Before everything, Macbeth is a warrior. The opening scenes of the Scottish play include a famous description of Macbeth’s leading role in defeating Macdonaldwald and the King of Norway in their uprising against King Duncan. At a moment of crisis in this battle, when it seemed that the insurgent Macdonaldwald would triumph, Macbeth retrieved the situation:
But all’s too weak,
For brave Macbeth — well he deserves that name —
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements.
Armed with a sword steaming with the blood of his enemies, Macbeth cut Macdonaldwald in two before decapitating him. With Banquo, he then went on to recreate another “Golgotha” in which the Norwegian King’s army was defeated.
Although the descriptions are graphic, Shakespeare’s play itself includes few on-stage battle scenes. Only at the very end does Macbeth actually fight on stage, a last stand in which he kills the young Siward (his last victim) and is in turn killed by McDuff. For the rest of the play, all of Macbeth’s violence is set off stage, described but never seen. The audience imagines his violence — they do not witness it.
Justin Kurzel’s striking new adaptation of Macbeth, released on October 2, 2015 to critical acclaim and starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, represents a cinematographic inversion of the original. In his film, battle predominates. The film begins with an extended combat sequence. Macbeth and his army are gathered on a bleak moor as they prepare for battle against Macdonaldwald’s army, unseen in the dense fog. The camera pans across the black-striped war-painted faces until, initiated by Macbeth, the host issues a war cry and plunges toward their enemies, who appear spectrally in the distance through the murk. In ultra-slow motion, the two armies clash and brutal fighting follows. Most notably, one of Macbeth’s boy soldiers, on whom the camera dwells tellingly before the battle, has his throat cut during the fighting and bleeds out darkly on screen. Eventually, Macbeth charges Macdonaldwald and slashes him to the ground. The scene is followed by a long sequence in which the dead are gathered and prepared for cremation, including the boy soldier, whose image haunts the rest of the film.
Macbeth’s apparently fearless heroism and remorseless violence is on display throughout these sequences. Yet the sequences highlight an aspect of Macbeth’s character normally absent from adaptations of the play and presumably from the original play, but highly relevant to a 21st-century audience. Macbeth is a combat veteran and, despite his courage, he is plainly severely traumatized by his war experiences. Kurzel and Fassbender construct him as a victim of PTSD, and he displays the classic symptoms of this perturbing condition.
In particular, the unmediated brutality of hand-to-hand combat has de-sensitized him to violence. Death and mutilation have no obvious effect upon him. Moreover, Michael Fassbender’s tortured Macbeth is not only depressed by the loss of comrades but also deeply troubled by survivor’s guilt. Throughout the film, Macbeth is tormented by the memory of two dead children: his own child, who accompanies the three witches, but also the boy soldier killed in his first battle. The boy’s slashed throat haunts Macbeth — all the more so because he himself is depicted dispatching some of Macdonaldwald’s soldiers in the same way. The film implies that Macbeth felt as guilty of the boy’s death, as if he had cut his throat himself.
Macbeth’s guilt then explains his self-destructive murderousness. Fassbender’s Macbeth is, of course, driven to commit his first murder by his infamously over-ambitious wife, brilliantly played by Cotillard, but that murder and his subsequent rages do not originate in the poisonous aspirations of his “unsexed” wife. In this film, blood genuinely begets blood. Indeed, Kurzel draws an immediate connection between the murder of Duncan and Macbeth’s battlefield violence. As Macbeth hacks Duncan repeatedly in his bed, plunging the same dagger that he wielded against Macdonaldwald’s soldiers, he goes into a psychotic trance — of a kind depicted on the battlefield. The scene shows that the only way for Macbeth to assuage his fury is to repeat the very violence that generated his guilty rage in the first place. He is trapped in a cycle of violence and recrimination.
Macbeth’s barren marriage does little to help him. Although after his return from battle Macbeth and his wife hatch their plot while they have sex, the film depicts a cavernous domesticity. Once he is crowned King, Macbeth moves from his humble, candle-lit wooden home situated on a beautifully filmed Isle of Skye to a grandly Romanesque but utterly cold, stone royal castle. There, he is alone; his wife begins to recoil from the violence she has unleashed, eventually going insane and dying. His domestic alienation and the utter meaningless of his life only accentuate his traumatized condition, driving him to ever greater paroxysms of rage and vengeance. Like a PTSD victim, his condition is self-exacerbating. While Kurzel cuts the Shakespearean text dramatically and many of Fassbender’s soliloquies are disappointingly abridged and fleetingly filmed, it is notable that the speech in which Macbeth expresses his depression most fully is delivered slowly into the camera:
I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.
Macbeth is, of course, killed by Macduff in the film’s closing battle, which replicates the fog and war-paint of the first battle. In an extended and symbolically charged struggle, Macduff kills Macbeth with a dagger. Macbeth is slain, but the filming heavily implies that he has allowed Macduff to kill him. In the end, Macbeth commits suicide with a knife equivalent to that which he wielded in the first battle, with which he killed Duncan and which slit the throat of the boy soldier, the defilement of whose memory Macbeth can never cleanse himself.
Every generation recreates the Shakespeare it needs. Kurzel’s Macbeth may not be a genuinely great adaptation of the play, but it speaks powerfully to and for the generation that just fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Macbeth, many combat veterans from those wars are troubled and tormented by rage-inducing memories of violence, loss, and guilt. For some of them, violence, self-hatred, depression, and suicide may be a brooding presence for the rest of their lives. Kurzel’s film uses the great Scottish play as a way to think through the psychological dangers of war and violence in ways immediately relevant not only to combat veterans just returned from war, but also — and perhaps more importantly — to civilians who have to live with and care for them.
Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter, UK. His most recent books are The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford 2013), (ed.) Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford 2015). He is currently writing a book on command at the divisional level.