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Facharbeit: Vergleich MacBeth von Shakespeare mit dem Film von Polanski

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1. Preface

I used a version of Shakespeare’s MacBeth which is adapted and abridged for students at school and was released as the 23rd revised edition in 1993 by Cornelsen Verlag, Berlin. Later on, I decided to use a version without any cuts because Polanski certainly did not use the Cornelsen version. Roman Polanski mostly used Shakespeare’s original language but he often changed the setting, as you find out when you compare the film with the text of the original play by William Shakespeare.
So I used an edition from Cambridge University Press.

2. Introduction
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. With this sentence the fourth Act of Roman Polanski’s version of MacBeth begins. The phrase the introduction starts with is very important for the whole story. It reflects a characteristic of MacBeth.
“Polanski succeeds in stripping one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies of its mystical and eerie nature in favor of blatant pornography and egregious departures from the text.”
“To be sure, the violence throughout the film is bloody, graphic, and often gratuitous”.
“After reading many of his plays and seeing the movie and stage versions, I would have to say that this is the best version by far.”
You see: critics have completely different opinions on Roman Polanski’s film MacBeth. Some of them say that the music is not only improper but also disturbing; others claim that the film totally misses the point because of its brutality. But some critics mention that the realisation of the drama is even better than most of the plays on stage they have ever seen and say that Polanski used more than two thirds of the original text in his film.
The topic of this study is “Roman Polanski’s version of MacBeth based on ACT IV”.
I decided not only to describe Roman Polanski’s version of MacBeth but also to compare it with the original version of William Shakespeare.
A thorough comparison needs to answer the following questions: does Polanski accept the intention of Shakespeare or does he change the plot in his own way without clarifying the purpose of Shakespeare? For a comparison it is among other things important to know the historical context Shakespeare wrote in and who he wrote for. The critics above show in their different opinions that an objective judgement is difficult and that the subjective feeling of a person plays a big role.
3. Shakespeare
3.1. The English Theatre in Shakespeare’s time
Shakespeare’s plays are still so popular because of the language, the words and of course because of the plot.
The public who came to watch plays in the Globe Theatre liked to see “sex, drugs and rock’ n roll”. This is exactly what the rainbow press is about today, showing us the escapades of members of the royal family and other famous people.
Setting was the same most of the time but used for different plays. Scenery on stage as we have it today was not used. Everything the audience could see on stage was described through the language the actors used in the performance. MacBeth was not only played in The Globe, The Rose or other theatres, the Shakespearean performers also acted it in rooms of the king and other famous and important citizens. The first performance of MacBeth was in 1606 at the royal house of James I.
However, there were also a few stage directions which helped the audience imagine the situation. For example in ACT IV, scene 1 the second apparition is described: “Thunder. Enter SECOND APPARITION, a bloody Child”.
MacBeth is called a tragedy. Typical of a tragedy in that time was to present the lives of the noble people to the ‘normal’ spectators. They were supposed to be happy even though they were poor and had a low social position because the lives of the high-ranking people were full of tragedy.
There is no person strictly good or only bad. Everybody has a lot of facets like in real life. So everyone can identify with the characters in the play, even today.
In Elizabethan theatre it is common to let the protagonists speak monologues, which is different to theatre in our time. In monologues you can concentrate on the actor and what he has to say. Nothing distracts the audience from listening to the person who is on the stage on his own. In films it is possible to come close to this theatre convention of presenting monologues by focussing the camera on the actor. In a close up, for example, you will only see the head of a person who is talking to himself.

