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The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth

Although scholars have repeatedly declared that the issue of fidelity to the text of a play is no longer a viable criterion for judging the value of a film,1 popular audiences stubbornly refuse to abandon the concept. While academics now tend to focus on the ways in which cinematic effects convey the import of the film visually, most spectators still expect that, when a screenplay employs Shakespeare’s original dialogue, the language of the play will primarily determine the film’s meaning. This expectation goes beyond a rigid demand that the script of the film must match the text of the play exactly, for most viewers acknowledge that a screenplay will cut, re-arrange, and otherwise modify Shakespeare’s words in order to satisfy the needs of the cinematic medium. And yet, general audiences continue to demand that such a film remain true to an elusive principle variously referred to as the “essence” or the “spirit” of the play, which appears to derive from the text but is not identical to it. This essence can be conveyed visually, verbally, or ideally through both means, but in order for the film to be successful, these elements must work together toward the same ends. When a Shakespeare film’s cinematic features appear to contradict what spectators perceive as the spirit of the play, lodged in its language, the film risks being popularly judged as a distortion of Shakespeare’s work rather than as a successful cinematic version of the play.2

In Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Margaret Jane Kidnie argues that the essence of a play (or what she prefers to call the “work”) is not a fixed entity but the product of an ongoing interpretive debate: “The pragmatic truth of the dramatic work of art—what is considered essential to an accurate, faithful, or authentic reproduction . . . [is] continually produced among communities of users through assertion and dissension, not legislated once and for all through appeal to an objective external authority” (31). I agree with Kidnie that there is no single essential truth of a dramatic work that endures for all time and that all performances must embody. Different groups of readers in different eras and locations will inevitably disagree over the elements of the work that constitute its indispensable features, but such a condition does not invalidate appeals to the text as “an objective external authority” in the process of “assertion and dissension” that Kidnie describes. Some conceptions of the spirit of the play spring from a more secure basis in the text than others, and those with a solid foundation will be more likely to carry the day in the continuous debate over the play’s essence. Therefore, directors of original-language Shakespeare films, even those who depend heavily upon cinematic methods of expression, often attempt to justify their visual interpolations by quoting specific passages from the play. At any given time, the perceived strength of the connection between these non-verbal sequences and the playtext will influence the extent to which the film will appear to convey the essence of the work and thereby satisfy the expectations of general audiences.

To illustrate this dynamic, I have chosen to examine one of the most cinematic of the recent film versions of Shakespeare: director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015). The film conveys its impact primarily through visual techniques inherent to film form, such as discontinuous action, flash-forwards and flashbacks, color filtration, and the stylization of bloodshed through shifting speeds. Kurzel’s Macbeth also represents several violent scenes that occur off-stage in Shakespeare’s play, and the director inserts various wordless sequences that have no equivalents in his source text. Kurzel and his cast occasionally defend such choices by referring to lines from Shakespeare’s play that, for them, provide warrant for such innovations, but this evidence is often suspect. Despite being praised for its breathtaking pictorial appeal, the film has also been denigrated in the popular press for its purported failure to capture the essence of Shakespeare’s tragedy. While some critics merely complain about the loss of favorite scenes or speeches, others protest that issues like Macbeth’s ambition, prominent in the text, become subordinate to other psychological motivations that only appear in the film as a result of interpolated visual effects. I intend to show that the pattern of accusations of textual infidelity against the cinematic elements of Kurzel’s film reveals a pressing concern with the perceived degeneration of masculinity in the contemporary world.

The Persistence of Fidelity

According to Douglas Lanier, the boom in Shakespeare adaptations in the 1990s put the concept of fidelity to rest in academic discourse by demonstrating that the essence of the Bard’s works can be conveyed visually, without recourse to his language:


Shakespeare film pushed hard against the textual conceptualization of Shakespeare that was the dominant keynote of much of the twentieth century, the notion that Shakespeare’s essence is to be found in the particularities of his language. One of the main achievements of the nineties was to bring Shakespeare in line with late twentieth-century visual culture and in the process loosen the equivalence between Shakespeare and text. Through film of this period Shakespeare became definitively post-textual. (106)

Barbara Hodgdon contends that Shakespeare’s emergence into post-textuality occurred even earlier, with the appearance of several celebrated non-Anglophone films near the middle of the twentieth century:


Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) as well as Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970) prompted a kind of double discourse, one foot in “Shakespeare,” the other in “cinema,” in which reading through the lenses of literary criticism gradually took second place to foregrounding elements of film language—mise-en-scène, editing, and sound. (Hodgdon 2002, v)

Many academic critics have accepted this change in focus, and their analyses of Shakespeare films, including those that employ the playwright’s early modern English, pay closer attention to the cinematic, as opposed to the linguistic, elements of these works. For example, Sarah Jilani, in her examination of Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), focuses on the ways in which the “play’s racial discourse is . . . reconfigured into film syntax: the constituents of a film’s mechanism that generate supra-textual meaning, such as lighting, shot type, and montage” (104).

