× Current About Archive Submit Editorial Board Salisbury University

Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello

Othello (1604) and Macbeth (1606) were composed at a time when there were two dominant definitions of manhood in Western Europe, reflected in the polemical pamphlets, conduct manuals, and drama of the time. The street-sense of manhood was inextricably linked to the ability to inflict violence. This had been culturally entrenched by conduct books, from Castiglione’s The Courtier onwards, long before the composition of these plays. These books codify manliness as chiefly exhibited through military prowess and paternity. “Honour,” achieved mainly through martial combat and unbroken family lineage, is the badge of elite masculinity. In the absence of war, gentlemen proved their virility through duels: Ira Clarke observes that “the number of English duels…soared during the early 1600s” (114), and we see Shakespeare echoing this trend by including several in each play, especially in the climaxes when Macbeth fights Macduff, and Roderigo, Cassio, and Iago skirmish under the cloak of night.

In reaction to the high number of duels disturbing London’s peace, a plethora of books and pamphlets were published extolling the masculine virtue of self-control and decrying bestial violence. Examples are works by King James, Thomas Adams, Guillaume de Chevalier, and George Gifford (Clarke, 119). These texts promote a very different image of manhood – one in which manly strength is exemplified by peaceful and prudent service to the state. I will argue here that Shakespeare’s tragedies Macbeth and Othello trace the transition between these two definitions of manliness through their protagonists. In each case, the great generals, universally praised for their military skills, fail to transform themselves into good rulers. Their transition from wartime to peacetime leader is marred by their uxoriousness, which, according to the military manuals of the time, is tantamount to emasculation (see Barnabe Riche, Richard Crompton). Othello, hitherto inexperienced in love, is rendered vulnerable by his passion for his wife, which is played upon expertly by another soldier, Iago, who also fears cuckoldry. Macbeth, in an effort to continue to appear manly in his wife’s eyes, follows her plan despite his better judgement. Both generals give into passion and fear of betrayal, which renders them, as defined by the texts of the time, not only effeminate, but bestial, entirely losing their claim to manhood.

The complex decline of the two heroes, achieved through dialogue in Shakespeare’s plays, is translated into visual images in Oliver Parker’s 1995 film adaptation of Othello, and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film of Macbeth. In each case, the protagonist is initially presented as physically elevated, with all the badges of elite masculinity upon him. As each film progresses, the degradation of the general is manifested physically, as he is shown lower in the frame in many shots, depicted as vulnerable through illness, and clad in white garments that suggest to modern audiences the straight jacket or the hospital gown, the contemporary equivalent of the Elizabethan and Jacobean signifiers for lunacy: the nightgown and the loose hair. The battle scarring of their bodies is merely the outward manifestation of inward scars, the scarring of the mind wrought by war. In contrast, Parker’s Desdemona, whom we see in her bath, displays a strong, healthy body, unscathed by manly combat. Even Kurzel’s Lady Macbeth appears healthier than her spouse, the guilt taking much longer to unhinge her, despite her being unused to bloodshed in the field, and her reactions more in sync with the other (“normal”) characters in the play (she is just as astonished as her guests at Macbeth’s outburst at the banquet, and she weeps to see Lady Macduff and her children burnt at the stake). These films privilege the militaristic male body and, as a consequence, the wounded male body brought low figuratively and literally.

In order to highlight the uniqueness of these two directors’ approaches, it is useful to compare these two recent films with three that preceded them: Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 Macbeth, Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth, and Orson Welles’ 1951 Othello. I have selected the latter two, even though they are now quite old, because it seems fair to compare only theatrically-released feature films which use Shakespeare’s language with each other, rather than with adaptations that jettison his language, are designed for television, or for the stage.

Macbeth and Othello both seem, in their plots, to reflect the aftermath of Elizabeth I’s neglect of the average soldier. After losing a limb, said soldier returned to England without a pension, and was forced to beg for his bread (Cruickshank 153). The aristocratic soldier, like the Earl of Essex, was also overlooked, and unjustly treated. Sent away to wage battle with insufficient funds to pay and feed his soldiers, while other nobles stayed safe in court, their words ever in the monarch’s ear, he returned to meet her displeasure, while his rivals, having risked nothing, were rewarded. Both plays toy with the stereotype of the malcontent soldier. Keller describes his

…sense of injured merit… He feels that he has not been sufficiently rewarded for his services to the power structure represented in the play…He is willing to become a traitor if he cannot achieve his desired prosperity through loyal service (80-1).

This describes Iago perfectly, as far as he is characterized by his opening speech, which Parker mostly maintains. Kurzel’s film suggests that resentment of their kinsman Duncan’s greater standard of living is a contributing motivation for the Macbeths by forging a stark disparity between Macbeth’s seat, Inverness, a rag-bag collection of humble dwellings and tents, and Duncan’s splendid Gothic castle at Dunsinane. This disparity is not apparent in the other adaptations discussed here.

