Diagetic Sounds in Polanski’s Macbeth: Signs of Conflict and Collapse

I. Introduction

Shakespeare is a master of duality and antithesis; his plays embrace the notion of opposites in not just content, but in theme and structure as well. Much of his conflict stems from the duality of two worlds pushing against each other: private versus public, real versus fantastical, internal versus external. In Roman Polanski’s film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this conflict of dual worlds is evoked through background noise, or diagetic sounds. “Diagetic” refers to sounds that are part of the world of the story, that the characters themselves (not just the film audience) can hear; for example, piano music that a character is playing would be diagetic, but the soundtrack to an action sequence would not be. Macbeth is an isolated character—by the end, he is even isolated from his wife and co-conspirator, Lady Macbeth—and Polanski evokes this conflict and isolation through the background noises he includes in each scene. The background noises are a subliminal source of anxiety for the audience, because they signal two opposing forces pushing against each other—Shakespeare’s duality coming to a head, creating friction and unease.


II. The First Prophesies of the Witches

In the film’s opening, three witches cast a spell on a wind-swept beach. As the title cards fill the screen, the crash of the waves shifts to a clashing of swords, shouting, and neighing horses—the sounds of battle. We do not actually see the battle visually; it is evoked purely through sound. This immediately draws the audience into the events of the film—we cannot help but imagine the visual narrative accompanying the sounds we are hearing. When the title cards fade to scene again, the battle is over. We see bodies strewn across the desolate beach. Thecry of gulls brings us back to the witches casting the spell, adding an undertone of mystery or “dark magic” to the all-too-human gore of the battlefield.

In music, brass is often considered a symbol for nobility. Polanski’s Macbeth follows this conceit; King Duncan is preceded onscreen by a flourish of trumpets. Immediately after this, we hear the thump of a solider’s sword hitting a fallen body to check that the enemy is dead. In this way, the background noises—controlled trumpets versus hollow thump—are juxtaposed to illustrate the brutal horrors of war contrasted with the sheltered world of the nobility. King Duncan does not have to worry about actually fighting in battle; he appears on the scene after the battle is over and done with, after the danger has passed.

Macbeth first appears onscreen accompanied by the background noise of a measured drumbeat. Drums were played by armies in Shakespearian times, so it is possible this sound would have actually accompanied Macbeth in battle. Furthermore, the sound is reminiscent ofa calm, steady heartbeat, which reflects Macbeth’s state of mind at this point. Macbeth is in his pre-fallen state, and his heart is not yet burdened by paranoia and greed.

When Macbeth is promoted to Thane of Cawdor, he is given a medal to recognize his promotion in rank; it is heavy and looks to be made of gold or bronze. He puts it around his neck, and it jingles as he walks—an audible sign of his rise in status. This jingling carries into the next scene, when the former Thane of Cawdor—now a prisoner because of his traitorous actions against King Duncan—is dragged onscreen for his public execution. He is bound in chains, which drag on the ground, clinking and jingling. This associates Macbeth with the prisoner and foreshadows Macbeth’s eventual fate.


III. Rain: A Motif of Macbeth’s Greed for Power

Noticeably, when Lady Macbeth proposes to her husband that they murder Duncan, she takes off his Thane of Cawdor medal. This symbolizes Macbeth’s casting aside of his loyalty to the king and reneging his role as Thane of Cawdor due to his desire for a grander and more powerful position—and also because of pressure from his wife. Furthermore, Lady’s removal of Macbeth’s Thane of Cawdor medal has a practical aural purpose; by taking off his heavy jingling medal, it will prevent anyone from hearing him sneak into Duncan’s room at night and also removes the sound he is associated with, like a bank thief donning a black ski mask so as to not be recognized.

Perhaps the most powerful symbolic harbinger of death in Polanski’s Macbeth, both visually and audibly, is rain. When Lady Macbeth welcomes King Duncan into her home, she calls herself, “Your humble servant ever”; immediately, thunder booms in the background and it starts to rain. There is the clatter of footsteps and horsehooves as everyone rushes to get out of the rain, creating an aura of chaos and danger—in this weather, anything can happen. A gust of wind blows the thick wooden courtyard door shut with a resolute bang—the sound of it closing is like the finality of a coffin being shut. Wind and rain are used uniquely in this film, to symbolize the inner world rather than the outer world. Typically, we think of thunderstorms as being symbolic of the power of Mother Nature; rain and wind are dangerous when one is traveling or somehow out in the elements, but one should be safe from harm when inside, snug and warm. Ironically, Duncan would have been safer outside in the thunderstorm—it is inside Macbeth’s home, warm and protected from the storm, that he puts himself in the greatest danger.

