Something wicked this way comes.
A man fights for power to rule over the state, risking life and limb for the title of “King.” In his wake, he leaves destruction so irreparable that the suffering caused will plague generations to come. The consequences of an individual’s actions contribute to the failure of society so profoundly that reconciliation is nearly impossible.
William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” chronicles the downfall of a general-turned-king through ambition and desire. Macbeth’s initial need to devour his opposition comes from the prophecy of three witches who tell him he is meant to be King of Scotland. In his quest, he forfeits his humanity and devotes himself to the goal of taking the throne. Within Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter lies an ultimate truth about the desire for power and how it transforms and consumes those who wish to wield it.
Through A24, Joel Coen brings to us The Tragedy of Macbeth, featuring Denzel Washington as Lord Macbeth and shot in a stark, minimalist black and white style. Its release hits theatres at a critically important time in American politics: as the nation struggles to move forward from the depths of political hell and manage the third year of a pandemic, workers’ rights, and the student loan crisis, the world feels as bleak as the film’s black and white aesthetic. In the last six years or so, we have been direct witnesses to the precarious nature of authority. As we observe the first anniversary of an insurrection that would traditionally be viewed as treason, the government is redefining the president’s responsibilities to advocate and condemn specific actions.
In the original text, Macbeth’s forced inheritance not only calls into question the validity of his advancement (of which he is primarily the master), but also the understanding of his mental stability. The witches who offer the prophecy are described as women but have men’s beards; Macbeth and his companion, Banquo, watch them disappear into thin air, as if they never existed at all. This interaction with three mysterious beings leaves Macbeth, Banquo, and the audience confused about whether the witches were real or simply a figment of the imagination. Through the lens of modernity, one could infer that the witches are, in fact, lobbyists. While it may seem strange, Macbeth’s sudden upward mobility is instigated by this sudden meeting with three mysterious women.
Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in power came not just from his celebrity status but through his consistent and extraordinarily inflammatory rhetoric; rhetoric that people agreed with and publicized as their own “politics.” His comments — racist, derogatory, and often simply ridiculous name-calling — resonated with sections of the American population living in fear of the unknown, who felt jaded by politics and managed to find comfort in an unhinged man.
January 6 marks the anniversary of the attacks at the United States Capitol. The attacks resulted in former President Trump’s second impeachment and a nationwide panic about the sanctity of democracy. In a speech discussing the effects of the insurrection and the need for Trump to be held responsible, President Biden said: “A former President of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He’s done so because he values power over principle because he sees his own interest as more important than […] America’s interests.”
Similarly, as we see in Macbeth, rejection of the former rule – by the political assassination of King Duncan – obstructs the continuation of leadership.
Before becoming king, Macbeth was a victorious general, using strategy and patience to lead his troops. However, he grows tyrannical and cruel, inciting anger within the community.
At his core, Trump was a financial failure in many ways – take, for example, the $25 million settlement relating to the unlicensed Trump University. However, Trump’s name was nevertheless synonymous with success and, until his presidency, he was a cultural icon who stood as a product of the “American Dream.”
Macbeth and Trump both facilitated bloodshed. At the beginning of the pandemic, the death toll rose to over 100,000 under Trump’s direction (or lack thereof) and his refusal to give legitimate aid and recognize that the virus existed in the United States. This refusal to acknowledge the facts resulted in national divisions so deep that it restructured the fabric of the union and, much as in “Macbeth”, these actions caused distrust and rage among the people.
Among other influences (like Orson Welles’ 1948 cinematic adaptation of “Macbeth”), Coen’s shooting style was inspired by German expressionism. Popularised in the 1920s, the movement is known for its use of high angles, deep shadows, and camera tilting, all of which add up to a viewing experience that is ultimately close to unpleasant. It feels natural to use one of the most emotionally evocative styles to tell a story about betrayal and power; the jarring use of lighting and camera movement stresses the instability of the characters and the situation, and can be read as a metaphor for the brutality we consistently experience in our day-to-day lives.
Of course, “Macbeth” is only a story, a play, a performance. However, leadership is inherently performative; it caters to the desires of the people and presents itself as an altruistic act. State of the Union addresses and presidential debates feed our insatiable need to relate and view humans as manifestations of the political ideas we hold onto. This act of politics is a show as much as “Macbeth” the play is: the players are loved and hated by the audience, and we follow their arcs until the end of the performance.
Ultimately, the story of Macbeth and the destruction and rebuilding of a society is what we have watched in real-time. We have endured a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, but we are moving forward and striving to create a union that supports the people. The prophecy, as foretold by the witches, transcends Shakespearean lore. The advent of social media gives everyone a direct view of the behavior of the individual in power. Macbeth’s tragedy is not in his wanting to take up the role of leader, but rather his destructive desires to consume and cannibalize the sanctity of his community in order to pursue personal achievement. Realistically, we have to create our own resolution; there is no magic third act in which we suddenly achieve consciousness and morality.