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Natalie Pearlman

Professor Knight

English 324A

8 June 2017

Too Many Explanations Make Kurzel’s Macbeth a Bust

Out of all of William Shakespeare’s plays, the Scottish tragedy, Macbeth, seems to have

captured audience’s fascination the most. With roughly 26 film adaptions and countless stage

performances, the play is the most popular among directors and producers. There is no clear

reason why the tragedy has been able to garner so much popularity. Unlike other Shakespeare

plays like Hamlet or Othello, there are arguably no redeemable characters or explanations for the

tragedy in Macbeth. The play is shrouded in ambiguity; audiences are often left wondering who

is truly responsible for the senseless violence. Until 2015, the most notable traditional adaptation

of the film was Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, which adhered fairly strictly to the dialogue

written by Shakespeare and preserved the majority of classic interpretations applied to the plot

and characters. In 2015, Justin Kurzel premiered his own adaption of the classic tragedy, but this

time he imposed 21 st century values on the iconic characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Kurzel’s version seems to have fascinated audiences and critics due to its notable actors and

stunning Scottish scenery, but did his adaptation do The Bard and the notable Scottish tragedy


In order to understand Kurzel’s Macbeth, it is important to first examine Kurzel and his

motivation for the adaption. Macbeth was the second film in Kurzel’s career and came directly

after Snowtown a dark and “blackly troubling” film about the most notorious serial killer in

Australia, John Bunting (Leigh). Understandably, the film community was surprised and

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intrigued by Kurzel’s decision to direct two extremely dark films consecutively, but Kurzel

explained that:

The themes [of Snowtown and Macbeth] are universal but very human. It feels

contemporary because [Macbeth is] dealing with human nature in such a visceral way. I’d

just come off Snowtown, and I’d been in this world of serial killers, focused on someone

who turns toward the darkness and can never find his way back. So I think just through

researching that, there were some interesting parallels in terms of gravitating toward

darkness and madness and guilt and defining a belief — no matter how corrupt it is —

that becomes your rock (Ford).

Kurzel’s adaption of Macbeth highlights the madness of the characters and due to specific

stylistic choices, tries to provide reasons for their madness and eventual tragedy. Similar to his

predecessor, Roman Polanski, Kurzel was working through a family member’s death while

filming Macbeth. He “had a difficult time decoding [his] grief, working out what do with it.

That’s what [he] saw in Macbeth. They use ambition to replace grief…” (Leigh). Kurzel seems

to work through his grief by finding reasons for the grief Shakespeare’s play creates. This is in

sharp contrast to Polanski, who in an interview following the premier of his adaption stated that

the “play is violent. And life is violent too. People don't want artists now to express their feelings

about violence, but America is such a violent society. And I have reasons to say that”

(Weinraub). The “reasons” Polanski was referring to was the violent murder of his eight month

pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the cult leader, Charles Mason, only two years prior. Like Kurzel,

Polanski uses Macbeth to work through his grief but does not try to understand the tragedy as

Kurzel does; rather he simply depicts the tragedy in all of its gruesome and bloody detail.

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It is an odd coincidence that both Polanski and Kurzel were grieving the death of a family

member while filming Macbeth, could it be that the curse of the Scottish tragedy applies to film

adaptations as well? Regardless, it is interesting that the way Kurzel and Polanski manifested and

dealt with their grief shifted in the 44 years between the two films. What about our current

society made Kurzel so intent on exploring characters’ psyches and motives rather than just

portraying grizzly violence like Polanski? The answer lies partly in 21 st century society’s

fascination with:

True crime [which] triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear. As a

source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a

controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real. (Bonn)

The true crime genre has taken off in the last decade with a record number of television series,

Netflix documentaries, and Podcasts delving into the who-done-it line of thinking. True Crime

audiences are not interested in how someone did “it,” they want to know who did it and why.

Kurzel applies this line of thinking to his adaptation of Macbeth, he is determined to impose a

reason for why Macbeth would give into his darkest desire and kill King Duncan.

These reasons that Kurzel supplies are rooted in several key changes he makes to the

traditional storyline. By subverting the power of the supernatural and highlighting the damaged

mental state of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Kurzel provides a plethora of reasons for why the

tragedy occurred and ultimately overdetermines the plot of the tragedy.