3. 2. The historical MacBeth
MacBeth was born in 1005 at Alba, Scotland. In 1020 right in the middle of his studies his father was killed by MacBeth’s cousins Malcolm and Gillecomgain. MacBeth disappeared for a few years. He came back again after the death of his cousin Gillecomgain in 1032. At that time Gillecomgain was governor of Moray. MacBeth was elected to be the new governor, after that he married Gillecomgain’s widow Grouch and adopted their son Lulach. Two years later, in 1034, when his grandfather King Malcolm II passed away MacBeth became a candidate for the crown. But before it was his turn, his older cousin Duncan was elected to be the High King of Scotland because of the order to the throne. Duncan was a King with thirst for power. He ruled for six years. A lot of Scottish soldiers lost their lives during his reign. People always feared what he might do next. For this reason they weren’t bothered a lot when MacBeth and his cousin Thorfinn killed Duncan in Forres in 1040. At the age of 35 MacBeth was crowned High King of Scotland. MacBeth was a fair King, who ruled peacefully and successfully. He and his wife were generous to the church, especially to the monastery of Loch Leven in Kinross. MacBeth also enacted a few laws under his reign. One of them was that daughters had the same rights of inheritance as sons. Scotland enjoyed those peaceful years. A few years later things went not that good for him anymore. Malcolm, one of Duncan’s sons, came up to avenge his father’s death. In 1054 he came up to Scotland with English and Danish troops. They met in Dunsinnane. Malcolm left this battle probably because King Edward did not want to risk the life of more soldiers. However, Malcolm marched again and in the end, on August 15th 1057, Malcolm’s men killed MacBeth. When he tried to flee they chopped off his head and brought it to Malcolm on a golden platter. Finally, on April 25th 1058, Malcolm realized his dream and became High King of Scotland. 3. 3. Shakespeare’s MacBeth
Shakespeare did not write MacBeth for a history lesson. For this reason you can find differences between MacBeth’s real life and the one Shakespeare wrote about. Shakespeare left the quiet years out and only showed the ‘nightmare’ of MacBeth. This nightmare starts after he tells his wife about the prophecies the witches have made him. He is told that he will be king one day. The couple is childless; if MacBeth can’t have children with his wife, he must show her in another way that he is a real man – a hero. So he murders the king, so that the prophecy of the witches can be fulfilled. He wants to end the nightmare and hopes that one day a final murder will be committed which will liberate him from this bad dream.
The real MacBeth was a King who had peace in his country and who did not murder one person after the other, like the other Kings did. For this reason MacBeth does not fit into the series of tragedies of kings like Richard II and III and King Lear.
Queen Elizabeth I died without any children. So James VI King of Scotland also became King James I of England. A lot of people and James himself believed that he was a descendant of Banquo. So Shakespeare inserted Banquo into his play just to do James I a favour. To please the King Banquo had to be a good person, of course.
James was very interested in witchcraft. He himself wrote a book about witches in which he claims that they were able to tell the fortune of kingdoms.
And at the time of Shakespeare the opinion of the King was the measure of all things. If the king liked a play it became very popular and attracted big audiences.

3. 4. Summary of ACT IV

The witches stand around the cauldron throwing interesting ingredients into it to make a potion without a name. When MacBeth appears they agree to show him with three prophecies what his future will be like. What the apparitions say is mysterious:
Don’t trust MacDuff!
Nobody will harm you who is born of a woman.
You will never be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
MacBeth knows that nothing can move the forest so he is sure that this will never happen. However, at last the witches show him that Banquo's descendants will rule Scotland. MacBeth curses this hour and starts an outburst of fury when Lennox tells him that MacDuff fled to England. In his fury he enters MacDuff’s castle and murders everyone. At that time MacDuff doesn’t know anything about what happened to his family. He arrives at the court of Edward the Confessor, King of England and meets Malcolm, who is the son of Duncan. Both swear that they will kill MacBeth.

4. Roman Polanski
Some information on the life of Roman Polanski could be interesting to understand his way of directing MacBeth.
Roman Polanski is the son of Jewish parents. He was born on August 18th, 1933 in Paris. However, he did not spend a lot of time in France because of anti-Semitism. His family moved back to Krakow, Poland, where they originally came from. In 1940 Hitler marched into the town and it became a Jewish ghetto. The Nazis took nearly his whole family away from him and put them in concentration camps. His mother and a lot of other family members died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Polanski survived this time. Shortly before his father was sent to the concentration camp he helped him flee. He lived in various Catholic families, where he learned to behave like a Catholic so that he would not be recognized as a Jew. In his childhood he had already been confronted with difficult situations which deeply influenced him. He was used as a living target by German soldiers, was seriously injured in an explosion of a dud and at the age of 16 he was tricked into following a man because he said he was going to show Polanski a racing-bike. The man abused and nearly killed him. Violence, poverty and misery were part of his daily life as was death. After the war Polanski met his father again, who had survived the concentration camp. When his father remarried, the teenager Polanski left the ‘family’. He became a scout, and in one of the camps he performed a few skits and realised that the audience laughed when he wanted them to. Polanski initially studied art at university. He was 21 years old when he finished and enrolled in the highly respected Lodz Film School as one of only six students who were accepted. Much later when he lived in the United States of America, Polanski became a famous filmmaker. On August 9th, 1969 a tragedy occurred. His wife Sharon Tate, who was 8 months pregnant, and four of their friends were victims of a brutal attack. They were killed in his home by the radical leader Charles Manson and his followers. Polanski lived in seclusion for the next two years. He returned in 1971 with this dark version of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Polanski's most bloody and brutal work.
5. Comparison of Shakespeare’s play and Polanski’s film

