I’ve read Macbeth a LOT since I first studied it my senior year in high school. There are just so many different points of interest to study in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The play has often been considered timeless due to its theme of overextended ambition coupled with murderous intent. Another prevalent theme in the play is that of the forces of good and evil, recognizable with the manifestation of the three witches who work with evil magic which helps to turn a once good man into a murdering tyrant. The witches with their prophecies and the plight of the characters in the play to overcome the power of evil all lend themselves to the idea of the supernatural. However, in modern times where the idea of witches and magic is more likely frowned upon, considered to be a flight of fancy or an old superstition/belief, it would be more responsible in a sense to look for a different cause that would enable a once trustworthy individual to commit such heinous crimes against his perceived family unit. Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 film adaptation of the play, simply titled Macbeth, serves to highlight a different motivational force, that of mental disease to explain the actions of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I’ve always felt that there was underlying cause to the descent of the Macbeths. Their turn to violence seemed too abrupt to be an inherent fault of character. For a once honorable man to turn to methods of murder, modern science would suggest that an underlying set of factors helped to turn his mind against what he knew to be right. I was impressed with the fact that this film worked to highlight these telling signs in what turns out to be the downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Corresponding with the ideas of madness, health and disease already seen in the play, Wright seems to be suggesting that the mental distress and disease of the main couple helped to trigger the events of the play. To establish this fact, Wright opens his film in a cemetery with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth attending to a grave marked “Beloved Son.” Obviously this differs greatly from the events of the play. Their loss is shown to be traumatic, devastating, and a clear factor that could suggest a mental vulnerability which would leave both characters in a malleable state of mind and would then allow for their minds to be twisted by ambition accordingly. Specifically, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem to be developing and then suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder due to the untimely loss of their son, effects which lead both characters to make questionable decisions and eventually allows for them to murder and create havoc until the disorder finally succeeds in overtaking their minds and destroying their lives completely.
The opening shot of Wright’s film is impressive for several reasons. The setting of the cemetery is unique and the addition of the Macbeth’s son serves to open the film on a somewhat somber note. Speculation suggests that there are instances in the play where the reader could conclude that the Macbeths once had a child. Wright takes that speculation and makes it a reality for his film, adding a new layer of deep-seated remorse and pain to explain the characterizations of Macbeth and his wife. They are recuperating from a loss and while the film does not offer a timeframe to judge this event with, either by supplying an age for the deceased child or by giving the details of how much time has passed since his death, it does offer the couple’s differing methods of dealing with their mutual loss. While Lady Macbeth sobs uncontrollably over the gravesite, her husband stands staring off into the distance where the three witches, dressed as catholic schoolgirls, are desecrating gravestones and monuments for fun. They are both suffering from loss in their own way, and by opening with this scene, Wright seems to suggest that their grief is the cause for the events that are yet to come. Shirley Murphy states:
The death of a child can be an extreme stressor, particularly when there is intentional harm, mutilation, grotesqueness, and suddenness and when the death occurs prior to the death of a parent. These features are central in deaths that occur by accident, homicide, or suicide. Thus, it is not surprising that many parents meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (205).
As members of the Melbourne mob family, the child of the Macbeth family could have died either by accident or he could have been murdered. The possibility also exists that the child could have died after a prolonged illness, however given the extent of the violence seen later in the film, the image on the gravestone of a mostly grown child maybe just about to enter adolescence and the age of the Macbeths seen in the film, it seems logical to conclude that the death was unexpected given the time frame of events. Wright does not venture further into the exact circumstances of the child’s death but the truth of the matter seems to be that their loss had to have been sudden for Lady Macbeth’s pain to still take such control while visiting the gravesite. Also the fact that Lady Macbeth is displaying such extreme emotions in this scene suggests that her loss leads to her distancing herself from her husband and her emotions, eventually enabling her to speak so callously about the details of murdering their king later in the film. The fact of the matter is that the loss of the child has led to the result of Lady Macbeth’s suffering from PTSD.
The film transitions to showing Macbeth in his role as soldier for the mob, fighting with guns against a rival gang and successfully capturing their leader for his king. While waiting in “Club Cawdor” with Banquo, Macbeth is seen drinking and laughing, before taking a pill left out on the table. While Banquo retreats to the bathroom to vomit, Macbeth is left alone for his first meeting with the three witches. Amanda Kane Rooks states:
the witches are merely figments of his hallucinations, extensions of a psyche deeply disturbed by an irrepressible desire to gain ultimate power at any cost (154).
It seems obvious that the so-called meeting is a figment of Macbeth’s imagination. A differentiating factor in this scene compared to the play is the absence of Banquo. In the play, Banquo was present to hear the prophecy that named his descendants heir to the throne. In Wright’s film, Banquo is absent during this meeting and when Macbeth attempts to chase the witches down, Banquo informs Macbeth that he didn’t see the witches. As a result, Wright seems to be suggesting that Macbeth is as mentally unbalanced as his wife, Lady Macbeth, despite his cool demeanor alongside his son’s grave earlier in the film.