Nevertheless, outside of academia, general audiences continue to believe that the spirit of a Shakespeare play resides in its language, and therefore any Shakespeare film will be judged, at least in part, on the extent to which it remains faithful to familiar verbal aspects of the dramatic work. As Russell Jackson acknowledges, “‘Fidelity’ to the original . . . however discredited in theoretical writing on adaptation, continues to have currency in the popular reception of films” (2). This sense of “fidelity” goes beyond the naïve assumption that, the higher percentage of Shakespeare’s lines a film includes, the better it is; rather, such viewers presume that the poetry of the play carries the essence of the work, and hence, any Shakespeare film that too heavily discounts the verse in favor of the language of cinema hazards alienating a populace that will consider the film, not as an innovative artistic creation in its own right, but as a disloyal misrepresentation of the spirit of the original.

After a long period of critical disfavor in the field of adaptation studies,3 there are signs that a re-evaluation of the concept of fidelity is underway. In 2011, Colin MacCabe, Kathleen Murry, and Rick Warner edited a collection of essays entitled True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity.4 Jarrell D. Wright’s contribution to this edition proposes James Griffith’s assertion that “fidelity entails fidelity to effects rather than details.” In other words, a cinematic adapter need not adhere slavishly to the specifics of a written text in order to convey its power; rather, an effective adaptation faithfully renders “the aesthetic choices that make the [work] a success, and thereby the film also” (73). Thus, the director of a Shakespeare film may choose to convey aspects of the story visually, verbally, or through both means, but such a decision does not in itself determine the film’s level of fidelity or quality. Instead, the crucial element is the relationship between the director’s individual choices, their consequent results, and the effects perceived by audiences to be indispensable to the excellence of the play.

I contend that Shakespeare on Film scholars, instead of railing against the concept of faithfulness to the text, would do well to acknowledge that the issue will not simply vanish. Alternatively, they may examine instances where appeals to fidelity arise as indications that a particular film is pushing against the boundaries of legitimate interpretation of the essence of a play at a particular historical moment. As Kidnie maintains,


Far from concluding, then, that the arguments that continue to spring up around authentic and adaptive Shakespeare represent a critical or theoretical dead-end—that we should somehow move beyond or get past the authority or fidelity question—my point is that it is precisely through such processes of debate that users continue to define their particular ideological, institutional, or political investment in the work. (9)

For example, the non-verbal elements in Kurzel’s film that provoked objections of disloyalty to the text of Macbeth all relate in some way to contemporary confusion over the definition of manhood, commonly known as “the crisis of masculinity.”5 General viewers currently appear to believe that the play Macbeth, essentially, is the tragic story of a good man who, prompted by supernatural forces, pursues his ambition to be king through the crime of regicide, which causes a cataclysmic disruption of the natural order. Having attained the throne, Macbeth cannot pass it down to his descendants because he has been unable to father children. However, in Kurzel’s film version, before he ever encounters the Witches, Macbeth is suffering from two forms of psychological trauma: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and intense grief over the death of his child, which together impel him to murder his king. He is neither barren nor clearly a good man who experiences a tragic fall, since the film portrays him as a brutal killer from his initial appearance. Finally, Macbeth’s offense produces no effect on the natural order because the Scottish landscape is too vast and formidable to be affected by the actions of a single man. These challenges to the popular view of the spirit of the play all impinge upon a definition of masculinity that requires bloody service on the battlefield, the endurance of bereavement, the production of heirs, and the maintenance of powerful male stature. In the sections that follow, I will demonstrate how these challenges arise in four types of material that Kurzel introduces into his film almost exclusively through visual means: the immensity of the Scottish highlands, the representation of off-stage violence, the deaths of unnamed children, and the earthly appearance of the Witches.

Cinematic Language and the Landscape of Scotland

Kurzel’s Macbeth earned wide acclaim for its “powerfully cinematic approach” to the presentation of its setting (Taylor), but such commendations were balanced by an awareness that these pictorial effects were sometimes achieved at the expense of the play’s verbal force. For instance, reviewer Alex Heeney declares, “The strength of Kurzel’s film is in translating the text to a completely visual and visceral cinematic experience, giving us something the stage never could.” Heeney accepts the premise that the text must be altered so that the film can provide a cinematic, rather than a theatrical, experience, but Peter Travers betrays certain reservations about the director’s attitude through the metaphors he employs to describe it: “Kurzel . . . goes his own cinematic way, toying with the Bard when he chooses and slicing out huge verse passages in favor of images that sting.” Travers’ praise for the cinematic impact of the film suggests that its visual might comes at the cost of violence to the playwright and play, which have been toyed with and sliced up. Here, and in other reviews of the film, there is an implication that text and image compete with one another rather than working in concert.