1. Subversion of the Supernatural

True to Shakespeare’s original script, the first characters to speak are the three witches. In

the text, no context or setting is given; the witches are simply speaking to one another in the

middle of a storm. While the witches are the first to speak, they are not the first characters seen

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in Kurzel’s film. The film opens with shot of a dead child lying on a funeral pyre with the

Macbeths dressed in all black performing various funeral rituals. The camera then pans out and

focuses on the three witches, who are standing much farther in the distance. In this scene they are

established as spectators and are set apart from the chaos. When they deliver their infamous line,

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12), it is more

ominous. The witches are quite literally “hovering” on the edge of the entire film, which calls

into question how much of a role they actually have in the downfall of the Macbeths.

Kurzel makes a bold move in downplaying the witches and reducing them to spectators.

His predecessor, Polanski, did the opposite and gave the witches autonomy. In Polanski’s film,

the power of the witches and the role they play in the tragedy is unquestionable. While the

original text leaves some ambiguity regarding the extent of the role of the witches, it tends to

lean more towards Polanski’s interpretation rather than Kurzel’s. Shakespeare wrote several acts

that solely involved the witches interacting with one another and participating in magic, but

Kurzel chooses to cut all of these scenes. Kurzel makes a notable cut by eliminating the 38 lines

of the witches’ dialogue before they encounter Macbeth and Banquo, a portion of which contains

an important insight:

THIRD WITCH. A drum, a drum!

Macbeth doth come!

ALL. [dancing in a circle] The weird sisters, hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Peace the charm’s wound up. (1.3.31-8)

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While it is easy to write off the witches’ dialogue as nonsense, the selected portion above,

particularly the phrase “Macbeth doth come,” demonstrates that they were waiting for

Macbeth’s arrival. Before he approaches, they prepare a “charm,” which is a form of active

participation. If they are preparing a “charm,” or spell, then they must intend to use it, this is

explicit evidence of their involvement in the plot. The extent of their role may not be clear, but

the witches and their magic are complicit in the events.

In Kurzel’s film, Macbeth happens upon the witches while they are collecting blood from

a dead soldier’s body, they are not waiting for him. It is only after Macbeth address them,

“Speak if you can. What are you?” (1.3.48), that they approach Macbeth and give him the

prophecy that he is to be Thane of Cawdor and King. This interaction between Macbeth and the

witches directed by Kurzel is much more ambiguous. The witches did not seek out Macbeth nor

were they anticipating his arrival like the text calls for. In Kurzel’s adaption, Macbeth explicitly

demands they speak to him and elaborate on their strange prophecies. Kurzel’s witches are not

active players; they are spectators and commenters. Is it possible that supernatural elements did

not influence Macbeth to take action, are the witches simply innocent, but interested,

bystanders? Are they too just here to witness the horror? The reduction of their role shifts the

focus to Macbeth’s motivation and actions and raises the questions of whether the witches’

prophecies and their magic are actually responsible.

The witches maintain this spectator role throughout the film, hinting at the possibility of

their involvement but never confirming it. Kurzel shows the witches briefly four more times in

the film: while Fleance is fleeing through the forest from his father’s murderers, when Macbeth

seeks them out to receive the three prophecies, while Lady Macbeth is wandering through the

highlands, and on the edge of the battle between Macbeth and Macduff. In these four scenes the

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witches never speak unless addressed, and only actually speak while delivering the prophecies to

Macbeth. In the version of this scene that Shakespeare wrote, the witches literally have to make

a potion composed of “sow’s blood that hath eaten / Her nine farrow; grease that’s sweaten /

From the murder’s gibbet…” (4.1.63-5) in order for the apparitions to appear and deliver the

prophecies. While Shakespeare’s text gives no stage direction, the language of the scene makes it

clear that the witches are brewing a potion. Polanski, who takes far fewer liberties than Kurzel,

maintains this traditional interpretation. When Polanski’s Macbeth arrives at the witches’ den,

he happens upon dozens of naked witches brewing a potion. While the scene itself is odd and

perplexing, the message is clear - the witches have power and they are actively using it.

