Thoughts from Different Angles on Joel Coen’s Macbeth with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and Is This Why I Can’t Sleep?

I have no pretense of being a Shakespeare scholar, by any means. As I was educated primarily in Canadian public schools, my path of learning going into university had been embarrassingly narrow (so much so that I cannot spell the word “embarrassing,” but I really mean that I missed much of what an education could offer). I also have the disadvantage of living on the edge of a continent where it is rare to see Shakespeare on stage.

In order to make up for my lack of scholarship or stage access, in 2021, I launched a “Shakespeare Play a Month” personal challenge. Last year, I fell short of the challenge by a couple of plays, but did pretty well otherwise. At the beginning of the challenge, I was alternating comedies and tragedies–presuming that I like the comedies best and wanted to warm up before reading the histories. I read The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night (comedies), Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear (histories) before turning to the History Cycle.

I am still trying to situate the histories, filled with brilliant speeches and characters, but occasionally puzzling to me. I’ll finish the first History Cycle quartet with a rereading of Henry V in the next month or two (which I have seen performed beautifully). What surprised me is how deeply I found myself wound into the tragedies. While I am still uncertain what to think about The Tempest (which I am ensured is genius), I found myself disconnected from As You Like It. Instead, I was reaching for Hamlet and Othello out of a desire for more.

My tragic shading is not without exception, of course. The Taming of the Shrew is just so much fun (as is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have read a few times). My favourite comedy, though, is most certainly The Merchant of Venice, which I taught last week for the first time. It was a bit of a tragedy, admittedly, to only have 90 minutes for such a deceptively complex play. I find this work of Shakespeare so rich in ideas and images, so playful with language, so experimental in its inversions of role, and filled with elegant speeches that combine wisdom and passion and some element of cultural criticism that I haven’t quite yet defined.

For the sake of honesty, I must admit to having an intellectual crush on Portia the female protagonist. I know that some other Shakespeare characters are “greater” in the ways that critics weigh the matter–Shylock in this play, Iago, Falstaff, Hamlet, Macbeth and his Lady (or Lady Macbeth and her man)…. Maybe Prospero or King Lear or Henry V (in his most desperate speeches). The characters pop in Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. But it is Portia whom I admire the most, if admiration can be considered a category for greatness.*

I’m still figuring out The Merchant of Venice, as my post last year confesses. The play just astonishes me. But, I chose to teach it because it is a great piece of literature for talking about culture, gender, race, and different kinds of love. In the end, I brought those elements out. However, I chose to use a careful study of words to do so, digging into certain Germanic-rooted words that Shakespeare uses early in the script and plays with throughout, like “sad,” “weary,” “bond,” “kind,” and “blood.”

I think we had a brilliant conversation.

As I have been caught up by tragedies–and Merchant of Venice has tragic elements–I decided to return to Macbeth after some years away. From my first introduction in high school, I have had trouble finding sympathy with the play. I have never been sure why–though having seen two pretty terrible performances has not been able to be overcome by a pretty good Shakespeare in the Park performance a few years ago. Macbeth has some iconic speeches and is one of the more intensely character-driven plays (Harold Bloom said somewhere that 1/3 and 3/8’s of the lines in Macbeth and Hamlet, respectively, are spoken by the protagonist). I know it is one of the “greats,” so I picked up Macbeth this month to try again.

I quite enjoyed the play, though there is a spooky element to my Shakespeare reading this month. I was struggling to get to sleep earlier in January. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I turned on the light and reached for a book. I opened Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 2 (my first time ever reading the play). It isn’t irony but Shakespeare’s genius, I’m sure, but I began to read this passage:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

“O sleep, O gentle sleep,” how indeed have I frightened away what even the richest man cannot afford to purchase? I still don’t have the answer to that question–despite its importance both for my insomniac life and in that play of awakenings and endarkenings. It is this sleepless passage that begins the king’s decline. After the long complaint about sleep, the play ends with this Sword of Damocles line of Shakespearean thrift:

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
I wonder what I am up against?

Once again, reaching for Macbeth in the middle of the night last Thursday, I read:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast

It is not conscience that keeps me awake, I believe. Even still, with restless Macbeth who has murdered sleep even as his wife has called for everlasting night, I suffer the same dis-ease: my sleeves of care are still unravelled, my sore labour remains unbathed, and unceasing are the thoughts which course fruitlessly through my mind.

So Macbeth has walked with me in the wee sma’s this winter, and I have enjoyed (if one can claim such things) Macbeth’s journey in an entirely fresh way.

As a chance to re-experience the play within an unending closure of our stages, I watched the Joel Coen Macbeth. This 2021 production stars Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. I like the Coen Brothers’ work and was intrigued by this Americanization of the Scottish play. Though less than a month since its release, it has already received a number of award nominations and wins, especially for Washington’s lead performance, Kathryn Hunter’s strange and brilliant support work on stage, and aspects of art direction, adaptation, and cinematography.