5. 1. Music and sound
Four times Shakespeare gives information on sounds in the first scene of ACT IV, which are: thunder for the apparitions, the play of oboes when the cauldron sinks and twice there is music with reference to the witches.
Polanski does not take over the thunder. However, he does use the play of the oboes. But there is no music when the witches appear or dance.
Twice in ACT IV music is played in the background of the film as well. Music is only played in very dark situations. The first time, when MacBeth rides to the dark cavern of the witches and the second time, when Lady MacDuff sees dead people and parts of the castle on fire. When there is music it is inharmonious. The composition when MacBeth is riding to the cavern starts loud and gloomy but the closer he gets to the cavern, the more quiet the sound becomes until you only hear a woman hum. The music that goes with Lady MacDuff is idiosyncratic and shows desperation. Lady MacDuff becomes quiet when she sees the first dead person and the desperate music starts.
Besides you should notice that some noises are exaggerated. Neither steps, spilling of liquid nor the sound of hooves clattering are really so loud. It sounds as if there was a microphone tied to the foot of a walking person or to the sword of somebody when he uses it.
Critics say that these sounds are very disturbing. But I don’t support this view. The music underlines the action of something. When MacBeth rides to the cavern, for example, it is right that the music is like this because MacBeth goes to the witches and witches are women who have magical power. The sound just reflects the evil nature of the witches.

5. 2. Text
Polanski uses two thirds of the original text by William Shakespeare. A direct comparison between Shakespeare and Polanski can be found in the attachment. I only want to point out changes which stand out. Polanski leaves out most of the monologues, including the long dialogue between Malcolm and MacDuff in the third scene, and also the report of Ross is significantly shortened.
This dialogue may serve as an example of a big difference between Shakespeares’s and Polanski’s version. It is a calm moment after the murder of Macduff’s family. There are a lot of insights and the possibility of identification for the spectators. Malcolm is very distrustful and everyone will understand this because you had to be very careful in those days. He has to test his new friend’s loyalty. First he approaches him: “Why in that rawness left you wife and child, those precious motives, those strong knots of love, without leave-taking?” The spectator just saw the gruesome murders, so it is easy for him to understand the reproaches. However, Macduff gets Malcom’s point. Malcolm tests him again in a new way: “It is myself I mean – in whom I know all the particulars of vice so grafted that when they shall be opened, black MacBeth will seem as pure as snow”. Shakespeare’s spectators had just this experience. Nearly every new king or lordship raised hope that now violence would come to an end. However, when they were on the throne, they murdered like their predecessors. The spectator knows that Malcolm could also act in that way, even though Malcolm later is denying it: “I put myself to thy direction and unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure the taints and blames I laid upon myself, for strangers to my nature.“ Today we also know greed and lust for power: Who possesses, wants more …
Polanski cuts this dialogue nearly completly. He shortens more than half of scene 3. In this point Polanski fails Shakespeare’s intention. There is not any calm or thoughtful moment in his film.
Interesting is Polanski’s version of scene 1: Nearly the whole monologue of MacBeth during the last vision is cut out and replaced by pictures.
In the conversation Lady MacDuff has with her son, Polanski left out a part. He takes that part where the son asks what traitors are and what happens to them; the son almost behaves like an adult.
Polanski adds two scenes of ACT V here and also a dialogue between Lennox and another Lord at the castle of Lennox from ACT III. This Polanski changes into a conversation between noblemen of Scotland inside MacBeth’s castle.
5. 3. Images on stage – Images in the film
You can find a lot of scenes in the film of Roman Polanski which aren’t original in the play by William Shakespeare.

5. 3. 1. Scene 1
In the play there are three witches in a dark cavern – in Polanski’s film there are more than ten of them, all nude in a dark cavern. MacBeth gets dragged down into the cavern by the third witch. – In Shakespeare’s play he enters after the witches.
It is dispensable that Polanski presents the witches in the cavern nude. From my point of view he does so to provoke and shock the audience. If they were dressed it certainly wouldn’t be so exciting.
An apparition is a ghost. Shakespeare wanted a ‘ghost’ to appear on stage. Polanski did it in a different way. He lets MacBeth look into the cauldron where he sees things and sometimes he even slips into the action.

Shakespeare’s stage directions:
Thunder. First Apparition, an armed head. [he descends] - Thunder. Second Apparition, a bloody child. [he descends] – And so on. Macbeth is just looking and not acting.

