Cinema, Theater, and the Art of Perpetual Transformation in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

March 11, 2022   •   By Julia Sirmons

JOEL COEN’S The Tragedy of Macbeth feels both near and far. The film leaves strong, varied impressions. In its close interactions with the performers, it emphasizes the heavily embodied process of delivering Shakespearean dialogue, often in tight close-ups that draw attention to bodies and breath. The walls and arches of Stefan Dechant’s sets feel solid and oppressive, as “palpable” as the vision of a dagger that tempts Macbeth (Denzel Washington) to murder. Other things stick in the mind for their illusionistic ethereality: the simple, transparent silhouettes of the tents in Duncan’s encampment or the steady drizzle of artificial leaves in Birnam wood.

This feeling that things are both “there” and “not there” is central to Shakespeare’s play and its questions about the relationship between supernatural powers and human agency. Every director and production team must decide, when staging or filming “the Scottish play,” which of the seemingly otherworldly apparitions — Macbeth’s dagger, the “weird sisters” who prophesize that he will be king, Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth’s “damned spots” — are actually there. And how will “there-ness” or “not-thereness” be conveyed? Absence and presence are central to realizing the text, the idiosyncrasy of each interpretation resting upon how each influences or causes one another.

Coen’s Macbeth tackles these questions in particular and surprising ways, stemming from its shifting dialogue between theatrical and cinematic styles. Tensions between “there” and “not there” play out in interactions between these aesthetics. It’s a delicate dynamic, evolving and transmogrifying, showing that film and cinema are not so diametrically opposed as we might imagine. As a result, the film ultimately expands our idea of what makes a good stage-to-screen adaptation.

Critical responses to The Tragedy of Macbeth have focused on its visual homages to German Expressionist cinema (a movement which itself borrowed greatly from theater), as well as to Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948) and Laurence Oliver’s Henry V (1944). The conviction that these particular films are the gold standards of silver-screen Shakespeare stems from the idea that plays turned into films must be, in some way, subsumed into cinema. One of the greatest proponents of this view was film critic and theorist André Bazin, who founded the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Bazin was an evangelist for cinema’s photographic realism in opposition to theater’s artificiality. Despite the long history of entanglement between theater and film, Bazin, like many before and after him, reduced the relationship between the media into a series of dichotomies. Cinema is image-based, while theater is text-based. Cinema is the “liberty of action in space,” while theater is the artificially constrained perspective of the “stage picture.” Cinema is an ephemeral image projected on a screen, while theater relies on the presence of the actor’s live body.

All this meant that, in Bazin’s view of adaptation, cinema must dominate over theater. He praised Olivier’s Henry V for its framing device, in which an Elizabethan audience arrives in a theater to watch the play onstage. For Bazin, this choice makes the final product not a straight adaptation, but rather, a representation of an Elizabethan theatrical performance. This “filmed theater” puts its theatrical source in “quotation marks.” “Both Shakespeare and the theater,” Bazin writes, “[are] prisoners, hemmed in on all sides by cinema.”

Coen’s Macbeth veers widely from this style. “Quotation” and “hemming in” do not aptly describe what cinema does with theater in the film, which offers nimble, inventive solutions that allow film and theater to coexist harmoniously. Macbeth flexes cinematic muscles deliberately and emphatically, while using theatrical settings and effects. The cinematic and the theatrical are layered on and spring from one another, such that a novel reimagining of absence and presence becomes the source of the film’s uncanny power.

During Lady Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, after reading Macbeth’s letter telling her of the witches’ prophecy, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth lights the missive on fire; she has gone over it so many times that she can recall the lines from memory. Stopping before a window, she is framed in close-up, her face illuminated. As she ponders whether Macbeth has the mettle for murder, she lets go of the flaming letter, sending it out the window.