Against the reality of the neglected soldier is pitted the constant rhetoric of the time that courage, particularly martially displayed, is the most sought-after virtue in a man. Cominius in Coriolanus declares, “It is held/ That valour is the chiefest virtue, and/Most dignifies the haver.” (2.2.83-5). Sir Toby instructs Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night: “…assure thyself, there is no love-broker in the world can more prevail in man’s commendation with women than report of valour” (3.1.34-6). Macbeth and Othello have valour in spades, and, despite their lack of sons to complete the picture of ideal manhood, they are admired by many characters for their martial courage.1

Macbeth is defined right away by this manly virtue. The bloody captain’s first words about him are: “But all’s too weak,/For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name!-/Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel/Which smoked with bloody execution,/Like valour’s minion…” etc. (1.2.15-23).  The first narrative provided about Macbeth gives the audience a portrait of remorseless brutality (the unseaming). Kurzel maintains this speech in his film, but it is not our first encounter with Macbeth. We see first a grieving father, placing stones on the eyelids of his dead baby. For a contemporary audience, this is a humanizing opening. In interviews, Kurzel reveals that this was to be the motivation for the Macbeths’ ruthless ascent to the throne – their ambition is a distraction from their terrible loss (Leigh 15, Barnes 13). For a Jacobean audience, Kurzel’s opening, reinforcing Macbeth’s childlessness, would have signalled a dangerous threat to Macbeth’s manliness. Paternity partnered with valour as one of two dominant signifiers of masculinity in early modern Europe (Milligan, Tylus 21). Shakespeare forbears to reveal that Macbeth’s dynasty ends with him until his manliness has been established by the captain’s report. Kurzel seems to suggest that Macbeth has an older son, the boy whom he serves in various ways: daubing with Celtic war stripes and tying his dirk to his arm before the initial battle in which the boy is slain. Macbeth then carries him to his funeral pyre. This same boy appears as a ghost with the fateful dagger that leads Macbeth to Duncan asleep, and again to voice the witches’ prophecy and to stare at Macbeth before he dies at Macduff’s hands. These multiple conjurings of this adolescent son highlight Macbeth’s heirless state. His bitterness about it, especially in contrast to Banquo’s blessing in having Fleance, is expressed when Kurzel’s Macbeth places a poniard against Lady Macbeth’s womb as he speaks of his fruitless crown.

Kurzel’s opening intertitles announce that the greatly outnumbered royal army, under the generalship of Macbeth, faces a decisive battle against the rebels, in which the king has deployed his last reserve. This reserve army, we see, is made up of young boys, so untested as to need their daggers strapped to their wrists. In the play, Macbeth shares the captaincy with Banquo, and there is no mention of the king’s followers being outnumbered,2 but in the film, Macbeth is clearly leading the last campaign to save a beleaguered king. Kurzel thus raises the stakes, making the salvation of Duncan’s dynasty rest on Macbeth’s shoulders against insuperable odds. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a military hero; Kurzel’s is the sole saviour of Scotland.

Kurzel’s battle, set against the misty mountains of Skye (Roughead 29), is often shot in slow motion. The decisive duel between Macbeth and the rebel MacDonalwald described by the messenger, is balletic. Like the superheroes who regrettably dominate the screens today, Macbeth vaults into the air, his great sword aloft, and brings it down on the rebel thane. Duncan’s first sight of his saviour is mounted on a white-faced roan, from which he dismounts to receive his sovereign’s praise, saying little (the “strong, silent type”?). On his return from battle, he fills the doorway, clad in armour, while Lady Macbeth looks up at him. Nicked by enemy swords, striped by Celtic war paint, smattered with gore and mud from the battlefield, he is an emblem of early modern manliness.  Gerry Milligan and Jane Tylus, in their introduction to The Poetics of Masculinity in Early Modern Italy and Spain, describe the famous portrait of the battle-scarred face of Federico Montefeltro as embodying “an aesthetic of virile beauty” (17). Now, one might argue that the image of masculinity in Italy and Spain was quite different from that which prevailed in England. However, as Bruce R. Smith, echoing David Gilmore, contends, certain characteristics seem ubiquitous:

In every culture men are expected to propagate, provide and defend, but the ways in which they are expected to do those things vary from one culture to another. What remains constant across those differences, however, is that masculinity must be achieved. It is not a natural given. (2)

Michael Fassbender’s imposing physical presence in these opening scenes achieves the same end as the Montefeltro portrait, as his body seems to tower over the dainty Marion Cotillard (Lady Macbeth), his lupine mouth appearing large enough to devour her head.

