I am not by any standard a Shakespeare expert. I had some exposure to the Bard in eighth grade English when we all sat down to watch via Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film As You Like It… without having read the play. Given that this movie shifts the material in some surprising ways (moving the setting to 19th-century Japan, giving audiences the spectacle of Shakespeare-speaking sumo wrestlers) that don’t quite make sense unless you know the story already, it may not have been a wise choice. Then again, every eight months or so after that for several years, I would think about a scene where Adam convinces his master Orlando to flee before Orlando’s brother kills him, the father-son/butler-master relationship they had. So, at least part of the story crept into my head and didn’t let go.
Since I skipped high school English (all four grades of it, which is a weird story for another time), and didn’t cover Shakespeare in any of my college English classes, I didn’t get a chance to encounter the Bard again until after most people my age had already read him. As frequently happens, I stumbled into it
Sometime in 2020, I learned about a book by Rebekah Owens where she argued that Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth may best be understood as a horror film. I don’t remember how I learned about this book, though I probably found it because I was two years into a research project about C.S. Lewis and gothic horror filmmaker Terence Fisher, so I was browsing a lot of publishers who had studies on horror cinema. At any rate, the premise made me prick up my ears. A Shakespeare movie that was also a horror movie? What would that look like?
I watched the film. I read Owens’ book. I discovered that I quite liked the sad, dark story of Macbeth. This time around, the dialogue didn’t create a barrier – it took me two or three viewings to get the full context, but I didn’t feel awash in archaic language. The fact that I like a good murder story – as evidenced by my Halloween story collection Tapes from the Crawlspace, which ranged from stories about ghostly gangsters to Judas Iscariot haunting a Pharisee – probably helped too.
Since I like to not only find interesting stories, but compare them to other interesting stories, I started looking for other famous Macbeth movies. I slowly but surely made my way through the other classics (Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Orson Welles’ Macbeth) and some newcomers (Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth). When Joel Cohen’s Macbeth came to theaters in late 2021, I did something I had never done before, and sought out an arthouse theater where I could see it. I come from a family that usually reversed going to the movies for special occasions (summer vacation, Christmastime, Thanksgiving vacation). So going to the movies on my own, to a dedicated arthouse theater, just because I wanted to see the movie, felt new and monumental. Fortunately, it was a very good film.
I tinkered with the idea of fitting Polanski’s Macbeth into a book I was going to write (but never did) about the fine line between horror and fantasy in movies like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I added to my Shakespeare knowledge by reading plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and seeing Orson Welles’ quirky Othello. I was also somehow able to work in a discussion about Hamlet and The Silver Chair into my Lewis & Fisher essay, finally published in October 2022.
Around the time I was revising my Lewis & Fisher essay, I learned that Joseph Ricke and Sarah Waters, two academics I know through the Inkling Folk Fellowship, were working on a volume for An Unexpected Journal about Shakespeare and apologetics. Ricke mentioned in an email to various people who might be interested that among other things, he’d like to see someone write an essay about Coen’s Macbeth or all five of the major Macbeth movies.
Somehow, I found time to write an essay about the five films. My memory is I wrote the first draft in less than a week, working very late at night and rewatching snippets of Welles’ and Coen’s films. I submitted it in August 2022, and received some detailed notes on how to get the essay to its full potential. I made many of the edits over one weekend (because that was the one weekend I knew I wouldn’t be working on anything else). By the end of that weekend, the essay had more than doubled its size. Over the next four months, Ricke recommended or discussed further edits. We got the essay down to a more reasonable size. We discussed why I had consistently mispelled Birnam Wood as Burnham Wood (short answer? Burnham just sounded more British to me). By November, the essay had become much more presentable.
Finally, on December 14, 2022, the Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics special issue of An Unexpected Journal went live. I discovered there were many contributors (several that I knew, like John Stanifer). Some of them contributed poems, others scholarly essays. All of them had impressive things to say about the Bard from Stratford-on-Avon. It’s humbling to be in the same volume as writers who are this good. Especially when you consider where my Shakespeare journey started.
Without further ado, here’s my essay about the major Macbeth films, and how they each handle themes like regret, justice, and the supernatural realm’s existence.
If you’d like to hear people talk about their contributions to this special issue of An Unexpected Journal, many of them (myself included) will be talking about it in a Facebook live video this Saturday.
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