It is certainly not news that Macbeth contains religious references in its dialogue and plot. Noted scholar of early modern religious psychology, John Stachniewski, goes as far as to argue that “of all Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth contains the most insistent religious language.”[1] One can view the play in terms of how many Bible passages it paraphrases, from Macduff’s reference to the temple being broken open to Macbeth’s reference to Banquo’s line lasting “to th’ crack of doom.”[2] One can look more broadly at how the play’s themes compare to works from the same period and see connections between Macbeth and Paradise Lost, the hero enacting “Satan’s terrible resolve, ‘Evil be thou my good.’”[3] Whichever viewpoint one uses to explore Macbeth, the play contains a wealth of religious references or religious concepts to confront — particularly regarding sin’s consequences, human life’s value, and the supernatural realm’s existence. Shakespeare’s religious framework and references create a cultural apologetic that affirms human life in a genuinely supernatural world,  assuming a Christian moral code where humans have value and actions have consequences, and violating the moral law has grave consequences.

Adapting a text for film necessarily involves deciding which material to maintain or omit, including the text’s religious references. For example, a director may depict Shakespeare’s three witches as hallucinations or women without any supernatural origin; however, Walter Clyde Curry argues that the latter choice undercuts “the medieval system of metaphysics which manifests itself everywhere in ‘Macbeth.’”[4] Directors not only make choices about how much of a text’s material to include in the film; they (consciously or not) make choices that (intentionally or not) redirect the religious imagery. In other words, different adaptations of Macbeth create different cultural apologetics and, in fact, suggest various different religious belief systems. For this review essay, I watched the five major film adaptations of Macbeth. The following is a brief consideration of how each one engages with the religious content of Shakespeare’s play, and may be interpreted in terms of cultural apologetics (defined as the vision Shakespeare casts of a world ruled by Christian metaphysics and morality).

ORSON WELLES’ MACBETH (1948)

Orson Welles’ adaptation of Macbeth premiered in 1948, 12 years after his famous New York theater production that changed the setting to Haiti and “featured voodoo drumming, colorful jungle scenery, and an all-black cast.”[5] Welles keeps the 1948 film in Scotland, but uses a recurring image comparable to a voodoo doll: in the first scene, the witches recite their opening lines while molding a clay figure in a cauldron. When Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches, they reveal the figure wearing a crown. The figure appears again in several intercut scenes throughout the film; when Macbeth voices his dagger monologue, the camera cuts to the figure with a dagger held in front of its face. When Macduff deals the fatal blow, the camera cuts to the figure’s head falling off. The movie’s final scene shows the witches looking at Macbeth’s castle, as one says, “peace, the charm’s wound up.”[6] In the play, the witches say this line before their first meeting with Macbeth; placing it at the film’s end suggests they await a new target to toy with.

In conversations with Peter Bogdonavich, Welles explained, “I saw the witches as representatives of a Druidical pagan religion suppressed by Christianity — itself a new arrival.”[7] The Christian side of this spiritual war is mostly represented by a holy man carrying a staff with a Celtic cross, who arrives to tell Macbeth and Banquo about King Duncan honoring them. The holy man stretches out his staff and commands the witches to leave before he addresses Macbeth. Later, the holy man (instead of Banquo, as in the play) warns Macbeth not to trust “instruments of darkness.”[8] At Macbeth’s castle, the holy man leads everyone in the prayer of Saint Michael before Duncan begins his celebrations. In the final battle, the holy man appears at the front lines of Macduff and Malcolm’s forces (all wearing Celtic crosses on their armor) storming Dunsinane. Macbeth mocks them and throws his spear, striking the holy man down. The pagan witches’ pawn striking down Christianity’s representative seems a defeat; but cross-bearing armies rush Dunsinane and kill Macbeth, suggesting that Christianity is the victor. Ultimately though, as noted earlier, Welles gives the witches the last line, and it’s a line that suggests they are plotting fresh hostilities.

