Roman Polanski’s treatment of Act One Scene One of Macbeth

August 26, 2020 by Essay Writer

Give a detailed description of Roman Polanski’s treatment of Act One Scene One of Macbeth. State how effective you found this realisation.

William Shakespeare created an assortment of plays with various themes but each with the same intrinsic values, which have attracted writers and producers to customise and shape these plays into their own adaptations all of whom refrain from relieving their portrayals of the inherent characteristics Shakespeare manages into his plays. Shakespeare’s immutable omnipresent quality is brought about by a profound use of the English language and deep insights into the human condition creating universal and timeless prodigies for the audience or readers and is reflected in each of the realisations of today’s contributions to the perceptions into William Shakespeare’s work, such as the recent title “Shakespeare in love” or “Romeo and Juliet”.

The opening scene of Macbeth unfolds with a view over a seemingly endless span of beach, blanketed by a blood red sky and both united by a shadowy range of mountains set at daybreak.

Polanski introduces his realisation using this original setting for location confidently while conforming to Shakespeare’s set description “an open place”. The beach is presented devoid of any form of life, just bare, calm and simple, which is why it conveys a striking supernatural feel. Polanski may have gained inspiration for this opening setting from Act One Scene Three where the three witches are again casting a spell but on a ship at sail “though his bark cannot be lost, yet it shall be tempest-tost”. Another quote from the play, which suggests a beach to be an ideal backdrop for the witches again this quote from Act One Scene Three, “The weird sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land”. Since a beach is where both sea and land meet, the sea and land that they claim to be “posters” of then it isn’t unreasonable to situate their own meeting place here as well.

The atmosphere set off by an unusually strong blood red sky is successful in creating a eerie unnatural sense, which in the initial few seconds of the scene transforms into a grey/blue colour, where the ominous red sky’s reflect on the themes and events of violence and blood shed throughout the play and also directs us to a well known superstitious phrase “red sky in morn, Shepherd’s warning”. The warning could be directed at Macbeth, as he himself becomes a shepherd figure to his people when he takes on the role of King.

The of dawn approaching is a sign of a new beginning, and with the play already known to us it is clear that from this point the new beginning is of an evil and murderous nature. Polanski cleverly picked the beach to set his opening scene as within it, everything is distant and deserted and by using this, he allows the audience to focus on the events about to take place without distractions, without need for concentration other than for the actions he sets in front of us. Another possible reason for his use of the deserted beach could be taken as symbolism of the seemingly empty souls of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which their future actions suggest.

Polanski uses the cinematic panoramic view of the deserted beach until a lone seagull appears in the distance, flying high above the sandy floor when suddenly our senses of both scale and perspective are abruptly inundated with an unexpected breach of the foreground performed by a crooked gnarled stick, which resembles the contorted putrid finger of the witch who controls the stick. This in turn reflects upon the unattractive sight of this witch’s face and figure. It’s an interesting aspect to note that the beach is the only place known to man where the land comes in contact with the seas and the water leads out to a point where the sky drops over the sea’s “edge”, to give an elemental worldly ambience yet in contrast this is the place where the “weird sisters”, described as this by their very selves, meet. The three witches, although are not seen as elemental or worldly but satanic and evil, and come together as an unholy unsanctified trinity in this place of earthly elemental alignment.

Just as we gain our first allowances of perspective with the introduction of the witches and the unsightly staff, we lose this sense of scale as the witches move away again after their spell, as a result of Polanski’s addition of fog to the beach set which engulfs the witches and indeed the audience’s view of all on screen then Polanski uses widescreen, screen blacks out and the title of “Macbeth” appears.

The first scene opens using no more than an estranged, almost random involvement of stringed instruments and chimes, eerie and disturbing to listen to, which decrescendos into a sinister silence all before movement is detected onscreen. Music doesn’t play at all throughout the main bulk of this scene but with suitably scattered sound effects as the beach is remote and desolate but for that of the shrieking bird in the background. When the witches are finished digging in the sand and all the items are placed in the hole, silent but heavy breathing is heard from the witches. Could these exhausted breaths be because of the physical work involved or possibly it could be due to some intense magical exhaustion caused by the casting of their spell? The last sound heard from this opening scene is again the same eerie unsettling music from the very beginning but this time in crescendo while the witches withdraw into the fog.

Polanski has succeeded in bringing to life, a distinctive character in each one of the three witches through his use of disparity amidst the threesome. The first witch appears to be of middle age, no particular beauty about her and is clothed in dark tattered rags. This witch arranges the meeting with Macbeth along with the older witch yet she does not mention his name. Although, it is disappointing that Polanski used a stereotypical “nose wart” on this witch but it is also noted that Polanski does avoid falling into the indolent description with the topic of the witches often. She has a white headdress on, which ironically symbolises purity. After helping with the digging in the sand, she produces a hangman’s noose and sets this into the hole. Each other the items placed in the hole seems to symbolise or prefigure the future of Macbeth and this entry is no acceptation. The death of the Thane of Cawdor utilises the use of the hanging method, a method used to execute traitors and by extension this prefigures the death and reason of Macbeth’s own demise.

