Macbeth: Magic and Witchcraft
Last Monday evening, whilst in Lima recovering from dental surgery, I went to see the film ‘Macbeth’.
This is the new version directed by Australian director Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth.
It follows an impressive line of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, including brilliant films by Orson Welles (1948), Kurosawa (1957) and Roman Polanski (1971).
Even in the tiredness and very mildly altered state of consciousness I found myself in after two hours of dental surgery plus a pain killing injection in my backside, I could see this was a remarkable film. It has largely been very favorably reviewed, especially the ‘dream-team’ acting of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Actually it was so good, I went to see it again two days later.
What struck me most about the film is that it is a film about witchcraft. I don’t know if the director intended it to be this way – he clearly has his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s play – or if it is clearly in Shakespeare’s original script, but watching this film made me realize that the witches are not peripheral figures in the drama, as I had thought before, but are clearly running the whole show.
Most interpretations of Macbeth assume that the witches only serve to feed Macbeth’s ambition rather than cause him to act in the way he does. In this recent film version, many reviewers, following a view put forward by the actor Michael Fassbender – comment that Macbeth is suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of all the bloody battles he has engaged in. It’s even suggested that the witches are a fictional creation of his deranged mind to justify his subsequent murderous behavior. In this way, the dimension of witchcraft and magic can be reduced to and understood as the unconscious projections of the individual human mind and we can all breathe, along with Freud and the ego-psychologists, a sigh of rational relief.
I’d like to reverse this view and suggest that what this new film version of the play is showing us is that witchcraft is real, has its own independent existence and powers, and cannot be reduced to the unconscious dynamics and projections of individualistic psychology. The reality of this world of witchcraft and magic is precisely what Madre Ayahuasca shows us, if we care to look. “O, full of scorpions is my mind!”, as Macbeth says. This is also the autonomous world of the psyche that Jung encountered when he underwent his ‘breakdown’ or shamanic descent, as recorded in ‘The Red Book’.
(You can see a short clip from the film when Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the witches here.)
Perhaps it is through the portal of his extreme tiredness and his battle weariness that Macbeth is able to enter the spirit world and encounter the witches as well as other spirits of dead people who speak to him and warn him of Macduff.
The conventional understanding of the play is that the witches suggest a future to Macbeth that he then enacts. This raises questions of destiny and free will but the emphasis is on Macbeth as the active agency. The other way of looking at this is that the witches literally put a spell on Macbeth. This still raises issues of the extent of his free will under the spell, as it does with any person who has been enchanted for ill or good, but the active agency has now switched to the witches. They are no longer on the sidelines.
In other parts of the film, we see the witches appearing to different characters, notably Banquo’s young son, Fleance, who they first prophesied will form the future lineage to the throne of Scotland. Their appearances are an intervention. After Banquo has been ambushed and lies dying, he exhorts Fleance to run. Fleance seems paralyzed until the girl witch appears who manages to hide him from his pursuers.
Interestingly in this version, there are four, or even five witches if we include the baby – the three familiar ones from Shakespeare plus a little girl. The film suggests that the four or five witches represent archetypal female figures across all the generations (baby, girl, young women, mature woman, crone) – with their better developed faculties for deeper seeing and prophesy.
These women both witness and possibly even facilitate the brutal, male dynamic of blood letting and revenge. The film ends with the suggestion that this endless, self-perpetuating, violent process will now continue through Fleance opposing the new king, Malcolm – the male characters, despite their overweening ambition, desires and apparent strength, are just ciphers in the overall drama, and the witches are the invisible, controlling figures, pulling the strings behind the scenes.
I’ll end this entry with a favorite quote from Macbeth:
Shakespeare’s poetic genius here prefigures the existential and post-modern despair of the late nineteenth and twentieth century ushered in by the beginning of the age of scientific materialism that was beginning to make its presence felt during Shakespeare’s life through contemporary English figures like Francis Bacon.
Yet, at the same time as this quote challenges us that life is nothing beyond the material, we find in this play and others, a belief in both magic and witchcraft. It seems that our culture might, too, be finally turning back towards this belief.