—”Your castle is surprised, your wife and babes savagely slaughtered.” Macbeth, IV.4.207
—”You didn’t see my house last summer. I know about bleeding.” Roman Polanski, 1970
Roman Polanski has directed a few undisputed classics of the horror genre, including Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. But there’s one of his films that isn’t usually classified as horror that actually should be—and that’s his 1971 adaptation of Macbeth.
Can Shakespeare be horror? You bet! This is, after all, a play of witches, murders aplenty, and Banquo’s ghost; a play of such dark power that superstitious actors don’t speak its name for fear of calling down a curse on the theater. Macbeth tells the story of the eponymous Scottish lord’s tragic ambition, pricked when a trio of witches tell him that he will be king—but that the sons of his friend, Banquo, will occupy the throne after him. What follows is a tumult of scheming and murder as Macbeth kills his way to the throne, then eliminates any threats to his power. It’s a brutal story, and Polanski’s adaptation of it is probably the most chilling treatment it’s ever been given on stage or screen.
The horror begins with the opening scene. Polanski opens on a shot of the Scotland landscape, a barren tidal mudflat beneath a bleak, gray sky. Into the scene walks a hunched figure. With a stick the figure draws a circle in the sand, then the camera pulls back to reveal three figures—the witches, digging a hole and burying a severed hand inside. They hunch over the hole and chant, “Fair is foul and foul is fair / hover through the fog and the filthy air.”
That simple scene sets the stage for what’s to come. The world of Macbeth is a world where “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” where bad people prosper and good people die, and all is chaos. Filmically, this scene indicates Polanski’s unique take on the Shakespearean subject matter, uniting Polanski’s two dominant modes in the film. The first mode is an eerie, dreamlike occultism, as represented in the witches’ ceremony, and continued later in Macbeth’s crazy visions and the sighting of Banquo’s ghost. The second is unrelenting, unforgiving realism, as represented in that stark shot of an brutal Scottish landscape and a gray sky. That landscape, that sky, and indeed the whole universe of Polanski’s Macbeth doesn’t give a shit about the humans crawling around below. There’s no morality, no God, no fate, no karma. Only chaos.
And the film fulfills the eerie, unforgivingly brutal promise of that early scene. The film positively reeks of muck and filth, blood and bodies. Polanski even shows us the killings that Shakespeare left off-stage, in all their gory detail.
But why? Why did Polanski adapt Shakespeare in this way? Macbeth, more than any of his other films, has inspired speculation that the horrors Polanski experienced in his life drove his dark filmmaking. In the summer of 1969, a year before Polanski started filming Macbeth, his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult. Earlier in his life, Polanski had lived as a Jew in Poland during World War II, witnessing the Krakow ghetto uprising and the Holocaust first-hand, only barely escaping with his life. Clearly, Polanski experienced horrors. Polanski denies that these events have anything to do with his artistic vision in Macbeth.
(On the topic of his biography, it absolutely must be mentioned that Polanski has caused his fair share of horrors as well. In 1977 he raped a 13-year-old girl and then fled the country to avoid standing trial. He remains outside the U.S. to this day, and has never stood trial for his crime.)
Whatever the cause, Polanski’s personal demons are on full display in the film. The details of the story match closely with some of the details of the Manson case. When Macbeth murders the king, Lady Macbeth washes his hands and assures him that “a little water clears us of this deed”; similarly, the Manson murderers, after brutally stabbing Tate, washed their hands with a garden hose. It’s also impossible to hear MacDuff report that he was “untimely ripp’d” from his mother’s womb without recalling that Tate was eight and a half months pregnant at the time of her murder. And the brutal scene in which MacDuff’s wife and child are killed while he is away recall both the Manson murders and brutal Nazis terrorizing a defenseless family. When his creative consultant asked him if he might be using too much blood in the scene, Polanski replied, chillingly, “You didn’t see my house last summer. I know about bleeding.”
Ultimately, Polanski’s Macbeth is most clearly connected to the Sharon Tate murder through an overarching thematic concern: the souring of the promise of youth through paranoia and violence. The Charles Manson cult, coming as it did at the turn of the decade, represented the death of a dream, the youthful, hopeful 60s counterculture dead-ending in violence and insanity. Macbeth replays these themes at a Shakespearean pitch: Polanski’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are played by young actors full of promise, driven insane by visions and hallucinations that seem at times like a bad LSD trip, whipped up to acts of brutal violence by a shadowy group of occultists bent on nothing more than chaos.
I don’t know what Polanski was going through when he made Macbeth. Perhaps we should take him at his word when he claims that his biography had little to do with the film. But my guess is he was working through some stuff, whether he knew it or not. Just to think of it gives me the chills: a man reeling from the killing of his wife and child, concluding, with Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”