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MacbethApril 12 was Shakespeare’s birthday. The real Shakespeare, I mean: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I thought a little celebrating was in order, so I watched one of the best Shakespeare films ever made: Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth.

When I was a kid, that was one of my favorite plays. Still is. The language!

Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

I should have used that one to get dates, but I never seemed to be able to work it into a conversation with the girls in my class. Airheads.

Anyway, I got really hooked on Shakespeare when I saw a televised production with Maurice Evans as Macbeth and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, the role she was most famous for. Talk about undaunted mettle!

You may remember her as Mrs. Danvers, the domineering housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. She was almost too scary as Lady Macbeth, and though I admired her no end, I vaguely wondered why Macbeth would marry her. Yes, a man wants a woman with her share of undaunted mettle, but there are reasonable limits. How do you pop the question to a battle-ax like Mrs. Danvers? And where do you take her for a honeymoon?

Roman Polanski took a daring new approach. Working with the brilliant critic Kenneth Tynan, he made the Macbeths a young, attractive couple on the make, instead of the usual plummy-voiced, middle-aged folks. Jon Finch played Macbeth as a handsome warrior, and Francesca Annis was a gorgeous Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth had qualms about murdering King Duncan, she didn’t humiliate him with reproaches; hurt and disappointed, she melted him with tears.

A kinder, gentler Lady Macbeth was certainly a new departure, but it was a brilliant success. Most Shakespeare productions make me wince; this one is a triumph. By making this formidable woman weaker and less tough than her husband thinks she is, Polanski prepares us for her panic and crackup later. Guilt destroys her. Macbeth is almost undone by it at first—“O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”—but learns to live with it. Her madness leaves him completely isolated as he goes from one atrocity to another.

When Macbeth was released, it was rated “X.” Annis played Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene nude, but it was so discreetly shot that Hugh Hefner, who financed the film, must have been, well, hurt and disappointed.

What’s really shocking is the violence. After a rough opening battle scene—seen a man killed with a mace lately?—we see the Thane of Cawdor brutally executed and King Duncan murdered (these deaths happen offstage in the play), but that’s the least of it. Banquo gets a broad-ax through the spine and is pitched into a stream; then his ghost makes a hair-raising appearance at dinner; a little later, Macduff’s young son is dispatched in a horrifying way; finally, Macbeth kills several men in single combat and is himself beheaded by Macduff (again, it happens offstage in the play).

But Polanski really excels not in extremes of mayhem, but in the unexpected, unsettling little touches. Think of Jack Nicholson’s nostril in Chinatown; you remember that moment (Polanski himself wielded the switchblade) long after you’ve forgotten a thousand movie shootings. One of the Weird Sisters is an eyeless, toothless old crone, ugly enough to give you nightmares; where did they dig her up? On the night of Duncan’s murder, even the cleansing rain startles.

The scenery is gorgeously filmed. The natural beauty of the settings only underlines the unnatural doings going on within them, just as the poetry celebrates the normal order Macbeth is destroying. The terrible evil is accentuated by the goodness it violates, the darkness by the daylight. The film’s images capture the story’s paradoxes. Banquo’s killers, though thugs, are also a pair of oddly touching losers.

Of course we go to productions of Shakespeare for thrilling acting, but here we have to settle for competence. The peerless Laurence Olivier could never raise the money to film his legendary Macbeth, sneaking quick furtive glances at his own hands to make sure they weren’t bloody; and the world is forever the poorer for it.

But Polanski’s inspired direction almost allays one’s regrets that Jon Finch can’t fill Olivier’s shoes. He shows that even fidelity to Shakespeare can leave plenty of room for surprise.

Books on this topic may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate. All rights reserved by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Appears here by permission.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious from the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. This essay was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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7 replies to this post
  1. I remember my high school English class going on an outing to watch the Macbeth film. Though I only saw it the one time, I still remember how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps it's time to find it on DVD and enjoy it again after all these years.

  2. I enjoyed this piece by Joseph Sobran, who is always worth reading, but like Anonymous I regret that Sobran has joined the Earl of Oxford faction. The whole authorship controversy seems to have started from a sense that no one who was not an aristocrat and had not graduated from Oxbridge could have written the plays. I think, John, that the real snobbishness lies there. The best refutation of all this is in a recent book by James Shapiro (Columbia U.), "Contested Will".

