I Think Shakespeare Would be Upset

I was struck, while watching the new version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, by the blend of realism, authenticity, and modernity. All of these concerns were completely unimportant to Shakespeare, who was a writer firmly rooted in his time and concerned with pure entertainment.

The film has an anachronistic concern with trauma. In many ways it explains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions as a kind of result of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are haunted by the death of their daughter (long a favorite speculation on the Macbeths’ backgrounds before the start of the play) and perhaps Macbeth is haunted by the violence of battle (which seems to have taken from him another son). This new version, rather than focusing on will or fate, or the supernatural, or even moral decisions, is centered around the experience of loss and grief. The realism we are so much in love with in recent cinematic history diminishes the humor and rhetorical flourishes which (to me) add great depth and complexity to the play.

I have always been an advocate of reading Shakespeare, which allows for close analysis of motifs, themes, and wordplay. Creating a “realistic” Macbeth confines the interpretation of the play and pushes it toward one articulation of the story where much nuance is discarded. In any case, the film is spare and atmospheric in its cinematography and is excellently acted. Perhaps the next interpretation (which I’m sure audiences are just clamoring for…) will leave in some of the fantastic, which both enriches the play and will marry it to its original intent.

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