What follows is a magical, distinctly cinematic, effect: the letter soars, partially aflame, into a night sky full of twinkling, artificial stars. The letter arcs across the sky, and the camera follows it as it vanishes into the air above Duncan’s camp, where he stands before his tent. Duncan is framed in a tableau, standing directly in the middle of theatrically flimsy tents, dressed in his royal robes and crown. He is waiting to greet Macbeth and to bestow honors on him: this is when Macbeth starts to feel slighted and first contemplates murdering the king in earnest. 

In this otherworldly sequence, Lady Macbeth seems to transfer a bit of her determination to her husband by weaving theatrical dialogue together with more conventionally cinematic tools. The tableaux of Duncan at his tent and Lady Macbeth in the long, dramatic hallways of her palace are entwined through camera movement, close-ups, and the cinematic special effect of the flying letter. They spring, one out of the other, in a perpetual transformation of the image.

These movements between the theatrical and the cinematic convey the shifting boundaries between the human and supernatural, and the role that each play in the final tragedy. Lady Macbeth’s ability to send the letter, comet-like, right to the place and time when her husband is most susceptible to her plan, is a witchy act. Does she have some supernatural power of her own, or is fate intervening? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy is a pivot point where the prediction of the witches’ prophecy starts to take shape as a diabolical manifestation of human free will. When Coen cycles between cinematic and theatrical, he unsettles our perceptions of what kinds of power contribute to Macbeth’s rise and fall.

The Tragedy of Macbeth’s intriguing means of combining the cinematic and the theatrical owes much to discussions about how to innovate performances of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage. Director Peter Brook has proposed an aesthetic of “emptiness” as a means of revitalizing what he called the “deadly” theater: established texts (especially Shakespeare’s) that have been ossified by entrenched performance practices. Coen’s Macbeth echoes Brook’s ideals with a frequent sense of dizzying emptiness — eerie feelings of dwelling in a nothing where a something ought to be. Brook’s influential manifesto, The Empty Space, published in 1968, opens with the famous lines: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

Macbeth often performs such “engagements” in its intermedial exploration of the relationship between absence and presence. Coen again and again uses the “walk and talk” across minimal sets, Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy being just one such example. Many of the film’s performances occur in emptiness, evoking theatrical minimalism and the cinematic void, as with the empty hallway and the letter magically sucked into the endlessness of the artificial stars.

Brook’s central image, that of a human figure walking through emptiness, even opens The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Coen intensifying Brook’s theatrical ideal by layering the theatrical act with cinematic techniques. We see an upward, weightless view of three birds (which we will learn are incarnations of the three weird sisters) flying across a foggy sky. The fog grows so thick that the spectator is disorientated, unable to distinguish between land and sky. As the fog dissipates, we can see the small silhouette of a man walking across this gray, empty space. Gradually, the man — a captain coming to court report Macbeth’s bravery on the battlefield — comes into focus, his face finally visible as he looks up at the birds in the sky. The scene suddenly moves into the theatrical space of Duncan’s camp, with a tableau quite similar to the one that ends the flying letter scene. (Throughout the film, tableaux are the dominant images of the royal court.) The camera slowly zooms in on the king and his sons, perfectly arranged in a triangle, standing in front of the quasi-transparent tents.

This montage leads the spectator through a cinematically constructed void into the theatrically artificial space of Duncan’s encampment. Cinema heightens our engagement, as editing and camera movement create a more profound and dizzying sense of emptiness than could be achieved on any real, three-dimensional stage. This distant man becomes more present and specific as he approaches, the camera showing his face and wounded body dripping blood.) The dialectic between emptiness and the sudden, stylized presence of Duncan is existential. The man who engages theatricality with his walk is like the “poor player” of Macbeth’s soliloquy, where man is but an actor who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” (After this first scene, we never see him again.) Duncan’s tents — whose stylized theatricality indicate the story has begun — mark the entrance of storytelling, clarity, and meaning. Olivier frames Henry V with an audience of playgoers, situating spectators in a familiar place, while Coen’s empty frame destabilizes us. The drama could be happening anywhere and nowhere and could mean different things, or, terrifyingly, nothing at all.