  3. Thank you, Ben, and especially for the reference to Shapiro's book. What prompted my little snit of a reply to the other two is that they didn't seem to think that any such thing was necessary. That's snobbish. I don't have a dog in this fight. What is it that Sam Clemens said about Homer? Either he wrote the poetry or somebody by the same name did? I have in recent years tried to debate colleagues about the wars in the middle east, Straussians to be precise. They don't respond, because they don't have to. They control policy. I detected a similar tone in the two things above. If all one has to do to respond to Joe is say "crap" or "no proof", I think, "ideologue," and I don't like ideologues of any kind.

  4. Thanks, John. And of course I agree with you that one should present an argument and perhaps some facts, not just dismiss an idea with slurs and unsupported assertions. Right now I am imagining meeting up with you in Great Falls and talking Shakespeare, Straussians, and whatnot. Then going fishing! Cheers, Ben

  5. I have removed several comments from this thread which failed to meet a high standard of civility or which did not enhance discussion within the Imaginative Conservative community. I apologize for previously publishing them.

    Please take note of the policy regarding discussion on this site. "Please demonstrate a generous spirit in all comments. Comments deemed to violate a high standard of civility or which do not enhance discussion within the Imaginative Conservative community will not be published." This policy is clearly printed below the comment box.

    Additionally, while we allow "anonymous" comments, we make it a policy not to print unsupported comments critical of the author or his essay, especially from those who choose to withhold their names. It is unjust to ask our contributors to attach their name to a work and then allow "anonymous" critics to dismiss their writing with slurs and/or unsupported assertions.

    We do not require that comments agree with the views expressed on The Imaginative Conservative. We do require that the comments are civil and thoughtful. Comments deemed to violate this standard will not be published. Blogger does not allow us to respond directly to the author of the comment when we choose not to print a submitted comment. We may only publish or delete. Inquires may be sent to

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  6. *Sigh*

    Ok, I think there has been a big misunderstanding here. Two people, myself included, made comments about one of Sobran's views. A view which is widely contested. I even said I was not attacking Sobran but his silly support for the even sillier oxford theory. When I made the comment, I was not expecting any flack for it, indeed I didn't think anyone here at IC supported the oxford theory, just that they liked the essay by Sobran and put it up regardless. I thought that was the end of it. Then I was accused of being snobbish, and later being associated with ideology. My comments were not uncivil, but I was offended yes. Then I even wrote a reply citing an author who has worked to put down the oxford myth (Joseph Pearce), that comment was not displayed however. I do not believe my later comments were uncivil either, though I was annoyed with the accusations thrown at me by Mr. John Wilson.

    In my defense, I never thought a big stink would come out of this, nor did I intend to create one. Had I thought this would happen, I would have refrained from commenting.

    "It is unjust to ask our contributors to attach their name to a work and then allow "anonymous" critics to dismiss their writing with slurs and/or unsupported assertions"
    I am "anonymous" because I never use my real name online, just like I never use ANY of my personal info online, not because I want to attack anyone, but for privicy reasons. Nor did I dismiss Sobran's work, nor even his entire essay, just his opening comment. And about slurs, I would hold this:
    anyone who plays the shakespeare is not shakespeare game is hurling HUGE slurs and false accusations against the real life William Shakespeare. That is not okay.

    I don't hold any grudge against the moderator for removing the comments, he is only trying to keep the peace after all. But I do hope this comment will get published, so readers can understand my side of the story. However even if they don't at least the moderator (Winston Elliot III) will get to see them, and understand that I meant no offense. Thank you.

  7. Dear Anonymous: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. The only option I have with comments is to publish or not publish in their entirety. So, as in this case, if I only wish to leave out a word or phrase which I believe would be better left unpublished I don't have that option. I have no opinion on the "real Shakespeare" question and no expertise in the area. I just want to post thoughtful essays and comments which will lead to a better understanding of the broader questions. When authors are unknown to me I cannot write them to suggest alterations to comments to allow them to fit within our comment parameters.Thank you for your understanding.

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