As with Macbeth, Shakespeare introduces his tragic Moor through others’ description. Iago is mocking, but the portrait he draws nevertheless conveys Othello as manly and important, unswayed by others’ influence in his selection of lieutenant, even though he is a foreigner in Venice (1.1.7-32). Unlike Macbeth, however, Othello is instrumental in forming his own identity as a courageous soldier. The bloody captain creates the narrative that establishes Macbeth’s masculinity, but Othello fashions his tale himself. In response to Iago’s “concern” about Brabanzio wreaking revenge for the elopement, Othello says confidently: “My services which I have done the signory/Shall out-tongue his complaints… etc.”(1.2.17-28). Othello crafts himself as a military savior and a prince. Apart from his inconvenient race, he is the ideal early modern gentleman – accoutred with breeding and martial prowess. His only downfall is that, in admitting he never thought to marry (25-8), he suggests that he had not envisioned a son as part of his future. Indeed, as with Macbeth, he will remain heirless, a blow to his masculine image according to the culture of the time.

The image of Othello as an ideal military gentleman is further reinforced by the fact that he has been “hotly called for” by the Duke of Venice. Parker’s Othello (Laurence Fishburne) embodies sprezzatura, as he strides along, his black cape lined with red swirling about him. He is quick to draw his sword, but stately when he speaks, both in the street (1.2.60-62) and in his own defence at court (1.3.76-169).

We next see him in shining armour on a fine horse. He throws himself off, the perfect knight of chivalry, and kisses Desdemona, then announces that he has defeated the Turks. Orson Welles’ Othello too arrives in Cyprus in armour, an emblem of warlike masculinity. Later, we watch Parker’s Othello undress to consummate his marriage. The camera focuses in turn on his muscled bare chest, and his supple fingers as he slips the leather belt out of the heavy buckle on his pants, then on the predatory gleam in his eyes. When their wedding night is interrupted by the brawl, Othello again appears in total command, striding through the soldiers and whipping out his sword. The signifiers associated with him speak redolently of virility. Decision-making seems second-nature to him as he strips Cassio of his lieutenant’s sash. Welles’ Othello handles the same situation more briefly and quietly, not given much screen time to assess the situation. He appears towards the top of a set of steps, and, characteristically, Iago and Cassio stand far below him.

Decision-making does not come as easily to Macbeth. He wrestles with the immorality of killing Duncan in act one, scene seven, at some length. He arrives at the resolution to “proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31). In thirty-seven lines, Lady Macbeth persuades him to overturn his position. Her chief rhetorical tool is to attack his manhood. Whereas Othello is instrumental in self-fashioning his image as a military hero, Macbeth has his martial identity imposed from outside. First the bloody captain, then the witches, and finally Lady Macbeth tell the audience and him who he is. He is thus impressionable to the opinion of others in a way that Vern Bullough argues was typical for men of the time: “Failure to perform…was a threat not only to a man’s maleness but to society. Potency came to be not only the way in which a male defined himself, but how he was defined by society” (41). Bullough is referring here to sexual potency. This is apt given that Lady Macbeth equates regicide with marital fidelity and virility in her coercive speeches. Macbeth’s failure to abide by their murderous plot is a failure to love her: “Such I account thy love” (39). She implicitly compares Macbeth to a number of creatures deemed weaker than a “real” man in their society: first, a drunk (35), then, an anemic girl (“look so green and pale” 37), then a “coward” (43), then a “cat” (46), then a “beast” (47). She builds on these base comparisons to deliver a direct ultimatum: “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man” (49-51). She is effectively policing his gender identity: anything less than regicide brands Macbeth a “sissy.” Lady Macbeth is a creature of her time in mobilizing “a discourse of masculinity in order to alter the terms of war” (185).  Gerry Milligan observes that sixteenth century Italian writers, Laura Terracina and Chiara Matraini, employ this kind of rhetoric for their political ends. Like Lady Macbeth, these women “assume the role of moral judicator of men in order to bestow or withhold praise” (185).  In Kurzel’s film, praise is not the only good that Lady Macbeth implies she will withhold. His Lady Macbeth punctuates her rhetoric by bringing her husband to orgasm during her two speeches. This implicitly suggests that Lady Macbeth’s sexual favors are conditional on his doing her bidding3 Kurzel has Macbeth reverse the situation later when he is trying to argue that Banquo and Fleance must be killed, and Lady Macbeth seems resistant to the plan. She understands that he is playing her game against her and angrily removes his hand from under her skirt.

Geoffrey Wright’s Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) also withholds sexual favors from her husband, but in this case, it appears to be a result of her state of total numbness from grief over her little son’s death. She remains frozen and still as Macbeth (Sam Worthington) kisses her and caresses her, and then, as he gives up, we see tears trickle down her face.

Polanski’s Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) is even more lachrymose than Wright’s. Annis’s interpretation of the role adopts, as one might expect given the earlier release date, more traditional feminine behaviors than either Hill or Cotillard. Tears spring to her eyes when she discovers that her husband has taken the grooms’ daggers from Duncan’s chamber. She faints from genuine fear when she spies the same grooms’ bloody corpses. Earlier, she weeps both when Macbeth reveals his second thoughts about the murder plot and throughout her accusations that he displays a lack of real manliness.