While physical presence is generally attributed solely to theater, The Tragedy of Macbeth’s designs create a space for cinema to heighten its own medium-specific potential for play with materiality and immateriality. Dechant’s designs for Macbeth’s palace closely resemble the work of scenic designers Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia, who rejected the realist aesthetic of painted backdrops common in late 19th- and early 20th-century theater, favoring solid, simple structures with arches and grand stairways. The subsequent chiaroscuro effects of their designs set up a dynamic play between the material presence of the actor and the ephemerality of light. These effects enable such play most vividly as Macbeth struggles with whether to stoop to murder: first in the flimsy, ethereal structures of Duncan’s camp, then in the immense and overpowering solidity of his palace. The diaphanous and the material appear as the dualities between light and shadow, innocence and sin, life and death. Once Macbeth decides that he cannot come by the throne honestly, his solid profile is set in front of the semi-translucent scrims of the tent walls, shadows of tree branches quivering behind him. The artificiality of the court tempts him with the seeming ease by which it can be infiltrated, destroyed. The staginess of the silhouettes theatricalize Macbeth’s soliloquies, heightening the drama of his mounting resentment and moral relativism.

Duncan’s entrance and Lady Macbeth’s welcome to Duncan’s retinue bring together the theatrical mode of ritual and the gossamer immateriality of cinema. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel casts the stairs and structures in a gray and hazy light that makes them look like stage sets. “The air is delicate,” Duncan says, their bodies set against a play of light and grayness. Eventually, the frame is divided between this ethereal tableau and the dark, imposing colonnade in the foreground. As Macbeth leans against a column, the delicate courtyard contrasts with our palpable proximity to his body. Suddenly, in the middle of his soliloquy, the windows behind him light up, and a shadow play begins through the transparent curtains. Macbeth watches the silhouettes of Lady Macbeth and the guests as she welcomes them, her hospitality a set of superficial gestures. This play is like a rudimentary version of cinema, a magic lantern show that is also a heartless seduction.

“The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures,” Lady Macbeth will tell Macbeth after the murders. The shadow play presents Duncan as a flickering image, immaterial and easily, inconsequentially disposable. Absence and presence take on a new valence: lingering light and shadow send a chilling message about who will be “there” and who will be “not there” by the end of this bloody evening. The theatrical and the cinematic render ephemerality and materiality as a series of shifting positions propelling the drama forward.

The Tragedy of Macbeth’s “there-ness” and “not-there-ness” is both a complex sensory experience and a kind of visual puzzle. I can’t think of a recent film so intent on presenting images — produced through mise-en-scène, angles, camera movement, and stylized performances — that the spectator must look at closely and try to place in a larger picture. This cypher quality prompts us to ask the larger existential question of the piece: Do supernatural powers, compelling as they may be, even matter in the end? What of human existence and agency? Constant transformations between cinematic and theatrical aesthetics enable the film’s ongoing, ambivalent agnosticism on this point.

Discussions about stage-to-screen adaptations fixate on the established formula of film as absence and theater as presence. But it is more accurate to say that both cinema and theater have their own ways of producing feelings of presence and absence, and managing the relationship between the two is significant to the aesthetics of each medium. By foregrounding this textual problem of presence and absence, Coen brings out different shades and meanings of Macbeth, and the result is an adaptation strange and refreshing, haunted by past iterations without being stifled by the weight of homage.

By extension, The Tragedy of Macbeth suggests liberatory possibilities for reading and responding to intermediality. Theater and cinema “do go about, about,” and the film is richer, and more cinematic, for it.


Julia Sirmons writes about excess and high style in film, television, and performance. She has also been published extensively on crime fiction and film. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, Another Gaze, Crooked Marquee, and The Brooklyn Rail. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.