Welles’ spiritual warfare motif accomplishes two things. First, by representing Macbeth as someone manipulated by pagan forces in a war with Christianity, the film turns his journey into a backstory rather than the work’s central concern. The film’s primary plot is not the Macbeths’ plotting, but their role in a war between Scotland’s old and new religions. Samm Deighan exaggerates, I think, when he calls this war “a strange folk horror element” in the film;[9] folk horror is a post-1960 subgenre, and emphasizes natural landscapes (a far cry from Welles’ artificial sets).[10] Still, the spiritual warfare element makes Welles’ Macbeth an interesting precursor to folk horror, since folk horror films involve clashing religions or cultures, yet give ambiguous answers about which side triumphs.[11] Welles’ mixed ending is certainly ambiguous, leaving it unclear whether paganism or Christianity has won this spiritual skirmish. The play’s moral triumph, Macbeth being defeated after daring to “commerce with Hell,”[12] is undercut by a different message – that evil’s ultimate defeat is not guaranteed.

AKIRA KUROSAWAS THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)[13]

In his highly renowned adaptation of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa uses the same approach he used decades later in Ran, his adaptation of King Lear. In both cases, Kurosawa follows the play’s core plot, but transports it to medieval Japan, changing cultural references to fit the new milieu. In Throne of Blood, Banquo and Macbeth become samurai generals Miki and Washizu. King Duncan becomes the Great Lord Tsuzuki of Spider-Web Castle, and the three witches become a single old woman spinning thread on a wheel. Minae Yamamoto Savas explains that the old woman references the Noh play The Black Mound, one of many moments where Kurosawa uses Noh theater imagery.[14] The changes from medieval Scotland to medieval Japan, plus references to Noh theater, create many complex changes between Shakespeare’s play and Kurosawa’s film. For this article’s purposes, one key change is worth noting: Kurosawa presents the story’s conflict as individuality versus community. Shakespeare’s cultural apologetic, rooted in a Christian worldview where individuals and systems both matter, is replaced by a Buddhist emphasis on impersonality.

Savas observes that “in Japanese cultural tradition, the importance of joint responsibilities linking members of the group is highly valued, while in Western culture, emphasis is on individuality.”[15] Japan’s emphasis on community over individuality is rooted in its Buddhist heritage, where individuality is suspect because individuality affirms the existence of a self. As Irving Hexham explains, outside the early Indian Buddhist school known as the Personalists, almost all Buddhism has maintained that “there is neither a self nor a person.”[16] Royall Tyler details how Buddhism informs Noh theater, depicting “beings who are subject to the passions” as suffering in hell for holding onto their desires.[17] Anthony Davies argues that Kurosawa transforms Macbeth in a critical way by using Noh theater: the form sees “no redemptive potential for the ambitious man, [which] places it quite clearly outside the medieval Christian universe of Shakespeare’s play.”[18] Following in the footsteps of Noh theater, and more broadly the Japanese Buddhist worldview, Throne of Blood depicts individual strivings (like Washizu’s wish to rule) as problematic, even destructive for communal values.

The film’s emphasis on community over individuality begins with the opening credits, which in Japanese state the title as Spider-Web Castle. Instead of listing the protagonist’s name (or the “throne of blood” that he sits in), Kurosawa emphasizes a kingly status symbol that encapsulates a king’s societal responsibilities. A throne implies a domain that requires administration, but only one person occupies a throne. An individual cannot have a castle in the way he could have a throne (he cannot relocate the castle, he cannot maintain it without staff — whom he must care for). Hence, a castle connotates responsibility to others in a way other kingly status symbols do not. From the opening credits onward, Kurosawa directs viewers to the ruler’s institution that he serves, not the individual warrior who desires to rule. Individuality must be subsumed into a larger scheme, backed by Buddhism’s “doctrine of no-self.”[19]

Throughout the movie, characters talk about the Great Lord’s title in terms of castle ownership, underlining the communal priority. Washizu is not told that he will be a ruler, but that he will be lord of Spider’s Web Castle. When his wife Ashaji wants to prod him toward greater things, she asks if he is content at the North Garrison rather than Spider’s Web Castle. Even though Washizu and Ashaji pursue self-centered goals (killing a ruler and taking his place), they rationalize their individual desires as joining something larger. Unfortunately, as Stephen Price observes, their desires belong to “the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion.”[20] In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s actions are sinful, but his capacity for individual desires is not the problem. Macbeth’s lust for power perverts a Christian worldview, where humanity must follow God, but where God still values individual personalities — thus, the Psalmist can ask God, “Keep me as the apple of your eye.”[21] In Buddhism, according to Hexham, “God or gods have nothing to say about humans’ ultimate fate,”[22] and salvation only comes at the end of all personality.

