top of page
6 Macbeth-Edited-Picture.jpeg

Macbeth on Film: Kurosawa vs. Welles

Both Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948) and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) represent a crucial development in the history of Shakespeare on film through their exploration of specific filmic styles, as opposed to merely transposing the conventions of the theatre onto film. For Welles, these include the highly stylised, avant-garde elements of German Expressionism, as well as more popular film genres (such as horror) derived from contemporary Hollywood films. Kurosawa, on the other hand, dramatises the conflict between the filmic styles of Japan (as well as the theatrical conventions of Noh), which tend to emphasise the flatness and artificiality of the cinematic screen, and of the West, which instead posits film as a window onto a true reality within. This use of differing filmic styles has significant consequences for the viewer’s interpretation of the perennial questions surrounding Macbeth, most notably regarding the protagonist’s agency (or lack thereof), and its effects on the play’s tragic consequences. Welles emphasises the omnipresent power of Witches and the supernatural over Macbeth through incorporating “Voodoo” elements derived from his 1936 production, and radically cutting the political causes for Macbeth’s rise to power. Kurosawa similarly reduces the agency of his protagonist Washizu Taketoki through a focus on the inexplicable yet preordained cosmic forces of history and Karma, which find their chief expression in Noh-like female characters, and also in the rigid geometry of the film’s compositions. The supreme achievement both directors lies primarily in their ability to translate Shakespeare’s poetic language into the form of visual symbols and images on film, such as the forest and weather in Throne of Blood, or the claustrophobic, cavernous interiors of Welles’s Macbeth. Kurosawa also remains attentive to the socio-political ramifications associated with the interplay and conflict of global filmic styles, and these wider concerns regarding individualism, freedom and democracy in the immediate post-war era find key expressions in his film. Ultimately, through consciously employing and contrasting such styles, both Welles and Kurosawa situate themselves within an explicitly filmic history (as opposed to a theatrical one), and thus assert the autonomy of their adaptations as aesthetic objects in their own right, liberating future experimental “Shakespearean” filmmakers to pursue their own uniquely filmic vision and style.

Any new interpretation of Macbeth must determine how the protagonist’s tragic descent into evil is caused: either by the protagonist’s inherent ambition; Lady Macbeth’s temptations; or the supernatural power of the Witches. In contrast to other film adaptations, such as Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, which stresses the explicably human causes of evil, Welles’s Macbeth consistently emphasises what A. C. Bradley has termed the ‘incalculability of evil’ in the form of the Witches. Welles presents these figures as ‘agents of chaos’ who use ‘ambitious men’ like Macbeth as mere ‘tools’ for the overthrow of ‘Christian law and order’. Drawing on themes developed in his 1936 all-black Harlem stage adaptation of Macbeth, Welles establishes his protagonist at the start of the film as the doomed creation of the Witches, a Voodoo figure moulded from a ‘boil[ing]’ ‘hell-broth’ (see Fig. 1). This is further reinforced through the subsequent appearances of a Voodoo doll throughout the film, which the Witches use to determine Macbeth’s fate. For example, the viewer knows that the famous ‘dagger’ Macbeth ‘see[s] before [him]’ (Mac, II. 1. 33), is in fact a ‘dagger of the mind’ (Mac, II. 1. 38), since Welles shows a dagger passing across the eyes of the Voodoo doll (see Fig. 2). Macbeth’s death is also prefigured in a similar way; before Macduff strikes his head off, the Witches have already cut the head off the doll. Welles reduces the total number of words in Shakespeare’s original text by over half, radically increasing the pace of a play which Samuel Taylor Coleridge already declared as Shakespeare’s ‘most rapid’ work. Thus, the gap between prophecy and enactment is vastly reduced to show the immediacy of the Witches’ power. This is most clearly shown in I. 3, where, directly after the Witches prophecy, Macbeth is confirmed to be ‘Thane of Cawdor’ (Mac, I. 3. 106), without any mention of King Duncan’s reason for his promotion in I. 2. By cutting this scene, Welles subordinates the politics of the play to the supernatural, thereby mystifying what is otherwise a clear example of Duncan’s orders being fulfilled. Rather than ending the film on Shakespeare’s harmonious note, with the triumphant re-establishment of order through the crowning of Malcolm, Welles instead ends the film where he begins: with the Witches. Thus, Shakespeare’s original, triumphantly Christian victory is rendered temporary and hollow through the reassertion of the timeless, chaotic forces of the Witches, who conclude the film amongst fog and gnarled branches (see Fig. 3) with the last words: ‘Peace! the charm’s wound up’ (Mac, I. 3. 37).

Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood also investigates themes of agency and determinism through a focus on prophecy, Noh theatre, and the rigid geometry of the film’s framing to suggest Washizu is merely enacting a prewritten destiny. As the Witches pessimistically bookend Welles’s Macbeth, so too does Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood open and close with a similar motif of the insurmountable forces of fate and the Buddhist concept of impermanence. This is embodied in the foggy ‘ruins of Kumonosu Castle’ (see Figs. 4 and 5), that will outlast man’s futile attempts to impose order onto the world, and the chorus’s repetition of a Nietzschean notion of eternal recurrence: ‘Life is the same now as in ancient times’ (TOB, p. 229). Much of the tragic elements of the film stem from Washizu’s vain attempts to actively assert his masculine will onto the fundamentally unknowable, which takes the form of women. The strangely asexual Old Woman whom Washizu and Miki encounter in the forest mock the two warriors’ virile masculinity and aggression with laughter and obscure poetry, dismissing them both as ‘foolish’ (TOB, p. 234). Lady Asaji visually and verbally echoes the supernatural Old Woman through her ‘pale and immobile face like a Nō-mask’ (TOB, p. 237), and the confident certainty in her prophecies and interpretations. Thus, Kurosawa makes explicit Shakespeare’s suggestion of Lady Macbeth’s evil collusion with the Witches (by invoking on the supernatural ‘spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts’ (Mac, I. 5. 40-1) to force Macbeth towards his fate). The use of Noh, which Kurosawa considered the ‘real heart [and] core of all Japanese drama’, is significant when considering agency, specifically the notion that Washizu and other characters are merely re-enacting myths and narratives from a Japanese past. In preparing for the film, Kurosawa showed the actors traditional Noh masks, in the hope that, ‘while staring at it, the actor [would become] the man whom the mask represents’. By correlating Washizu with the warrior mask of ‘Heida’, Asaji with the mask of ‘Shakumi […] represent[ing] the image of a woman about to go mad’, and the Old Woman with the mask of ‘Yamanba’, Kurosawa has, in effect, already predetermined his characters’ fates in accordance with the rigidly choreographed plots, conventions and characterisations of Noh (see Figs. 6, 7 and 8 for an illustration of the actors’ mask-like facial expressions). The static, intensely theatrical and formalised nature of Noh clearly influences the filmic style of Throne of Blood in Kurosawa’s decision to film ‘everything using full-shots’ with ‘very few close-ups’, allowing viewers to dispassionately observe the entire cosmic chain of cause and effect. Moreover, Kurosawa’s desire for a rigid geometric ‘balance’ and unity in his composition (which would be ‘ruined’ by even a ‘shoulder […] out of [the] frame’) reinforces the notion of characters being trapped within the cinematic frame itself, reinforcing a static universe of rules and limitations that is crucially devoid of human freedom.