A large portion of the film’s awe-inspiring graphic allure derives from its frequent shots of “sweeping, bleak landscapes” (Hansen) in the “cold and unforgiving Scottish highlands” (Davies). Kurzel puts on display “a glorious and fulfilling . . . visual feast of rich color and vast mystic landscapes scoped by a haunting tone” (Gass). As this last remark makes clear, these frequent panoramas fulfill a primarily atmospheric purpose; they make no contribution to the narrative, and for some observers, they tend to dominate the movie. One reviewer writes that Adam Arkapaw, the film’s cinematographer, is “a man who knows how to put landscape front and centre—an extraordinary achievement when the core text and characters are so well-known” (S.). The brutal and intimidating Scottish landscape tends to overshadow both the language and the human figures in Kurzel’s film because, as he notes in an interview, he is fascinated by the ways in which “environment manipulates character” (Smith). This fascination explains Kurzel’s interest in the cinematic Western, one of whose main conventions is that the open desert of the American Southwest molds the ruthless figures who inhabit it. According to Kurzel, this generic connection sprang to mind during his initial encounter with the screenplay: “The script was very cinematic. It definitely read like a western . . . and the idea of shooting in Scotland and bringing that landscape into the film . . . started to define everything” (“Interview”). Once the director decides that, as in a Western, the Scottish landscape will determine everything, it seems inevitable that visual displays of the highlands will, in more than one sense, dwarf the text and characters. As Kurzel remarks, “The world felt organic and brutal and natural — I guess like a Western — and, somehow, the landscape informed the characters, and continually reminded them of how small they were” (Smith). To convey the insignificance of human figures within this harsh and vast environment, Kurzel often filmed his characters in what he calls “wide western-style shots” (Sarner) from extreme distances. In the film’s screenplay, after the Battle of Ellon, the directions note, “Macbeth’s men trek down into a cavernous valley. They are antlike in the spectral Scottish landscape” (Koskoff et al. 16, see Figure 1).

The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth
Michael D. Friedman, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Macbeth’s soldiers “antlike” against the Scottish landscape.

The prominence granted to the bleak yet visually stunning highlands in Kurzel’s Macbeth enhances the film’s cinematography, but for some reviewers, it also burdens the setting with a static negative quality: “Kurzel’s Medieval Scotland is a harsh, hard world from the outset, full of grey clouds, damp weather, and fog” (Heeney). Such commentators argue that this perpetual gloom runs counter to the thrust of Macbeth’s story in the play, which stresses how the act of regicide renders a formerly agreeable land nearly uninhabitable. As Anthony Lane writes,

Foulness, for the most part, wins the day, and thus the beautiful paean, by Duncan and Banquo, to the home of the Macbeths—”a pleasant seat,” where “the air is delicate”—is expunged [1.6.1, 10]. The problem is not that Kurzel cuts the words, which is his absolute right, but that he destroys the conditions from which they might conceivably have sprung. We need some reminder, however fleeting, that there was a time when the natural order prevailed.

By contrast, director Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth (1971) features several vistas of the bleak northern countryside, but he also includes a splendid long shot of Inverness on a sunny day that establishes an agreeable baseline for Scotland under Duncan’s legitimate rule. Kurzel clearly could have conveyed a disturbance in the natural order visually, but in his efforts to adhere to the generic conventions of the cinematic western, in which environment dictates character, he depicts Macbeth as too puny to disturb the vast and unfeeling landscape with his murderous deeds. This impotence complicates our perception of Macbeth’s masculinity by rendering him incapable of the type of transcendent action that the play allows him to perform.

The Enactment of Violence

Although the deeds of Kurzel’s Macbeth cannot make “the earth / . . . feverous and  . . . [seem to] shake” (2.3.60-61), his actions do have mortal consequences for other human beings. The director stresses this capacity by enacting several violent scenes, including the murder of Duncan and the slaughter of Macduff’s family, that are merely reported to us as off-stage action in the play. Most importantly, whereas in Shakespeare’s version the Thane of Glamis’ military feats in the Battle of Ellon are recounted by the Bloody Captain, in Kurzel’s movie nearly four minutes of screen time are devoted to the Scottish army’s preparations for combat and the battle itself before Lennox speaks some of the Bloody Captain’s lines, many of them in voice-over while we watch Macbeth slashing his way through the Norwegian ranks. Several reviewers, including Guy Lodge, comment favorably on the filmic nature of this early sequence:

What is perhaps most striking about this introduction . . . is how wordless it is. Adam Arkapaw’s camera probes the anguished geography of human faces as they ritualistically prepare for battle . . . . Macbeth himself is first seen as a steaming, heaving, near-alien warrior, his human countenance given up to smeary, demonic war paint (see Figure 2).

This initial visual impression of Macbeth as a crazed and fiendish warrior (rather than as the calm and virtuous war hero that he appears to be in his first appearance after the battle in 1.3 of Shakespeare’s play) depicts the Thane as a vicious killer from the very beginning, which leaves little room for his devolution into a regicide. As critic Mike D’Angelo points out:

Kurzel takes advantage (as he should) of the camera’s greater freedom, actually staging the pitched battle that takes place just before the play begins. Macbeth . . . is first seen decked out in Braveheart-style war paint, snarling and grimacing—it’s a fearsome image, but one that makes the character’s subsequent descent into murderous ambition feel considerably less tragic.

D’Angelo approves of Kurzel’s decision to present the battle cinematographically, but he also observes with regret that this specific visual choice runs against the tragic nature of the play by reducing severely the distance of Macbeth’s fall from a man “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.18) to a murderous tyrant.7

The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth
Michael D. Friedman, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Macbeth smeared with demonic war paint

Kurzel’s initial depiction of Macbeth was influenced by his impression that the general is suffering from the condition we now call PTSD:


I was also interested in post-traumatic stress and the idea of someone who was on the edge of madness anyway . . . . If you’ve got a man who’s killing people every day and, through war, watching people he loves die all around him, the idea of killing a king . . . maybe is a little more normal than what he thought. (“Macbeth”)

The director’s choice to introduce Macbeth as a man who has already been driven nearly insane by causing and beholding unspeakably violent deaths provided for some reviewers a plausible explanation for his homicidal ascent to power. Lodge, for instance, writes, “In visualizing trauma usually left offstage, Kurzel builds vital psychological context for the future King of Scotland’s bloody path to glory and dishonor.” Emily Rome, however, laments the disjunction between the play and film that this characterization involves. For her, Kurzel’s


PTSD approach ends up being problematic . . . . Macbeth is withdrawn, bottled up, weary — and so he shows no passion for the crown, no eagerness to be king that would drive the ambition that’s essential to the character of Macbeth. He is barely moved by the Weird Sisters’ prophecy . . . . He looks downright bored at his coronation. This is a character that’s about ambition. This is a play about ambition. And that’s lost here in Kurzel’s adaptation.