The version of Roman Polanski:
The first apparition is MacBeth’s armed head appearing in the cauldron. The second a caesarean (and therefore bloody) newborn babe; the child becomes older in two steps while stating his prophecy. Then amour for the grown-up child appears, MacBeth reacts by pulling his sword out of its sheath and stabbing it into the amour, which falls down, builds up a big pile and MacBeth’s head lies beside it. At the end of this vision MacBeth decides to kill MacDuff just to make sure nothing can harm him. In the movie he slides into the action, he fights against the apparitions as if they were real human beings – it is a nightmare! MacBeth stays in this position when the third apparition comes. This is already a change. You can’t really notice that there were two previous apparitions, it seems as if it was only one because they slide over into each other like in a film. MacBeth’s head comes into the story again later - in ACT V after MacDuff beheads him. You could say that what happens to MacBeth is shown in the prophecy. He sees what will happen in the end, so he should have known from that point on that his head would be cut off. Grass grows over the armour and the years pass by. The third apparition in this film is not a crowned child but Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain. Appearing with a smirk and laugh and clapping their hands, they state the prophecy as well. MacBeth still stays in the nightmare and follows the brothers through the forest. There he comes directly to a throne with the first of the eight kings of the final apparition, who picks up a mirror and through this MacBeth can see another king who also holds a mirror and shows the next king and so on. In the end a mirror shows Fleance crowned as well and MacBeth sees Banquo laughing and pointing at his son. The end of these apparitions and also of the scene is different as well. In the play Macbeth is more like a curious listener whereas in the film he awakes from a nightmare. I think that it is a good idea Polanski had and that he directed it well, too, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what Shakespeare wrote originally. It is something new and very different.
Roman Polanski here adds a conversation between noblemen of Scotland, which gives some background information and a view of the coming events to the audience. It seems a friendly atmosphere but the speech is full of foreboding.
5. 3. 2. Scene 2
In the play the whole scene takes place in a room in MacDuff’s castle.
In the film it is shown first that children play blind man’s bluff with a man. It is an untroubled scene. This game shows a casual situation. Everyone is happy and no one can imagine that this could be over soon. It makes the ending of the scene even worse: Happy people are murdered, a whole estate farm razed to the ground because of a man who left to get help for his country.
In the play Ross is a nice relative of Lady MacDuff and tries to explain to her why her husband has left them without saying a word. In the film he almost uses the same words but he acts in a cowardly way. He makes use of the situation and when he leaves he lets the murderers in. Abruptly Ross becomes a traitor in the eyes of the audience. After this moment the spectator can’t trust him anymore and his performances later on seem dishonest.
Polanski shortened the conversation between Lady MacDuff and her son. He only leaves the part, where mother and son talk about traitors and the son asks questions to find out what his father did that made him flee to England. He draws the conclusion that he did this to escape from being killed since he was called a traitor, and traitors were killed. “Then the liars are fools, for there enough of them to beat the honest men and hang them up.” Straight after this sentence the murderer appears and stabs the child to death. It seems that the son thought his idea would be great and a moment later he is struck to death by his own concept.
The murdering scene is so disgusting with the raping of girls and the killing of young children that it could never be shown on stage.

5. 3. 3. ACT V scene 1 and 3
Polanski rearranged ACT IV and V, placing scene 1 of ACT V between the second and third scene of ACT IV. This is where he also put the first monologue of ACT V. ACT V scene 1 shows how Lady MacBeth sleep-walks and talks so that everyone who listens is informed of the murders. The second part is very important for the scene in England because it is already noticeable that there is something wrong with Ross, that he feels aggrieved and that he will do something which will not be good for the King. MacBeth has just received letters from England, which Lennox brought, and he hands over the chain he was wearing as well. MacBeth throws away the letters and gives the chain - which is the symbol of the Thane of Cawdor - to Seton (who is just and officer) and not to Ross (even though he is a nobleman of Scotland). Everyone except Ross leaves. It is apparent from the look on his face that he is disappointed; he wanted the chain and thought he would get it. To add insult to injury, somebody else got it, a man who is not as distinguished or respectable as he is.
I think Polanski inserts these scenes earlier than Shakespeare did to show the spectators the change of Ross’ mind and to arouse suspense.

5. 3. 4. Scene 3
In his stage directions Shakespeare wrote that the scene takes place in front of Edward’s castle in England. However, Polanski changed it into an army camp with noisy sounds of horses and sword fights. Moreover, he leaves out the important dialogue between Malcolm and MacDuff, thus shortening the scene considerably. Since he leaves out the conversation between Malcolm and MacDuff it is not important to show a castle or a nice quiet place that Shakespeare used as a setting. In Polanski’s film they only talk about Scotland and that it needs help. Therefore it is fitting that an army camp is shown. It has to be remembered that while doing this he portrays things which will happen later on.