The design of this film is immediately striking. It is a stage performance of Macbeth, not an adaptation. Stefan Dechant’s set design creates a stage-on-screen of stark simplicity that successfully highlights the actors’ performances. Almost without fail, Coen uses light and darkness in deft shadowplay and angular contrast and symmetry in the architectural scenes, and with great patience and depth in the travel and crossroads scenes. I am not certain this works as effectively in the “Tomorrow” monologue upon Lady Macbeth’s death as it does in the other great speeches–and some of the rear shots are out of sync with the dialogue. However, the stark minimalism and use of many camera angles have the advantage of allowing the actor a great range of possibilities in interpreting the line.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Overall, I am won over by Denzel Washington’s performance. I was uncertain while watching whether his restrained descent could justify the kind of brutal destruction of life Macbeth perpetrates. After all, he begins as someone Lady Macbeth fears “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” Hag-ridden by time and possibility, he will soon become a man impatient with the limits of his dagger and harassed by daggers of the mind. Lady Macbeth will, but contrast, ultimately lose herself in the plea to the “murdering ministers” to draw on night and restrain providence as she pours words like salve or poison in her husband’s ear.

With American sensibilities and a long tradition of quiet character studies of cruel simplicity, Joel Coen creates a Romaneque tragedy from the pages of the Scottish play. And yet, with all its patience, he effectively uses sound and fury–spurred on by character innovations both weird and grotesque. Of these innovations, the fantastic figures of impossibility are the greatest. I have noted the witches, but Coen augments the role of one character, collapsing various plotpoints into a single person to allow for a satanic figure in fine clothing, an angel of shadow cloaked in light, the haunting of sin crouching at the door. Thus, it is not only Lady Macbeth who pours spirits in Macbeth’s ear. It is well done.

And the penultimate swordfight is just absolutely brilliant.

I am not fully won over. The use of birds and bushes works well, the rooky woods, but the CGI ravens and rooks and martlets seem disjointed from the actors’ movement on stage and yet are essential to their psychological development. I don’t know if Lady Macbeth is quite right–good though. I tend to be impatient with the casting of strong women on screen, perhaps because I imagine what is simply impossible when I read them in print. Denzel Washington as Macbeth is frequently excellent, including intimate moments with Lady Macbeth. To his credit–and misquoting Lewis (in his essay, “Variation in Shakespeare and Others”–it strikes me that Washington’s performance makes me believe that Macbeth really spoke as we hear him speak, that he was a creative, mimetic poet of piercing quality. To do so, though, Coen mutes the splendour of the setting–the haunting terrain and rough manners of medieval Scotland are limited to the stage.

I do not know if I was wise or not, but I chose this new Coen Macbeth film over the Trever Nunn 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production, featuring Ian McKellen as Macbeth and  Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. After all, Sir Ian McKellen’s”To-morrow” speech is now famous:

Perhaps, though, I lack the courage to have the admirable Dame Judi Dench speak to me this truth: “You lack the season of all natures, sleep.” Whether in the play this is Lady Macbeth’s regret at her own ministration of ear-spirits, an unreasonable complaint that her prayers have been answered, a rebuke against Macbeth’s madness, fear of the potency of fate, or commentary upon man’s mortal ends, the critic must decide. For me, I remain like Banquo. Though the heavens are breeding time for me to sleep, so that “heavy summons” of rest “lies like lead upon me.” Still, “I would not sleep.” So, like Banquo, I pray–not to Lady Macbeth’s ministering spirits, I not, but instead:

merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!

Goodnight.

*I noted on Facebook that I think this is why I am disappointed that Lady Jessica of the Atreides disappears in the second Dune novel, for she is a Lady Portia 10,000 years in the making. I thought the Dune film captured Jessica as well as any stage could allow Portia to live. Someday I hope to find out!

**My own sleeplessness in stories of adventures puts me in mind of Mark H. Williams’ Mythopoeic-award nominated Arthurian romp, Sleepless Knights, which I review here.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to Thoughts from Different Angles on Joel Coen’s Macbeth with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and Is This Why I Can’t Sleep?

  1. lolalwilcox says:

    You might find this article interesting and useful, Brenton. It was how people used to sleep before industrial scheduling.
    The forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps’ – BBC Futurehttps://www.bbc.com › future › article › 20220107-the-…
    Jan 7, 2022 —

    Like

    • That is a remarkable article! When sleeping is going well, I can get 6 or 7 hours of sleep, with an extra hour on one of the weekend days, but never uninterrupted. When it’s not going well, I would pay a lot for 6 hours uninterrupted. Maybe I’m doing it wrong….

