Sample Essay On The Return Of The Witches In Three Filmed Versions Of Macbeth
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Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in which Macbeth returns to the witches in order to give him the truth about the prophecy they set for him at play’s beginning, is one of the most important scenes of the play. It provides Macbeth with additional portent to his fate, as well as the other prophecies which assuage his fears of death (and the loophole that would eventually be his downfall). This scene, more than most in the play, has its fair share of presentational elements due to the uncanny nature of the witches – in the filmed versions of Macbeth, this presentationalism is expressed in different ways. In Polanski’s, Nunn’s and Goold’s distinct and compelling takes on the Shakespeare play, the return to the witch’s cave is made distinct with each works’ unique sense of style – Nunn’s blatant theatricality and staginess, Polanski’s darkly erotic grotesquery, and Goold’s stark, Soviet realism.
The way each scene is staged evokes the overall difference in style between the three works in terms of cinematography and mise-en-scene. In Nunn’s version, the background is stark black, the characters standing against a void. Nunn’s camera remains on a proscenium setting, making the scene look as if it is being performed on a stage, though the camera occasionally dollies around the witches as they perform their works. In Goold’s version, he chooses to film this with a frenzied, music-video schizophrenia, everything oversaturated, the camera moving and blurring in strange movements to convey a feeling of dreaminess and disorientation. During the actual scene, Goold films in a handheld, verite style, with heightened color timing to lend a further sense of grittiness to the proceedings. The cleanliness of the plastic drapery of the witches’ hospital room, peppered with blood in all the right places, conjures up the horrors of hospitals and offers a much more subtle menace than the others. Meanwhile, Polanski reframes the events of the scene and changes their structure; instead of the audience seeing the ‘double double’ scene first and Macbeth entering, we see Macbeth’s horror at the dank, foggy cave full of crazed witches as they conduct the ceremony in front of him. His version is far more dank and underground than the others, while also offering a more contemporaneous-looking Middle Ages environment (as opposed to the leather-bound and Soviet versions of Nunn and Goold, respectively).
The witches themselves are depicted very differently in each incarnation, as well, depicting a very different sensibility and variation on the ‘old crone’ figure. Nunn’s witches, in particular, dress in dark rags, dimly lit so their pale faces are barely seen. Their ‘double double toil and trouble’ song is performed like Gregorian chant, swaying back and forth as they put things into their small, candlelit cauldron. During the showing of visions, they strip Macbeth bare, blindfold him and smear black paint on him in occult lines, almost sadomasochistic in nature. Goold’s witches are, instead, nuns, writhing and moving like dancers in a strange display of the occult as connected to Christian medicine. They chant their spells like a strange nu-metal song, moving around three cadavers covered in plastic on stretchers instead of the cauldron. With Polanski, the witches are made even more raw and base – fully naked, most of them old and decrepit, living in a cave, the witches seem even more like underground, magical creatures than the other versions. Instead of merely three witches, Macbeth is introduced to a cave full of them, looking almost like an infestation.
Macbeth’s responses to the scene and the witches themselves demonstrates the vast differences in each film’s approach to the character. In Nunn’s version, Ian McKellen sidles up to the witches, confident and assured, wearing a leather coat and turtleneck. It is only after he starts asking things of the witches that he becomes somewhat afraid. Jon Finch’s Macbeth, meanwhile, is virtually a simpering mess, barking orders to them but without the confidence to back them up. In this way, Polanski makes Macbeth seem even more impotent against these slightly more sexualized witch figures. Stewart’s Macbeth, like the others, also toes the line between attempting to maintain authority and meekly asking for their prophecy; however, his Macbeth is somewhat more composed than the others, practically daring the witches to “call’em, let me see’em” with a confident smirk.
Goold, Rupert (dir.). Macbeth. Perf. Patrick Stewart, Kate Fleetwood. PBS, 2009.
Nunn, Trevor (dir.). The Tragedy of Macbeth. Perf. Ian McKellen, Judi Dench. The Royal
Shakespeare Company, 1979.
Polanski, Roman (dir). The Tragedy of Macbeth. Perf. Jon Finch, Francesca Annis. Playboy,
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