* * *

Critics, despite near unanimous agreement in Kurosawa’s cinematic achievement, have long remained divided as to whether Throne of Blood is a truly “Shakespearean” film, given that it does not retain the play’s original text. Frank Kermode concluded the film was ‘an allusion to rather than a version of Macbeth’, while Peter Brook refused to ‘consider […] [the film as] Shakespeare because it doesn’t use the text’. This prompts the question: what defines a “Shakespearean” film? John Blumenthal’s seminal essay offers a convincing argument, asserting Throne of Blood as the only ‘autonomous work of art’ that has ‘completely succeeded in transforming a play of Shakespeare’s into film’. Blumenthal makes clear that Kurosawa’s supreme achievement is in transmuting the meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry into the language of film through the ‘manipulation of material reality’. Kurosawa’s focus on nature allows him to visualise Shakespeare’s poetry in striking images rather than words; instead of Macbeth’s line ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ (Mac, I. 3. 38) being spoken, it is instead shown on film through the combination of sunshine and rain (see Fig. 9). Washizu’s internal conflicts, which ‘make[s] [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs’ (Mac, I. 3. 138), are illustrated externally and cinematically through the image of a ‘flurried beat of horses’ hoofs’ (TOB, p. 239) behind the screen where he stands, rigid yet agitated (see Fig. 10). The influence of Noh, with its ‘compression […] of symbols’, allows Kurosawa to imbue the imagery in Throne of Blood with a deeper, more powerful symbolic meaning that rivals Shakespeare’s language. For example, the symbol of the circle consistently recurs, both in its complete and incomplete forms. While the whole circle of the Old Woman’s thread signals the implacable forces of fate, turning without regard to man’s will like the thread spun by the Greek Fate Clotho, the incomplete circle (shown in the ‘crescent moon’ (TOB, p. 243) and Washizu’s similarly shaped helmet and bow) signals the protagonist’s aversion to, or inability to see, his ultimate destiny. Kurosawa’s use of nature, specifically on the disorientating forest and fog visualises the inexplicable and irrational forces Washizu would control. Ironically, as Judith Buchanan has argued, it is the forces of nature themselves that finally lead to Washizu’s tragic death in the form of arrows, which ‘symbolically combine the elements from the forest’ – the wood from ‘Kumote Forest’ (TOB, p. 261)and the feathers from the ‘bird[s] of ill omen’ (TOB, p. 242). Here, as throughout the film, man is reduced to a mere animal, unable to transcend his own nature: Washizu is variously described as ‘a beast in danger’ (TOB, p. 264), ‘bristling with arrows like a hedgehog’ (TOB, p. 265) at his death, and his banner bears the symbol of a centipede. Thus, the existential perspective of the Old Woman, who looks down upon mankind in much the same way that Gloucester conceives of the Gods in King Lear, is affirmed: man’s life is indeed as ‘transient [as] […] an insect’s’ (TOB, p. 233).

Welles’s Macbeth seeks a visual equivalent for Shakespeare’s poetic images by emphasising and projecting Macbeth’s inner conflict onto its surroundings, in much the same way Laurence Olivier achieved in his claustrophobic film adaptation of Hamlet (1948). As previously discussed, Welles radically compresses the play’s temporal nature through drastic editing, yet he also translates this compression visually into the spatial realm. Through Welles’s use of oppressive, cavernous sets (which he felt added to the atmosphere of a ‘Stonehenge-powerful, unrelieved tragedy’), Macbeth’s desperate sense of being ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in’ (Mac, III. 4. 22) is effectively visualised (see Fig. 11). The growing isolation of Macbeth from his community and, more importantly, from his wife, as well as his descent into subjectivity, is conveyed by Welles through an increased use of angled close-ups. This distorts the frame, so that Welles’s face and body occupies the majority of the screen’s foreground (as is common in Welles’s films, which highlights the influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Expressionism), while other characters increasingly recede into the insignificance of the background (see Fig. 12). Like Kurosawa, Welles often distils his cinematic language into highly evocative symbols. Fog is used throughout the film to emphasise the conflict between form (which Macbeth would impose onto the external world) and the formlessness of the Witches’ inevitable chaos, transporting viewers to ‘the very bowels of the earth’, a ‘prehistoric universe’, at the ‘birth of time and sin, when […] good and evil […] aren’t distinctly separate’. As the film progresses to plumb Macbeth’s dream-like psychodrama, viewers struggle, as in dreams, to delineate the ‘horrible shadow[s]’ (Mac, III. 4. 104) of figures shrouded in foggy darkness from the rest of the world. This culminates in the ultimate formlessness of Macbeth’s ‘To-morrow and to-morrow’ (Mac, V. 5. 18) speech, where swirling clouds of mist and fog, devoid of human impositions of form, convey the cosmic irrelevance of life: ‘Signifying nothing’ (Mac, V. 5. 27) (see Fig. 13).

