Books to films: Lady Macbeth

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t just read and studied at school, college or university. Reading groups, extension courses, lifelong learning, theatre workshops, before going to see a play at the theatre – and more.

Shakespeare has inspired the work of so many creative people: from Mendelsohn, Britten, Shostakovich to Lou Reed, Dire Straits and Arctic Monkeys. From Herman Melville, John Keats, Charles Dickens to Aldous Huxley, Iris Murdoch and Ian McEwan. From Kurosawa to Polanski. From the Pre-Raphaelites to Gillian Wearing. Every age, indeed every generation seek to make Shakespeare their own.

Walk into any library and if you are prepared to explore, you can find his influence everywhere. This can be seen in the countless films based on his work.

Lady Macbeth 2017 

This is a film based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District , itself inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The film is set in the north of England during the nineteenth century, whereby the Lady Macbeth character is brought centre-stage in this alternative narrative to the Shakespearean text. Gone is the witchcraft from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the only ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ – here in William Oldroyd’s film, arise from the emptiness of a bourgeois life, in which Lady Macbeth finds herself trapped and powerless in a male dominated environment. There are also parallels here to Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary.

As the subject of an arranged marriage deal, acquired by the father for his son, along with a small piece of land, that he describes as ‘not fit for a cow to graze upon’, Lady Macbeth is installed into a stifling and austere household, where she is abandoned for long periods of time by a callous husband. She is left to maintain the house and servants following the demands of the father, who expects a submissive and obedient daughter in-law. There are no books to be seen and many of the early film shots see her peering out of the window onto a barren landscape, or asleep for long periods on the sofa. She appears completely isolated in this new situation.

Within this repressive and patriarchal environment, we are left to speculate as to the kind of character she is and how she will respond. Her responses at first are reluctant obedience and boredom, but the performance of Florence Pugh as Lady Macbeth is captivating in that as time goes on, we witness signs of insolence: mocking facial expressions and a contemptuous intonation in her voice, when addressing her husband and father in-law. The husband then departs for an extended period, in order to sort out problems at the family colliery and Lady Macbeth is left alone with the servants. At this point, her authority is challenged by an incident among the servants, and then we see her take control.

She begins a passionate love affair with the groomsman. As time goes on, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, her ‘vaulting ambition’ leads to a murder – in this case, the husband. Again, there is excitement in Pugh’s performance, never being quite sure if she is a victim of circumstance, responding perhaps naively as the repressed bourgeois housewife to events spiralling out of control, or whether there is a more psychopathic vein running through her actions. This loss of control is something we witness in Shakespeare’s Macbethwas he (Macbeth) ever really, ‘full of the milk of human kindness’? or have circumstances conspired around him to bring about a tragedy? – a key concern in Shakespeare’s play. Here too, innocence and guilt seem to play out, side by side. Casting a black maid who, rarely speaks and a mixed-race actor as the groomsman, adds a racial tension to the power dynamics of repression and rebellion that are described by the shifting loyalties among the principal characters of the film.

The visual look of the film focuses on textures: the tactile feel of starched fabrics on soft skin, rain on slate and stone and naked wooden floorboards sounding to the pressure of impatient male footsteps. There is also a clearly defined soundscape to the film, that captures the rustle of fabrics, the chink of chinaware and the howling winds on the heath outside the house – all these effects build a formal language that serves to emphasize common themes of vulnerability and violence, power and submission.

In addition to this film, you can find other adaptations on Shakespeare’s work in our libraries and of course most of his plays and poetry including some of the literary criticism that goes with them – Shakespeare is, of course, a huge industry. The children’s library also has some of his plays translated into short stories, Manga comics etc.

Richard, Brompton Library