Contradictory to Polanski, Kurzel shows Macbeth drinking from a cup that belongs to the

witches, but we do not see the witches making the “potion” nor are the viewers surprised when

they briefly see the apparitions appear because they are the same ones Macbeth has been

hallucinating throughout the film (a liberty taken by Kurzel). It is easy to write off the witches

and the implications of their supernatural presence in Kurzel’s film when they are only ever

portrayed in this non-active, and frankly, non-powerful way.

2. Damaged Mental State

While reading Macbeth, it can be easy to view Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as cruel and

heartless. They rarely use affectionate language and their conversations do not usually lend one

to imagine them being intimate. Polanski makes a deliberate decision to have his Macbeth

characters be overly intimate and sexual. In Polanski’s adaptation, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

are extremely young, which seems to serve as an explanation for their affectionate scenes amidst

dark tragedy. Kurzel uses an older Macbeth and Lady Macbeth but makes the similar decision to

humanize them through sexuality and affection, but he takes it a step farther. Rather then simply

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making the Macbeth’s relatable, he makes their sexual relationship dark and deeply disturbing.

Almost every scene where the Macbeths’ are intimate with one another revolves around

violence. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are either discussing violence or Macbeth is engaging in

some sort of violent act. The most notable sexualized violence portrayed by Kurzel occurs with

dialogue from Act 2, Scene 1:

MACBETH. We will proceed no further in this business.

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH. What beast was’t, then,

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man…

MACBETH. If we should fail?


But screw your courage to the stinking place,

And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep-

…What cannot you and I perform upon

Th’unguarded Duncan?

MACBETH. I am settled, and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat… (2.1.31-80)

The dialogue in this scene, which is from the original text, does not hint that any form of

intimacy is occurring, Lady Macbeth is simply telling Macbeth how exactly they will kill King

Duncan and questioning Macbeth’s masculinity - until “he durst do it” he will not be a man.

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There is no doubt that Shakespeare intended the scene to be dark, a terrible deed is being

discussed. By adding intimacy, Kurzel twists this scene into something unnatural, something

difficult to watch. As Macbeth defends his fragile masculinity with his proclamation that “I dare

do all that may become a man,” he approaches Lady Macbeth. It is clear that there is sexual

tension between the two but as Lady Macbeth challenges Macbeth’s masculinity further, the

scene becomes charged. Suddenly the words Shakespeare wrote have a double entendre. Words

like “beast” and “durst do it” are reinterpreted by Kurzel and become hyper-sexualized by Lady

Macbeth as she advances towards Macbeth. The dialogue stalls after Lady Macbeth utters, “We

fail?” because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to engage in intercourse. During intercourse,

Lady Macbeth begins to detail what they will “perform upon” King Duncan while he is asleep in

his bed. It is at this moment that the audience reaches their breaking point. There is no longer

anything natural or human about what they are watching or about Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.

These feelings are further reinforced several more times when Kurzel shows Macbeth getting

into bed with Duncan’s body after savagely stabbing him multiple times as well as when he

portrays Macbeth dancing with Lady Macbeth’s recently deceased body while he recites the

famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5.5.19) speech. Could it be that the Macbeths

are simply dark and deeply disturbed individuals? Does the correlation between violence and

attraction explain why they did what they did? This could be a compelling argument for Kurzel

to make, but he is inconsistent in his portrayal of their characters. While he continues to portray

the violent relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as disturbingly sexual, he also

provides other more “human” explanations for their characters that complicate this interpretation.

Kurzel further muddles Macbeth’s character by suggesting that Macbeth committed his

crime because he is suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his

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experience as a soldier. We are shown Macbeth fighting valiantly in battle with no mercy for his

opponents, his “…brandished steel, / Which smoked with bloody execution…Till he unseamed

[Macdonald] from the nave to the chops” (1.2.17-22). At the same time, Kurzel makes a choice

to reduce Macbeth’s persona as a war machine by showing him helping to prepare other soldiers

for battle, many of which happen to be young boys. One particular young boy dies during the

opening battle and is whom Macbeth hallucinates throughout the film. It is this boy, with a

dagger in his hand, which “appears” to Macbeth right before he is to kill Duncan:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art though not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art though but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? (2.1.33-9)

In Shakespeare’s text there is no apparition, this dagger is metaphorical, whether the actual

dagger appeared on stage as a “fatal vision” is irrelevant. The point of the soliloquy is to show

Macbeth as a murderer with a conscience, he is grappling with whether he can follow through

with the plan to kill Duncan and is struggling to even grasp the “dagger.” Polanski’s Macbeth

delivers this soliloquy with the same sentiment, expect the dagger is no longer metaphorical, in

the film he is chasing a glowing dagger and failing to grasp it.