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It was – thanks! It leaves one wanting to read Roger Ekirch’s book – among other things to see what it may say about climate, seasons, ‘siestas’ and sleeping after meals, the further development of the monastic Hours, considerations of work (cows to be milked, preparations for the day by kiichen and other servants), use of day light – Baroness Orczy’s Frans Hals in The Laughing Cavalier has some interesting remarks about this, and I was astonished to think what readers and writers did during the winter when I first saw both the original window size and the fine letter size in some manuscripts and early printed books in the Merton College Library in Oxford.

        Like

  2. joviator says:

    I once met an exotic dancer in Reno. She told me her name and I said, “like from The Merchant of Venice?” She said yes; she liked using it because most people thought she named herself after the car.

    Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In your “Shakespeare Play a Month”, do you tend to read first and then (try to) see filmed performances? I really enjoyed – and enjoy – the late 1970s-early 1980s BBC Shakespeare series, though I do not think I have caught up with every one, yet.

    I saw Ian MecKellen discuss the “To-morrow” speech in a documentary (which, sadly, I’ve never managed to find again!) – but it was years before I caught up with his production, which I enjoyed. Orson Welles’ curious movie version is also worth seeing! I’m still hoping to catch up with Jeremy Brett’s production… To a large extent, the more the merrier (though I could not stand more than a couple minutes of the Michael Radford Merchant of Venice, eagerly purchased on dvd back in the day – 20th-21st-c. directorial cleverness has a lot to answer for, in opera as well as in Shakespeare and other classic stage productions!). Very interesting is the old John Barton and the RSC television series Playing Shakespeare, which can be found on (though is, I think also, often hunted off) YouTube.

    Funnily enough, I woke up from my ‘second sleep’ today, wondering about Neo-Latin Renaissance dramas in girls’s schools – how many men’s rôles did there tend to be, and how did that go (as contrast to the public theatre’s use of boys for women’s rôles)? It’s tangntially got me want to catch up with Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer trilogy…

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    • Hi David, actually, this was the first film I’ve watched. I haven’t really loved many plays on film … I’m not sure why. My favourite adaptations of Shakespeare are the Luz Bahrman Romeo & Juliet and that 10 Things I Hate About You film.
      Thanks for the tips. I’m curious about seeing some of those films. I may try one and see how it goes.
      I do quite love Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer trilogy … I would love to see a serial TV show about it.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I was interested – and attracted – by your saying “It is a stage performance of Macbeth, not an adaptation. Stefan Dechant’s set design creates a stage-on-screen of stark simplicity that successfully highlights the actors’ performances.” There are so many different sorts of ‘filmed versions’ of Shakespeare plays – actual live performances (indoor or outdoor, more or less) skillfully filmed, largely videotaped versions with some outdoor filming but staged to be filmed, and various degrees and sorts of more thoroughly cinematic versions, and then there are audio versions, for radio or immediately for record/tape/cd/mp3, etc. I am basically ‘game’ to try any and all, though I tend to think the fuller text the better – I liked the BBC version having complementary published editions showing all cuts and changes made for the filmed productions. And then there are operas, and ‘filmed versions’ of them (how I enjoyed the 1986 Zeffirelli Otello!). And ballets… And animated versions…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have rarely seen a non-Christmas ballet. A complete mystery to me in our folksy hometown world. Next time I live in a more cultured urban space, I’ll have to discover it.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I got to be a super in a production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – carrying the Duke’s sedan chair, and standing still and sturdy when he suddenly stood up in it, quietly mourning at the funerals, and being a vendor at the market, where we got to improvise, so I walked diagonally across center stage miming the loud selling of my wares…

            Like

    • hannahdemiranda3 says:

      Hi David, Was it this one? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGbZCgHQ9m8
      Tomorrow, and tomorrow — Ian McKellen analyzes Macbeth speech (1979)

      Liked by 2 people

      • hannahdemiranda3 says:

        I love Shakespeare’s rich language, full of beautiful imagery, eg “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care” – hopefully that kind of sleep will find you, Brenton

        Like

        • I would take a half-rolled up sleeve … like Miami Vice.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            The Porter might suggest taking a drink, “sleep” being one of the three things it is “a great provoker of”… (The school edition I taught from, back in the day, drastically cut the Porter’s scene, so I played an LP of a production but did not discuss any omissions…)

            Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow – thanks! No, I had not seen this one – the one I saw was much shorter, but very compatible with this, yet making some different points, too. Fascinating to see all that thought about the speech, and then a performance embodying it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: “But then begins a journey in my head”: Shakespeare’s Haunting Poetry of Sleeplessness | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  5. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I enjoy your discussions of Shakespeare, since I taught his works for a number of years at the college level. I put up in the English Department halls posters for eight productions I had seen, mainly in summers in Fort Worth, Texas, but one–A Midsummer Night’s Dream–I had seen in Boulder, Colorado, during a Mythcon there. (The posters are still up…)

    Like

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