The threat of a diminished standing as a man is also waved in front of Othello by Iago. In Parker’s Othello, the two men are in that traditionally male domain, the gunroom, Iago making notes in the account book, Othello priming a pistol. It is here that Iago warns Othello, “he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed” (3.3.164-6). He implicitly suggests that Othello is about to lose his honourable reputation as a warrior and exchange it for the ridiculous image of a “cuckold.”

It is also significant that Othello’s military status was part of his appeal to his new wife. The “gentle Desdemona” seems a far cry from Macbeth’s “fiend-like queen,” but Desdemona, we are told, falls for Othello because of the dangers he has passed. Canadian playwright Ann Marie MacDonald seizes on Othello’s ambiguous line describing her reaction to his tales of physical bravery: “she wished/That heaven had made her such a man.” She depicts her Desdemona as an Amazon, eager to wield her sword. Gerry Milligan writes about Laura Terracina galvanizing European men to mount a crusade against the Turks in her writing (186), and Shakespeare’s Desdemona is keen to join Othello on a similar expedition:

 …to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate;
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he to the war,
The rites for why I love him are bereft me. (1.3.253-257).

Desdemona makes it clear to the whole Doges’ court that she loves Othello for his physical bravery. Stephen Greenblatt argues that Desdemona’s passion for Othello’s narrative of himself as a valiant hero induces an anxiety in the Moor. What if he cannot live up to his self-fashioned image of his manhood? Will Desdemona’s love fade? (245).

In each of these tragedies, then, the soldier-heroes are depicted as worried about their wives’ view of their manhood and as motivated to act to bolster up their manly image. When Iago implies that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, he is warning Othello that his masculine reputation is seriously threatened.  Dian Fox writes in “Performing Masculinity”:

Demonstrating control of a female’s sexual behaviour was crucial evidence of male potency. Women were thought to have voracious sexual appetites, always on the verge of straying, and the very secrecy of illicit sexual activity heightened anxiety…A man unable to control his wife was himself regarded as weak and defective in his performance of masculinity. The assumption was that he failed to satisfy her, by default encouraging her to seek satisfaction elsewhere (294).

Emilia’s speech confirms that these notions were prevalent at the time Shakespeare was writing Othello: “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults/If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties…” (5.1.85-6). Fox argues further that “Since the doubt in itself is sufficient to damage his honour, he feels obligated to act to re-establish his good name, that is, his evident control of the female in his charge” (298). Iago seems motivated by exactly this sense of obligation:

…I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office. I know not if’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety (1.3.378-382).

Author of Perfect Wives, Georgina Dopico Black, contends that since husband and wife are considered one flesh4, the “adulterous penetration of the wife’s body translates into penetration of the husband’s body” (31). Furthermore, Lope de Vega scholar Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano observes that a “disproportionate reassertion of masculinity” is called for as the husband thinks there is a “high degree of feminization to be redeemed” (56). Both the lover and the wife have to pay with their lives for this blow to the husband’s masculinity (299). This is exactly what happens in Othello, with Iago successfully plotting Othello’s downfall, and killing Emilia himself, and the Moor commanding Iago to murder Cassio while he smothers Desdemona.

Many of the duels decried by the pamphleteers cited earlier were fought over adultery. These polemicists urged their readers to exercise self-control rather than risk their lives and those of their supposed rivals over rumours. It is self-control that Othello loses when Iago begins to work on him. Othello is initially confident about his ability to govern his emotions (3.3.261), and it is clear from what others say of him, that self-control is seen as one of his manly virtues (1.3.289-91, 391-4; 3.4.26-31; 4.1.266-270). Yet, shortly after Iago plants the poisonous seed, Shakespeare shows him muttering to himself (“Ha, ha, false to me?” 3.3.338) and angrily accusing Iago of setting him “on the rack” (340). By the conclusion of the same scene, Othello pledges to kill his wife and her alleged lover. Parker gives visual expression to this swift decline in his film through the use of confinement images, likely the influence of Orson Welles’s earlier adaptation, which, obviously, draw attention to Othello’s race and his earlier reference to slavery (1.3.36).5 As Iago casts aspersions on Desdemona’s fidelity, the camera focuses on Othello (Laurence Fishburne) through a gun-rack which forms a kind of cage. Othello leans against the shelves, like a prisoner trying the bars of his cell. Later, Iago finds him on the beach, wrapped in a white cloak so that his arms are pinned inside against him, as if in a straight-jacket (see Figure 1). Welles’ Othello also dons a white cloak, but his significantly leaves his arms free.

Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello, Sheppard, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Othello (Fishburne) entangled in a straight-jacket-like cloak.

