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Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Injects New Life Into A Centuries-Old Story

While we all know that The Tragedy of Macbeth is based on Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, this film is a play. For anyone who knows the story of Macbeth well and has a deep care for its language, this film is exactly how you’d want it portrayed on screen. 

And by “anyone who knows the story of Macbeth well and has a deep care for its language,” I am speaking directly to my high school English teacher, who read the play to us in such a way that it made learning the story exciting and not as tough as others have described.

It seems like that’s the block for some people when it comes to Shakespeare: it seems boring, there are too many pages, the words don’t make sense, it’s too confusing, etc. And most of the time reading Shakespeare, that was the case for me. The Tragedy of Macbeth captures the essence of Macbeth but does so without clutter (or an impending test); it’s able to remove all of the distractions and allows you to focus on the story.

The background of each shot practically doesn’t matter: in expansive, blank rooms with minimal furniture. Our eyes and focus are on what’s most important: the characters and their words. The sharp contrast of shooting in black and white adds further to the ominous nature of things. Stark and serious, every sound seems to carry, from each character’s voice to simple drops of blood that become a drum beat. These elements allow the movie to feel like less of a film and more like a play, and it’s carried out so as not to feel outright.

And that’s without mentioning the acting.

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Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is like no other, cast alongside Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, who doesn’t hold back when it comes to advancing her husband’s role in Scotland. At first, Washington’s performance is sensitive and steadily becomes cold, calculating, and unforgiving as the plot moves forward. Washington and McDormand make a crafty team, though their deviousness is hidden at first by their charming and do-good way of living.


The three witches—all portrayed by Kathryn Hunter—are perfectly eerie, with the main witch contorting her body in such a way to further convey her sinister nature. Instead of casting three separate witches, the other two are first seen in the reflection of a small pond, as Joel Coen utilizes unique filming methods to showcase the trio in unfamiliar ways.

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Corey Hawkins is fearless as Macduff; after suffering the loss of his entire family, he forges ahead and takes on Macbeth, leaving the king headless with nothing left but a dainty silver crown lying on the stone floor. At the moment of Macbeth’s demise, we realize how meaningless it all was—everything that had transpired was in pursuit of a crown that was so easily taken. Left on the ground, it looked as if it could be split with a simple stomp of the foot.

The crown ended up landing on the head of the rightful heir to the throne: Malcolm (Harry Melling), which makes the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem almost extraneous. The crown was destined to land in the hands of Malcolm: if the two hadn’t become so invested in diverting the way of nature, none of this would have happened. But then again, we wouldn’t have the story of Macbeth.

The film is outstandingly beautiful to watch and equally to listen to, as Coen clearly went out of his way to perfect the tiny details that make Macbeth such a compelling story. From the dark lighting and cinematography to the language he chose to include, The Tragedy of Macbeth exemplifies how a story that’s almost 400 years old can be transformed into something completely new.

The Tragedy of Macbeth premieres on AppleTV+ on January 14.

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Culture Movies/TV

A Look Ahead to Joel Coen’s Next Film: “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

For most of us, The Tragedy of Macbeth reminds us of the bleak time in our life when we were forced against our will to read Shakespeare in high school.

Directed by Joel Coen of the iconic Coen Brothers directing duo, this adaptation seems like a particularly chilling variation of the iconic play of Macbeth. Joel and his brother, Ethan, are well-known for their sometimes-odd yet incredibly clever movies, including FargoThe Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men

The Tragedy of Macbeth seems like a bit of a departure from the director responsible for these movies. Still, any film directed by a Coen brother is bound to be successful at the very least in looking at things from a different angle.

The official trailer was released back in late September, and though it’s only around 30 seconds long, its power almost makes you forget about all the hours you spent being confused by the Sparknotes of the play.

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Shot in black and white, it’s a very quiet trailer, showing just a few of the main characters, but at the end, an ominous voice of a witch utters those iconic words, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” When the words “this way comes” are spoken, we see Lady Macbeth turn around in a very chilling fashion. Even if you—like many others—hated reading the play when you were in high school, there’s no way that this trailer didn’t do some convincing otherwise to give the story another try.

Written by Shakespeare in 1623, the play of Macbeth centers around army general Lord Macbeth, who is told by three witches—alongside Banquo, another general—that he’ll eventually become the King of Scotland. Unwilling to wait for that day, Lady Macbeth poisons the King of Scotland, Duncan, and has Macbeth carry out the killing.

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Though he was able to secure the kingship, Macbeth now has to deal with the immense guilt and fear that came with their joint decision to kill Duncan. And the guilt doesn’t stop there—it eventually bleeds over to Lady Macbeth, who starts to get paranoid about her actions.

When Macduff, Thane of Fife, discovers the body of Duncan, a number of murders follow as the king gets more and more paranoid. With power leaving their grasp as people become skeptical of Macbeth, more killings are carried out by Macbeth, creating a vicious snowball effect and sending both him and Lady Macbeth into madness.

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In this film, Denzel Washington plays the main role of Macbeth with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. Brendan Gleeson plays Duncan, King of Scotland, and Corey Hawkins is Macduff.

Though The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently playing in a few select theaters throughout the country, the majority of viewers will be tuning in when it officially premieres on January 14 on AppleTV+.