The Reactionary Utopian
                     April 13, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     April 12 was Shakespeare's birthday. The real 
Shakespeare, I mean: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I 
thought a little celebrating was in order, so I watched 
one of the best Shakespeare films ever made: Roman 
Polanski's 1971 MACBETH.

     When I was a kid, that was one of my favorite plays. 
Still is. The language!

       Bring forth men-children only,
       For thy undaunted mettle should compose
       Nothing but males.

I should have used that one to get dates, but I never 
seemed to be able to work it into a conversation with the 
girls in my class. Airheads.

     Anyway, I got really hooked on Shakespeare when I 
saw a televised production with Maurice Evans as Macbeth 
and Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, the role she was 
most famous for. Talk about undaunted mettle!

     You may remember her as Mrs. Danvers, the 
domineering housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA. 
She was almost too scary as Lady Macbeth, and though I 
admired her no end, I vaguely wondered why Macbeth would 
marry her. Yes, a man wants a woman with her share of 
undaunted mettle, but there are reasonable limits. How do 
you pop the question to a battle-ax like Mrs. Danvers? 
And where do you take her for a honeymoon?

     Polanski took a daring new approach. Working with 
the brilliant critic Kenneth Tynan, he made the Macbeths 
a young, attractive couple on the make, instead of the 
usual plummy-voiced, middle-aged folks. Jon Finch played 
Macbeth as a handsome warrior, and Francesca Annis was a 
gorgeous Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth had qualms about 
murdering King Duncan, she didn't humiliate him with 
reproaches; hurt and disappointed, she melted him with 

     A kinder, gentler Lady Macbeth was certainly a new 
departure, but it was a brilliant success. Most 
Shakespeare productions make me wince; this one is a 
triumph. By making this formidable woman weaker and less 
tough than her husband thinks she is, Polanski prepares 
us for her panic and crackup later. Guilt destroys her. 
Macbeth is almost undone by it at first -- "O, full of 
scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" -- but learns to live 
with it. Her madness leaves him completely isolated as he 
goes from one atrocity to another.

     When MACBETH was released, it was rated "X." Annis 
played Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene nude, but it was 
so discreetly shot that Hugh Hefner, who financed the 
film, must have been, well, hurt and disappointed.

     What's really shocking is the violence. After a 
rough opening battle scene -- seen a man killed with a 
mace lately? -- we see the Thane of Cawdor brutally 
executed and King Duncan murdered (these deaths happen 
offstage in the play), but that's the least of it. Banquo 
gets a broad-ax through the spine and is pitched into a 
stream; then his ghost makes a hair-raising appearance at 
dinner; a little later, Macduff's young son is dispatched 
in a horrifying way; finally, Macbeth kills several men 
in single combat and is himself beheaded by Macduff 
(again, it happens offstage in the play).

     But Polanski really excels not in extremes of 
mayhem, but in the unexpected, unsettling little touches. 
Think of Jack Nicholson's nostril in CHINATOWN; you 
remember that moment (Polanski himself wielded the 
switchblade) long after you've forgotten a thousand movie 
shootings. One of the Weird Sisters is an eyeless, 
toothless old crone, ugly enough to give you nightmares; 
where did they dig her up? On the night of Duncan's 
murder, even the cleansing rain startles.

     The scenery is gorgeously filmed. The natural beauty 
of the settings only underlines the unnatural doings 
going on within them, just as the poetry celebrates the 
normal order Macbeth is destroying. The terrible evil is 
accentuated by the goodness it violates, the darkness by 
the daylight. The film's images capture the story's 
paradoxes. Banquo's killers, though thugs, are also a 
pair of oddly touching losers.

     Of course we go to productions of Shakespeare for 
thrilling acting, but here we have to settle for 
competence. The peerless Laurence Olivier could never 
raise the money to film his legendary Macbeth, sneaking 
quick furtive glances at his own hands to make sure they 
weren't bloody; and the world is forever the poorer for 

     But Polanski's inspired direction almost allays 
one's regrets that Jon Finch can't fill Olivier's shoes. 
He shows that even fidelity to Shakespeare can leave 
plenty of room for surprise.


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