The ending of Throne of Blood resolves the conflict between individuality and community by omitting Shakespeare’s contest between Macbeth and Macduff. In the play, Macbeth’s death is sealed when he orders that Macduff’s family be slaughtered, leading Macduff to declare, “bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself; within my sword’s length set him.”[23] Macduff killing Macbeth has personal stakes, yet achieves justice. After killing Macbeth, Macduff hails Malcolm as king, showing him “th’ usurper’s cursed head,” and the play ends with Malcolm addressing his subjects.[24] Hence, Shakespeare fuses individual interests (Macduff wanting to kill Macbeth) with communal needs (removing the tyrant king). Kurosawa omits the personal element entirely: he features a general named Odugura, who parallels Macduff, but Ordugura’s family never gets slaughtered. Odugura arrives at Spider-Web Castle not for vengeance, but as one of several commanders attacking a ruler whose ambition threatens the communal peace. When Odagura’s forces enter Spider-Web Castle, Washizu stands alone, taunting the army. Rather than a duel between Odagura and Washizu, the fight is settled by Odagura’s men unleashing arrows at Washizu. Washizu’s individualism leads to his death; the community collaborates to remove him.

In short, Kurosawa translates the play’s Christian cultural apologetic, which values both individuals and communities, into a Buddhist cultural apologetic about individualism threatening community. Throne of Blood is an interesting example of translating Macbeth to new settings and culture and religious presuppositions.

ROMAN POLANSKI’S MACBETH (1971)

Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation attracted controversy for its grim tone and gore—both elements that many critics associated with the Manson Family recently murdering Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate.[25] While Welles and Kurosawa create their unique visions of Macbeth by adding new material, Polanski primarily creates his pessimistic vision by omitting or replacing material.

The film’s first scene shows the witches giving their opening discourse, as is standard. However, Rebekah Owens observes that the play’s stage instructions make the first scene “a very obvious supernatural sequence,” with thunder and lightning heralding the witches’ approach as they appear on the stage.[26] Instead, Polanski’s film begins with a long shot of an empty beach; then, a closeup shot shows three women walking onscreen dressed like “impoverished countrywomen.”[27] The women bury several items in the sand while chanting their famous opening lines, evidently performing a witchcraft ritual. However, the setting makes this ritual seem mundane, no more supernatural than nailing a horseshoe to a door. The sense that these women are nothing supernatural continues when they meet Macbeth and Banquo. The two warriors stop as they ride, observing these women at the roadside. The women give their unsettling prophecies, but seem nothing more than “a gaggle of strange-looking women encountered in the middle of nowhere.”[28] Owens highlights that when Macbeth presses them for more information, they scramble into a cave rather than vanish.[29] Sara M. Deats concurs that the witches’ leaving, rather than disappearing, removes the sense of something otherworldly occurring.[30]

Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches seems more supernatural: he sits with them in their cave while they stir a potion, then drinks the potion and sees strange things that he takes for genuine visions. However, Owens observes that all the visions seem to “arise from Macbeth himself.”[31] She cites how instead of an armored head, Macbeth’s reflection tells him to beware Macduff; a voice tells him “none of woman born”[32] can harm him but mixes with Macbeth’s voice saying the same thing; instead of a crown-wearing child telling him about Burnham Wood, Malcolm and Donalbain say the lines while scampering like children.[33] Every image is off-putting but more hallucinatory (perhaps caused by substances in the potion) than clearly paranormal. For Owen, the way these elements emanate from Macbeth (his reflection talking, his voice joining in) implies the visions are “a reflection of Macbeth’s own imagination and not from a supernatural source.”[34]