Kurzel reinterprets this soliloquy, no longer is Macbeth speaking to himself, he is

addressing the “fatal vision” of the young boy he saw killed in battle. The young boy is holding a

dagger and holding it out to Macbeth. Ignoring the offering of the dagger, Macbeth reaches for

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the young boy’s face. The line “Come let me clutch thee” no longer refers to the dagger, but the

young boy. Macbeth does not questions whether the dagger, which is symbolic of the murder he

is about to commit, is real but whether the young boy is real or simply a “dagger of the mind,”

which in Kurzel’s adaptions comes off as a coy play on words (i.e. boy is holding dagger but he

could simply be a dagger, or illness, of Macbeth’s mind). Macbeth’s lines are no longer referring

to his warring conscience but some sort of longing for the young boy, a deep guilt over his death.

With Kurzel’s reinterpretation, the sentiment and tone of the speech shift and highlight not only

Macbeth’s empathetic human nature but also his concern over the “daggers [that afflict his]

mind”, and his “heat-oppressèd brain.” As viewers, we too are growing suspicious of Macbeth’s

mental state as we watch him try to embrace and engage with an apparition. Kurzel ensures that

this interpretation is the only one his audience can make by cutting the lines: “I see thee yet in

form as palpable / As this which I now draw” (2.1.40-1) as well as the stage direction that

follows, “[He draws a dagger].” There is no way that Kurzel could have made these lines and

stage directions refer to Macbeth addressing an apparition, so he cut them in order to push onto

the audience the persona of Macbeth as a deeply troubled soldier with PTSD.

At this point, what are we to make of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? Did they kill Duncan

because they are simply dark and twisted individuals, did they derive some sort of sexual

gratification from the deed? Did Macbeth, who is suffering from his years in battle and grieving

the loss of a young soldier, simply “snap” and kill Duncan? Kurzel also makes stylistic changes

regarding Lady Macbeth, which only leads to more questions regarding her motivation for

conspiring with Macbeth. One of these changes revolve around Lady Macbeth grieving the loss

of her child and her lack of children, which is made obvious with the focus on the sheer number

of children belonging to others throughout the film. Does her grief somehow propel her to

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conspire in Duncan’s murder? As the audience is trying to make sense of all these possible

explanations for the Macbeths’ actions, they cannot forget about those pesky witches that keep

popping up, continually reminding us of their presence but never actually doing anything, are

they at all responsible?

Kurzel cannot seem to decide on one cohesive explanation for why the Macbeths killed

Duncan, so he presents all of them. He takes the ambiguity in Macbeth, and applies every

possible interpretation to it, reducing the storyline to a confusing mix of motives. Popular culture

in this century is obsessed with true crime and the psychology of a killer. It is clear that Kurzel

tried to appeal to this audience, but he ultimately fails to allow the audience to reach any sort of

final conclusion because he provides a plethora of different ones. Kurzel’s Macbeth does not

adhere to “who-done-it” rationale while providing an explanation; instead he leaves his audience

as confused as his characters. While the scenery, costumes, and actors of Kurzel’s Macbeth are

beautiful, if you want to engage with the actual story that Shakespeare wrote, I’d suggest you

skip the film and seek out other adaptations. While Polanski’s Macbeth may be old-fashioned

and the special effects laughable, it conveys the actual message and complexity of Macbeth as

written by Shakespeare.

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Works Cited

Bonn, Scott. "Why We Are Drawn to True Crime Shows." Time. Time, 8 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ford, Rebecca. "Cannes: Justin Kurzel on What Makes 'Macbeth' a Western (Q&A)." The

Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 17 May 2015. Web.

Leigh, Danny. "Macbeth Director Justin Kurzel: ‘You’re Getting Close to Evil’." The Guardian.

The Guardian, 24 Sept. 2015. Web.

Weinraub, Bernard. "'If You Don't Show Violence the Way It Is,' Says Roman Polanksi, 'I Think

That's Immoral and Harmful. If You Don't Upset People Then That's Obscenity'." New

York Times. New York Times, 12 Dec. 1971. Web.