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The Character of Macbeth

An essay by Judith Buchanan, Co-writer and Shakespeare Advisor for Macbeth.

Posted 11th April, 2018

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Lady Macbeth (Akiya Henry) and Macbeth (Mark Rowley)

In Act V, Macbeth says:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.

Macbeth is right to remember a former version of himself who was more acutely sensitised to feeling and more attuned to the meaning and effects of terror. In fact, that finely sentient character, whose very physiology had seemed affected by events in the outside world, is the Macbeth we too remember from Act I. Part of the tragedy of the play is not just the way in which it charts the incremental deadening of the inner world of an imaginative, feeling man (and the horrific effects on others of the actions he takes as a consequence), but also the way in which that man himself clear-sightedly observes his own decline as his moral and emotional nerve endings become increasingly dulled.

As the play progresses, Macbeth comments also on the dramatically impoverishing effect on his external life that this inner deadening brings with it. In Act V, he reports, with almost sardonic detachment:

…that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

Socially embedded in Act I : Macbeth with Banquo (Al Weaver)

With stark clarity, he lays out for himself two versions of his life: the one he might have expected to lead and the one that is now actually his lot. Exchanging troops of friends and love for timidly uttered but heart-felt curses and self-evidently hollow expressions of feigned respect is, by any measure, a strikingly poor trade-off. Macbeth has cut himself off from all that might have animated, enriched and warmed his life, and he not only knows it but articulates to himself with unsparing brutality the difference between the road not travelled and the one chosen.

Psychologically isolated in Act III : Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

For the film, amidst all the techno-wizardry of the green screen world being dreamt into being pixel by pixel, we wanted to ensure that the arc of the character of Macbeth – as dramatic an evolutionary arc as that for any Shakespearean character – sat at the heart of the story we were telling. We wanted the Macbeth we meet at the start of the film to be one who might legitimately expect to end his days surrounded by ‘troops of friends’. We envisaged him as socially embedded in camaraderie, love, laughter, intimacy and a vibrant sense of life possibility. And we wanted then to be able to watch him incrementally become the bleakly desolate character of the play’s end, for whom life is evacuated of meaning. We were aware that this is a big human story about the erosion of purpose, connection and even of the capacity to feel. And at the heart of the performance, Macbeth needed not only to be living the dissolution of all human connection, but also to be charting the processes of his own moral evisceration with terrifying self-consciousness. Our casting for Macbeth had this thinking at its heart. Mark Rowley not only took the brief but remade it day by day in rehearsal and on set, in line with his own capacious emotional repertoire, as the story of this wonderful, engaging, pitiable, terrifying Shakespearean character became properly his.

Judith Buchanan
Co-writer and Shakespeare Advisor, Macbeth