As with Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches, Polanski’s changes cast doubts on whether anything truly supernatural is involved. Wendy Rogers Harper concludes, “the apparitions in Polanski’s film are not messengers from another world but psychological projections or psychogenically induced hallucinations.”[35] Hence, the film creates a fundamental change from the play, which follows an Elizabethan worldview assuming “an objective realm of evil” exists with dark spiritual forces.[36] C.S. Lewis suggests that Macbeth cannot be separated from the witches any more than Hamlet from his ghost.[37] While Polanski does not totally separate the witches from Macbeth, portraying them as purely natural removes a crucial part of the play’s cultural apologetic: the existence of objective supernatural entities influencing the natural world.

After undercutting the supernatural content, Polanski undercuts the tragedy with a different ending. Macbeth dies, and his head is held aloft as soldiers cheer. Abruptly, the camera cuts from the cheering soldiers to a new scene: the location where Macbeth and Banquo met the witches. Donalbain, not present earlier when his brother Malcolm got the crown, rides along and stops when he hears the same off-key singing that Macbeth and Banquo heard when they passed through this area. Donalbain moves toward the singing, and the screen cuts to black. William P. Shaw interprets Polanski’s last scene as indicating that Donalbain will meet the witches and start the violence again, “a continuous, unending cycle of violence rooted in humanity’s primal, beast-like concern with power, territory, and security.”[38] Hence, Polanski replaces the play’s ending, where good triumphs, with a nihilistic ending implying that evil will continue winning.

By undercutting the play’s supernatural content and providing a nihilistic ending, Polanski replaces the essentially Christian cultural apologetic of Macbeth with something else. The play’s affirmation that the supernatural truly exists and evil can ultimately be defeated is replaced in the film with the suggestion that the natural world is all that’s available, and evil will always continue to triumph.

JUSTIN KURZEL’S MACBETH (2015)

Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is probably the least-known of the major adaptations, perhaps because its visceral imagery polarized critics and viewers. Certainly, Kurzel’s images are striking, but more a further evolution of Polanski’s style (crossbred with Mel Gibson’s battle imagery from Braveheart) than a new innovation.

Kurzel truly innovates in his changes to the plot. He provides the most elegiac tone of all the major Macbeth films, cultivating a story preoccupied with grief and guilt.

The film sets itself apart from its shocking first scene, one which does not appear in the play — Macbeth and his wife burying their young child. Philippa Shepherd calls this opening, depicting Macbeth as “a grieving father, placing stones on the eyelids of his dead baby… a humanizing opening.”[39] How much time passes between the opening and the subsequent scenes (the witches giving their opening lines, the battle with the Thane of Cawdor) isn’t clear, but the Macbeths behave throughout the film like parents processing a recent loss. A second loss may compound it: Shepherd suggests Macbeth has another son, a boy soldier whom he treats paternally (helping with his Celtic paint, securing his dirk) before their battle, only to burn the boy’s body on a pyre after the battle.[40] Have the Macbeths lost two children? Kurzel didn’t confirm the boy soldier’s identity in a 2015 interview but admitted that he recast the Macbeths as people who “use ambition to replace grief.”[41]

Making the Macbeths into grieving parents adds an interesting subtext. When Lady Macbeth switches from talking about breastfeeding a baby to talking about dashing the baby’s brains out, audiences know for a fact that she has nursed (at least one) baby. Further, they would probably be horrified that a grieving mother could talk about killing children. When Macbeth talks about his fruitless line compared to Banquo’s line, he gently presses a dagger against Lady Macbeth’s stomach. Macbeth’s recent loss and grief add a heartbreaking dimension to his fruitless quest.