As the film continues, Lady Macbeth’s PTSD manifests faster than her husband’s and in slightly different ways. When Macbeth returns home to his wife he attempts to rouse her from her despondent state by relating to her the experience of meeting the witches. She continues to lie there unresponsive as she smokes a cigarette, listening to her husband before eventually reacting in a manner that Macbeth considered unsatisfactory. In her analysis of this scene, Rooks states, “Her apparent lifelessness and lack of animation at this point in the film serve to foreshadow her untimely death, which sees her placed on this same matrimonial bed later in the film” (Rooks 156-7). While this may be true, Lady Macbeth’s behavior also suggests that she is already suffering from the effects of her oncoming PTSD as a result of the loss of her son. The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine states, “After exposure to trauma, people who rely on dissociative coping strategies seem more likely to develop PTSD compared to the people who rely on other strategies” (Javidi 6). Lady Macbeth is already disconnecting herself from the aspects of her life that could cause her pain. The fact that Wright shows a tear fall down her face after her husband leaves her alone suggests that her pain has already taken root within her, and her actions are the result of a coping mechanism that will lead to a full onset of PTSD in the coming scenes of the film. According to the civilian version of the PTSD checklist, three problems or complaints of an individual suffering from PTSD are: (1) a loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy; (2) feeling distant or cut off from other people; and (3) feeling emotionally numb or being unable to have loving feelings for those close to you (Weathers, Litz, Huska and Keane, 2003). All of these factors have been seen so far in Lady Macbeth’s characterization, further demonstrating that the loss of her son has provided the necessary stressing factor to commence her development of PTSD. She has a disinterest in the activities of her husband. She seems to lose interest in the activities she starts and needs what seems to be constant supervision to ensure her safety. At this point in the film, Macbeth is more stable than his wife, suggesting that his background in the mob has desensitized him enough to keep the effects of son’s death from interfering too much with his mental state. This of course turns around after Macbeth murders Duncan, and his descent into suffering from PTSD develops fast, until Macbeth and his wife are both suffering somewhat equally at the same time by the film’s end.
Another telling detail in the development of PTSD in Lady Macbeth occurs when she awaits the arrival of her dinner party outside on their home’s porch. She hears a creaking in the distance and the camera switches to a view of a lone child swing equipped with a bucket seat designed for a toddler. She looks distressed and when she begins to recite her lines from Act 1, scene v, her words of “make thick my blood” and “take my milk for gall” seem more akin to a prayer for strength than the words of the villainous wife in the play. Her dissociative coping strategies are allowing her to distract her mind from the loss of her son. Other factors on the PTSD checklist are recognized in terms of avoidance, as in “avoid thinking about or talking about a stressful experience from the past or avoid having feelings related to it” (Weathers et al., 2003). She is focusing on the immediate events of the planning and eventual murder of Duncan. By juxtaposing these lines with her view of her child’s swing, Wright is able to garner some semblance of sympathy for a woman who is desperately attempting to focus on a future where the loss of her son can be filled with the power she would claim for herself as the wife of the new king.
Macbeth’s own transition into mental disease occurs in Act 2 of the play and corresponds in Wright’s film to the meeting between husband and wife after Macbeth has murdered Duncan. In the film Macbeth says “Sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep, and Macbeth shall sleep no more.” This is also a telling part in the development of PTSD in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth for the film as both characters will begin to suffer from sleep-related difficulties, with Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking and Macbeth’s inability to fall asleep again as the film moves on. There are several theories concerning the benefits of sleep and the effects of the lack of sleep on what is called “normal, sleep-dependent emotional memory processing” (Moore 1252). One theoretical perspective on sleep by R. Stickgold is that “during sleep, emotional memories in confined neuronal networks become associated with other memories in larger neuronal networks, thus providing the cognitive perspective necessary for successful emotional adaptation,” while a second theory by M. P. Walker states that “sleep performs a function similar to systematic desensitization therapy […] that is, sleep normally serves to strip the emotional component from memories. A failure or an absence of this process could then trigger psychological symptoms such as re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD” (qtd. in Moore 1252). The Macbeth’s lack of a purposeful, restful sleep seals their fate with PTSD, according to the option on the checklist, “Trouble falling or staying asleep.” Without the healing effects of a good night’s rest, their emotional state becomes raw and exposed and they are unable to process events accordingly which leads to their devious decisions regarding the bloodshed of the play. Lady Macbeth’s symptoms have been more noticeable than her husband’s up to this point in the film. After establishing the mental distress in her character, Wright shifts the focus back to Macbeth, paying closer attention to the various scenes that seem to confirm his descent into madness and allows him to suffer the debilitating effects of PTSD that is going untreated.
