watching the same film I was? All those lingering shots and slow-mo bits?”
Friend: “I mean Macbeth”
Me: “I suppose his descent into madness was pretty swift and dramatic”
Friend: “No. The sex. He didn’t last very long did he?”
I hadn’t thought this sex scene was significant, but when prompted I did recall a bit of desperate, under-the-dress humping from Maccbeth as his wife persuaded him to kill the king. It was pretty brief – “out brief candle” – and Macbeth was won over easily. Although accompanied by a snigger, my friend’s observation was significant – the filmmakers were drawing upon society’s assumptions about what constitutes virility and masculinity to characterise Macbeth as somehow weak and broken.  It turned out that this observation about Macbeth’s limited virility was central to my friend’s understanding of the film. He read the film as the story of a weak man, destroyed by the ravages of war, and literally seduced by his ambitious wife’s potent sexuality into murdering the king.
“He’s a man in front of the men, but the women ruin him. The witches. Lady Macbeth,” he explained. This view of the film contrasted with my own, I had seen the film as presenting the decline of both Lady Macbeth and her husband, but I could see what my friend meant. I wondered what about him had lead him to read the film in this particular way? Why did he immediately feel that this was a film about the oppression of men by women? Actually, I thought to myself, he did seem to feel a similar way about his girlfriends!
“Do you think you saw the film that way because of your own fear of losing your autonomy in relationships with women?” I asked, feeling a bit loose-lipped from the gin and tonic. As you can imagine, that comment went down like a lead balloon. I floundered, looking for an exit strategy, realising that it is rather impolite to psychoanalyse a man who has just taken you to the cinema and paid. What could I say to redeem myself? Perhaps by finding evidence of his interpretation in the film rather than in his dating history? In what ways had the filmmakers lead us to see Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth as an image of potent and threatening female sexuality? All of a sudden I had it:
“Don’t you think” I said eagerly, “that when Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan to her home, that she looks like an enormous, sinister vagina?”
My conviction was complete. Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan to a dark place from whence he shall never return. It fits perfectly with the idea of primal fear of the vagina and the mythology of the vagina dentata. Just look at the picture: with that cloak on she looks like a huge vagina! And then he said what all students of English literature are used to hearing:
“I think you’re reading too much into it.”

Fearing that coming out with an enormous vagina might not go down very well with my students, when I went to see the film for a second time, although I stand by it, I did not mention the vagina imagery. Instead we focussed our discussion on another significant motif in the film: babies and children. “I liked the bit with the baby at the beginning,” said one of my students of the scene in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth cremate their dead child. “It gives them a reason to be so crazy.” Indeed, children act as a trigger for many moments in the film. Macbeth is haunted (and Fassbender performs haunted very well) by the image of a dead child-soldier, which returns to him at several points in the film, seeming to strengthen his resolve (perhaps reminding him that Duncan and life are cruel and barbarous and so must he be). Lady Macbeth’s madness is induced by the sight of Macduff’s burning children (the film makes this a public execution rather than a secret murder) and, in her famous “mad scene”, she addresses her speech calmly and rationally to the apparition of her own dead child. Certainly, the film suggested that the loss of their child and the loss of other children had made them unravel.
“Do they need a reason to go mad? They’ve killed a king.” I asked, as I had found the focus on children in the film unnecessary and irritating. The Macbeths had murdered an anointed king! They know, as Macbeth states, that they are going to hell. The moment in which Macbeth talks about having “mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man” (i.e. giving his soul to the devil) in Act 3 Scene 1 survived into the film but became a conversation with Lady Macbeth, rather than a soliloquy. Why did they need any more motive to become totally unhinged?
“Well, that’s how it was in those days, wasn’t it? That was how you became king,” my student replied. I realised then that I was being a stick-in-the-mud in my dislike of the focus on children. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written for a society that believed in the divine right of kings, in which regicide was one of the most horrible and unnatural crimes imaginable. Fassbeth was not written for such a society. Killing a king is not enough to unhinge a soldier like Macbeth, he needs a dead baby in a society that doesn’t think regicide is different from any other murder. This time round (once bitten, twice shy) I did not muse out-loud about what had lead my student to be drawn to the images of babies and children and to see this as central to the film. The society which had produced this film, and the audience for whom it was produced, places a premium on our emotional connection with children. We do not share a concept of the divine right of kings with the play’s early modern audience.

Having analysed the responses of other film-goers, it’s only fair that I share my response. For me, the most striking thing about the film was the prolonged battle scenes at the beginning and at the end. These atmospheric scenes were full of close-ups, repetition, and slow-motion. They gave a weighty impression of the unending grimness and brutality of Macbeth’s life. The great crime of Fassbender’s Macbeth was not killing a king, the film suggests that that was just how it was in those days, but not being able to cope with having killed him. In the opening of the film Macbeth is presented as a competent fighter, but his horror at the slaughter is constantly underlined. The messenger, in a voice-over, declares that when Macbeth reached the “Merciless Macdonwald” he “unseem’d him from the nave to the chops”, but the Macbeth on screen does no such thing. Confronted with a defenceless old man, he turns away. Only at Banquo’s urging does he turn and strike the old man down. The slaughter of the traitor is necessary, but this Macbeth clearly finds it distasteful. Lady Macbeth is right: this Macbeth is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to be the kind of king that this savage world demands. The film’s wordless epilogue in which Malcom and Fleance wield their swords suggest they will continue this savagery. Fassbender and Cotillard both delivered harrowing performances as an ambitious couple, damaged and heart-broken by the loss of their child, who aspire to the throne, but can’t face the horrors of a reality they have wished for.

But of course that was just my reading of the film. Goodness knows what it says about me!

Reading too much into it!
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals


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