Shakespeare’s Macbeth as portrayed by Roman Polanski and the Royal Shakespeare Company

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Before watching any of the above versions I read the brief script for the first scene. From this piece of the script I would expect each of our extracts to fulfill the wishes of Shakespeare: set in ‘an open place’ and with ‘thunder and lightning.’ Yet these are the only stage directions so the production and direction of this scene is left widely to the director. The first scene is a very important part of the play, and yet it is only thirteen lines long it is in it this scene that we are introduced to the three witches who provide the undercurrent of evil and demonic tendencies which run throughout the play.

The first version we watched was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s. At the beginning the colour of the screen was predominantly red – symbolic of the suffering, dangers and bloodshed to come in the play. The tones of red fade to black, white and shades of grey. Set on a heath, there are thunderclouds overhead which create a sense of foreboding the darkness of the clouds symbolises evil. The thunder and lightning give a sense of evil happening, lightning is clearly seen in the background and the flashes of light let us catch glimpses of three shapes on top of the dolmen which takes up most of the stage setting. The lightning also lets us see the outlines of monoliths in the background, which are associated with pagan rituals and beliefs.

At first the witches can’t be clearly seen but become recognisable as the camera focuses in on them. While the camera focuses on them the witches kneel up straight, one at a time. For the rising of each witch there is a discord note, reflecting our already growing opinion of the witches. Similarly there is a flash of lightning and roll of thunder before the first with speaks. As the witches speak they remain knelt up straight, bathed in shadows ensuring that there is an air of mystery. During the scene the lights continually flicker this also casts many shadows perhaps signifying the spiritual world. When the name of Macbeth is uttered it is followed by a discord, suggesting that he is to play a main part in the plot of the play.

The words spoken by the witches are faithful to the original script, as we would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The witches reaching into the middle ends the scene. The camera focuses in on their hands, which are withered and dirty. There is a suggestion that the three are united in an evil bond. The scene ends with another roll of thunder.

Roman Polanski’s version could not have been anymore different. The scene is set on a beach, a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s script. Polanski uses symbols to take the place of dialogue. The scene opens in late evening and during the first few seconds the screen becomes dark and then light again. The darkness leaves a shadow over the land maybe again using the symbolic meaning as the first production. The cackling of the witches and the squawking of seagulls overhead is head along with the distant sound of wailing instruments. The first sign of the witches is a stick in the foreground of the picture followed by each of the witches.

The first witch draws a circle in the sand and the second and third continue to dig it out representing a cauldron. Their appearance is, as you would expect is stereotypical, with old withered faces, gnarled hands, wearing rags. One of the witches has blonde hair underlining the modern aspect of the play. One of the witches has no eyes, eyes are known as ‘windows to the soul’ this fact encourages the idea of the supernatural and that the witches are not people of this world. Ironically, the witches can still ‘see’ into the future.

All three carry bags containing the grim artefacts signifying the gruesome events that are to come in the play. Firstly a rope is placed in the hole, signifying the death of the Thane of Cawdor, next a severed forearm and dagger representing the upcoming murder of Duncan and a reflection of what happens to the perpetrator of the crime. Herbs are added to signify the binding together of a spell, the hole is covered up again and blood is poured over it. The witches then spit together over the hole again maybe symbolising the unity of the three witches.

The witches now begin speaking with the last lines of the scene and then return to the beginning of the text, there is a significant pause before the word ‘Macbeth.’ The last three lines are missed out. The witches then go off in different directions and leave no footprints in the sand reinforcing our thoughts that the witches are not of this world the wind howls, closing the scene with an eerie feeling.

In my opinion Roman Polanski’s version is the better of the two, there is more of a symbolic meaning enforcing the thoughts of William Shakespeare. I enjoyed watching the Polanski version more, as the acting seems to be more ‘natural’ than the quality of acting in the Shakespeare Company’s version. The only drawback to Polanski’s version, I think is that he is not loyal to Shakespeare’s original script and stage directions. If adhered to, Shakespeare’s literary genius and Polanski’s fantastic imagery could bind together to create a fantastic production of Macbeth.

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