The outer world of calm, peaceful society is symbolized by the cheerful music played at the banquet for Duncan—we hear flutes, drums, and the angelic voice of a little boy singing for the king. The boy, moments before his singing, was frightened by the wind blowing open a window shutter with a loud bang; this could be representative of Macbeth’s dark thoughts threatening the innocence and peace of the entire kingdom. In the background, we can softly hear both the rain and the music from the banquet, emphasizing the choice Macbeth must make: does he give in to his lust for power, or be content with the role he has been given in Duncan’s kingdom?

The rain can also be seen as a symbol for Macbeth’s madness, steadily taking control over his psyche like rainwater floods the banks of a river. We hear the unrelenting drip...drip...drip of rain off the eaves when Macbeth sees his first vision of a dagger preceding his stabbing of Duncan. To dispel the vision, Macbeth draws his actual physical dagger from his side, and we hear the noise of the metal blade scraping against its sheath. “My eyes have made a fool of mine other senses,” Macbeth says. Indeed, it is not sight but sound that is able to break the power of his ominous vision.


IV. The Murder of King Duncan

When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are preparing for the murder, tension builds from the contrast of the background sounds with the quiet of the sleeping household. We hear the sound of Lady Macbeth pouring a sleeping potion into the drinks of the guards. Macbeth clatters noisily down the stairs into the courtyard in order to get Banquo’s attention so Lady can sneak away to give the potion to Duncan’s guards. In the darkness, sound is the most effective way to divert attention while retaining the cover of invisibility for Lady. Banquo turns towards Macbeth and says, “How now? Who’s there?” This foreshadows Banquo’s death when he is caught by surprise and attacked by Macbeth’s henchmen later in the film. Lady uses sound as part of her role in the murder plot when she pulls the rope to toll the bell, letting Macbeth know the guards have been given the potion and it is time for him to go kill Duncan.

Macbeth sneaks into Duncan’s chambers. The creak of the door does not wake the guards—they are fast asleep, snoring. The tension filling the murder scene of King Duncan stems from the sound created by Macbeth’s actions—the big question is, will Duncan hear Macbeth and wake up? Will he fight back? The sound of Macbeth dragging away Duncan’s blanket seems very loud in the tense quiet of the room. We hear the steady sleeping breathing of Duncan, which contrasts to the labored nervous breathing of Macbeth. Then, after Macbeth stabs Duncan in the chest, Duncan cries out in surprise and his strained breathing and Macbeth’s labored breathing intertwine, symbolizing an equality between them. Macbeth has brought King Duncan down to his level; now he, Macbeth, can assume the role of king in Duncan’s place. To emphasize this, Duncan’s crown falls off and clatters on the floor.

We hear Macbeth’s footsteps coming down the stairs before we see him. Both he and Lady Macbeth splash through puddles en route to the well, where they draw up buckets of water to wash their hands of blood. We hear a knocking on the outer door of the estate; the knocking continues as he and Lady Macbeth wash their hands. This knocking adds intensity and time pressure to the scene—they must wash away the evidence before someone finds them with bloody hands. The knocking is a deep, ominous, hollow sound—it continues steadily throughout the rest of the scene, so it begins to feel interminable, even inevitable. Once the knocking has started, it seems impossible that it will ever stop. This mirrors Macbeth’s actions: now that he has murdered Duncan, his bloodthirst and lust for power cannot be stopped.


