Michael Fassbender as Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film
Evil in Macbeth, finds expression in the need to suppress natural feelings. Murder comes at a cost. Night brings with it dark spirits, blasphemous acts, nightmares and madness. Day becomes night and sleep is murdered. Lady Macbeth’s witchcraft gives bloody birth to a new devil, her own husband, whose sacrilegious act in killing the king has opened hell on earth. Macbeth isolates himself in order to save his wife from ‘unseen horrors’ but neither can escape the inescapable consequence of damnation. Hence we have Macbeth’s tragedy, he knows that they path he has taken is the wrong one, they are destroyed by inescapable guilt.
Polanski’s Macbeth is much grimmer and nihilistic than Shakespeare’s original. Directed by a man who suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s as a Jewish child in occupied Poland and only a year after the murder of his wife by the ‘family’ of real life serial killer Charles Manson, ‘Polanski’s Macbeth’ (as it was billed and is often referred to) takes place in a godless world and at the end Macbeth is dead but evil triumphant. Evil to Polanski was not the idea of Satan and the supernatural but the reality of what lies within, ‘it’s in the week and impressionable human heart and soul.’
He cast two beautiful, young actors in the lead roles, and cut the play around their ambitions for power. When criticised for his choice in casting, Polanski and Kenneth Tynan (scriptwriter) explained their deliberate choice of young actors rather than a middle-aged couple whose ambitions would be short-lived. The young Macbeth’s have less to lose and everything to gain:
Tynan: The point about the Macbeths is that they do not know they are in a tragedy. They think they are in a story that is going to have a triumphantly happy ending. When the witches prophesy that Macbeth will be king, he is filled with exhilaration, like a man who has come into an unexpected fortune. That is the dream. Rushing to fulfil it, the Macbeths encounter the reality of their own natures, which hitherto neither of them knew; and that is the tragedy…
His attention to making the film look ‘real’ extended beyond historical accuracy and the casting of John Finch and Francesca Annis highlighted a move away from traditional Gothic representations of villains giving the film a contemporary feel in tune with the film horror genre but also with the perpetration of real-life horrors. He said ‘people who do ghastly things in life, they are not grim, like a horror movie.’ (Polanski)
When we compare the characters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with another murdering villain, Richard III, the difference is clear – Richard enjoys the game, he has no moral dilemma, no ambiguity, no empathy; even when destroying his close family he invites the audience to revel in his nastiness. He attempts to protect no one but himself – he would annihilate everyone if he could.
In the last fifty years Richard III in performance has come to symbolise evils particularly relevant to our times. When performed as part of the history cycle involving the three parts of Henry VI, the play and the character’s significance become part of a wider examination of socio-political concerns. When performed in isolation, the character of Richard becomes dominant, and the play usually delves into psychological territory encompassing modern beliefs on the nature of evil in man.
If there is anything close to what we now consider a ‘serial killer’ in Shakespeare it is Richard, and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of Richard, can be seen in many modern extreme horror films. In Man Bites Dog (Belgium, 1992) dir. Rémy Belvaux and The Last Horror Movie (UK, 2003) dir. Julian Richards, the serial killer, like Richard, talks to the audience directly about his actions, plots and feelings (or lack of them) about what he does, often comically. These films, including others such as Funny Games by Michael Haneke (Austria, 1997) act as an indictment against media violence and the viewers’ ability to watch violent acts without appropriate emotion. Ultimately, they shock the audience back into a sense of their own humanity through fear. As with Richard III there is a breaking point between the audience and the protagonist where laughter dies and creeping horror takes hold, not least because of their earlier complicity through humour.
In order to make the psychology behind his Richard something recognisable, Henry Goodman (2003) found a parallel for Richard’s deranged mind with modern fictional serial killers, such as Hannibal Lector. Similarly, actor Antony Sher also described how he looked at the behaviour of recent real-life serial killers in order to get a handle on Richard’s completely amoral behaviour:
Despite his appetite for perversity … Richard’s tendencies to normalcy are almost more disturbing. In fact, this is the hallmark of the psychopath, as Sher discovered watching the Nilsen murder case. S P Ceransano, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.36, no.5, 1985 (Dennis Andrew Nilsen was a British serial killer who lived in London. During a murderous spree which started in 1978 and lasted five years, he killed approximately fifteen men in his home and disposed of the bodies in his garden, attic and other rooms about his house).
