The last moments of a production are important because they can greatly alter the audiences’ interpretation of the entire play. This is especially true in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A number of unanswered questions such as whom is responsible for Macbeth’s fate and whether peace is restored to the kingdom, gather at the end of the play Macbeth. In each of the different productions, directors Orson Wells, Roman Polanski, and Trevor Nunn allude to these answers.
Shakespeare’s play ends with Malcolm saying to his kinsman:
We shall not spend a large expense of time
Before we reckon with your several loves
And make us even with you. My Thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be Earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honor named. What’s more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny,
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace
We will perform in measure, time, and place.
So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone (5.9.60-75)
Because his speech merely recaps past events that the audience already knows and does not provide any revelation into the unanswered questions of the play, Malcolm’s speech leaves the audience with ambiguities.
Malcolm’s speech contains no comments on where to place the blame of Macbeth’s fate, thus the audience must decide for themselves as to whether Macbeth alone stands responsible for his fate or whether the witches participation holds them as the responsible ones. Director Roman Polanski attempts to answer to this ambiguity in the last scene of his production of Macbeth. The evening turns to dusk, and the air holds a hazy mystical feel. The sound of the witches playing a flute-like musical instrument rises from behind two large rocks. Then Donalbain, leaving his horse behind, limps toward those rocks intently looking for those whom he believes reside there. He then disappears behind the rocks and the music stops, insinuating that they will now prophesize the future for Donalbain. In his last scene, Polanski leaves the viewer with the notion that the witches control fate like puppeteers with their dolls, and the kingdom and its inhabitants are mere pawns in their game. Donalbain stands to gain the throne after the death of his elder brother Malcolm; therefore he becomes the perfect toy for the witches.
Polanski creates this notion that the witches control the kingdom and its inhabitants in order to prove that ultimately Macbeth does not control his own fate and therefore does not hold responsibility for his own actions. Macbeth foreshadows the idea that fate holds ultimate power and people only act out their minor roles in the brief production of life, when he says, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more”(5.5.24-26). Then Polanski reinforces the same idea stated in Macbeth’s speech in the final moments of the production with the image of the witches controlling Donalbain just as they ultimately control Macbeth during his life.
Similar to the Polanski production, the Orson Wells production also supports the idea that the witches control fate and that Macbeth stands powerless against the forces of the witches and the predestined outcome of his future. The last scene of this production contains a hazy mysterious feel due to the setting of the sun and the smoke-like clouds hovering low around the castle. The witches stare at the castle from a distance dressed in dark ominous costume. These burlap gowns are long, dark, and coarse, similar to that belonging to a wizard. They hold in their hand long dark staffs. The staff denotes a sign of authority, in fact the Oxford English Dictionary defines a staff as “a stick or pole as a sign of office or authority” (Abate, 777). Wells ends his production with this image of authoritative witches. They position themselves thematically in the scene far away from the castle, amidst the smoky haze. Wells ends his production with this image in order to leave an impression of powerful witches that look down upon the kingdom from their omniscient view and do as they will with the kingdom and its people, just as they toy with Donalbain in Polanski’s production.
A deep and dark sounding music plays in the background while the witches silently and motionlessly peer at the castle unbeknown to the others in the kingdom. After staring at the castle for a few moments, one witch says to no one in particular, “Peace! The charms wound up.” The witch’s statement at the end of this scene answers Shakespeare’s ambiguity by showing Macbeth as a victim of the witch’s charm. Macbeth merely plays out his role in the “charm” or spell that the witches confess to placing on the kingdom, and now that Macbeth’s life ends, so ends the charm.
In order to make his argument more convincing, Wells repeats the line, “Peace the charms wound up”, from earlier in the play. Wells wants to show that the witches do have power over Macbeth through their charm and he does this by paralleling Macbeth with the sailor. The witches vindictively curse the sailor because his wife refuses to share her chestnuts with one of the witches after she demands the woman to do so. When the first witch returns to her sister, and she tells them of the event with the sailor’s wife and then tells them that “like a rat without a tail, / I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.9-10). Her sisters offer their help, and then the first witch describes the curse she will place on the sailor when she says, “I will drain him as dry as hay/ Sleep shall neither night nor day/ Hang upon his penthouse lid”(1.3.18-20). Then she also says, “Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine. / Though his bark cannot be lost/ Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” (1.3.24-26). Then the sisters join hands and begin their nonsense chant that curses the sailor. They conclude this curse by saying, “Peace! The charm’s wound up.” Just as the sailor holds no responsibility for the downfall of his ship and his unlucky fate, neither does Macbeth hold responsibility for his unlucky demise. Their actions hold no influence because they play mere subjects in the witches’ curse and their futures lie predetermined by the will of the witches.