* * *


Welles’s use of, and departures from, the conventions of mainstream Hollywood filmic styles challenged the narrow conventions of a “Shakespearean” film, thus redefining the possibilities for later, more radical film adaptations of Shakespeare. Welles’s Macbeth was described as ‘one of the most disastrous of motion picture enterprises’; and was rightly criticised for its inadequate performances, and for the failures of its soundtrack and editing. Yet, the diverse stylistic influences on the film, from German Expressionism to the more mainstream Hollywood genre of horror, demonstrate a director consciously in dialogue with, and contributing to, the history of film, rather than that of theatre. As Charles Eckert usefully points out, the film’s controversial nature renders it the ‘touchstone to discriminate the cinéaste from the Bardolator’. Welles breaks with Western mainstream filmic styles through employing the cinematic language of German Expressionism, characterised by symbolism and artificial, surreal stylisation over naturalism (see Fig. 14 for an illustration of the overtly theatrical studio effects employed by Welles) to create a ‘violently sketched charcoal drawing’ of the play’. Expressionist directors such as Eisenstein clearly influence the film’s style through the use of montage in the early scenes of Duncan’s arrival to compress time and space; a film set that is clearly artificial; and the similarity of Welles’s highly stylised portrayal of Macbeth to figures such as the protagonist of Ivan the Terrible. However, critics who have emphasised Welles as a uniquely innovative auteur and Hollywood outsider have often failed to also consider the influence of more popular mainstream cinema on his Macbeth, specifically that of the horror genre. Welles initially imagined his film as ‘a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and The Bride of Frankenstein’, and Macbeth clearly shows the influence of James Whale’s latter 1935 film. In the films, the protagonist/monster’s face is shown half in light, half in darkness, in order to convey their developing morality and awareness of the dichotomies of good and evil (see Fig. 15). Welles changes his source material to have Lady Macbeth awake from her sleepwalking in horror at the recognition of her husband, thus recreating the famous scene in Whale’s film where the Bride spurns the Monster. Welles’s use of the explicitly melodramatic filmic styles of Expressionism and horror can help to explain one of the key critiques of the film; namely, that the filmic style fails to fully render the tragic grandeur of the original play. Welles believed that Shakespeare could only write ‘melodramas which had tragic stature’, therefore, instead of approaching Macbeth as ‘a pure tragedy’, he increased the melodramatic and theatrical aspects of the film at the expense of the characters’ tragic complexity.

Kurosawa, often referred to as the most “Western” Japanese filmmaker, occupies a complex position between two filmic styles: Western realism and Japanese formalism. Kurosawa saw a parallel between Macbeth’s usurpation of a king and the ‘[Sengoku] period of civil wars in Japan’, where Samurai would engage in Gekokujō, yet Kurosawa understood the cinematic difficulties associated with ‘adapt[ing] the story to Japanese thinking’. As Peter Donaldson has usefully distinguished, the dominant Western filmic style can be seen as a ‘cinema of depth’, where the camera penetrates the landscape, and screen is passively treated as a ‘window’ onto a real world; while a ‘[c]inema of surface’ characterises the dominant Japanese filmic style, which emphasises the artificiality and flatness of the screen through a largely static camera, following from the stylistic traditions of Noh and sumi-e scroll painting. For example, in the silent film era, the Benshi performer would aid viewers to actively interpret a film not as a depiction of reality, but as a collection of symbols. This filmic conflict is evident from the opening scenes of the film; as Washizu and Miki’s ride through the forest, the camera smoothly tracks their movements through space, creating the Western illusion of a real world being revealed free individuals. Yet, in the subsequent scenes featuring Tsuzaki Kunimaru (King Duncan) and the Old Woman, a stationary camera rigidly captures the entire frame, as if presented on a Noh stage (see Fig. 16), while harsh wipes and dissolves alert viewers to the screen as an artificial, unrealistic collection of often incongruous images. These excesses of ‘stylisation’ were critiqued by many contemporary Western reviewers as having ‘refined [all life] out of [the film]’, yet they also signify Kurosawa’s deeper cultural ambivalence towards Japanese feudalism (which he both admired and critiqued) and Western democracy. In his autobiography, Kurosawa argued that the ideals of ‘freedom and democracy’, accepted by many Westerners as an incontrovertible fact of life, were ‘granted to [him] by powers beyond [his] control’, and thus he understood their inherent limitations.4 By filming Washizu’s attempts to assert his free will with an active, Western filmic style, but ultimately failing to transcend the confines of Japanese formalism, Kurosawa conveys his own disillusionment at the prospect of incorporating Western liberal humanism and freedom in a post-war Japanese culture, which ultimately cannot escape the confines of an unjustly celebrated feudal past.