The second witch is the one mentioned carrying the gnarled stick. This time, Polanski dresses her in a black headdress with holes for her ears and her clothing is no more than dark coloured rags and what seems to be a rugged black cloak. Polanski manages to dress her in such a way that she almost seems sexless and also ageless, with the help of her hunched back, which is a very disturbing thought. Her eyes seem to have closed over and are sealed and her nose is hooked, another conventional witch attribute. The black headdress, in contrast to the middle-aged witch’s headdress registers a more sinister aspect in the good vs. evil, white vs. black struggle.

Her headdress also resembles the mask used by medieval executioners. Although she has no eyes, therefore any sight, there are signs that she does contain the power to supernaturally see for example, when she draws the circle with her daunting staff yet she has not the power to see, she also correctly places an arm and a dagger into the hole. There is an aspect to the staff, bent and gnarled against the better-known phrase, “straight and narrow”. Polanski appears to draw attention to both the eyes and ears of this seemingly ageless witch through the use of the sealed over eyes and the ears sticking out of her headdress, hinting to another famous phrase “see no evil, hear no evil”.

The third, witch in comparison with the other two, is both young and attractive. Here Polanski may be suggesting that not all evil is ugly and in actual fact evil would appear seductive and tempting while deceitful. She wears no headdress and has no facial distinctions excluding dirt and grime. When the blood is poured into the spell, we notice that this witch watches on with almost an excited hungry expression on her face, suggesting vampirism and scavenger instincts that this witch posses. Polanski has used disparity within these three witches suggesting a leader is among them. There is only evidence against this third younger witch being this leader but instead she comes across more servitude towards the “ageless” witch firstly, by not adding ingredients to the spell but helping the blind witch with hers, by not speaking out of unison with the other two witches and helping them by guiding the blind witch and pulling the kart as they all depart from the scene of the casting.

The middle aged witch shows signs of leadership by arranging the meeting place of where they will meet Macbeth and also as they all leave after the spell, this witch walks off separately in one direction where as the other two go off together in another direction, presenting her independence as a tribute of her leadership. The “sexless, ageless” witch demonstrates her headship when she is the only one to mention Macbeth’s name, answers the middle-aged witch’s questions about Macbeth, she holds the staff from which is drawn a circle and she does not participate in the digging of it. This witch shows the greatest of the supernatural powers through her aptitude to “see” without seeing and when they walk away from the site of the spell, she appears to hover, as her cloak drapes to the ground, apposed to walking. The cloak type clothing also signifies leadership.

The idea that each of these three witches are separate and unique can be contradicted with the idea that when they are put together they form the “essence” of evil, symbolising all that is evil – Seductive and deceitful, deformed and crooked and of ugly nature. Just as there is the Triune God that Christians believe in; there could be this Triune evil, a single entity of these three witches.

With in the first scene, Polanski uses a simple array of costumes and makeup such as the dishevelled rags for the witches but he has chosen his to present sexless, ageless and generally shapeless attires for the opening scene cast list. Makeup was used only to disguise the blind witch’s eyes and put an exaggerated hook on her nose, along with a wart on the nose of the middle-aged witch.

No dialogue is heard until no more than 5 minutes after first observing the witches, until then we watch in silence, which builds up suspense and tension until the first words are spoke. When they first speak, it is in unison, and they are emphasising what they are saying in their spell. Their use of pauses during verbalizing has no significance until the sentence “there to meet with (pause). Macbeth”. This is the first time his name is uttered and the use of pause by the witches suggests they pity him, as in fact they know what the future holds for him. Polanski changes the order of speech, reassigns various lines and even excludes mentioning “greymalkin”. The expression of the text by the witches isn’t full of magic and the typical “hocus-pocus” atmosphere but more ordinary vocal expressions and Polanski might be trying to get across here that, for these witches, spells are “everyday ordinary”.

The action of the scene was all directed at unsettling and disturbing, mystifying and questioning the audience. Polanski has the blond witch to draw a circle in the sand with her contorted staff, a circle used as a symbol of satanic ritual that can be seen as a “protective” circle. The circle itself is never-ending projecting the idea of the never-ending evil that is about to be unleashed with the spell they are about to perform. I think it’s appropriate to say the beach has a timeless quality, with the timeless costumes and whole nature of the scene suggesting something powerful. But this directs us to the question, could this spell have been enacted years before the remaining play? Even the fact that this scene is placed before the title sequence suggests that it is not part of the same time scale leaving us an open ended debate of whether this have taken place 10 years ago or 100 or even beyond time, were Macbeth’s fate is decided.

When the weird sisters set their items in the hole dug out from the “sands of time”, they place them in it precisely and almost lovingly as if they enjoy the pain they cause on Macbeth. Then they fill in the hole as if sealing those items in time, planting the seals of future strife and the final seals are made when all three spit at either side of themselves, “sealing the deal”.

