Study and compare two different film interpretations of Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’

In this essay, I am going to compare two different interpretations of Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, to see how different directors interpret a text and use different techniques to support their ideas. The two film versions of ‘Macbeth’ that this essay will focus upon are ‘Macbeth on the Estate’ directed by Penny Woolcock and the Polanski version. Both adaptations were produced in different decades- Woolcock’s being in 1997, whereas Polanski’s was some twenty years beforehand.

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In Act 4 Scene 1, Macbeth returns to the witches and as they await his arrival, they prepare the ingredients for the spell and start chanting. Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between both films is the setting. The Polanski version is quite traditional and true to the actual play, as it is set deep in the wild moors- in a cave, unlike Woolcock’s version which is very contemporary, set in a Birmingham council estate, where gang rivalry replaces monarchy. I think Polanski is quite traditional with his ideas as it agrees with the text.

If I would direct this scene, I would be more original with my idea and set it in a deserted fairground, in the Hall of Mirrors. I would do this because it is original and modern. It would also work well with the actual text as it is deserted, which adds to the atmosphere and mystery of the whole play. In the background of the opening scene there would be deserted rides, litter being blown around by the wind, echoing laughs and children’s voices, suggesting something tragic had happened there, which is why no one goes there. In the opening scene, the colouring would be sepia.

The children’s voices are replaced with chanting, which creeps up slowly, and the camera follows the sound and is drawn into the Hall of Mirrors. The witches are a vital element of the play as they are the instruments that lead Macbeth towards his path of destruction. The portrayal of the witches in both films is varied, as both versions have strayed from Shakespeare’s original idea of three old, wrinkly, women in the stereotypical costume of all black. In the Polanski version, he has stuck to the ‘traditional’ image but has a lot more than just three witches.

I think the reason why there are more than three witches is to create the effect of Macbeth being mobbed and feeling pressured to drink the potion. In the Woolcock version, there are three witches, but their portrayal is very different as they are young (teenagers) and there are two boys and one girl. Woolcock uses children to portray the witches because the audience would normally associate children as innocent, and having them as witches supports one of the major themes of the play; that things are not what they seem. They are wearing normal T-shirts and trousers.

I think this is because it fits well with the contemporary theme and setting. I would portray my witches as scary clowns with smeared make up and torn costumes, to show that the fairground and all its inhabitants were deserted and neglected. I would use clowns as witches because the witches in ‘Macbeth’ are poking fun at him and are almost ‘playing’ with him, like clowns ‘play’ with children at a fairground. I would have the clowns wear lots of make-up, fake noses and wigs. Also, the clowns’ laughter would be scary and ghoulish rather than cackling, as it wouldn’t fit in with the fairground theme.

Also, there would be three clowns, but the reflection in the mirrors would make it look like a lot more. As well as that, the costume would be lots of muted gaudy colours like red, orange and bright blue, similar to clowns at a fairground. In order to create the desired effects both directors use different techniques. In Woolcock’s version, it is set in daylight, so the colour is quite harsh and sharp. Outside of the flat, where Macbeth first starts talking to the witches, it is pale blue lighting, but in the derelict flat, it is quite dark and Woolcock has chosen to use a vibrant use of red (red walls, red lighting, red curtains. I think this symbolises blood from the murders Macbeth has committed and I also think it symbolises hell. Also, in the den, the camera focused on sacrificial objects used in witchcraft, like a black doll (voodoo), tarot cards, candles and a helmet to symbolise war. This emphasizes the theme of evil. Also, while the witches are in the flat, the camera is unfocused and there are flashbacks, showing what Macbeth has done.

In the Polanski version, it is set in the early evening and there is a blue, hazy light tint around the surrounding hills, but near the cave mouth, there is a orange/ red tinge and a bit of smoke and flickering light, which signifies the warmth of the cauldron in the cave. In the actual cave and in Macbeth’s hallucination, many props are used such as the huge, black-as-a-bat cauldron and to make the spell come alive, Polanski shows the foul ingredients being added “Lizards leg and howlet’s wing. ” When the potion is given to Macbeth, it is given in a golden chalice.

During the hallucination, a large amount of mirrors are used to show the eight kings of Banquo’s descendants, being crowned and later on, the camera focuses on a forest, trees and branches, which symbolizes Macbeth’s later means of destruction. The effect of all the atmosphere, colour and use of props makes it almost surreal. In my own version, I would set it at dusk with a hazy light tint, which would signify blood. In the actual hall of mirrors, I would use special lighting effects to create an unfocused atmosphere, where different mirrors lined up on each side of the room, show distorted images of the clowns.

Also in the mirrors would be Macbeth’s reflections, suggesting his duplicitous nature. I would do this to add to the audiences viewing pleasure and also to create a quite scary and sinister image. Other special effects would include smoke, a swirling vortex to replace the cauldron and various shadows moving across the room. In the surroundings- littered around, would be clown props, like little red balls and playing cards, to emphasize the fact that the witches are clowns.

In the background of my film version, I would play circus music, but with the tempo slowed down and played softly, as it is quite an eerie sound with clown laughter sometimes creeping up and echoing, which would emphasize the emptiness and desertedness of the area. In the Woolcock version, the background music is a clock constantly ticking, which shows that time is an important element and that it won’t be long before Macbeth will be king, and also that he has limited time left to carry out his plans of murdering all of Banquo’s descendants so he could be crowned king.

Also playing in the background are spooky, high-pitched notes, which add to the suspense. In the Polanski version there are long, sad, suspended notes at the beginning and then while Macbeth is looking through the mirrors, a jarred sound can be heard, which gets faster through each mirror. There is also a ‘bleeping’ sound. All of these add to the dramatic effect. Woolcock has chosen to make many text cuts in this scene, whereas Polanski has stayed with the original text, making very few cuts.

Macbeth is famous for its spell and the words “Double, double, toil and trouble” are well known, so to cut it out as Woolcock has done is quite daring, as it is difficult to replace the cauldron and the spell, with something else symbolic and the effect can be lost, as I think is the case in ‘Macbeth on the Estate’. Even though the absence of words is replaced by images, the actual impact this has on you is not that great, compared to the Polanski version where the spell is kept, and to add to the effect of it, it shows the witches adding the very gruesome and disgusting looking ingredients into the cauldron.

I also think that the actual cauldron contributes to the fact that they are witches and witches cast spells. Overall, I think that both film interpretations are excellent in their own ways, but I think that the Polanski version is more effective than the Woolcock version, as it really brings the witches and the conjuration alive, and because the spell is taken quite literally, being able to see the utterly sickening ingredients being added, makes it more enjoyable for the audience, as they feel like they are involved.

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