V. The Sounds of Madness

Our first glimpse inside Macbeth’s kingdom is of a bear in a cage, growling, being poked at with sticks. We then shift to Macbeth’s private chambers, where Macbeth orders a group of men to kill Banquo and his sons. He pours wine, reminiscent of the potion given to Duncan’s guards by Lady Macbeth. This memory adds an ominous tone to the act of pouring. The men leave, and Macbeth lies down to rest. He falls asleep, and the sound of his steady breathing and the crackling fire in the grate evoke the murder scene of Duncan. Macbeth wakes up, unable to breathe—Lady is there, covering his mouth with her hand, telling him it is time for the banquet. Macbeth pours water to wash his face beforehand, and the sound of water splashing in the basin connects back to when Macbeth washed the blood off his hands. The act seems futile—no matter how much Macbeth washes himself, he will never be clean.

Diagetic sound strongly reinforces the chaos surrounding Banquo’s murder. A thunderstorm ushers in the scene, tying back to the rain motif foreshadowing death. We hear footfalls, heavy breathing, kicking, the clash of weapons, horses neighing and hooves running away. The scene ends with the sound of the ax thumping painfully into Banquo’s back. We then cut back to the bear in the cage in Macbeth’s castle; now dogs are fighting the bear, barking and growling. The bear is chained, and the sound of the chain dragging against the ground is reminiscent of the clinking and jingling of the former Thane of Cawdor—and his fate of execution. The final sound in this scene is the dead bear’s body being dragged against the floor, taken to the kitchen to be cooked and eaten.

During the banquet, Macbeth’s madness and guilt overtake him further when he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting at the banquet table. He drops his goblet of wine and it clatters against the ground, the same sound as when Duncan’s crown clattered against the ground during the murder scene. Macbeth thinks he sees Banquo’s bloody-faced ghost walking towards him—like any true ghost, his footsteps are utterly silent—and Macbeth backpedals away, then stumbles and falls down against a flight of stone stairs. He knocks into chains attached to the wall, which rattle along with the medals around Macbeth’s neck—the same sound of the former Thane of Cawdor in chains on the way to his execution. Interestingly, in this scene Macbeth’s medals are the only ones that make any noise. The other noblemen wear medals, too, but we do not hear them jingling or clinking as they move. This makes it seem like not just Banquo, but everyone surrounding Macbeth, are ghosts—Macbeth’s guilt and paranoia separates him from the outside world. Macbeth can never escape the memory of killing Duncan—reminders are always there, hovering in the background as audible triggers.


VI. Shift from Rain to Fire

The film moves to Macduff’s home—we hear children playing and laughing, along with the mews of sheep being shaved for their wool. However, this happy respite from the darkness of the film is soon interrupted by the thunderous galloping of men on horseback through the open courtyard doors. We do not see a majority of the looting and violence onscreen, but we hear women’s screams and the sound of objects being knocked over and broken. In the one scene we do see, Macbeth murders Macduff’s wife and son. We hear the crash of pottery statues breaking against the ground; Macbeth knocks them off the mantel with a quick thrust of his arm. We also hear the ravaged frantic screams of Macduff’s wife upon realizing that her son has been killed. These diagetic sounds are enormously powerful, more so than dramatic musical instrumentation would be; the audience feels like they are there, in the room where these atrocities are happening. The scene feels all too vivid—like it is not a film at all, but real life. The scene ends with the audible lick of flames and a visual image of the estate burning down.

In this way, the film shifts from sounds of water to sounds of fire as harbingers of death and destruction. The final three prophesies Macbeth receives from the witches give him an unshakeable assurance in his own invincibility, and this inner shift is demonstrated by the film’s embracing of fire to symbolize Macbeth—unlike the steady measured dripping of rainwater, fire is unwieldy, chaotic, out of control, crazed. Fire also makes one think of hell and eternal damnation. In the first half of the film, Macbeth let himself be overtaken by a wave of greed and powerlust; now, the film insinuates, he will burn for his crimes and his arrogance.


VII. Attack of Birnam Wood

Polanski cuts to Ross and Macduff, joining forces with the English army in preparations to overthrow Macbeth. We hear the clinking of swords against each other as two men practice fighting. There is also the sound of sword-smiths making weapons—the pounding and clanking of metal. Macduff learns of the murder of his wife and children, and the clinking of metal against metal rises to a crescendo in the background, as if mirroring his internal horror and disbelief.