To conclude, it is clear that both Welles and Kurosawa are instrumental in the history of adapting Shakespeare to film for their ability to fundamentally expand and re-define the possible filmic styles that can be used in a “Shakespearean” film. Through self-consciously situating their films in a specifically filmic language and history, both directors achieve, to differing degrees of success, the translation of Shakespeare’s prose into vivid visual images and symbols on screen. The conflict of filmic styles within their films expands and elucidates many latent themes in the play’s original text to the viewer, notably those of agency and determinism. Both directors, like Shakespeare, can amalgamate many different cultural influences, ranging from both “high” and “low” culture, in order to create a highly original, powerful, and – crucially – autonomous work of art. By liberating their films from the constraints of Shakespeare’s language, and instead embracing the interplay of different filmic styles, Kurosawa and Welles enabled subsequent generations of directors such as Celestino Coronado, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway to pursue their own artistic vision of Shakespeare through a language of film, rather than of verse.

Figure 1: Macbeth, dir. by Orson Welles, 00:09:22


Figure 2: Macbeth, 00:31:06


Figure 3: Macbeth, 01:50:15


Figure 4: Kumo no sujō [Throne of Blood], dir. by Akira Kurosawa, 00:03:42


Figure 5: Throne of Blood, 01:49:08


Figure 6: Throne of Blood, 01:46:48


Figure 7: Throne of Blood, 01:39:58


Figure 8: Throne of Blood, 00:16:37


Figure 9: Throne of Blood, 00:09:34


Figure 10: Throne of Blood, 00:29:03


Figure 11: Macbeth, 01:02:14


Figure 12: Macbeth, 01:29:01


Figure 13: Macbeth, 01:42:17


Figure 14: Macbeth, 01:12:38


Figure 15: Macbeth, 01:14:40


Figure 16: Throne of Blood, 00:17:22



Primary Reading and Viewing

Kumo no sujō [Throne of Blood], dir. by Akira Kurosawa (London: BFI Video Publishing, 2001) [on DVD]

—— Seven Samurai and Other Screenplays: Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, trans. by Donald Richie and Hisae Niki (London: Faber and Faber, 1992)

—— Something Like an Autobiography, trans. by Audie E. Bock (New York: Vintage Books, 1983)

Macbeth, dir. by Orson Welles (London: Second Sight Films, 2000) [on DVD]

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, ed. by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015)

Secondary Reading

Anderegg, Michael A., Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)

Bazin, Andre, Orson Welles: A Critical Review (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978)

Bradley, A. C., Shakespearean Tragedy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992)

Brook, Peter, and Geoffrey Reeves, ‘Finding Shakespeare on Film. From an Interview with Peter Brook’, The Tulane Drama Review, 11. 1 (1966), 117–121

Buchanan, Judith, Shakespeare on Film (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Lectures on Shakespeare (1811-1819), ed. by Adam Roberts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

Collick, John, Shakespeare, Cinema and Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)

Cowie, Peter, The Cinema of Orson Welles (New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1983)

Davies, Anthony, Filming Shakespeare’s Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Donaldson, Peter Samuel, Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990)

Eckert, Charles, Focus on Shakespearean Films (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1972)

Harper, Wendy Rogers, ‘Polanski vs. Welles on “Macbeth” CHARACTER OR FATE?’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 14. 4 (1986), 203-210

Heylin, Clinton, Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005)

Higham, Charles, The Films of Orson Welles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970)

Jorgens, Jack J., Shakespeare on Film (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991)

—— ‘Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”: Washizu and Miki Meet the Forest Spirit’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 11. 3 (1983), 167-173

Kinder, Marsha, ‘“Throne of Blood”: A Morality Dance’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 5. 4 (1977), 338-345

Manvell, Roger, Shakespeare and the Film (London: Dent, 1971)

Mast, Gerald, and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)

Naremore, James, ‘The Walking Shadow: Welles’s Expressionist “Macbeth”’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 1. 4 (1973), 360-366

Parker, Brian, ‘Nature and Society in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 66. 3 (1997), 508-525

Prince, Stephen, The Warriors Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Richie, Donald and Joan Mellen, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Berkeley, California; London: University of California Press, 1998)

—— ‘Kurosawa on Kurosawa’, Sight and Sound, 33 (1964), 200-203

Smith, Amanda J., ‘Defining Welles’s “Macbeth”: Hollywood Horror and the Hybrid Mode’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 39. 1 (2011), 151-159

Suziki, Erin, ‘Lost in Translation: Reconsidering Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 34. 2 (2006), 93-103

bottom of page