A plot involving dead children and grief mixed with ambition suggests that Kurzel is halfway to making Macbeth into a gothic ghost story; in fact, he makes that final step. Hanh Bui observes, “there are certainly dead and phantasmic children in Shakespeare’s play,” from Lady Macbeth’s line about nursing a baby to the witches conjuring a child to speak to Macbeth.[42] However, she argues that Kurzel “puts children at the center of Shakespeare’s tragedy.”[43] For example, after the funeral scene, the film cuts to the witches on a heath giving their opening lines, one holding a baby and another a little girl.[44] The baby and little girl appear in each of the witches’ scenes — not just when they appear to Macbeth, but in an added scene where Lady Macbeth sees them while walking on the heath. The fact that both Macbeths see the same witches carrying the same children undercuts any argument that these are individual hallucinations: they must be genuine supernatural phenomena. Furthermore, the fact Lady Macbeth sees the witches in her final scene creates a bookend to her husband’s encounters with the witches. He sees children as he starts his quest; she sees children as her quest spirals out of control. Neither finds that their quest replaces their parental grief.

Along with underlining the play’s emphasis on children, Kurzel adds new ghosts. Shepherd highlights how in the dagger scene, the boy soldier who could be Macbeth’s dead son “appears as a ghost with the fateful dagger,” which Macbeth accepts.[45] Lady Macbeth says her “out damned spot” monologue lying on a chapel floor, alone. As she finishes her monologue, including the words “come, give me your hand,”[46] her face becomes excited as if speaking to someone off-camera. Then the camera angle shifts to show a little boy sitting on the chapel floor. Bui interprets the little boy as “her dead child, riddled with smallpox scars and sitting up in his nightgown.”[47] Like the boy soldier who gave Macbeth a dagger, this child says nothing. Thus, Kurzel not only features the ghost of Lady Macbeth’s son but also turns Lady Macbeth’s words into a grieving mother’s plea for reconnection. If Shepherd is correct that Macbeth accepts his dagger from the ghost of his older son, then the two scenes parallel: both parents are haunted by their dead children.

The ghostly children, paired with the Macbeths’ parental grief and the witches having children, make Kurzel’s Macbeth essentially a gothic ghost story.[48] The ghosts are ambiguous, for they provide various roles. One ghost seemingly offers an escape (the boy soldier giving Macbeth a dagger). Another ghost seemingly gives a reminder (the little boy reminding Lady Macbeth of the loss she tried replacing with power). While the two ghosts perform different roles, each reminds the Macbeths of what they have lost. The ghost boy appearing to Lady Macbeth particularly reminds her that grasping for power can’t replace grief.[49]

Approaching Macbeth as a gothic ghost story about misdirected parental grief and its consequences allows Kurzel to build on an aspect of the play’s cultural apologetic: sinners realizing that they are suffering for their sins. John D. Cox describes Macbeth’s suffering throughout the play as despair that “derives from a specifically Christian sense of what he does to himself.”[50] Macbeth knows he suffers for committing an unholy deed; he feels separated from God after killing Duncan, as seen when he says “I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.”[51] Since Shakespeare’s cultural apologetic depicts a world where murder is a grave sin, Macbeth’s suffering (and his ruminations on his suffering) is a consequence of the cultural apologetic. Kurzel uses Lady Macbeth’s encounters with her dead son and the witches’ children to depict the same kind of suffering — a painful reminder of what she tried to replace. Thus, Kurzel’s gothic ghost story approach amplifies the play’s cultural apologetic about murder having consequences, underlining how sin begets more suffering, reminding sinners how far they have fallen.

JOEL COEN’S THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2021)

While Polanski and Kurzel set their adaptations of Macbeth in naturalistic settings, Joel Coen went beyond the stage stylizations of Welles or Kurosawa for his 2021 adaption. Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth happens in a black and white world of precise buildings too clean for anyone to live in and outdoor settings that are clearly film sets with artificial foliage. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel explained how he and Coen reached this approach: “We arrived at the idea of a ‘haiku’: to strip everything down to essentials, taking out all ornaments.”[52] A stripped-down style, with minimal ornamentation and artificial sets, means whatever is included must have a purpose. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, the style has one particularly noticeable effect: any time an animal or plant appears, it stands out. Animal and weather features don’t appear in such a controlled setting for no reason.

