Published: 18 November 2015

“Why are you silent?” – The ‘new’ Lady Macbeth


By Heather Christian, School of the Arts Press

As the film going audience eagerly await the new season of award ceremonies, we look at one of the contenders – the latest film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

Macbeth, by Australian Director, Justin Kurzel, premiered at The Cannes Film Festival this year. The overwhelmingly positive reviews that followed meant its release into UK cinemas earlier this month was greatly anticipated.

The two lead actors, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, give powerful yet nuanced performances and there is clear dramatic chemistry between the two. Whilst both have been praised by critics for revitalising Shakespeare and reaching out to modern audiences, we must ask: how modern and ground breaking is the portrayal of Lady Macbeth?

The film is visually stunning, macabre and perhaps even more tragic than Shakespeare intended himself. Kurzel’s interpretation of the tale about a famous Scottish warrior, that commits regicide under the orders of his wife, is much darker and sinister than expected.

Fassbender’s interpretation of one of William Shakespeare’s most tragic heroes is absolutely mesmerising. Critics have even gone as far as to make the claim that Fassbender was born for the role and although his portrayal of Macbeth is undoubtedly stunning, where does this leave his wife?

The Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play is infamous for her savage ambition, ruthlessness and ability to manipulate. There is a definite link made between the desire for power and violence with masculinity. Lady Macbeth has feelings and desires associated with a male soul, yet are restricted by her gender.

Unfortunately Marion Cotillard’s portrayal pales in comparison to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth; her lines are whispered throughout and her submissive demeanour ensures she is somewhat lost in the darkness of the film.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Cotillard’s character is overshadowed by Fassbender’s Macbeth. It appears Kurzel has given Macbeth all the power that Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth originally held; everything Macbeth does is powerful, dramatic and bold whilst everything Lady Macbeth does is understated.

A very poignant question that Macbeth asks his wife in the film, prior to murdering the Macduff family, is “Why are you silent?” Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth encourages the obliteration of the Macduff family, yet here her silence represents absolute abhorrence towards the act her husband is about to commit.

After her initial encouragement to murder King Duncan, it is clear Lady Macbeth is silent because she is horrified by her own monstrous creation – Macbeth. Through choosing to have Lady Macbeth present feelings of sympathy and guilt, Kurzel appears to be providing her with greater depth than Shakespeare does. Here Lady Macbeth is not simply a character of madness from a tragic play. An attempt has been made to make her a real person, a woman with her own tragic past.

The opening scene of the film shows the funeral of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s young child, later revealed to have died from disease. Shakespeare merely alludes to the death of a child but here Kurzel makes it explicit. Consequently the serious issue of grief is explored and indicated as a possible reason for her behaviour.

Professor Julia Hallam, from the School of the Art’s Media and Communication Department, explains: “This tragedy in her life positions Lady Macbeth as a character that we should feel sympathy for because of her dead child, rather than a character who has the capacity to give us insight into the quest for power. As a result of this Lady Macbeth becomes a figure of pity.”

Her final soliloquy in the film is addressed to her dead child, who viewers see before she dies. Kurzel mirrors Shakespeare by not making her cause of death clear but it is presumed she commits suicide. This further extends the quietness of her character in that even her death is hushed.

It is disappointing for viewers to be given such a clear insight into Lady Macbeth’s distressing past, for her to then have such an insignificant death – unlike Macbeth whose death is Wagnerian in comparison.

The angle is clear; Kurzel has tried to make Lady Macbeth a character with depth, feeling and authenticity but this backfires because the power struggle between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is not allowed to play out; it is predetermined.

Despite the attempt to make Lady Macbeth a more authentic character, Professor Hallam says: “Macbeth seems a much stronger character in this interpretation, partly because the film is firmly focused on the male star and Lady Macbeth as his love interest.”

In this sense then, little has changed since Shakespeare first wrote his play; Lady Macbeth is still identified through her husband’s name, his identity and his actions, not her own.  Viewers will have to wait until February to see whether Oscars will follow for the tragic heroine.

5.00 avg. rating (98% score) - 8 votes

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