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Macbeth is a American film adaptation by Orson Welles of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth.


In 1947, Orson Welles began promoting the notion of bringing a Shakespeare drama to the motion picture screen. He initially attempted to pique investors’ interest in an adaptation of Othello, but was unable to gather support for the project. Welles switched to pushing for a film adaptation of Macbeth, which he visualized in its violent setting as "a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein."

Teaming with producer Charles K. Feldman, Welles successfully convinced Herbert Yates, the founder and president of Republic Pictures, of the prospect of creating a film version of Macbeth. Yates was attempting to raise the level of his studio, which produced Roy Rogers Westerns and low-budget features, into that of a prestige studio. Republic had already tried to present off-beat features, including Gustav Machaty’s Jealousy (1945) and Ben Hecht’s Spectre of the Rose (1946), so having a creative artist of Welles’ stature was considered an artistic coup.

However, Yates was not able to provide Welles with a large budget. Welles promised to shoot Macbeth in three weeks on a budget of $700,000. When some members of the Republic board of directors expressed misgivings on the project, Welles offered to personally finance any part of the film that exceeded its original budget.

Welles had previously staged Macbeth in 1936 in New York Citymarker with an all-black cast, and again in 1947 in Salt Lake Citymarker as part of the Utahmarker Centennial Festival. He borrowed aspects from both productions for his film adaptation.

Macbeth marked the fourth time that a post-silent era Hollywood studio produced a film based on a Shakespeare play: United Artists had produced The Taming of the Shrew in 1929, Warner Brothers made A Midsummer's Night Dream in 1935, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced Romeo and Juliet in 1936. None of these were commercially successful, but the commercial and critical prestige earned by Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V (which was produced in Great Britain in 1944 but not seen in the U.S. until 1946) helped propel Welles' Macbeth forward.


Welles cast himself in the title role, but was initially stymied in casting Lady Macbeth. At first he desired to have Vivien Leigh in the role, but he never inquired for her availability since she was married to Laurence Olivier, whom Welles assumed would be unsupportive. Other actresses he approached included Tallulah Bankhead, Anne Baxter, and Mercedes McCambridge, before settling on Jeanette Nolan, a radio actress with no previous film or stage experience.

Welles brought in Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy in his first U.S. film role as Macduff, and cast former child star Roddy McDowall as Malcolm. Welles also cast his daughter Christopher in the role of Macduff’s son; this turned out to be her first and only film appearance.


In bringing Macbeth to the screen, Welles made several changes to Shakespeare's original.

Welles added sequences involving the witches to increase their significance. At the beginning of the film, they create a clay figurine of Macbeth, which is used to symbolize his rise and ruin. It collapses in a heap, seemingly of its own volition, immediately after Macbeth is beheaded. The witches also return at the end of the film, viewing the drama from afar and uttering “Peace, the charm’s wound up” as the final line (this line is spoken in the first act in the original text, when the witches initially confront Macbeth).

Because of censorship, the Porter's speech was shorn of all its double entendre.

A major change is Welles's introduction of a new character, the Holy Man. The priest recites the prayer of Saint Michael. Welles later explained that the character’s presence was meant to confirm that “the main point of that production is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representatives of a Druidical pagan religion suppressed by Christianity -- itself a new arrival.”

Two more subtle changes include an insinuation that Lady Macbeth fatally stabs Duncan prior to Macbeth’s attack on the king, and the fact that Macbeth is witness to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and madness scene; in the play, he is not present.

Other changes were made to make the play more cinematic. Nearly all of King Duncan's scenes at the beginning of the play have been cut as well as the character of Donalbain, his second son. Macbeth is seen dictating his letter to his wife, rather than writing it himself. In the play, no such dictation scene exists. The Thane of Cawdor's execution takes place on-stage amid great pomp. Lady Macbeth’s suicide and the final battle between Macbeth’s forces and Macduff’s army are depicted on-screen; in the play, both scenes occur off-stage. Rather than fatally stabbing Macbeth and then beheading the dead body, Macduff kills Macbeth by slashing off his head. Needless to say, lines have been cut, speeches have been reassigned, scenes have been reordered, etc. This scandalized many critics at the time; today it is accepted practice to do so in film versions of Shakespeare plays.


In order to accommodate the tight production schedule, Welles had the Macbeth cast pre-record their dialogue. However, he later expressed frustration with the film’s low budget trappings. In regard to the costumes, which were rented from a company called Western Costume, Welles felt he was poorly clothed. In an interview with biographer/filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, Welles remarked: "Mine should have been sent back, because I looked like the Statue of Libertymarker in it. But there was no dough for another and nothing in stock at Western would fit me, so I was stuck with it.”

Welles also told Bogdanovich that the scene he felt was most effective was actually based on hunger. “Our best crowd scene was a shot where all the massed forces of Macduff's army are charging the castle,” he said. “There was a very vivid urgency to it, because what was happening, really, was that we'd just called noon break, and all those extras were rushing off to lunch."

Welles shot Macbeth in 23 days, with one day devoted to retakes.

Distribution problems

Republic initially planned to have Macbeth in release by December 1947, but Welles was not ready with the film. The studio entered the film in the 1948 Venice Film Festival, but it was abruptly withdrawn when it was compared unfavorably against the Laurence Olivier Hamlet, which was also in the festival’s competition.

In the U.S. theatrical release, Republic tested the film in a few cities. Critical reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with complaints about Welles’ decision to have his cast speak in Scottish burrs and by his decision to telescope the Shakespeare text into a compact 107 minute film.

After its original release, Republic had Welles cut two reels from the film and ordered him to have much of the soundtrack re-recorded with the actors speaking in their natural voices, and not the approximation of the Scottish dialect that Welles initially requested. This new version was released by Republic in 1950. While critical reaction was still not supportive, the film earned a small profit for the studio.

Welles would maintain mixed emotions about Macbeth. In a 1953 lecture delivered at the Edinburgh Festival, Welles said: "My purpose in making Macbeth was not to make a great film – and this is unusual, because I think that every film director, even when he is making nonsense, should have as his purpose the making of a great film. I thought I was making what might be a good film, and what, if the 23-day day shoot schedule came off, might encourage other filmmakers to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed. Unfortunately, not one critic in any part of the world chose to compliment me on the speed. They thought it was a scandal that it should only take 23 days. Of course, they were right, but I could not write to everyone of them and explain that no one would give me any money for a further day’s shooting...However, I am not ashamed of the limitations of the picture."

The truncated version of Macbeth remained in release until 1980, when the original uncut version with the Scottish-tinged soundtrack was restored by the UCLA Film Archives and the Folger Shakespeare Librarymarker.

Critical opinion of the film has drastically improved since its original release, with many now regarding it as one of his most notable films.


  1. Brady, Frank. “Citizen Welles” Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. ISBN 0684189828]
  2. TV Guide Online review of “Macbeth”
  3. Walker, John. "Halliwell's Who's Who in the Movies." HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0060935073
  4. “This is Orson Welles” by Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Google Books.
  5. Cowie, Peter. “The Cinema of Orson Welles.”1978, A.S. Barnes & Co.
  6. “Macbeth,” Senses of Cinema, December 2005
  7. Griffith, Richard, and Mayer, Arthur. “The Movies.” Fireside, 1975. ISBN 0671221426

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