The next exchange Iago has with Othello in Parker’s film takes place in the castle dungeon, when Iago claims that Cassio, sleep-talking, confesses adultery. Othello falls into the second epileptic seizure in the film, while sitting on a bench, his arms twined in the chains bolted to the wall. In the play, even the first seizure takes place much later. Parker emphasizes Othello’s epilepsy more than the play does, and certainly more than Welles does (see Figure 2). In Welles’ film, Othello has one seizure, and we only see the brief aftermath of him lying on the ground, looking at the birds circling in the sky. The cumulative effect of the additional seizures combined with the entrapment images in Parker’s film is the “unmanning” of Othello, especially given that his own definition of manhood, which so impressed Desdemona, includes self-government, physical strength, and the defeat of those foes who would enslave or confine him. His violent reactions give Iago the opportunity to ask, “Are you a man?” (3.3.379) the very question that is eating him up. Othello’s self-fashioned narrative is one of a hero who has looked on the tempests of war and is never shaken, but the idea of Desdemona’s faithlessness shakes him to the core. So far from displaying his manhood through prudent government of Cyprus, he is unable to master his own feelings or (through no fault of his own) his body. Smith cites “equanimity of spirit” as one of the ideal characteristics of early modern manhood, citing Roger Ascham in The Schoolmaster (1570) on the kind of virtues he hopes to inculcate in his students:

Nobility governed by learning and wisdom is indeed most like a fair ship, having tide and wind at will, under the rule of a skilful master, when contrariwise a ship carried, yea, with the highest tide and greatest winde, lacking a skilful master, most commonly doth either sink itself upon sands or break itself upon rocks (41, qtd. 49)

Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello, Sheppard, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Othello (Fishburne) suffers the first of several epileptic seizures.

Shakespeare highlights the discrepancy between Othello’s authoritative position and his lack of authority over his own emotions with the arrival of Ludovico who witnesses him strike his wife in public, and madly exclaim, “Goats and monkeys!” It seems that the state is justified in replacing him in Cyprus. Fishburne plays this scene with a greater loss of self-control than Welles does. He strikes Desdemona with all his force and shouts his bestial oath. Welles’s Othello, in contrast, slaps his wife almost gently and mutters the oath under his breath. The reactions selected from Shakespeare’s original scene are also very different. Parker emphasizes Ludovico’s utter shock at Othello’s abuse of his wife, whereas Welles emphasizes Ludovico’s worry that Othello has lost his mind. The scene is far more intense and emotional in the more recent adaptation, no doubt because spousal abuse is judged much more harshly by contemporary society even than it was when Welles made his film. Furthermore, the impulse to maintain some nobility in the tragic hero may have been stronger in 1951 than more recently, when ambiguous, conflicted, even dysfunctional characters are considered more interesting and realistic. Another filmic example of this change in attitude is Olivier’s aristocratic and controlled Henry V (1944) versus Branagh’s tormented one (1989).

This particular combination of Othello’s loss of emotional self-control and his epileptic condition, which render him “unmanly” according to Iago, is recycled by Shakespeare in Macbeth. The first time we witness Macbeth administering his public role as King, at the banquet, he suffers from what appears to his guests and is defined by his wife, as “a fit” (3.4.53). Obviously, Lady Macbeth tries to conceal the emotional scarring wrought by his crimes by colouring it to his guests as an affliction he has had since childhood6. In asides, though, his wife responds to his outbursts about Banquo’s ghost by once again challenging his masculinity, “Are you a man?” (57), and “What, quite unmanned in folly?” (71). In each play, the character witnessing the “fit” shows a typical Jacobean pitilessness regarding conditions over which the hero can have little control: epilepsy in the case of Othello, and, in the case of Macbeth (as Kurzel would have it) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a consequence not only of his crimes, but also of his service in war and the death of his children. Men, Iago and Lady Macbeth imply, should show no weakness at any time.

References to the Early Modern Hierarchy of Being7 (now decried, but undeniably alluded to in most of Shakespeare’s plays) which places man precariously between angels and beasts, may have been largely excised from Kurzel’s script, but the hierarchy seems present in Fassbender’s physicality.  His degradation begins with his first bestial act – the murder of the sleeping Duncan. Fassbender lies beside the bloodied corpse and later slides down to the floor by the bed. We then see him crouching in the sea to wash off the blood. Shortly after, we find him scrabbling on the ground like an animal -- “Our fears in Banquo/Stick deep,” (3.1.50) -- scratching the tiles with his dagger. Lady Macbeth again stands above him, then bends down to persuade him to leave well enough alone (see Figure 3). In each case, it is Macbeth who seems mentally ill, and Lady Macbeth who remains calm and erect. After the banquet, he lies prone on the floor of the dining hall until his wife returns to summon him to bed.

Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello, Sheppard, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Macbeth (Fassbender) sits like a beggar, while Lady Macbeth (Cotillard) stands, regal, above him.

Wright’s Macbeth is more macho than Kurzel’s. Worthington remains standing for much of the banquet scene, challenging Banquo’s image in a mirror and angrily throwing off the calming hands of his body guard as he attempts to lead him from the room after the guests have dispersed. Polanski justifies Macbeth’s fear by having the ghost of Banquo, with a gory face, pursue him with a sword down the length of the dining hall. He sits, spent, at table, after his guests’ hurried departure, but his form fills most of the frame, rather than occupying just the lower half, like Kurzel’s prone Macbeth.

