Macbeth: Black and White and Red All Over

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14 January 2022
· Joel Coen’s Expressionist ‘Macbeth’ ·

It’s been ages since I looked forward to a new Shake-Speare film as much as I have this one. The Tragedy of Macbeth opened at Christmas in a small number of cinemas, but I signed up for yet another video service because as of today Macbeth is streaming there. I’ll probably cancel once I’ve absorbed the visuals. I already know the words.

The acting (Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand head the cast), the frame (1.37:1 aspect ratio, black and white), the photography (high and low angles, light and shadows), the homages to Welles, Hitchcock, interwar German cinema. All these are noteworthy, though some of us enjoyed them more than others. You can call this a review but it’s really a thank-you to director and (screen)writer Joel Coen, who won’t see it but I’m writing anyway. He has realised a spare, modern Macbeth that remains true to my language and intent. I want to hug him.

Macbeth witches on beamApple

Coen sculpted my play to fit his vision and a brisk running time of 105 minutes. The stage is a sound-stage, exteriors are suggestions. Absence of colour emphasises the geometry of forms in the almost-square frame. Close-ups get close. The Macbeths are older, grizzling: their conspiracy is cold, not coital. I like it, it adds depth to their relationship and urgency to their ambition. We do this for ourselves, it’s now or never. Some of my lines are gone, others have been shifted like puzzle pieces, but Coen trusts the audience as well as the text. Everything still goes to hell in the end. Coen is no Nahum Tate, thank all the gods.

His crowning achievement may be to have rendered irrelevant the cultural complications lately welded onto my work, grab-holds for those who would pull it down. This Macbeth comes with no list of tickboxes. Faces are shades of gray, accents are numerous and individual, Scotland could be anywhere. None of it matters in the least.


A different story is told by Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 musical West Side Story. It’s not Shake-Speare per se but we all know its ancestor, another of my tragedies. Released two weeks before Macbeth after a year’s delay, WSS has as yet no streaming option. It cost several kings’ ransoms100 million U$ dollars to make; its first month could be described as a box-office tragedy.

My mind’s eye sees what Spielberg might have done with his own version of The Scottish Play.

Macbeth quote A2 S2 incarnadine

Another vision of the deadly consequences of unbridled desire for power. Also shot in black and white, but

Macbeth quote A2 S2 silver one redSchindler’s Lust. Coen might have missed a trick, there.


He made up for it by sitting down for a Zoom chat with Mark Rylance as part of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust’s 2021 conference.

Joel Coen (actor, screenwriter, film director, producer, and editor) in conversation with Sir Mark Rylance (actor and SAT Trustee) about the use of source material in the Coen Brothers’ films and in Shakespeare, as well as using Shakespeare as a source in Coen’s new film, Macbeth. Followed by Annabel Leventon reading a passage from The Scottish Play at the Shakespearean Authorship Trust conference, November 2021.

Please note, the image below is only a placeholder– clicking it will open the video in a new tab at YouTube. It runs a little over 55 minutes. It’s an insightful look at how Coen sees his films, and Macbeth in particular.YT thumbnail Macbeth convocoronet-spacerTrivial pursuits in the Coen film:

  • • A3 S1: There’s a spot where Washington turns a phrase into equestrian nonsense. Oops.
  • • A4 S1: During an excitable moment, I suspect him of indulging his inner Muhammad Ali.
  • • A4 S2: This might just be me, but Macduff’s castleexteriorOne of the few exterior shots in the film. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. at Fife rings a belltheMy ancestral pile at Hedingham. All four corners had towers, originally..

And I made it to the end without mentioning The Big Lebowski.

Big Lebowski bowling stars wht bkgd

If you know of, or know how to make, a First Folio-esque eroded font set (TTF or OTF, file or files) that includes all punctuation, ligatures, and a proper italic, please check out item #4 on my Requests page. Help in catching this unicorn would be appreciated indeed.

• An early post, only my third, complaining of the many errors in orthodoxy’s interpretation of Macbeth. I was rather grumpy when I began this blog, I needed to vent. Why Macbeth Isn’t About the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, posted on Guy Fawkes Day, 5 November 2015.

• Sir Mark (Rylance) called on his friend Sir Derek (Jacobi) to discuss the reasonable doubts about Stratford’s raison d’être, at the four hundredth anniversary of the raison’s demise. Two Gentlemen of Southeastern England, posted 25 April 2016.

• Near the beginning of his talk with Coen, Rylance mentioned the SAT’s founding in 1921 after JT Looney identified me as Shake-Speare. I’ve written about Looney’s seminal book in Oh Put Me In Thy Bookes (5 July 2016), and Limerick 3: Back In Black and White (18 May 2017). You can also find details, including a centenary reprint and an Internet Archive download link, at my library page, Learned Books.