The first image traditionally used in film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is that of the three witches in the opening scene of the play. They lend a sense of foreboding to the story and are used to frame the unfolding story in terms of otherworldly influences changing the fates of those involved. However, the 2015 film adaptation opens in a different and more nuanced way that provides a subtle lens as to how society frames membership value from start to finish.
This adaptation opens in a stark and foreboding highland scene of grief. A community is gathered around Macbeth and his wife as they mark the passing of their young son during funeral rites. The couple’s loss is palpable and there is an overwhelming aura of hopelessness and futility. The couple is surrounded by a community that seems to lend support. At the same time, the couple stands apart from the community and looks to each other for intimate support. This might not seem remarkable, and indeed might seem logical, however there is a sense of tension in the shadows and space between the community and the Macbeths.
It is only after the funeral that the witches make their obligatory appearance. After this, the story unfolds along the well-known lines written by Shakespeare. Macbeth is victorious in battle and, as predicted, is elevated to the Thane of Cawdor. The elevation is recognized throughout Macbeth’s community in a stunning series of celebrations with the King of Scotland, in which the community and the Scottish hierarchy embraces Macbeth for his valor in battle.
The plan to kill the King of Scotland was already conceived, however Macbeth’s decision to do so appears cemented by the King’s announcement of his son Malcolm as the Prince and presumptive heir. After the celebrations, the plan to kill the King of Scotland is executed by Macbeth and his wife. Malcolm, the erstwhile heir, subsequently encounters Macbeth, who challenges him to take up his father’s mantle. Malcolm rides off in the night to England, unable to assume this responsibility.
With the heir apparent fled, the Scottish nobility selects Macbeth as the new King of Scotland as foreseen by the witches. What should have been a moment of triumph for him is tempered by guilt from the King’s murder and questioning of whether it was worth it. There are of course many moral tensions in these musings, however underlying this is the realization that the achievement was limited because the Macbeths have no children and no line to establish as future kings. Instead, he is installed as a placeholder – someone trusted by society at the moment but in the long run unable to solidify his power because society has defined the ultimate value of a leader as establishing a familial line – and thus establishing a predictable future.
Shortly afterward, out of paranoia caused by the witches, Macbeth orders the deaths of his cousin, Banquo, and Banquo’s young son, Fleance. It was predicted that Banquo’s family would create the line that would rule Scotland and thus they are both perceived as a threat to the identity of Macbeth as a leader and to his ability to exercise the power he killed for. Banquo is subsequently killed, however Fleance is able to escape his would-be assassins.
When Macbeth further becomes afraid of the power exerted by Macduff, a nobleman who had been a close friend, and Macduff flees. Macbeth is convinced that all threats from the Macduff line must be erased and orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. The rest of the Scottish court acquiesces to the public murders although there is an unsaid sense that this is the tipping point is respect for and loyalty to Macbeth. Even the power-seeking Lady Macbeth is shaken rigid by these murders and is seen talking to the ghost of her deceased son prior to her own death soon afterward. In these conversations, she laments the ways in which the events since his death unfolded and it seems she seeks to make peace with her son in order to make herself understandable to the aspect of her life that was most valuable.
Finally, there is a battle between Macbeth and Macduff in which Macduff prevails and Macbeth dies at his hand. As the audience is left with the image of Macbeth’s body on a deserted plain, abandoned by the society over which he had once exercised supreme power, it then sees an image of Fleance walking across the plain, off to seek the future that Macbeth sought to deny him through assassination. The 2015 adaptation thus closes as it opens, with a single child who had been part of a community and had been used to define his parents’ place within that community.
There are many areas of pluralism in Macbeth. However, the one that is perhaps least discussed but most decisive in the 2015 adaptation is the way in which society frames identity and inclusion. From beginning to end, there is a consistent thread of identity being confirmed through the establishment of a family in which to function. At the beginning of the film, the Macbeths are seen as supported by the community but also apart from larger society and left to rely on themselves, presumably because this is all that is left for them in the future. This is the case even though Macbeth is a revered warrior and his wife holds a high place in society.
When Malcolm runs away from his inheritance, society is left without a leader and it turns to Macbeth as a protector but limits his abilities and powers by ensuring that Banquo’s line will continue on after Macbeth. Certainly, in Macbeth’s eyes, this weakens him and makes him less a part of society – instead, he is essentially a place keeper who has won his place due to acts done to protect society.
This sense of not belonging is palpable throughout the rest of the film and drives Macbeth to do the unthinkable and murder an innocent family in a quest to solidify his control on an increasingly disillusioned society. Ultimately, this sense of not fully belonging because he will be unable to contribute to societal stability in the long term is the undoing of Macbeth, while the death of their child and their inability to serve as a family overwhelms his wife. Tellingly, this adaptation of the film ends with the image of a child walking off across the plain, offering the chance that he will return to claim the place that was guaranteed for him by society in the future. The 2015 adaptation of Macbeth places particular emphasis on the ways in which societal values frame those who are members of it and define who might operate on the margins in terms of value even when they seem to operate at the center in terms of prestige.