Director Joel Coen takes on Shakespeare with his latest film “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Shot in black and white, with sparse sets, dramatic lighting, and a stellar cast featuring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, Coen’s interpretation lends the 400-year-old story about murderous ambition both a theatrical feel and a modern twist. The Gazette spoke with Jeffrey Wilson, who teaches “Why Shakespeare?” to first-year students in the Harvard College Writing Program, about Coen’s adaptation and the lasting resonance of the play. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: “Macbeth” has been adapted to film a number of times. Is there anything about this particular version that really makes it stand out?
WILSON: Kathryn Hunter as a Weird Sister holding up a severed thumb between her toes — didn’t see that coming.
You’ve got Denzel Washington, and Denzel can do no wrong. As a person, as an actor, he exudes charisma and nobility, and he commands respect and attention. And that’s really important, because at the start of the film those feelings we have toward the actor spill over into the way that we feel about the character. It gets us enamored with Macbeth at the start of the Coen film. And that’s a really effective way to approach the play.
I also think the film is kind of remarkable for what it doesn’t do. When you have Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, you just sort of hit record and then get out of the way. That’s really in contrast to so many Shakespearean adaptations where they want to do something that is new and unexpected, and updated. Sometimes that works and sometimes that comes off as gimmicky. But this is really a sparse film. There’s almost nothing on the sets. I thought about the Macbeths’ house as a mid-century modern medieval castle. The sets are cold and emphasize this feeling of isolation, and the lighting, which is one of the stars of the show, is extremely theatrical.
GAZETTE: Macbeth is a brutal killer, but he is also consumed by guilt and uncertainty. Does that conflict make him in any way a sympathetic character?
WILSON: Macbeth is not an admirable person. I don’t see “Macbeth” as a particularly relatable story. Like, who among us hasn’t ordered the murder of your best friend’s child based on the supernatural soliciting of three mysterious women? So, it’s this extremely alien story. But then you bring in Denzel. He’s really what you need for Macbeth, because at its core it’s a story about the quest for self-determination when society says to stay put. Yes, it’s about a medieval Scottish nobleman and his wife who assassinate their king, and then they themselves are deposed by a new king. But it weirdly feels like an American story. Here’s a guy who thought he was going to get a promotion, and he didn’t get the job. And then he has to go home and tell his wife about it. And then they just sort of devolve into toxic masculinity and a dysfunctional marriage.
It’s American in the sense that Macbeth thinks he lives in a world where he controls his own destiny. And that’s the message that his world has sent to him. But then there are these structural limitations on what he can actually do. And that feels American. We talk about the American Dream, but then opportunities are not distributed freely to everyone. There are traditions of hereditary privilege. And that’s the world that Macbeth comes up against. And so, getting this quintessentially American actor, Denzel Washington, who has played this role of the defiant individual up against the system so many times, to then do “Macbeth” is a really fascinating overlap between these two very, very different time periods.