Unlike the other two productions, director Trevor Nunn takes a different approach to the question of Macbeth’s role in his fatal outcome in the last scene of his production. In the last minute of this production Macduff stands trembling. He grips the sword, covered in Macbeth’s blood, tightly in one hand. Then Ross slowly takes the crown from the invisible crown rack and places it next to Macduff’s bloody sword. The camera focuses tightly on the image of the bloody sword side by side with the crown. Nunn intentionally leaves the viewer with this image of the bloody sword positioned merely inches from the king’s crown in order to signify that bloody swords, murder, death, and gore go hand in hand with the kingship. He wants to show that the witches do not create the truth; it just remains a fact of nature. With or without the witches, people will continue to murder for a kingdom.
In order to become the next king, the previous king must die. In order to become the next in line for the kingdom, that person must contain enough ambition to do whatever proves necessary to gain that position. Because Macbeth proves an ambitious and well-skilled warrior, King Duncan crowns him Thane of Cawdor. The sergeant proudly says, “For brave Macbeth -well he deserves that name-?unseamed him [the slave Macdonwald] from the nave to th’ chops” (1.2. 16). Primarily, King Duncan rewards Macbeth for his ambition and murdering capabilities on the battlefield and calls him “noble” (1.2. 67) however, later when Macbeth takes these same actions off the battlefield, his actions lead to a fatal punishment. Though Polanski’s version also alludes to a cyclic pattern in history, his production indicates that the witches control this cycle, while Nunn leaves the role of the witches insignificant in comparison to the age-old cycle of the ambitious using bloodshed to obtain the kingdom.
The cycle of bloodshed leading to the throne alluded to in the last scene of the Trevor Nunn production answers the second of Shakespeare’s ambiguities, whether the kingdom will finally receive peace now that Macbeth lies dead, with a negative. Both Nunn and Polanski allude to a cycle that continuously repeats itself throughout time and never allows for peace. Nunn proves that the fact that a king sits on the throne means that bloodshed also sits nearby, and Polanski alludes that Donalbain will spill the blood next.
The opening and final scenes in Nunn’s production show the image of the fair next to the foul. The opening scene of Macbeth introduces the theme of “Fair is foul and foul is fair”(1.1.10). The theme repeats in a cyclic fashion throughout the play and thematically appears most prevalent in the last scene. The “fair” king sits next to the “foul” bloodshed when Ross holds the crown next to the bloody sword, the image of fair next to the foul dominates the screen. Macbeth murders to become king; Macbeth must be murdered for Malcolm to become king. The constant repetition of this cycle throughout the play allows the viewer to realize that the kingdom can never completely restore its peace because the cycle of death continuously repeats.
Shakespeare’s play also alludes to a cyclic kingdom in the last scene. With the battle newly won, Malcolm says to his people that he will repay those that fought on his side and make “my thanes and kinsmen,/ Henceforth be earls” (5.9.62-63). His speech sounds significantly similar to those words and actions taken by his father in the first scene of the play. Though it stands yet unknown as to whether Malcolm holds as poor of an ability to judge character as his father held, but just the fact that Malcolm represents a part of this cycle allows for the interpretation that Malcolm’s fate remains doomed to the same pattern as that of his predecessor.
Roman Polanski supports this same theory that peace will not be restored to this kingdom. In the last scene, Polanski highlights the witches’ prophecy of Banquo’s descendants becoming king by showing Danalbain gimp after the witches. Presumably the witches will tell him that his lineage will not that succeed the throne, but instead another family will eventually take over the monarchy. Certainly, this prediction will not please Donalbain. As Wells shows in his production, the crown and the sword lie closely related. Since Donalbain stands so close to the throne, undoubtedly his ambitions led him to the witches, and he desires to hear what lies in his future concerning the kingdom and its throne. Wells’ production shows how the ambitious eventually take up their sword in order to obtain the throne, and Polanski plays on this same thought by alluding to the idea that once Donalbain hears that neither he nor his bloodline will succeed the throne, he will take action against this destiny. His actions will not allow for peace in the kingdom.
Orson Well’s version could not have been more different in its assertion of the future of the kingdom. Wells proves this notion that peace restores itself in the kingdom by adding the witches to the last scene and assigning them the actual word “peace” followed by “the charm’s wound up.” In a matter of seconds and with using only five simple words, Wells contrives an ending for the production that unarguably connotes that peace is restored. The witches declare that their past actions stood as merely a part of a spell that they placed on Macbeth, not the kingdom, and now that the spell ran its course and Macbeth lies dead the kingdom may resume to its normal routine of peace.
Numerous productions make assumptions and interpretations regarding the play Macbeth, and many of these ideas often oppose those of their predecessors. Directors often project their own life experiences and beliefs onto their work. Polanski’s version is undeniably gory and leads the viewer to believe that more events will follow. In Polanski’s personal life, he recently lost his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, to the savage murderer Charles Manson and his followers. His personal longings for a sequel to the bloody events of his life undoubtedly lead to his interpretation of the play. The optimistic Christian, Orson Wells predictably chooses for the evil to end and the good to once again run free. Trevor Nunn takes the safe approach by only alluding to the possibility that peace will not be restored through the veiled image of the cycle. In these last moments of a production the director contains the most power to explore his creative power and to attempt at an answer for those ambiguities that the author leaves open for interpretations.