Monday, 3 September 2012

What Did Orson Welles Do With Macbeth?

If nothing else, Orson Welles made for a
pretty creepy-looking Macbeth

Macbeth has been adapted for stage and cellulose on countless occasions, making it Shakespeare's most widely and frequently performed play. Among the many film and television versions of the Scottish Play, there are a handful that really stand out. One of those is Orson Welles' production, which he directed, adapted and starred in. 

Orson Welles’ 1948 movie adaptation of Macbeth was met with a fairly frosty reception upon its release. And was compared unfavourable, for many years, to Olivier’s Hamlet. More recently, opinion of the film has improved and it is seen, by some, as one of Welles’ best projects

How Does Orson Welles' Version of Macbeth Differ From Shakespeare's?

This film version is markedly different from the play in a number of ways. For example, all of the Porter’s racy lines had to be cut, censorship being extremely strict in the 1940s. Moreover, the character of Donalbain is removed altogether and various lines were edited or reassigned.

Welles even chose to add a character, the Holy Man, whose purpose, according to the director and star, was to portray the battle between the ‘old’ religion (Paganism, which is represented by the witches) and ‘new’ religion (Christianity).

The witches in the 1948 version of Macbeth had a much
more active role in the  tragic hero's downfall
However, significant changes can also be found in the witches, who have a much more prominent role in the film than the one they have in the play, Welles’ witches even make an appearance after the death of Macbeth.

The implication seems to be that their part in the downfall of Macbeth is much more active than it might appear in Shakespeare’s version.

Other major differences surround Lady Macbeth, who, unlike the play, is witnessed sleepwalking by her husband. Her death is also portrayed on screen and, most significantly of all, Orson Welles chooses to imply that it is Lady Macbeth who actually murders Duncan.

Why Did Orson Welles Makes These Changes?

Well, some alterations, such as the reassignment and/or cutting of lines are predominantly for convenience's sake. Similarly, Donalbain has a fairly small and, let's face it, insignificant role. Consequently, poor old Donalbian is no stranger to being cut from productions of the play.

Orson Welles' Macbeth is unrelentingly dark
The addition of the Holy Father is interesting, because although the theme of Paganism is implicit in Shakespeare's inclusion of the witches, there is no overt conflict between Christianity and Paganism. In fact, like much of Shakespeare's work, Christianity, or religion in any form, is rarely mention - the notable exception being The Merchant of Venice

Whether Welles just saw this as an opportunity to add another conflict to the drama or whether he believed the struggle of religion to be vital to the play, who knows. 

It seems to me, however, that Christianity is certainly of little consequence to Macbeth himself. After all, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing", doesn't smack of a Christian view of life. Maybe Welles viewed religion as a way to redeem Macbeth, which brings us on to his most significant tampering with the text.

The Women of Orson Welles' Macbeth

Whereas the division of blame is a little more tricky in Shakespeare's original text, in Orson Welles' adaptation it could not be clearer. It's all the women's fault!

Lady Macbeth doesn't just encourage her husband to kill Duncan, she does it herself. And, it seems, there is no hint that Macbeth may be self-fulfilling the witches prophecies. No, it's clear that they have a very active and malevolent role in Macbeth's downfall.

It was all Lady Macbeth's fault, according to Orson Welles
Why did Welles choose to tell the story in this way? Well, it's got me stumped. In my opinion, if you remove all blame from Macbeth, you remove his status as tragic hero. 

By their very definition, tragic heroes must be the cause of their own fall. And Welles may think that he creates a more sympathetic Macbeth by making him more of a victim than an active participant in his doom. However, for me at least, it has the opposite effect.

With all that said, Orson Welles' version of Macbeth is well worth a watch. It offers an interesting perspective on the play, I just don't happen to agree with it.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's Macbeth and modern adaptations of the play, check out What's it All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.


  1. i've just watched the original orson welles version of the film and it is Macbeth that kills Duncan, his wife merely goes to check that he's done it..
    there is a lot about her guilt of what she made him do. so i can't agree with your statement that it's all the women's fault!

    1. Hello there,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. There's no overt depiction of Lady M 'doing the deed', but it is hinted that she stabbed Duncan before Macbeth goes at him.

      You're right, though, Welles doesn't take out any of the guilt she clearly feels over her part of the dealings. Nevertheless, I'd argue that he makes her more culpable in the first place than Shakespeare does. And I suppose that's what I meant by the tongue-in-cheek comment about it all being the women's fault.

      Thanks again!