In 1974 Barry Kyle’s production at The Other Place studio theatre took place in ‘an asylum with all the characters dressed in costumes vaguely reminiscent of concentration camps.’ Ian Richardson, who played Richard, was fascinated by what he called:
… the schizophrenia … in the very last soliloquy, the nightmare one where he seems to be two people talking to each other. The one is some horrid, monstrous spectre, the other what is left of the good soul of Richard, if anything is left at all. Any examination of that soliloquy will show that Richard’s mind has completely gone, in much the same way as some of the monsters of our own lifetime – Stalin, Hitler, Ida Amin all spring to mind. This is total schizophrenia born out of megalomania.
The extraordinary stream-of-consciousness speech by Richard is fairly unique in drama of the period, but is it psychological or supernatural? In Jasper Britton’s script for his performance as Richard III for Regent’s Park he noted a more metaphysical aspect to this soliloquy, ‘This is Richard’s ghost haunting himself.’ Having been cursed by the ghosts of those he murdered Richard is then visited by his own spectre. There is a divinity in the death of Richard and the ghostly procession which precedes Richard’s soliloquy is topped by self-damnation from a future ghost who may have learned some humility in hell.
Jasper Britton’s script, ‘Richard III’, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, held at the Shakespeare Institute Library
In the 1973 an extraordinary and wonderfully blackly comic-horror film about a serial killer was made. The opening titles were backed by footage from silent film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works with the likes of Forbes Robertson, Emil Jannings, and John Martin Harvey, intercut with Nicholas Hilliard’s famous Elizabethan miniature Young Man Among Roses. A beautiful melancholy score by Michael J Lewis emphasises the love of something lost, the excitement and the emotion of the action it accompanies; it places the audience’s sympathies with the drama of Shakespeare.
Therefore, when he appears, the audience’s sympathies fall with the old-time actor, who returns from the dead, to revenge himself on the critics who gave him frightful reviews for his renditions of Shakespeare. Towards the end of the film Lionheart explains his motive for dispatching this pretty despicable bunch:
Edward Lionheart: How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because you lack the ability to create yourselves! No Devlin, no! I did not kill Larding and the others. PUNISHED them my dear boy, punished them. Just as you shall have to be punished.
Peregrine Devlin: Well get it over with then, just so you don’t have to make me listen to that demented rubbish of yours. Go on, kill me then!
Using the gruesome methods of murder taken from Shakespeare’s works, Edward Lionheart, played with such relish by Vincent Price, bumps off his enemies in wonderful updated adaptations of Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, Titus Andronicus (substitute poodles for sons), and I Henry IV; thus proving his critics wrong in their assumption that his methods were outdated. After receiving the heart of theatre critic Trevor Dickman in a box, Devlin, his fellow critic, confirms the identity of the serial killer from the fact that he’s messed about with The Merchant of Venice: “It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!”
Theatre of Blood is a brilliant work which as Peter Hutchinson points out in Gothic Shakespeares:
… clearly looks forward to the serial killer dramas that would become popular from the 1990s onwards. The idea of the serial killer as a kind of artist whose killings have an overall pattern and which exhibit a distinctive ‘signature’ – Se7en (1995), Copycat (1995). (Drakakis, p.162)
The theatricality of murder is explored in Shakespeare’s plays and the horror influenced by it. One of the key elements of the successful serial killer is being a good actor, showing one face to the world whilst being something completely different underneath. As Lady Macbeth instructs her husband one must ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ Richard III in his opening soliloquy sets out his theatrical stall – the part he is born to play.
Henry Goodman as Richard III, RSC, 2003
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
All his actions subsequently are acts, performances in which he pretends to be something he’s not in order to manipulate. He is a killing machine rampaging his way through unsuspecting dupes who think the war is over.
So if you’re stuck for something to watch on Halloween you can always go back to Shakespeare (or Edward Lionheart) and indulge yourself with a bit of Shakespearean psycho and explore the limits and complexities of sanity and madness, reality and performance. The Greek word ‘persona’ means mask and stories of serial killers, an extreme example of mask-wearing, can throw light on the other ways in which people ‘act’ in order to validate or justify their behaviour. The question is not if we wear a mask but which mask we choose to wear. As W. H. Auden once wrote:
Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian
Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Gale Townshend (London, Routledge: 2008)
Judith Cook, Shakespeare’s Players, 1983 (London: Harrap, 1983)
Owens, Rebekah, Macbeth, Devil’s Advocates series (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017)
Polanski, Roman. Roman (London: Heinemann, 1984)
Shakespeare Quarterly (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library) vol.36, no.5, 1985
Shakespeare, William, Richard III, ed. Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008)