In Kurzel’s film, it is Macbeth not Lady Macbeth who rises from the bed in the middle of the night, clad only in a white nightgown, the traditional garb of the stage lunatic. He rides to the witches, and the camera zooms in on his bare legs and feet trudging across the tough gorse of the moor, a striking image of vulnerability. Later, when the “cream-faced loon” announces the approach of the English troops, Macbeth is again huddled on the floor, surrounded by women, the blanket around his head making him initially indistinguishable from them (see Figure 4). The image reinforces Lady Macbeth’s earlier assessment: he is “unmanned” by his fears about his followers’ infidelity, and by his brutish actions. His subjects, almost as soon as he ascends the throne, term Macbeth “the tyrant” (3.6.22, 25). He, like Othello, has failed to make the transition from military to peace-time ruler, due to his lack of “manly” self-control.

Humbling the Soldier in Kurzel’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello, Sheppard, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Macbeth (Fassbender) squats on the castle floor with the serving-women.

Wright’s Macbeth, in contrast, becomes almost humorously detached as tragedies beset him, whereas his wife is depicted as stereotypically insane, showing Polanski’s influence. She curls up fetally, almost naked in her bed, rubbing her hands, unresponsive to the doctor and maid who speak to her, and then screaming and kicking when they take hold of her. This interpretation reinforces gender stereotypes. Lady Macbeth is weak-minded from the start in this film, first shown drowning her grief in drink and drugs, whereas Macbeth is “manly” in his self-control. Even when he discovers his wife dead in her bloody bath, he sets his jaw resolutely to defend his house against invaders. In contrast, Kurzel’s adaptation suggests that Lady Macbeth has more self-command than her husband; even in her “mad” scene, Cotillard is calm and quiet, delivering her lines with sadness, but no mania. Her husband’s behaviour seems much more erratic as he shouts at underlings. Of course, the fact that Wright’s film is re-set among drug-lords in contemporary Melbourne removes any considerations of Macbeth’s capacity to adapt  to peace-time leadership, the “war on drugs” being a constant reality in Australia, as in the United States.

Although Macbeth’s first action as king in the 1971 adaptation is tormenting a bear which he has procured to amuse his banquet guests, Polanski nevertheless maintains Macbeth’s dignity throughout. In the last fifth of the film, he is almost constantly shown wearing his crown, often sitting upright in his throne, some toady courtiers laughing in appreciation of his cavalier dismissal of messages of doom. At the climax, Polanski stresses his courage rather than his moral deterioration, showing five enemy knights ranged against him in his deserted throne room. Macbeth indefatigably fights one after another, defeating them all. Then, encircled by his opponents who offer weapons to Macduff only, he fights till his last breath. These encounters more closely resemble Hector outnumbered by Myrmidons than the bringing to justice of a hell hound that Shakespeare’s scene seems to cue. Polanski emphasizes Macbeth’s original potential as a leader, rather than his proven unfitness to rule. Lady Macbeth and the witches in this film have not affected in any essential way his “manly” bearing.

This would seem to contradict the opinion expressed in many of the military handbooks of the 17th century which misogynistically warn soldiers against permitting women on the battlefield or indulging in sexual intercourse during a campaign. The writers of these manuals believed that martial prowess would be weakened by the erotic; men effeminized by the presence of women (Purlilia, Gi r and v). We see this played out in both Macbeth and Othello in the most recent films by a literal failure to remain erect (standing). Macbeth and Othello are presented as triumphant soldiers at the opening of their respective plays, ideals of 17th century masculinity.  Once they shift from the field of battle to the domestic realm, the traditional arena for the woman to wield some power (although subordinate to men), their own authority begins to disintegrate. As soon as Macbeth listens to the witches and then Lady Macbeth’s advice, the process of his unmanning is set in motion. Similarly, when Othello brings Desdemona to Cyprus, his hitherto perfect reputation for calm leadership begins to unravel. Even before Iago initiates his malevolent plan, Othello admits that he views marriage as a diminution of his liberty (1.2.24-28). In each case, the soldiers are only able to inhabit one of the two chief definitions of manhood prevalent at the time – the violent one. The other dominant image of elite masculinity, the prudent, self-controlled leader who serves the state through his intelligent government and leaves a son to continue his legacy, eludes them because of their paranoia regarding the fidelity of those around them, and their heirless state. The two modern film-makers focused on here reflect the Early Modern definitions of manhood through the bodies of their stars. Fassbender and Fishburne spend more and more time in the lower half of the frame as their decline from manly ideal accelerates. Their characters’ submission to passion is highlighted by their costumes – the significant change from armour to the white gown of the lunatic.

