‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: How Joel Coen Diverged From Shakespeare’s Classic Verse

“How could we make this play into a movie but keep the feel of it being a play? That was really the ambition,” the filmmaker says 

This post was originally published Dec. 24, 2021.

Joel Coen had just put to bed “Hail, Caesar!” – his 17th feature film with brother Ethan Coen – when the idea for “The Tragedy of Macbeth” came to him.

It was 2016, and Coen was watching the Oscar-winning actress and his longtime wife, Frances McDormand, play Lady Macbeth in a Berkeley, California, theater production.

It wasn’t McDormand’s first crack at the role. 

“I’m not saying I was good,” McDormand joked in a recent Q&A event after a “Tragedy of Macbeth” screening about her first Lady Macbeth performance — as a 14-year-old. “I’m just saying it hooked me. And so I’ve kind of been working on her ever since.”

Coen started discussing the possibility of working on her, too. Together, he and McDormand would eventually formulate a vision for a film adaptation, with Coen writing and directing, and McDormand playing Lady Macbeth and serving as a producer. 

Coen and McDormand, both well into their 60s, also decided the film would stray from tradition – their Macbeths would be unequivocally advanced in age.

“It felt important to us,” McDormand said. “And when I did it on stage, it was important to me to acknowledge that I was postmenopausal, that I was not of childbearing age — and that that was going to be significant in the relationship and the destruction and the deterioration of the Macbeths’ relationship because he as a man can have an heir. He could have an heir with another woman. But he has stayed with her even though she hasn’t kind of filled her political job in the marriage.”

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Coen also placed a priority on maintaining Shakespeare’s classic dialogue. 

“Another ambition was to do the play, do the verse — don’t sort of run away from that,” Coen said in the Q&A event. 

But a compromise, however small, would be required.

“We had a long discussion between ourselves and with Denzel,” McDormand said of Denzel Washington, who played the lead role in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” at 66. “Changing just the tense when he says, ‘Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should produce nothing but males.’” 

The line, not unlike many others in the Shakespeare oeuvre, carries weight. Delivered late in Act I in the bell tower when Macbeth is plotting the murder of King Duncan with Lady Macbeth, it most resoundingly serves as a declaration by Macbeth that Lady Macbeth should exclusively give birth to males because of her inordinate strength and courage in the face of adversity. 

“Think about this play in the context of the Macbeths being an older couple and that the marriage having been a long one,” McDormand said. “And that does cast a different sort of light on the text.”

Coen and McDormand said they thought an adjustment in two words of the line to change a verb tense — the only tweaks made to Shakespeare’s verse in the film — would deliver a strong message and help achieve their vision.  

“So we changed it to ‘should have produced,’” McDormand said. “And I think what I like about that is that he first says, ‘Bring forth men-children only,’ which is probably something he said a lot. Because she’s a bad-ass, and he’s always liked that about her. But then he catches himself and realizes that’s probably not going to happen, and what have I just said to the woman I love?”

Washington was also key to the interpretation, Coen said, and agreed to take the role without equivocation.

“I think Denzel understood immediately that kind of, you know, dichotomy in the character, that he was in certain ways in the play, he’s extremely sympathetic, especially at the beginning of the play,” Coen said. “But he’s also a gangster.”

Coen said Washington’s acting strengths paired perfectly with Macbeth.

“This is what he is so good at — holding those two things at the same time,” Coen said. “That was the big deal. That’s what he’s great at.”

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The film features another important dichotomy — a physical surrealism versus the stark reality of a marriage story — that was decided on later. 

“This was a bit of a journey,” Coen said. “… How we could make this play into a movie but keep the feel of it being a play? That was really the ambition.” 

While they were resolute in preserving Shakespeare’s verse, and Coen’s on-set process with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel was not unusual, the director said they took extra time in preproduction to conceive the film’s visual and physical approaches.

“Looking at other movies,” Coen said, “trying to figure out how much we’re going to build. How much of this is all going to be on sets, for instance, was a baseline decision that had to be made.” 

They decided the whole movie would be shot on soundstages in Los Angeles. 

“Once that was made, you know, because we wanted to do things that had some scale, it was a question of, ‘How do we do that for a price?’” Coen said. “And also, has it been done before? And has it been done in black and white? Which is a very different thing than thinking about those problems in color. 

“So we were looking at movies from the silent era like ‘Sunrise,’ movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s that were made by Dryer and some German expressionist movies,” Coen said of Carl Theodor Dreyer, an early to mid-20th century Danish filmmaker known for emotional heft and deliberate pacing. “… We weren’t really interested in those idioms per se as we were in learning how to build these sets and what you could do.” 

Coen and Delbonnel also studied the theoretical writings of noted early 1900s theater actor, director and set designer Edward Gordon Craig, suggested to Coen by actress Kathryn Hunter, who they had tapped to play the Three Witches character who prophesizes to Macbeth that he should be king.

“He was a very, very influential designer in Britain and just on the whole history of theater design — and also did a lot of Shakespeare,” Coen said of Craig. “And he had these very, very interesting ideas about Shakespeare, one of which was that doing Shakespeare wasn’t about realism in any way. It was about sort of embracing it as a dream. This was kind of a singular, particular sort of importance to him and sort of baseline tenet of the way he sort of approached the material. And that was very resonant I think.”

They also mined Japanese cinema, Coen said, including Akira Kurosawa and the black-and-white master Masaki Kobayashi. 

“All done on sets, and it’s very theatrical,” Coen said of Kobayashi.

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Coen said he sought to mark the film with as much play-oriented theater sensibility as possible. To familiarize the cast, they were given “look books” to acquaint them with the sets and “what the world was going to be that they would inhabit.”

They also rehearsed the film like a play, with Washington methodically going through a premurder scene in which he offers a soliloquy as he navigates a corridor that led to King Duncan’s room.

“We all interchanged parts for two weeks,” McDormand said. “And then the last week we kind of galvanized and started getting up on our feet after being at the table.”

Then, with three-and-a-half weeks left in production, they were met with an unexpected break.

“Movies have such a momentum going forward, sort of an inexorable push. So in that sense it was a luxury,” Coen said about the production’s four-and-a-half month shutdown in 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Coen used the extra time to edit what they’d shot. Upon the film’s return to production, COVID was still thought to be transmitted and transferred significantly by touch, something McDormand said required a major adjustment on set.  

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“We shot the banquet scene then, after we had broken,” McDormand said. “When we came back, we were going to have bread and wine on the table. 

“Anyway, we decided no roast meat, no vegetables – nobody likes to come into the Macbeth’s house cause they don’t have good food. They get drunk and they break things,” McDormand joked. “So we got rid of the wine, we got rid of the bread, and everybody got a goblet, and we said ‘Don’t let anyone touch your goblet. Don’t you even drink out of your goblet.’” 

But the return was worth the wait, and Coen said at no time did he think the film wouldn’t get finished.

Summing up “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” McDormand recalled recent remarks by actor Daniel Craig, who said “this play holds so much for so many interpretations.”

“And that’s why Shakespeare keeps sticking around,” McDormand melodically and matter-of-factly stated, like a high school teacher to her class.

As for students who skip a step or two in their studies of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” simply by watching the film, McDormand delighted at the prospect.

“Absolutely, yes!” McDormand said. “That’s why we did it. Really.”

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” begins streaming Friday on Apple TV+. It opened in theaters on Dec. 25.