Rome comes to the film with an interpretation of the character of Macbeth based on the text’s treatment of the theme of ambition, and she finds it troublesome that the film lacks what she considers one of its most vital elements. Rome’s position is strengthened by the fact that the play directly alludes to ambition three times (1.5.19, 1.7.27, and 2.4.28), but at no point does it ever suggest that Macbeth experiences psychological distress as a result of his own violent deeds on the battlefield or his comrades’ loss of life. In the play, he suffers intense guilt over his murder of the sleeping king, but his military feats bring him nothing but praise and advancement.

Even so, Kurzel and his cast rationalize their diagnosis of Macbeth’s PTSD by appealing to the text of Shakespeare’s play, though their arguments are ultimately unconvincing. In a featurette called “Making Macbeth” included on the film’s DVD release, lead actor Michael Fassbender recalls that Kurzel informed him on the first day of rehearsals, “This is a guy who’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.“ As a result of this conversation, Fassbender came to accept that Shakespeare made direct verbal references to the condition we now call PTSD:


[W]e know this now, from . . . soldiers coming back from Iraq, going down Clapham High Street and next thing, it’s Basra . . and they think they’re in a war zone. In the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth says, “Sit, worthy friends . . . . Pray you, keep seat. The fit is momentary; upon a thought / He will again be well” [3.4.53-56]. Don’t worry, you know, he’s suffered from these fits before, we’ve all seen it before. It’ll pass.

Fassbender suggests that Lady Macbeth’s reference to Macbeth’s “fit” refers to the King having a flashback to a harrowing battlefield experience, but she is actually referring to his apprehension of Banquo’s ghost, who was not killed in battle. Moreover, Fassbender and Kurzel omit from this speech Lady Macbeth’s statement, “My lord is often thus, / And hath been from his youth” (3.4.53-54), which suggests that Macbeth is suffering from a chronic medical condition that has plagued him since childhood, not a traumatic wartime incident. In any case, Lady Macbeth’s statements are unreliable because she is, at this point, inventing false excuses to cover for her husband’s strange behavior. I propose that Kurzel and his lead actor willfully misread the text here because, in the early twenty-first century, they are primed to perceive war, not as an opportunity for soldiers to prove their manhood,8 but as a shattering ordeal that robs a man of his masculine virtues and renders him capable of the murder of innocents, like Duncan and the members of Macduff’s family. This interpretation of Macbeth’s essential impetus accords well with contemporary understandings of the damaging effects of violent military service, yet it also strikes viewers as a misrepresentation of the protagonist as Shakespeare’s tragedy presents him. 

The Deaths of Children

Kurzel affords additional psychological motivation for Macbeth’s crimes through another wordless sequence that has no counterpart in Shakespeare’s play but derives from a slightly more secure basis in the text than Macbeth’s PTSD. The film begins with a bird’s eye shot of the corpse of a beautiful child upon a pyre. His heartbroken parents, the Macbeths, place flowers on the child’s breast, cover his eyes with stones (see Figure 3), and sprinkle a handful of dirt on his lifeless body. Heeney observes a departure from the film’s source in this visual segment but finds the addition justifiable:


Macbeth . . . and Lady Macbeth . . . are the first two characters we meet, as grieving parents at their child’s funeral, even though Lady Macbeth isn’t even mentioned in the text until late in Act I. The funeral that opens the film is pure invention, but we do know from Shakespeare’s text that they’ve lost a child as Lady Macbeth talks of having “given suck” [1.7.55]. For a play so concerned with fathers, sons, and lineage, it’s not an unreasonable leap.

Heeney accepts the film’s premise that the Macbeths have lost a child based on Lady Macbeth’s verbal reference to breastfeeding, but I would counter that this phrase applies only to her own parental experience, not Macbeth’s. Shakespeare seems to be depending upon his audience’s awareness that, historically, Macbeth was Lady Macbeth’s second husband. According to Holinshed’s Chronicles, Gruoch (Lady Macbeth) had a son named Lulach from her first marriage, who succeeded Macbeth as King of Scotland before Lulach’s throne was usurped by Malcolm III, son of Duncan. Therefore, it is not necessary to presume that Lady Macbeth has “given suck” to a child who is no longer living in order to justify Macduff’s later statement that Macbeth “has no children” (4.3.217) of his own.