Contrastingly, Orson Welles depicts Othello in a manner that symbolizes his potent manhood and residual nobility. In many close ups, he is filmed from a low angle, making him appear grand and looming, for example, when Welles delivers as a soliloquy the lines, “Farewell the tranquil mind…Othello’s occupation’s gone” (3.3.353-362).  In scenes with Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir), Othello’s greater height and size is often emphasized, for instance by placing Welles on a higher step and Iago on a lower one. Iago is thus signified as a lesser mortal, both morally and physically. Far from his powers being depicted as diminishing, Welles’ Othello remains a threatening warrior throughout – his shadow as he approaches the bedchamber to smother his wife is huge and then fills the whole frame. His quieter, more controlled delivery of his lines, and his strong presence in the frames throughout suggest, in contrast to Parker’s film, that this Othello could be an adept peace-time leader as well as a war-time one with the timely removal of Iago. This interpretation falls in line with prevailing views of the soldier in Welles’ time. When Welles made his Othello in 1951, before Vietnam, the first widely televised war, the military man was still a figure generally admired; whereas now, that is no longer the case.

The focus on the male body in its compromised state in the more recent films – Othello in his seizures, Macbeth in his post-traumatic stress disorder (see Barnes) -- has the effect of making the female figures seem stronger by comparison. This is especially true of Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth who appears saner than her husband. The witches, too, maintain unruffled serenity throughout the film. They also seem to influence Macbeth’s final defeat at Macduff’s hands. He is clearly beating Macduff, wounding him in several places, standing above or astride his prone figure. Then, Kurzel intercuts between their duel and each of the witch’s faces in turn as well as the face of the boy (Macbeth’s dead soldier son?). It is at that point that Macbeth reveals to Macduff that he is unassailable from any man of woman born. Macduff retorts that he was from his mother’s womb “untimely ripped” and therefore, Macbeth should despair of his charm. Suddenly, Macbeth loses heart, puts up his sword, and Macduff rises and slashes him across the belly. Again, it seems as though Kurzel’s Macbeth leaves it to the female characters to define him – here, the witches determine his moment to die.

Wright’s Macbeth is the only character in the film who can see the witches, which might suggest that he is unhinged from the start. However, unlike Kurzel’s witches, their relationship with Macbeth seems less dominating; rather than only defining his sense of himself and his decisions, they also seem to fulfill his sexual fantasies. Both when they appear at the Cawdor club and later at his house, he kisses them, and in the later scene, has sex with them, all four seeming to derive much enjoyment from their encounters. The fact that they initially appear as school girls, whereas Kurzel’s witches represent women at four stages of their life cycle, contributes to this levelling effect. Wright’s Macbeth is a man, and his witches, girls, whereas there is greater age parity between Kurzel’s Macbeth and three of the four witches. In Wright’s film, the witches are presented more as succubae, assuaging Macbeth’s sexual frustration, than as prophets. This different emphasis renders Wright’s Macbeth less vulnerable to their control – his own mind summons them and receives satisfaction from them, whereas Kurzel’s Macbeth seems in awe of their special powers, which are not a figment of his imagination. Polanski’s Macbeth rides to the witches’ dwelling each time, rather than the weird sisters seeking him out, as they seem to with Fassbender’s Macbeth. This contributes to the impression that Polanski’s Macbeth holds greater agency over his destiny than Kurzel’s.

Othello in the Parker film and Macbeth in the Kurzel film are able to embody only one male ideal – that of the warrior. This is reflective of the source plays. When this role is joined to husband and to peace-time leader, the pressures overwhelm Macbeth and Othello. At ease only on the battlefield (in anticipation of Coriolanus) they are shown to crumble when different sorts of demands are made of them. In this respect, these tragic heroes are distinct from Shakespeare’s female characters who here (but especially in the comedies) are highly adaptable. Desdemona, whom her father describes as “still and quiet” (1.3.95) falls for a warrior Moor, and defies her father and the expectation of Venetian society to elope with him and later keep him company on his first military post after their wedding. Lady Macbeth, who knows “how tender ‘tis to love the babe” that milks her (1.7.54-5) also has the ruthlessness to smear the blood of her murdered houseguest on his sleeping guards.

Despite the female characters’ greater flexibility, the plays, and even films, reflect the misogyny inherent in Shakespeare’s society in which women are blamed for “weakening” their men through their erotic or verbal manipulations. Lady Macbeth’s rhetoric clearly assumes an adjudicating role over her husband’s masculinity. In Kurzel’s film, this rhetorical power is extended to include sexual favours used as rewards for compliance to her wishes. Desdemona does nothing of this kind consciously; but, in Othello’s mind, her verbal attempts to persuade him to give Cassio another chance become linked with her alleged sexual desire for the cashiered lieutenant. Parker’s film makes this even more obvious than Shakespeare’s play by filming scenes of Desdemona and Cassio caressing each other in Othello’s bed, which Parker interpolates as Othello’s waking dreams, and the catalysts for his seizures.

