In this essay, we explore the divergent interpretations and expansions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by two film directors, with a specific focus on the portrayal of the witches. Although both films are rooted in Macbeth, they exhibit numerous disparities. The expectation in both films is for the witches to instigate troubles and foster malevolence, thereby establishing an atmosphere of tension and fear. This approach seeks to recapture the unsettling ambiance that permeated Shakespeare’s original performances.
Both the Polanski and Animated Tales versions depict the witches as supernaturally unnatural through their attire. In Polanski’s adaptation, they are garbed in aged rags, which can be associated with a quote uttered by Banquo in Act 1 Scene iii: “What are these, so wither’d and so wild in their attire, that look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth.” The eldest witch stands out with her long pointy nose and black flowing garment, resembling a raven. Ravens were believed to bring ominous messages of future misfortune, as Lady Macbeth alludes to with the line, “The raven himself is hoarse.” In this new portrayal, the witches themselves become the messengers of impending doom.
The witches in Animated Tales wear masks and switch between two faces, representing their deceitful nature. They also incorporate bird imagery, with one witch resembling a raven, highlighting their untrustworthiness. Another witch is depicted as a skeleton, echoing Banquo’s quote from Act 1 Scene iii: “Live you? Or are you aught that man may question.” In this scene of Shakespeare’s original text, a witch says, “I’ll give thee a wind.” In Animated Tales, a witch transforms into lightning, emphasizing their supernatural ability to control the weather.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare employs pathetic fallacy to emphasize the presence of the witches, using “thunder and lightning” as a recurring motif. This technique is also acknowledged by Polanski, who sets the opening scene on a desolate beach during a gloomy, overcast day. Polanski’s interpretation of pathetic fallacy diverges from Shakespeare’s as he chooses to place it on a battlefield during a storm.
One noticeable aspect is the red sky, which serves as a warning for sailors indicating bad weather. Polanski wants the storm to occur when Macbeth meets with the witches, as they plan to enact their wickedness upon him. Additionally, Polanski portrays a storm approaching by positioning seagulls inland, implying they are escaping from the impending storm. Polanski also recognizes that Act 1 Scene i is merely a prelude, where the witches discuss their future meeting in a setting of thunder, lightning, or rain.
In both films, there is a spell or charm involving witches. In Animated Tales, the witches use their charm to deliver prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo. In Polanski’s version, the witches create a charm at the beginning of the film on a beach in Scene i. The filmmakers have both incorporated elements from the original text, such as the phrases “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air” and “Here I have a pilot’s thumb”.
In Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth, one of the witches draws a circle while the other two witches dig a hole. It is important to observe the objects used in this charm. To begin with, they place a noose at the bottom of the hole to symbolize Macbeth’s treachery as the traitor. On top, a human arm clutching a dagger indicates how King Duncan is to be killed. They then proceed to fill the hole with sand and pour blood onto it. The blood represents guilt, which relates to Macbeth’s remorseful quote after murdering Duncan – “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” This charm can be interpreted in two ways. First, it serves as a prologue, summarizing the plot: someone will commit treason with a dagger, resulting in guilt. The second interpretation suggests that the witches are orchestrating these events, having an influence on Macbeth’s actions.
During the Animated Tales charm, the witches deliver prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo. One witch uses the fingers of the skeleton witch to create the Thane of Cawdor’s medallion when she says, “All hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor”. Afterwards, another witch’s fingers transform into a crown as she declares, “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter”.
Macbeth’s head is adorned with a magnificent golden crown, suggesting that he might not become a true king, but only a king in name. The crown casts a reddish radiance on his face, enticing him. This aligns with the witches’ influence; they do not directly make Macbeth king, but rather implant the idea in his mind: “All hail Macbeth, Thane of Glamis! All hail Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor! All hail Macbeth, who will be king in the future.”
The significance of the reddish glow in Animated Tales is that it symbolizes guilt, as blood is also red and represents guilt. This is relevant to the play because guilt is a central theme, particularly pertaining to Macbeth’s rise to power as a guilty king. The red glow can be seen as the witches foretelling a future filled with guilt, evil, and wrongdoing for Macbeth.