The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth
Michael D. Friedman, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: The Macbeths’ deceased child with stones on his eyes

Heeney, however, finds the implication that Lady Macbeth’s child was also her second husband’s offspring “not an unreasonable leap” because it underscores the text’s emphasis on “lineage” and Macbeth’s anguish at his inability to leave the throne of Scotland to a biological son of his own. In interviews, Kurzel shows an awareness of this theme of inheritance, but his decision to give the Macbeths a dead son appears to have been prompted instead by a desire to depict the grieving couple’s desperate attempt to use murder to repair their broken marriage:


Historians . . . allude to the fact that maybe Macbeth can’t even sire an heir, but how do you play that? You can definitely play a couple who have lost a child and have drifted apart because they haven’t been allowed to mourn. He’s been away campaigning for months on end. We treated that breakdown of the relationship as a fuel to doing something so heinous, which is the murder of Duncan, which would hopefully bind them together again. (James)

Elsewhere, Kurzel’s comments reveal that supplying grief as a novel explanation for the Macbeths’ recourse to assassination took precedence over the incentives provided by the text:


I guess Lady Macbeth and Macbeth were coming from more of a place of fragility and vulnerability in the beginning and the idea of acting out the prophecy and killing Duncan was a little less to do with power and ambition and more to do with just trying to save themselves . . . . It was a motive that I thought was quite fresh in terms of how this play has been done before. (“Macbeth”)

In the context of the play’s recent performance history, such motivation is not quite as novel as Kurzel claims. In the “Macbeth” episode of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told series (directed by Mark Brozel and first broadcast in 2005), Joe Macbeth and his wife Ella are still grieving the loss of their only child, a son who died shortly after birth. Tellingly, this feature did not occasion specific objections in reviews of that episode, perhaps because the BBC series did not employ Shakespeare’s original language and therefore prompted lower overall expectations of fidelity by its television audiences.

Kurzel’s film, however, did draw all of its dialogue from Shakespeare’s play and thereby induced higher expectations of faithfulness to the text. For instance, Heeney, who generally approved of Kurzel’s innovative visual representation of the Macbeths’ dead child, nevertheless chafed against the way in which this addition refocused the thrust of the narrative:

The crux of Kurzel’s interpretation is to reframe the story around a couple driven by grief, not ambition. These aren’t cold-blooded killers by nature. Their grief-stricken numbness leads them to behave reprehensibly . . . . Macbeth doesn’t follow the usual arc of triumph, temptation, corruption, and destruction. His journey is a descent into depression . . . before he unravels into paranoia and detaches completely from both the world and his wife . . . . It’s emotionally devastating, but this comes at the expense of all other nuance in the text.

Heeney concurs with Rome that ambition is an essential element to Macbeth’s character, and therefore for her, Kurzel’s emphasis on regicide as a mollification for grief, rather than a means to ascend to power, distorts an essential effect of the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Arguments over fidelity arise at this particular juncture, I would maintain, because Kurzel’s depiction of Macbeth as a man devastated by the loss of his child presents a vision of masculinity in crisis,9 which challenges the traditional portrayal of the protagonist as an ambitious man driven by the securely masculine urge to enlarge his status.

Kurzel’s interpolation of the Macbeths’ dead child, along with his diagnosis of the Thane’s condition as PTSD, renders ambiguous and potentially confusing another one of the film’s major innovations: the inclusion of a character referred to in the screenplay as the Young Boy Soldier. This figure first appears in the group of adolescent recruits who join Macbeth’s forces before the Battle of Ellon. Macbeth takes an interest in this particular boy and helps him to prepare for combat; then, during the fray itself, Macbeth rescues the dazed young man from death once, but cannot prevent him from eventually getting his throat cut by a Norwegian soldier. After the battle, Macbeth places a dagger on the dead boy’s chest, which the young soldier, as a ghost, offers back to Macbeth during the “Is this a dagger” soliloquy. Later in the film, as part of a hallucination sequence apparently brought on by Macbeth’s tasting of the witches’ brew, the Young Boy Soldier speaks his only lines, culled from the prophecy of the Second Apparition in Shakespeare’s play: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.79-81). Ironically, the Young Boy Soldier’s only words exhort Macbeth to display the hyper-masculine traits of violence, boldness, and resolution, all of which lead to the King’s ultimate downfall. Aside from this speech, the Young Boy Soldier functions solely as a visual presence, since none of the film’s dialogue allows him, or any of the other characters, a verbal clarification of his identity or his significance within the story.

However, an examination of various stage directions in the movie’s screenplay, which describe elements that did not make the film’s final cut, reveals that the Young Boy Soldier was conceived as “an eerie echo of [Macbeth’s] own son” (Koskoff et al., 10). When Macbeth and his seasoned veterans first encounter their youthful reinforcements, they help the young men prepare their weapons “like fathers taking their sons through a rite of passage”:


 A YOUNG BOY SOLDIER (15) swallows down panic desperately. More than the others he looks out of place in this battle, unproven. His hands are shaking too hard to grip his own sword and he drops it again and again, hopeless, as thick tears stream down his face . . . . Macbeth notices the shaking Young Boy Soldier. He starts down the line towards him . . . . Calmly Macbeth rips a piece of fabric from his uniform and picks up the fallen sword. Carefully he binds it to the Young Boy Soldier’s hand, fast. (3)

In the movie itself, the only remnant of these original stage directions is a short sequence in which Macbeth binds the Young Boy Soldier’s sword to his hand, but the reason for this action, the boy’s shaky grip, is omitted. In the screenplay, it is clear that this trembling is meant to foreshadow Macbeth’s own symptoms of PTSD. At the end of the scene in which Macbeth returns from war to his wife at Inverness, the stage directions read, “His hand is TREMBLING inadvertently. Like the Young Boy Soldier’s before the battle” (22). This tremor reoccurs in the screenplay as Macbeth deliberates over the murder of Duncan:


He is wracked with indecision. Memories of war playing on his mind like the dark shadows dancing on the walls. Memories of his fallen friends . . . . He frowns, noticing something. His hand is TREMBLING. Unnerved by this trick of his body, Macbeth closes his eyes, trying to banish the tension. He breathes out, then wearily opens his eyes and . . . Stops dead. The YOUNG BOY SOLDIER from the battlefield is standing in the doorway of the dwelling before him, watching him calmly . . . . And, in his hands, is a DAGGER. He is holding it out to Macbeth by the blade. (31)

Painful memories of the horrors of combat provoke an attack of Macbeth’s PTSD, causing his hand to tremble. This physical manifestation of his mental condition seems to remind him of the terrified Young Boy Soldier, whose phantom, now calm, appears before Macbeth and prompts him to kill the king. Again, in place of the ambition for power stressed by Shakespeare’s play, the screenplay substitutes Macbeth’s battle trauma and sorrow for the loss of a surrogate son as motivations for his brutal assassination of Duncan.

Despite the film’s omission of the motif of the trembling hand, some reviewers did perceive the way in which the Young Boy Soldier serves as a reminder of the Macbeths’ lost child. Claire Hansen, for example, says of the segment leading up to the dagger soliloquy, “Macbeth’s hallucination or spiritual encounter is not only brought on by the violence of the deed he contemplates, but by his grief for absent children.” However, other viewers, in the absence of verbal cues, were confused about the Young Boy Soldier’s relation to Macbeth. Peter Keough, for instance, writes, “It seems the Macbeths may have had a son — or so legions of bickering academics conjecture. In Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’ he makes an appearance as a kid who serves by the side of his father in the furious opening Battle of Ellon. Dad binds a sword to the boy’s hand, but it doesn’t save him.” Keough apprehends the Young Boy Soldier, not as “an eerie echo” of the Macbeths’ dead child from the opening scene, but as Macbeth’s own biological son,10 a reading prompted, perhaps, by a parallel between Macbeth’s treatment of the two deceased children. In both the screenplay and film, before he lays the dagger upon the Young Boy Soldier’s chest, Macbeth “gently places rocks over the boy’s eyes. Just as he did for his son” (Koskoff et al. 15, see Figure 4). In the world established by Kurzel’s film, Macbeth has sired at least one offspring, so one may easily understand how spectators might interpret this funereal gesture as the director’s cinematic indication of Macbeth’s paternity of the Young Boy Soldier as well.

The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth
Michael D. Friedman, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: The Young Boy Soldier, dead, with rocks on his eyes

Such fertility clashes uncomfortably with Shakespeare’s text, which implies that Macbeth is unable to father children. In a soliloquy before the entrance of the two Murderers, Macbeth says of the Witches: “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown / And put a barren scepter in my grip, / Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, / No son of mine succeeding” (3.1.62-65). This passage, which is retained in full in Kurzel’s film, suggests that the “fruitless” crown and “barren” scepter belong to Macbeth, and that no son of his (excluding the son of his wife, who does succeed him in the historical chronicles), will inherit his throne. However, in the film, this speech is delivered as part of a dialogue with Lady Macbeth, and as Macbeth reaches the line “No son of mine succeeding,” he rests the point of a dagger against Lady Macbeth’s stomach, as if to blame this lineal disruption on her barren womb.11 The words Macbeth speaks, which locate his infertility in himself, contradict the film’s visual signs, which attribute his fruitlessness to his wife. Moreover, both of these implications are at odds with other cinematically produced indications that, together, the Macbeths have engendered at least one, and perhaps two, children. Although Kurzel’s film troubles Macbeth’s masculine status in psychological ways, it actually enhances his virility in a physical sense by granting him the ability to father male offspring.

Puzzlingly, Keough’s observation that the Macbeths’ singular “son” in the film is the Young Boy Soldier seems to overlook the dead son whom they mourn in the opening scene, unless one presumes that Keough takes the delicately beautiful child to be their daughter. Indeed, Katherine Duncan-Jones, reviewing the film for The Times Literary Supplement, makes precisely this assumption based on the film’s visual clues: “Pre-credits, we see Macbeth and his Lady perform tender, flowery funeral rites for a small dead girl-child . . . apparently their sole offspring and last hope” (20). Duncan-Jones misapprehends the sex of the child (designated as male in the screenplay and portrayed by twins Jack and Frank Madigan), which leads her to an additional misconception later in the review, when she describes the first appearance of the Witches: “Accompanying the trio of sybils [sic] is that single girl-child, whose presence ensures that the anguish of childlessness is never forgotten” (20). Duncan-Jones supposes that the girl-child who attends on the Weird Sisters is the daughter lost by the Macbeths, but the film’s credits, as well as the screenplay, refer to a Child Witch (played by Amber Rissman, see Figure 5), a completely distinct figure, who witnesses the funeral: “FOUR DARK FORMS stand watching the ceremony from afar. Women, all of different ages. One is a CHILD, as young as the dead boy” (Koskoff et al., 1). Duncan-Jones clearly perceives in the film an essential aspect of Shakespeare’s play, “the anguish of childlessness,” but she does so through a misinterpretation of Kurzel’s ambiguous cinematic language, which suggests that the critic has been guided more strongly by her own expectations than by the film’s visual signs.