The film begins with a black screen, the sound of bells tolling, then the word “when” appears onscreen. The screen stays black as audiences hear the witches’ opening lines, “when shall we three meet again….”[53] After the witches’ lines end, audiences see birds flying across a white beach. The flying birds are the film’s first image, and they become a recurring theme. After Duncan orders Ross to meet Macbeth, he looks up in confusion at some birds gathered overhead. Macbeth sees a bird accompanying Banquo’s ghost, and his staff finds him fighting with that bird in a side room. Most notably, in the film’s last scene, after Macbeth is killed and Malcolm crowned, Ross travels to meet an old man taking care of Fleance; birds swarm the screen as Ross takes Fleance away.

While the birds are the film’s first (and most recurring) image, they are not the only kind of nature that interacts with the characters. Coen also provides an interesting variation on the scene where Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Instead of Macbeth looking outside his castle and seeing the trees far off, the trees’ leaves pour into his throne room, covering him as if attacking him. While Coen hasn’t mentioned being influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous comment about how disappointing it is that Birnam Wood doesn’t actually come to Dunsinane,[54] he has expressed similar sentiments. Production designer Stephen Dechant recalled that while making The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen “said he never felt that the whole ‘Birman [sic] wood on the move’ had ever been captured successfully on film.”[55] Coen’s solution presents the most cinematic version of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane while turning the event into something apocalyptic. The trees, like the birds mentioned earlier, seem to enact judgment upon Macbeth for his sins.

Birds and trees aren’t the only natural elements interacting with the characters in Coen’s film. Coen includes a conversation omitted from the other major adaptations, which Shakespeare places directly after Macbeth murders Duncan and his sons flee Scotland. In the play, Ross talks with an old man outside Macbeth’s castle, chatting about “unnatural events” the night of Duncan’s death.[56] Ross comments that the old man “seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act”[57] and confirms a story that the old man heard about how Duncan’s horses “turned wild in nature” and ate each other.[58] Coen not only includes the conversation; he adds several twists. In the play, Ross converses with the old man, then Macduff approaches and tells Ross about Macbeth’s coronation at Scone. Coen reverses the order, so Ross learns about Macbeth getting what he wants, and then has an eerie conversation about the death that enabled Macbeth’s good fortune. Coen increases the conversation’s strangeness by having Kathryn Hunter, the same actress who plays all three witches, play the old man. Further, instead of Ross saying that he saw Duncan’s horses eat each other, Coen has the old man tell Ross about what happened. Ross looks at the old man skeptically; his expression changes to concern as he hears thunder, and then he looks up at the darkening sky.

Coen’s addition of the darkening sky at the end, and changes that increase the conversation’s eeriness, amplify its subject: the heavens seem to be reacting against Duncan’s death. E.M.W. Tillyard explains that Elizabethan audiences saw life as interconnected, “every speck of creation was a link in [a cosmic chain of being].”[59] Hence, through conversations like Ross speaking to the old man, and Macduff’s friend Lennox reporting earthquakes and storms on the night that Duncan died, Shakespeare cultivates a sense that Macbeth has affected the cosmos.[60] Coen’s use of the birds and trees, and the conversation about nature’s behavior when Duncan was murdered, underline the idea that God’s creation groans at Macbeth’s sins.

Coen’s use of leaves and birds pestering Macbeth suggests that nature is not only reacting to Macbeth’s crimes against the cosmic chain of being, but also judging him. In other cases, the birds suggest change more than judgment. When Duncan sees the birds in the sky, they don’t seem to mean judgment against him. When birds fill the screen at the film’s end, just after Ross has collected Fleance from the old man, they don’t seem to indicate judgment. On the other hand, the final birds don’t seem to represent good tidings. Coen depicts Ross as a duplicitous man — always the first to offer his services to the current victor (from offering Macbeth the sword to behead the Thane of Cawdor to handing Malcolm his crown). The fact that Hunter plays both the old man and the witches makes the old man harboring Fleance equally ambiguous — if he’s one of the witches, does that mean evil tidings are ahead? How does Fleance’s survival fit evil tidings, given the play’s subtext that Fleance will father the Stuart line? In the cases of Duncan and Fleance, the film implies that the birds herald change, but whether those changes are good or evil isn’t clear. What Coen does communicate with these two scenes is humans living in a numinous setting, a cosmic chain of being where creation and humanity interact in various ways.