In Polanski’s film, we see a messenger give Macbeth reports of approaching English forces, but Macbeth, bolstered by the witches’ prophesies, is convinced that he and his kingdom are invincible, untouchable. Notably, the messenger has a stutter, about which Macbeth harasses him; this emphasizes that Macbeth is so focused on his own narrow worldview that he cannot see anything outside of himself. He focuses on the messenger’s stutter so as to ignore the content of the message that warns of the approaching English forces. But the English are coming, and they are not quiet. We cut to the rumble of them marching towards Macbeth’s castle; we hear the beat of a drum, the clopping of horse hooves, the men’s shouts of welcome to each other. They swing axes against tree trunks, chopping down Birnam wood to hide behind so as to sneak up to Macbeth’s castle unnoticed. The thump of their axes against the tree trunks aurally reminds the audience of when Banquo was killed—the horrible thump of the ax into his back—and emphasizes the causality of events; the English army is preparing to attack as a direct result of Macbeth’s murderous actions.


VII. Downfall

We do not see Lady Macbeth kill herself; instead, we hear her scream, reminiscent of the screams of women when Macduff’s estate was attacked. Macbeth does not go immediately to check on his wife. Instead, he throws a log into the fire, and we hear the sound of it being licked by flames. This emphasizes that Macbeth has been entirely consumed by his passionate paranoia and crazed inner guilt over his murders. Nothing matters anymore except his reign over the kingdom; no one matters to him anymore, not even his wife. That Macbeth turns to his fireplace in the moment of his wife’s death symbolizes his embracing of the uncontrollable and chaotic forces within himself. Macbeth finally goes downstairs to see what happened to Lady Macbeth—his armor clanking loudly with each step he takes, announcing his presence much as the Thane of Cawdor medal did at the film’s beginning—and the camera pans so we see Lady Macbeth’s body lying on the ground. She has plummeted to her death.

We do not see any reaction from Macbeth at the sight of his dead wife; instead, we next see him on the castle parapets, looking down at the English army coming towards him—the Birnam wood “coming against him” as the prophesy warned (Act IV, Scene I). We hear the rustle of tree branches, the hoofbeats and snorting of horses. The forest has come alive, and it is the background noises that make the forest-army seem eerie and urgent in its approach. From inside Macbeth’s castle, we hear the tolling of the alarm bell, tying back to when the alarm bell rang after Duncan was killed. The castle door creaks open and people flee; we hear the fearful squeals of pigs, squawks of chickens, and barks of dogs. When the English army storms the castle, they find it empty. We hear the hollow sound of the soldiers’ boots on the flagstones. Macbeth fights and kills the first soldiers who get to him; the clanking of their swords ties back to the sound of the men practice-fighting in the earlier scene with Macduff and Ross. It is as if the other soldiers are play-fighting and Macbeth is the only one actually fighting; he is the only one we see (and hear) killing in the scene. It makes him indeed seem invincible.

But then Macduff appears and challenges Macbeth to a duel. Almost immediately, he knocks off Macbeth’s crown and it clatters to the ground—a clear allusion to when Duncan’s crown fell to the ground when he was murdered. The clanging of swords creates a suspense that draws out the action, almost as if it is being presented in slow motion. Their bodies tumble to the ground, and their armor clanks against the floor. When Macduff does stab Macbeth through a chink in his armor, it is sudden and silent—his sword does not make a noise, and Macbeth does not cry out. We are as surprised as he is that after all this noise and chaos, the fight is over. Macbeth is dead. Macduff chops off his head and lets it fall to the ground with a thump, echoing the thump of Lady’s body hitting the ground when she threw herself to her death.


IX. An Ending and Beginning

The final scene of the film takes us back to the beginning, back to the witches. We hear rain and the unintelligible murmuring and incantations coming from the witches’ lair. A new Scotsman is being lured towards their beguiling song, and a drum thumps ominously. The diagetic noises at the end of the film circle back to the diagetic noises we heard in the film’s opening scenes, leading us back to where we started. The ending implies that a new Macbeth figure will arise, starting anew the causal chain of greed and power-lust that leads to murder and destruction, on and on, like the waves we hear crashing onto the beach ad infinitum.


“Diagetic Sounds in Polanski’s Macbeth : Signs of Conflict and Collapse” by Dallas Woodburn is the second place winner of Fall 2018 Monolith Medium Literary Contest.

Dallas WoodburnComment