The Persistence of Fidelity in Reviews of Kurzel’s Macbeth
Michael D. Friedman, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The Child Witch makes a total of four witches

How Many Witches Has Kurzel’s Macbeth?


Kurzel’s extra-textual inclusion of the Child Witch occasioned additional perplexity among spectators because it seems to mitigate the play’s insistence upon the mystical importance of the number three, especially in relation to the Weird Sisters. As a trio, the Witches have commonly been associated with the three Fates of Greek mythology or with an unholy Trinity, and their fantastical incantations make frequent use of their number: “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine” (1.3.35-36). Kurzel cuts this passage and most of the rest of the play’s references to “three,” but he unaccountably retains the play’s opening line, in which the First Witch asks the others, “When shall we three meet again?” (1.1.1), even though the screenplay always refers to them as a group of “FOUR FIGURES. The Witches” (Koskoff et al., 74). Hansen recalls the bewildered response of viewers to this alteration in numbers:


Further, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Kurzel gives us not three witches but four -- three adults and a young girl. One of the witches also carries a baby (alive or dead, it is unclear). Breaking the eeriness and tradition of three witches seems unnecessary and confusing (several theatregoers made mention of this at the screening), but what it does do is further highlight Macbeth’s own sterility.

While it could be argued that the spectators who balked at Kurzel’s incorporation of the Child Witch were merely hostile to the violation of tradition, it must also be noted that this innovation apparently left numerous audience members perplexed about the reason for this change. Hansen speculates that Kurzel intended to stress Macbeth’s own infertility, but as we have already seen, Macbeth is not sterile in this version of the story. His inability to pass down his crown to a son of his own does not point to a lack of male potency; rather, it occurs simply because no child he has fathered remains alive.

Other reviewers of Kurzel’s Macbeth denigrate the film’s portrayal of the witches because the script’s removal of their most famous incantatory lines, as well as their mundane appearance, reduce the extent to which they seem to function as a malicious preternatural force. Rex Reed laments that the Weird Sisters “are different from any witches anyone has ever seen before. Gone is the toil and trouble they rant about, as well as the fire that burns and the cauldron that bubbles. These hags are just peasants gone to seed.” Steven Rea objects that they look more like “hippie moms from a ‘60s commune” than evil sorceresses. Jami Ake complains against Kurzel’s interpolation of funeral rites to open the film, instead of the uncanny arrival of the witches, because it establishes human grief as the primary motivating factor for the story’s evil actions in place of the wicked supernatural solicitings that constitute, for her, a fundamental component of Shakespeare’s drama:


Whereas Shakespeare’s play famously opens with a conspiratorial gathering of witches anticipating . . . the action yet to come, Kurzel’s film opens with a distinctly human ritual: the funeral of the Macbeths’ infant child — a scene nowhere to be found in the original play. The witches, who seem more like itinerant mystics than the strange bearded women Banquo questions in Shakespeare’s play, walk into the scene through the Scottish mist with their cryptic greetings and equivocal prophecies, but are neither particularly malevolent nor especially otherworldly in their powers.

Kurzel’s de-emphasis on the evil supernatural power of the witches, like the director’s focus on the vastness of the Scottish landscape, reduces the stature of Macbeth in comparison to his standing in Shakespeare’s play. No longer a man so prominent that he attracts malicious cosmic forces that seek his downfall, Macbeth becomes an ordinary person driven to his destruction by the thoroughly human emotions of sorrow and battle-weariness. Viewers object to what they see as violations of fidelity to the text on these points, I would claim, because their sense of the spirit of the play involves an ideal of masculinity more formidable and less fraught with vulnerability than that which Kurzel’s film presents.



Although Kurzel’s Macbeth enacted countless adjustments to the text of Shakespeare’s play, not all of these changes prompted allegations of textual infidelity. A broad examination of popular reviews of the movie shows that such charges clustered around Kurzel’s representation of the Scottish landscape, the witches, and especially Macbeth’s motives for regicide. There is scholarly value in the observation of such a trend because, as Kidnie asserts, when a cinematic production


approaches those cross-over points that for the present moment distinguish work from adaptation, debates about fraudulence, corruption, and the survival of the play increase proportionately. By marking where a failure of consensus occurs and considering the terms in which the conflict is represented, one can discern something like the present and evolving limits of a particular dramatic work. (31)

Today, it appears, one of the contested interpretive limits of Shakespeare’s Macbeth involves debates surrounding the definition of manhood and its relation to aspects of toxic masculinity. Clearly, the play puts anyone who chooses to film it in a double bind. If a director offers a cinematic version of Macbeth that represents the play’s conception of manhood faithfully, such a film risks endorsing qualities like violent aggression and the repression of strong emotions that modern audiences might find outdated and alarming. On the other hand, a director such as Kurzel, whose movie portrays Macbeth as a man driven by currently sympathetic motivations like battle weariness and the painful loss of a child, consequently provokes accusations of infidelity because his film does not accentuate the ruthless ambition that still seems essential to Shakespeare’s depiction of his tragic hero.