The witches’ red glowing eyes imply their ability to see the sinister future or their trickery against Macbeth. During their prophecies to Banquo, the witches alternate their faces or masks halfway through each one, stating, “Lesser than Macbeth….” (changes mask) “….and greater”, “Not so happy….” (changes mask) “….yet much happier”.
The witches’ change of masks during the prophecy is a manifestation of their duality and their use of equivocation. This deceit is further illustrated when one of the witches transforms into a raven while delivering Banquo’s prophecy. In Shakespeare’s time, ravens were associated with evil, just like the witches themselves. Additionally, the witches’ actions of circling Banquo add to the confusion they have purposely created. By disorienting him and making it unclear who will speak to him next, they amplify his state of confusion.
In Polanski’s version, the prophecies are revealed during a scene where the threat of a storm is realized. As rain falls and bagpipes play (symbolizing thunder), the storm is a clear signal that evil actions are imminent. The bagpipes, Scotland’s national musical instrument, are played in a dischorded manner, which holds significance. This portrayal emphasizes the unnaturalness of hearing out-of-tune music, just as it is unnatural for Macbeth to be Scotland’s king. It also highlights the inherent disorder and dramatic irony of the situation – despite Scotland winning the war, it will still experience turmoil (“New widows howl, new orphans cry”) due to Macbeth assuming the throne.
The horses of Macbeth and Banquo showed a reaction, and shortly after they heard coughing emanating from behind rocks. This coughing was attributed to the witches, and it is possible that Polanski included it to suggest that the witches were afflicted not only with moral corruption but also with physical illness. The fact that the horses reacted before anything else connects with what Ross mentioned to the old man – “Duncan’s horses, a strange and undeniable phenomenon, beautiful and swift, the favorites of their lineage, have become wild in nature.” Therefore, the horses sensed the natural disorder (Duncan’s death) and once again they have sensed the supernatural events involving the witches.
Polanski uses Greek Mythology to convey that the eldest witch is blind to present events but possesses the power of future sight. In his adaptation, Polanski alters the chanting in the original text, portraying the witches as mumbling, possibly engaging with spirits or partaking in supernatural rituals.
The witches’ mumbling is connected to the discordant sound of the bagpipes. The significance lies in the fact that the witches are able to perceive the overall tone of the bagpipes, which symbolize thunder and thus establish a supernatural connection to weather. In Animated Tales, after revealing the prophecies, the witches depart by holding hands, spinning in the sky, and vanishing. This depiction aligns with the quote “The weird sisters, hand in hand” and serves as an example of Animated Tales effectively illustrating Macbeth while staying true to the original text.
In contrast to Polanski’s adaptation, Macbeth and Banquo are led by the witches after the prophecies are revealed. The witches guide them to the sacred burial ground of a deceased king. This symbolism aligns with the witches’ intention of leading Macbeth to the eventual death of King Duncan.
When they are leaving, Polanski has realized that because they are evil, they cannot be seen as feminine (he knows this because of when Lady Macbeth asks the evil spirits to “unsex” her in the text), so one of the witches lifts her skirt and growls. This action is also connected to Banquo’s line – “Upon her skinny lips; you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret”. Banquo’s statement is not included in Polanski’s version – instead, Polanski uses this gesture to depict Banquo’s quote and remain faithful to the original text.
I found Polanski’s version of Macbeth to better depict the witches compared to the Animated Tales version. His illustrations were particularly thought-provoking, especially the disordered bagpipes that symbolized the chaos in Scotland.
In addition, the use of animation in Animated Tales allows for a more believable portrayal of the witches as supernatural beings. The transformation of the witches in this adaptation is easier to create compared to Polanski’s version, which draws from Greek mythology. Polanski’s film appears to require more effort, as it does not rely on special effects, making it more authentic to what Shakespearean audiences would have witnessed.