There is a demonic, almost disconcerting atmosphere created right from the start, where the blood red sky lies upon the beach. Polanski is successful in weaving ambience into a rather dull first scene with the use of the location and with that comes the “sand of time” aspect. A satanic suspicion is felt when the blind witches disfigured “wand”, pokes the sand and draws the circle and as they start to dig we forebode in thinking this isn’t the ordinary but until the severed arm is placed inside, we aren’t actually aware of their intent that provides mystery to the audience.

Polanski’s use of the fog rolling in is a magical, eerie effect on the atmosphere, as we all know fog does not travel the way Polanski introduces it but leads us to believe it comes at the witches command, giving it “a mist of time” quality against the “sand of time”. Setting the scene at dawn suggests new beginnings and great new powerful cycle of evil is about to commence and the circle drawn by the blind witch only furthers this. We notice in the background that there is a lone seagull flying high but not once landing nor does it come near the witches and implies that it’s aware of their unnaturally evil power and knows to keep its distance. This brings into the scene an oppositional force to the witches, the sign of nature is present in the bird but senses it’s not safe near these wicked entities so it stays away.

Polanski uses few props in this scene but what he does utilize is given importance and appropriately symbolises the future events of the play. The spell that Polanski brews for the witches to take part in is clever in that each emblem placed in the ditch symbolises or prefigures events that take part in the play. Polanski also is creative in that he effectively prefigures the major themes of the play and focuses this around the witches. The middle-aged witch places a noose prefiguring the method used to execute the traitor, the Thane of Cawdor which encapsulates the theme of murder throughout Macbeth along with the second weapon positioned in the hole, the blind witch also puts in a disembodied arm then sets in the palm of the hand, the blade of a dagger with it’s handle at the end. Connecting the dagger to Macbeth, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?” This is the weapon Macbeth visions and uses to kill the king of Scotland.

Another possibility for the dagger in the severed arm’s hand is to prefigure the imperfection of setting up the two guards for the murder of Duncan. It is as if Macbeth had set the dagger in a severed arm after he had done the “bloody deed”. This arouses questions such as how did the dagger stay in the severed arm’s hand’s grasp without dropping it or why would someone hold the dagger by the handle, in the same way Macbeth leaves questions unanswered when he “covers up” his crime and essentially leads to his demise. The disconnected arm can be reflected in the future worries of Lady Macbeth about the blood on her hands after murdering King Duncan “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Blood is an inveterate motif throughout the play and when the witches add a spoil of blood to the spell it doesn’t come to us as a surprise. The disjointed arm symbolises the main themes of chaos and disorder in the play.

By planting all these items in their dug out hole, and covering them over their actions resemble that of farmers who plant their seeds for the next harvest. In the same way the witches may be planting their seeds of evil and corruption for them to sprout and grow to cause destruction. Even the fact that Polanski shows us the witches as the first characters in the play shows their significance in the role of the main theme. Polanski, by using the black and white headdress colour codes the future moral battle of good versus bad in Macbeth’s mind where the bad are the witches themselves, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the good is represented by Macduff.

The witches seem to have a powerful control over the future events of the play and can be seen with their prediction to meet Macbeth “upon the heath” and the items placed in the hole, which prefigure the plays main proceedings. After everything is placed in the hole and they witches are about to cover it over, they all take out what looks like burnt leaves and sprinkles them over the contents of their “sandy cauldron”. This could well possibly prefigure the method by Macduff to creep up on and seize Macbeth’s castle by using the wood of Dunsinane. I think Polanski effectively prefigures and encapsulates the major themes of the play.

The exit of the play continues with the unsettling atmosphere with the illusion that the blind witch is hovering about ground by letting her cloak drape onto the ground and the way she moves suggests not taking “step by step”. “Hover through the fog and filthy air”. There doesn’t seem to be footprints left behind and implies the supernatural power this witch contains in her. This is a demonic parody of Christ’s miracle of walking on water; here Polanski implies the satanic equivalent of Christ is this old blind witch.

As they depart it is clear that they separate and head off in different directions, the blind and young witch in one direction and the middle-aged witch in the other, until they “meet with Macbeth”.

This opening scene shows us Polanski’s use of atmosphere, props, script and theme of appearance vs. reality bringing us a timeless, universal experience of Act One Scene One where not only do we suspect the witches to be meddling with the future of Macbeth’s life but amazingly Polanski has involved us to question our own sense of fate. Polanski doesn’t make use of obvious witchcraft techniques such as the bubbling cauldron but goes for a subtle cunning approach successfully placing genuine unsettlement in the audience. I’m disappointed that Polanski had to mix with the original script of Macbeth in order to achieve this but admittedly I too became stuck in thought whether it was possible that there’s a group of witches dooming my existence on a deserted beach right now or indeed, many years before I was born.

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