Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth

Roman Polanski's 1971 MACBETH

Roman Polanski’s 1971 MACBETH

starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis

Brutal Context

It’s impossible to watch Roman Polanski’s haunting Macbeth and not be uncomfortably reminded of the gruesome circumstances that inspired it. In the late sixties, Polanski was shit-hot off the success of Rosemary’s Baby. He had a beautiful wife and a posh house in Beverly Hills. Then the gravy train derailed with the brutal, senseless murder of his pregnant wife and three friends at the hands of wacko would-be messiah, Charles Manson, and his gang of devotees. What this did to Polanski, already a childhood survivor of the Holocaust, is anybody’s guess. One can be sure, however, that his choice of source material for his next film was not a coincidence.

Jon Finch as Macbeth

Jon Finch as Macbeth

Polanski’s project, financed by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Polanski does not impose his own pessimistic vision of the world on the play, as some have supposed. Rather, the “Scottish Play” itself is already a moody masterpiece of violence and viscera, dark incantations and spectral visitations. Dainty productions showcasing high diction and affected poses miss the point entirely. This is a bleak, almost overtly nihilistic piece of work. No one listening to Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech could doubt that. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, and shoots like an arrow at its target: a dark vision of a world “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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Categories: Macbeth.
About John Murphy

John is a PhD candidate in Art History at Northwestern University. Visit his blog at

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