After Macbeth has been made king of the mob in Duncan’s place and he sends his murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, he starts to show the fraying of his mental state. His emotions seem to be going to extremes, going from manic paranoia to quiet contemplation, as he works out who he believes is loyal to him and who he should work against to ensure his place in charge of the organization. The Journal of Clinical Psychology states, “Specific examples of these emotional changes demonstrated that sleep-deprived individuals do not necessarily express more or less of a particular emotion, but are instead extremely labile in their emotions” (Moore 1253). In the film, when Macbeth talks to the murderers about their assignment to kill Banquo and Fleance, Macbeth’s emotions go from serious, then pleased, back to angry and then back to an upbeat demeanor. Macbeth’s instability is starting to take a higher precedence in his day to day actions. The change is slight but still somewhat noticeable compared to his characterization earlier in the film. The most telling example of Macbeth’s deteriorating mental state which depicts his suffering from PTSD is his hallucination of Banquo at the banquet scene. “Sleep deprivation often produces perceptual psychological symptoms such as hallucinations and dissociations” (Moore 1252). Macbeth’s extremely violent hallucination in which Banquo attempts to murder him in front of his guests demonstrates how Macbeth is now truly suffering from the effects of PTSD. Together with his wife, they are exhibiting the effects of their mental state. By this point in the film, and from here on after, Macbeth displays several items pertaining to hyper arousal on the PTSD checklist: (1) feeling irritable or having angry outbursts; (2) being “super alert” or watchful on guard; and (3) feeling jumpy or easily startled (Weathers et al., 2003).
The film continues with an exploration of the consequences that a lack of sleep has on the Macbeths. Lady Macbeth begins to sleep-walk, the avoidance of her pain now causing her to suffer even while she attempts to sleep. Macbeth deals with the effects of PTSD by slowly drinking more and more, with the alcohol affecting his judgment to the point where he is unable to see the error of his all-encompassing belief in the prophecy before it’s too late to stop the events from happening. Together, the Macbeths are able to check off more than half of the problems listed on the PTSD checklist. Wright manages to portray the villainous couple as the embodiment of a restless, troubled marriage that was faced with too many hardships and not enough treatment to deal with their emotions in a healthy manner. As the film winds down to its end, Wright shows the suicide of Lady Macbeth, whose final descent into madness and disease came as a result of the murder of Macduff’s son, an echo to the death and loss of her own child. Macbeth is then shown to be emotionally distant as well, echoing his wife’s despondent nature from earlier in the film, and balances that with his manic emotions of defending his position as king against those that will take it from him.
Overall, Geoffrey Wright manages to rework the Macbeths in such a way that to pity their outcome can be accepted when the events of the play left them as the sole villains of the plot. Their pain and suffering allows for them to be human and in the end it demonstrates the fact that an awareness of mental distress and disease could have prevented their pain from destroying the lives of others had the knowledge been there for them to learn. The shift seems to suggest that mental illness in the time of Shakespeare was an idea that could not be understood and was thus written off as the workings of the devil. In modern times, where such beliefs can have a scientific explanation, the readily available signs seen in the play can lead to the conclusion that the Macbeths were suffering from PTSD. As such, their struggles and downfall have a more understandable connection, as modern audiences can find themselves relating to a couple that because they were unaware of their symptoms, followed a path to destruction. The tragedy of their circumstances, in turn, doesn't seem implausible when one takes into account all of the factors against the Macbeths, a couple who believed that gaining power would be an ideal method for dealing with their grief and loss.
Javidi, H., and M. Yadollahie. "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." International Journal Of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 3.1 (2012): 2-9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 April 2012.
Murphy, Shirley A., L. Clark Johnson, and Janet Lohan. "The Aftermath Of The Violent Death Of A Child: An Integration Of The Assessments Of Parents' Mental Distress And Ptsd During The First 5 Years Of Bereavement." Journal Of Loss & Trauma 7.3 (2002): 203-222. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 April 2012.
Rooks, Amanda Kane. "Macbeth's Wicked Women: Sexualized Evil In Geoffrey Wright's Macbeth." Literature Film Quarterly 37.2 (2009): 151-160. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 April 2012.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: The Viking Press, 1969. Print.
Weathers, F., B. Litz, J. Huska, T. Keane. PTSD CheckList – Civilian Version (PCL-C). United States: Department of Veterans Affairs. Dec. 2003. Web. 5 May 2012.
Wright, Kathleen M., Thomas W. Britt, Paul D. Bliese, Amy B. Adler, Dante Picchioni, and DeWayne Moore. "Insomnia As Predictor Versus Outcome Of PTSD And Depression Among Iraq Combat Veterans." Journal Of Clinical Psychology 67.12 (2011): 1240-1258. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 April 2012.
RATING INFORMATION: I don't think many people have seen this movie. In fact, I can almost say I'm sure of it. I wanted to analyze a film that I was sure no one else in my class would choose to work on and I'm fairly certain I managed to accomplish that. However, as the truth seems to be that many would not have watched this film I want to explain that when it comes down to it, unless you are a fan of watching Shakespeare film adaptations (as I am, and trust me, I own a LOT of these various films), I would NOT recommend you watch this movie. The adaptation was interesting and obviously I found the interpretation worthy of an analysis for my graduate class BUT there were some elements to the film that I found questionable. I would not recommend that a high school student watch this film. With that said, I do respect the work that Geoffrey Wright accomplished here and I applaud his attention to detail in dealing with the possibility of PTSD and the Macbeths.