One of the primary values of Kurzel’s bold and visually innovative film for scholars is the way in which the popular response to its controversial choices identifies issues, like the crisis of masculinity, that exist on the present borders of the work’s disputed interpretation. By attempting to push the boundaries of what audiences will accept as Macbeth, Kurzel draws attention to our own conflicted beliefs about what it means to be a man. Yet it remains to be seen whether or not Kurzel’s film will significantly alter the general sense of the essence of the play itself, since the movie’s treatment of issues like PTSD and grief appear to be inserted into the film rather than springing from its text. The play’s dialogue affords opportunities to subvert its own dominant conception of masculinity; but the film does not take advantage of them. For example, during the sequence when Macduff reacts to the news of his wife and childrens’ slaughter, Kurzel chooses to frame most of the segment in tight two-shots, but when Macduff exclaims of Macbeth “He has no children” (4.3.217), the film cuts to a low-angle long shot of four figures placed against the backdrop of towering mountains. This unusual point of view gives special prominence to the line, which coincides with the film’s emphasis upon Macbeth’s anxiety about his lineage. Later in the scene, Malcolm urges Macduff to temper his sorrow:


MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man


MACDUFF: I shall do so;


But I must also feel it as a man. (4.3.221-23)

Unlike other male figures in the play, Macduff insists that his manhood depends upon feeling his grief rather than suppressing it, so such a passage might constitute a textual basis for a critique of toxic masculinity. However, in contrast to the line “He has no children,” Kurzel grants this exchange no particular visual prominence, filming it in the same tight two-shot that characterizes the rest of the sequence, and it does not stand out as the expression of a crucial idea. Only when the visual language of cinema and verbal language of drama operate toward the same ends, I would argue, will the resulting film achieve a lasting impact upon the public’s impression of the essence of the play.


1  Greg Colón Semenza writes, "the burden of fidelity—which has plagued performance and performance studies from the beginning—seems no longer to be much of an issue" (21), while Richard Burt states more flatly, "the criterion of fidelity has been abandoned" (4).

2  Thomas Cartelli coins the phrase "doing original-language Shakespeare slant on screen" to describe those film versions that take "manifest liberties with setting, dramatic structure, and chronology, and that are particularly venturesome in their use of interpolated visual material and editing practices" (30). Slant versions of lesser-known plays like Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline (directed by Julie Taymor [1999], Ralph Fiennes [2011], and Michael Almereyda [2014]) tend not to be judged as strictly on the basis of fidelity to Shakespeare’s playtexts as do slant versions of Romeo and Juliet (Baz Luhrmann [1996]) or Hamlet (Almereya [2000]), which provoke more numerous objections to their modification of the original plays.

3  Adaptation scholars generally agree that fidelity concerns dominated their field until the publication of George Bluestone’s book Novels into Film (1957), which "laid the cornerstone of the anti-fidelity movement" (Hermansson 147). From that point forward, fidelity criticism (the comparison of cinematic adaptations to their source texts) has been roundly disparaged in academic writing for being simplistic, reductive, irrelevant, prejudiced against the cinema, and simply impossible because of the differences between the two media. And yet, the concept’s refusal to pass out of critical use has occasioned a constant stream of attacks, to the extent that "flogging fidelity at some length has become its own well-worn critical trope" (Hermansson 150). For arguments against the usefulness of fidelity criticism, see Dudley Andrew, "The Well-Worn Muse: Adaptation in Film History and Theory" (1980); Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (2010); Thomas Leitch, "Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads" (2008) and "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory" (2003); Brian McFarlane, "It Wasn’t Like That in the Book . . ." (2007); Robert Stam, "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation" (2000); and Thomas Van Parys, "Against Fidelity: Contemporary Adaptation Studies and the Example of Novelisation" (2011).

4  Other adaptation scholars who have participated in the "growing resurgence of (pro-)fidelity criticism since the turn of the millennium" (Hermansson 147) include: Linda Costanzo Cahir, Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches (2006); Lindiwe Dovey, "Fidelity, Simultaneity and the ‘Remaking’ of Adaptation Studies" (2012); the contributors to David L. Kranz and Nancy C. Mellerski’s collection, In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation (2008); and especially Casie Hermansson, "Flogging Fidelity: In Defense of the (Un)Dead Horse" (2015).

5  Edel Semple remarks that, at the end of both Kurzel’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ film Coriolanus (2011), "Masculinity remains in crisis, conflicted, and the ideal male is an absent presence."

6  Quotations from Shakespeare’s Macbeth refer to Bevington’s Complete Works (2004).

7  Nicholas Barber concurs: "Macbeth is a homicidal maniac right from the beginning, so when he becomes slightly more manic and slightly more homicidal, it’s no great loss."

8  For example, at the end of the play, Ross informs Old Siward how the battlefield death of his son confirmed the young warrior’s masculinity:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt.
                        He only lived but till he was a man,
                        The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed
                        In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died. (5.8.39-43)

9  The play features two fathers who lose sons to death, Old Siward and Macduff. The former responds stoically (5.8.47-50), while the latter is advised by Malcolm, "Dispute it like a man" (4.3.221). Neither experiences the emotional disintegration that Kurzel’s Macbeth does.

10 Leslie Felperin also claims that "A young man, who might have been a son . . . lies butchered on the battlefield—a ghost, blackened and blood-smeared."

11 Rome discerns that Macbeth "presses a dagger against Lady M’s stomach" as if to say "it’s your fault, you’re the reason I have no children."

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