By selectively emphasizing nature imagery against artificial sets, Coen highlights the play’s sense of cosmic significance. The Elizabethan view that life is a great chain of being, and therefore Macbeth’s actions have consequences on the natural and supernatural plane, stands out clearly in this film. Macbeth’s actions are not just terrible because he’s taken a human life or because of the political ramifications, but because he has violated something on the cosmic scale. In that respect, Coen captures Shakespeare’s cultural apologetic that Macbeth lives in a domain where the natural and supernatural are interconnected, where physical events have metaphysical consequences.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Each Macbeth adaptation interprets the play’s religious elements differently. Given his emphasis on the unity of all life (natural and human, mortal and supernatural), Coen may come closest to the moral and supernatural universe that Shakespeare depicts. Kurzel makes more ambiguous additions, giving a natural motivation for Macbeth’s rise to power and portraying ghosts as sometimes collaborators in sin, sometimes reminders of sin. Still, Kurzel’s emphasis on the supernatural’s genuine existence fits Shakespeare’s cultural apologetic, as does his emphasis on sinners being reminded of how far they have fallen. Welles’ spiritual warfare emphasis fits the play’s sense of conflict between supernatural forces. However, Welles’ paganism versus Christianity conflict doesn’t quite parallel the play’s Satan versus God conflict, and his mixed ending undermines Shakespeare’s clear moral triumph. Kurosawa’s translation of the story into medieval Japan removes the dialogue’s Biblical imagery and trades its Christian care toward individuals for a Buddhist emphasis on the self’s non-existence. However, even as Kurosawa provides a Buddhist cultural apologetic, he still highlights the play’s theme that murder has communal consequences — an idea that also fits the Christian moral imagination. Polanski empties the play of most of its religious content, trading supernaturalism and moral triumph for naturalism and nihilism. Still, Polanski’s choice to keep the dialogue’s Biblical allusions intact means his version doesn’t have a totally non-religious landscape.

In short, while Coen and Kurzel may get closest to Shakespeare’s cultural apologetic in Macbeth, the play proves to be an inescapably religious text. Even if the adaptors omit important scenes and transport the Scottish play to new settings, they can’t fully escape the material which almost certainly had religious implications for Shakespeare’s audience and, with variations, can still appeal to and even spark the human religious imagination.


[1] John Stachniewski, “Calvinist Psychology in Macbeth,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988), 169, accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.proquest.com/openview/c4b31f3ec55c9ff011743823284cb68d/.

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Signet, 1963), 4.1.117.

[3] Arthur Quiller-Couch, “The Workmanship of ‘Macbeth,’” The North American Review 200, no. 707 (1914), 587, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25108271.

[4] Walter Clyde Curry, “The Demonic Metaphysics in ‘Macbeth,’” Studies in Philology 30, No. 3 (1933), 413, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172210.

[5] Esther French, “Orson Welles and the Voodoo ‘Macbeth’ that launched his directing career,” Folger Shakespeare Library, May 26, 2016, accessed August 28, 2022, https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2016/05/06/orson-welles-voodoo-macbeth/.

[6] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.3.37.

[7] Jonathon Rosenbaum, et al, This is Orson Welles (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 214.

[8] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.3.124.

[9] Samm Deighan, “‘As Breath into the Wind: Supernatural Horror in Orson Welles’ Macbeth,” Diabolique Magazine, December 1, 2016, accessed August 28, 2022, https://diaboliquemagazine.com/breath-wind-supernatural-horror-orson-welles-macbeth/.

[10] These specifications for folk horror are drawn from Dawn Keetley, “Introduction: Defining Folk Horror,” Revenant Journal no. 5 (2020), accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.revenantjournal.com/contents/introduction-defining-folk-horror-2/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] C.S. Lewis, “Hamlet, The Prince or the Play?” in Selected Literary Essays ed. Walter Hooper (1969; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 99.

[13] Throne of Blood is the title of overseas releases, including the 2015 DVD viewed for this essay.