In both cases, the films, like the plays, provide exempla of initially highly regarded military heroes who cannot live up to the myriad expectations of them as men. Adept as soldiers, they fail to achieve full manhood as defined earlier – they do not successfully propagate or defend. Othello and Macbeth die heirless, and so far from defending their wives whose regard they strove so hard to attain, they are the instruments of their untimely deaths. The kingdoms relegated to their care, Cyprus and Scotland, fall into chaos under their leadership, and are wrested from them. These plays seem to anticipate Coriolanus in suggesting that men trained as weapons can be nothing else, and that the women who attempt to redeploy them in other enterprises will only come to grief8. Thus, the more recent films, in contrast to the older ones, and in this way more closely reflecting their sources, implicitly interrogate the masculine ideal of the warrior as destructively reductive and exclusionary, rendering other facets of ideal masculinity unattainable. The warrior is humbled on screen: an elevated superhero in the arena of war, he is transformed into a beast in the domestic sphere, crawling or writhing on the ground.


1 In Othello, 1.3.224, 2.1.35-7, 3.4.132-37; in Macbeth, 1.2.24, 1.3.95-7, 5.2.14.

2 The closest reference is that Norway came “with terrible numbers” (1.1.51)

3 The same kind of power-brokerage is used in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata with opposite intent, to prevent violence rather than perpetuate it.

4 Hamlet makes a joke to Claudius that riffs on this belief in the oneness of the married couple (4.3.51-5).

5 This is something to expand on. However, as several scholars have noted, Parker makes little of the race issue, despite his intriguing extra-textual opening with the black actor donning a white face mask in a gondola.

6 Julius Caesar uses the same technique according to Casca, although his epilepsy is real (1.2.263-275).

7 See Hamlet, 4.4.24-31; Julius Caesar 2.2.41-3; King Lear 2.2.170-2; Merchant of Venice 1.2.84-6 as just four of many examples.

8 Earlier too, in Shakespeare’s canon, this problem is articulated. Richard III in his opening soliloquy reflects the quandary of the Elizabethan veteran back from the wars and left at loose ends. Bereft of his soldierly profession, Richard is “determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30), just as Elizabethan soldiers, penniless and often wounded, turned to petty theft to survive in peace time.Yeats, in On Baile’s Strand, dramatizes the problem again, showing Conchubar’s anxieties about the great warrior Cuchulain’s ability to turn from war to peaceful allegiance. Redeploying the soldier-hero again ends in tragedy.

Works Cited

Barnes, Henry. “Michael Fassbender: ‘Macbeth suffered from PTSD.” The Observer. 4 June 2015: 13

Bullough, Vern L. “On Being a Male in the Middle Ages” in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Ed. Clare A. Lees. U of Minnesota P., 1994.

Clark, Ira. Comedy, Youth, Manhood in Early Modern England. U of Delaware P., 2003.

Cruickshank, C.G. Elizabeth’s Army. OUP, 1966.

Dopico Black, Georgina. Perfect Wives, Other Women: Adultery and Inquisition in Early Modern Spain. Duke UP, 2001.

Fox, Dian. “Performing Masculinity, Nationalism and Honour” in The Poetics of Masculinity in Early Modern Italy and Spain. CRRS, 2014.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning, from More to Shakespeare. U of Chicago P., 2005.

Henry V. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi. Renaissance Films, 1989.

Henry V. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Leslie Banks, Robert Newton. PurlTwo Cities Films, 1944.

Keller, James R. Princes, Soldiers, Rogues: The Politic Malcontent of Renaissance Drama. Peter Lang, 1993.

Leigh, Danny. “Macbeth director Justin Kurzel: ‘You’re getting close to evil.’” The Guardian 28 Sept. 2015: 15.

MacDonald, Ann Marie. Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet. Vintage, 1998.

Macbeth. Dir. Justin Kurzel. Perf. Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine. Studio Canal, 2015.

Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw. Playboy Productions, 1971.

Macbeth. Dir. Geoffrey White. Perf. Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme. Mushroom Pictures, 2006.

Milligan, Gerry and Jane Tylus. ed. The Poetics of Masculinity in Early Modern Italy and Spain. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2014.

Othello. Dir. Oliver Parker. Perf. Laurence Fisburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irene Jacobs. Castle Rock, 1995.

Othello. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles, Micheal MacLiammoir, Suzanne Cloutier. Mercury Productions, 1951.

Purlilia, James the erle of. The Preceptes of Warre. Trans. Peter Bentham (1544). n.p.

Roughead, Malcolm. “Something wickedly good this way comes: the Macbeth effect.” Sunday Times 27 Sept. 2015: 29.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Clarendon P., 1988. (All citations taken from this edition).

Smith, Bruce R. Shakespeare and Masculinity. Oxford UP, 2000.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. Feminism and the Honor Plays of Lope de Vega. Purdue UP, 1994.

Yeats, W.B. On Baile’s Strand. The HBJ Anthology of Drama. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.