6. Polanski’s major changes
Very interesting is the ending of Shakespeare’s MacBeth compared with the one of Roman Polanski’s film. Shakespeare’s drama ends with Malcolm becoming King of Scotland and with the hope of more peaceful times. Polanski, on the other hand, goes a step further. He lets Donalbain – brother of the new and lawful King Malcolm – show up as a jealous rival who rides to the witches. Thereby the vicious circle of evil closes and the horrible game can start again.
Lady MacBeth is a woman who likes to have power. She pushes MacBeth into killing King Duncan so she can become Queen of Scotland. She even calls MacBeth a “coward” because he said to her that he will speak “no further in this business”. She wants to know what it was that made him change his mind and break his promise. Lady MacBeth even goes further and says “‘tis to love the babe that milks me – I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this.” This characterises Lady MacBeth in Shakespeare’s version very well, a woman obsessed with hunger for power.
In the film by Roman Polanski Lady MacBeth is a loving wife and altogether quite charming. She calls MacBeth a coward, too, and also asks why he changed his mind. However, through this whole discussion she has tears in her eyes. The part where she says she would dash out the brains of her baby is left out.

7. Conclusion
The way Polanski presents his version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth creates a different atmosphere. Polanski uses the dialogues of Shakespeare but puts a different twist on them. The images and the music he uses put a totally different perspective on it. The film appears to be more like a horror story than a tragedy. Polanski horrifies people with his film, emphasizing the evil in human nature and leaving out humanity completely.
If Shakespeare’s audiences loved “sex, drugs and rock’ n roll” then Roman Polanski’s version of MacBeth fits for today’s spectators who like that topic.
The ‘nightmare’ of MacBeth is horrible – so why shouldn’t Polanski direct his film as a horror movie?
In Shakespeare’s play ‚sleeplessness’ is a recurrent motif. A few quotations may prove this view: ”Sleep no more! MacBeth does murder Sleep”. “We may again give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,” and as a last example: ACT V scene one. Lady MacBeth sleep-walks and talks about the murders her husband has committed. Due to the leaving out of the monologues the film does not give ear and eye a rest, thus underlining the motif of sleep- and restlessness.
In the time of Shakespeare the spectators who went to see his plays learned how great it was not to be a member of the upper class because those people had the problems which make up the tragedies – maybe the audience could even find laws and experiences for their own life. They also had the opportunity to identify with a character on the stage. In my opinion those two points fall short in Roman Polanski’s film because the horrible pictures cover every basic approach of meditation. On the other hand he does succeed in emphasizing important aspects, for example: the motif of “sleeplessness”.
Shakespeare, William: MacBeth, Edited by Rex Gibson, Cambridge University Press ¹²2000,
Shakespeare, William: MacBeth, Berlin ²³1993, p. 101, l. 44
Richard Goldberg: Northwestern Chronicle,
Compare attachment internet pages
Teen Movie Critic
Shakespeare, William: MacBeth, p. 103 l. 75
cf. Oberst, Helmut: Shakespeare kennen lernen, Lichtenau 2001
cf. Kott, Jan: Shakespeare heute; Berlin 1989, page 355
Shakespeare, William: MacBeth, p. 115 pp
op.cit. p. 115, l. 26
op.cit. p. 117, l. 50
op.cit. p. 121, l. 123
op.cit. p. 105, l. 111
op.cit. p. 111
op.cit. p. 103, l. 67 ff
cf. chapter 5. 2
Shakespeare, William: MacBeth, p. 111, l. 55
op.cit. p. 33, l. 43
op.cit. p. 33, l. 31
op.cit. p. 33, l. 54
op.cit. p. 45, l. 38
op.cit. p. 95, l. 34
Englisch-Facharbeit über den Vergleich MacBeth von Shakespeare mit dem Film von Polanski.
1) Preface
2) Introduction
3) Shakespeare
3.1. The English Theatre in Shakespeare’s time
3.2. The historical MacBeth
3.3. Shakespeare’s MacBeth
3.4. Summary of ACT IV
4) Roman Polanski
5) Comparison of Shakespeare’s play and Polanski’s film
5.1. Music and sound
5.2. Text
5.3. Images on stage – Images in the film
6) Polanski’s major changes
7) Conclusion (4756 Wörter)
26.09.2004 von Fritze
Polanski | Shakespeare | Facharbeit Englisch | MacBeth | Vergleich MacBeth von Shakespeare mit dem Film von Polanski | auf Englisch
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