[14] Minae Yamamoto Savas, “Familiar Story, Macbeth — New Context, Noh and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood,” Education about Asia 17, no. 1 (2012), 23, accessed July 12, 2022, https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/familiar-story-macbeth-new-context-noh-and-kurosawas-throne-of-blood/.

[15] Ibid, 21.

[16] Irving Hexham, Encountering World Religions: A Christian Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 82.

[17] Royall Tyler, “Buddhism in Noh,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14, no. 1 (1987), 37, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30234528.

[18] Anthony Davies, Filming Shakespeare Plays: The Adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Peter Brook and Akira Kurosawa. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 166.

[19] Hexham, Encountering World Religions, 94.

[20] Stephen Price, “Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed,” Criterion, January 6, 2014, accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/270-throne-of-blood-shakespeare-transposed.

[21] Ps. 17:8 (NIV).

[22] Hexham, Encountering World Religions, 82.

[23] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3.232-233.

[24] Ibid, 5.8.55.

[25] For example, see Roger Ebert, “Reviews: Macbeth,” RogerEbert.com, January 1, 1971, accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/macbeth-1971.

[26] Rebekah Owens, Macbeth: Devils Advocates (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017), 50.

[27] Ibid, 51.

[28] Ibid, 53.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Sara M. Deats, “Polanski’s Macbeth: A Contemporary Tragedy,” Studies in Popular Culture 9, No. 1 (1986), 91, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23412902.

[31] Owens, Macbeth, 62.

[32] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.1.80

[33] Owens, Macbeth, 62-63.

[34] Ibid, 63.

[35] Wendy Rogers Harper, “Polanski vs. Welles on ‘Macbeth’: Character or Fate?” Literature/Film Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1986), 205, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43797525.205

[36] Curry, “The Demonic Metaphysics of “Macbeth,’” 399.

[37] Lewis, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” 97.

[38] William P. Shaw, “Violence and Vision in Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ and Brook’s ‘Lear,’” Literature/Film Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1986), 211, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43797526.

[39] Philippa Shepherd, “Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello,” Literature/Film Quarterly 46, no. 1 (2018), accessed August 28, 2022, https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/46_1/humbling_the_soldier_in_kurzels_macbeth_and_parkers_ othello.html.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Danny Leigh, “Macbeth director Justin Kurzel: ‘You’re getting close to evil,’ The Guardian, September 24, 2015, accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/24/macbeth-director-justin-kurzel-australian-film-maker-snowtown.

[42] Hanh Bui, “Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth,” Literature/Film Quarterly 48 no. 1 (2020), accessed August 28, 2022, https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/48_1/effigies_of_childhood_in%20kurzels_macbeth.html.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Shepherd, “Humbling the Soldier.”

[46] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.1.70.

[47] Bui, “Childhood Effigies.”

[48] For the use and significance of ghosts in Shakespearean production, see Laura Higgins’ essay in this volume.

[49] Bui, “Childhood Effigies.” Bui interprets Lady Macbeth’s scene with her dead child as “perhaps guilt over her previous willingness to dash out her baby’s brains has come home to roost.”

[50] John D. Cox, “Religion and Suffering in ‘Macbeth,’” Christianity & Literature 62, no. 2 (2013) 232, accessed August 28, 2022, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44324131. See also Cox’s essay in this volume.

[51] Shakespeare, Macbeth. 2.2.31-32.

[52] Benjamin B, “The Tragedy of Macbeth: Palace Intrigue,” American Cinematographer, January 4, 2022, accessed October 10, 2022, https://ascmag.com/articles/the-tragedy-of-macbeth.

[53] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.1.1.

[54] Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: HarperCollins), 212.

[55] Joe McGovern, “‘The Tragedy of Macbeth‘: How The Sets Were Designed as One Big Optical Illusion,” The Wrap, January 20, 2022, accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.thewrap.com/the-tragedy-of-macbeth-sets-optical-illusion/.

[56] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 2.4.10.

[57] Ibid., 2.4.5.

[58] Ibid, 2.4.16-19.

[59] E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage, 1959), 26.

[60] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 2.3.56-64.

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