Macbeth has been done many times on stage, and many times on the silver screen. Here are the classic Macbeth movies on DVD:

Macbeth Movie 1971: Roman Polanski

It is surprising that so few films have been made of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, given that the play is such an exciting drama, filled with all the ingredients that would keep an audience on the edge of their seats.

Certainly, when Poanski’s 1971 Macbeth movie came out in 1971 it was a blockbuster. The cinemas filled up with groupbookings by schools as teachers crocodiled their students to the local theatre. It met the cinematic expectations of movie-goers of the time, with its extreme and vivid violence, nudity, close-up face to face fighting and special effects. And it was a brilliant resource for students coming to Shakespeare for the first time. If you watch it now it’s almost laughable in its datedness.

More serious, though, is its illustration of Polanski’s misunderstanding of the play. When Macbeth is on  his way to murder Duncan he is drawn to his chamber by a dagger that he sees, leading him on. It’s clear that Macbeth is imagining the dagger but Polanski can’t resist the opportunity for a special effect – a dagger that hangs in the air, glowing, and moving forward, literally leading Macbeth. Although Shakespeare has the stage direction for Banquo’s ghost to appear it is clear in the text that it’s an image of Macbeth’s fear and guilt and the appearance of an actor is a distraction from Macbeth’s reaction. It’s a matter of judgment as whether to have an actual ghost and in this case it’s bad judgment.

One of the great aspects of this play is the way Shakespeare manipulates audience response to Macbeth throughout the text. Your sympathies are entirely with Macbeth at first, even and especially after the murder of Duncan, until the brutal slaughter of  Macduff’s family. After that you see Macbeth for the brutal, power-hungry tyrant that he has become. When he eventually accepts his condition and puts on his soldier’s uniform and becomes something of his old self your sympathies return. In the first part of the play Shakespeare takes you deep into Macbeth’s mind and you travel down his path, identifying with his ambition and desire, hardly unaware of the horror you are entering into. And after Duncan’s murder, you are still deep in there, experiencing Macbeth’s fear and guilt for yourself. It is important, therefore, that you do not see Macbeth killing Duncan. That’s why Shakespeare has the murder take place offstage. Polanski can’t resist inserting a murder scene, thus spoiling the play entirely. When, in the exact middle of the play, you see a little child brutally murdered on stage – one of the most horrifying things that can happen in human life – you are shocked and appalled and you’re jerked out of Macbeth’s mind. Shakespeare helps you by showing Macbeth through the eyes of others for the first time. Polanski misses all of that.

This may still be a way of introducing students to the play but there are better ways available now, and better film versions, particularly The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1978 version with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.


Macbeth Movie 1978: Trevor Nunn

Nunn’s 1978 Macbeth movie is not cinematic in any way – it’s theatrical, a television version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production – but nevertheless a brilliant film.

The actors sit in a large circle and come forward for their performances. Most of the time you are unaware of the circle of actors as the filming is always close-up with the focus on the characters, isolated and lit, with darkness all around them. The language of the play indicates the perpetual darkness, as this is a vision of Hell. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have turned their castle into a hell and when Duncan enters beneath its portals that’s what he is going into. The comic scene with the porter at the gate spells it out, even if the images of Hell throughout pass you by, which they won’t because of the way the actors deal with the poetry.

The emphasis is therefore on the acting, and you wouldn’t find better acting anywhere, especially as this is among the finest performances of these two great actors.

There are no sets, only imaginative lighting and camera work. Colour is muted, the only real colour being the blood on Macbeth’s hands after he has murdered Duncan. The focus is mainly on the faces, which fill the whole screen. McKellen, particularly, conveys Macbeth’s emotions with language combined with facial expression.

One of the most striking and memorable moments is when Macbeth says ‘What hands are here? They pluck out my eyes.’ His hands, gleaming with blood, fill the screen as he contemplates what he has done. As blood is the most important poetic idea in the text much attention is given to that scene.

When Banquo’s ghost appears, twice, all you see is McKellen’s face as he suffers extreme guilt and emotional pain. He is physically sick as he confronts the ghost, which, of course, no-one else sees. When he goes to the witches to find out more about his fate, instead of a parade of spirits, which you see in Polanski’s film of 1971, once again the focus is on McKellen’s face. He makes the language work in the way he deals with it.

Judi Dench, dressed throughout in a tight black body suit, appears for the most part, as a white face, the darkness in which she exists being the main feature.

This is a version that you must see. It’s entirely faithful to the text, uncut and complete. Trevor Nunn and the two actors show an impressive understanding of the text and their interpretation of it is as definitive as any interpretation could be.


Interested in Macbeth? Check out our modern Macbeth ebook

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