The Scottish Play

I borrowed William Packard’s book The Art of Screenwriting from the college library to see if it was worthwhile. Interesting passage where he takes the first scene of Macbeth, the witches’ meeting, and fleshes it out into screenplay form. A worthwhile exercise.

The scene looks like this in the original play.

ACT I  SCENE I  A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch That will be ere the set of sun. 5
First Witch Where the place?
Second Witch Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch I come, graymalkin!
Second Witch Paddock calls. 10
Third Witch Anon!
ALL Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Packard does things like adding EXTERIOR, though oddly he doesn’t give a full slugline (EXT. HEATH – DAY or should it be NIGHT?) and adds some scene-setting description. He sets the action in the aftermath of the big battle{“broken swords, armor pieces litter the ground”), which seems to me to fly in the face of strong textual evidence that the witches are meeting before the battle, or anyway before it’s finished. But some kind of addition is necessary since Shakespeare doesn’t give us any scenic description — even the sparse exits and entrances provided in the text were added by other hands (so, sadly, we can’t credit the Bard with “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)

Then Packard adds parentheses to each of the first lines ~

First Witch (cries out) When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch (quickly) When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch (knowing) That will be ere the set of sun.

I don’t really see the point of that (and I normally LOVE parentheses) and you shouldn’t really add so many hints to the actors. Leave the director something to do.

Other action seems under-described. Shakespeare has his witches crying to their offstage familiar spirits, Graymalkin and Paddock, which are presumably meant to make some sound, but Packard doesn’t mention this. Maybe the spirits’ sounds are only audible to their respective witches, but that seems to me missing a trick.

At the end, he has the witches “vanish into nowhere,” but I feel here he’s leaving too much room for interpretation. There are a lot of ways of vanishing into nowhere.

Packard notes that the scene being short, it’s unnecessary to trim it, but *I* note that didn’t stop Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, who couldn’t resist ending the scene on the hero’s name, thus cueing the main title. Welles also ends the scene on his character’s name, as well as trimming the lines “Where the place?” and “Upon the heath,” which unfortunately makes “There to meet with…” less sensible. But changing plays into films often involves lopping off entrances and exits, since these can to make things seem stagey: Polanski allows his weird women to wander off, stressing their mundanity as he did with the Satanists in ROSEMARY’S BABY, whereas Welles just ends the scene on the clay homunculus — a touch of voodoo — birthed from the boiling cauldron (his witches are evidently flame-retardant, which must come in handy for them).

I thought I’d have my own stab at it scripting this scene,


A barren expanse of rocky mountains. Thick fog rolls across the peaks. In the foreground, a cliff ledge juts out.

On this outcrop, a small fire smolders at a cavern mouth  Round it huddle three ragged, withered old women. One of them gets to her feet.

FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Another looks into the fire.

SECOND WITCH: When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.

The third woman throws handfuls of dirt onto the fire and extinguishes it.

THIRD WITCH: That will be ere the set of sun.

The seated witches stand.

FIRST WITCH: Where the place?

The other witches are wandering away separately along the mountain ledge.

SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH: There to meet with Macbeth.

An uncanny feline noise echoes across the mountains, catching the First Witch’s attention.

FIRST WITCH: I come, graymalkin!

As she disappears into the fog, her silhouetted figure is abruptly snatched upwards, like a rag doll, rising into the mist until she vanishes.

A bizarrely loud frog croak echoes from the other direction.

SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.

Her shape is likewise snatched up from view.


She vanishes the same way, as if yanked on a string from above. We follow her into the fog bank, swirling clouds billowing past us.

ALL (V.O.): Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.

And then maybe we could break through the clouds and soar down over a battlefield or something as the title appears. Hopefully, this is a scene the reader can visualise, with drama and cinematic interest. I haven’t done anything original with the witches’ appearance, as Polanski did, but I think the manner of their exit suggests something spooky and interesting about their relationship with “graymalkin” and “paddock.” But I’d be interested in any suggestions readers may have.

6 Responses to “The Scottish Play”

  1. Danny Carr Says:

    I remember having to adapt the first scene of Macbeth into a screenplay at school in English Lit. Not sure if this was part of the syllabus or just my teacher being a fan of The Art of Screenwriting. If it was the syllabus there might be thousands of screenplay versions of it out there!

  2. Grant Skene Says:

    So, you’re clearly endowing the witches with supernatural powers. As in many things, Shakespeare tends to balance carefully on the fence on whether there really is any witchcraft, or is it all the power of suggestion. Although dramatic, your version commits to the existence of magic. I would prefer more ambiguity, but that’s just me.

    I’m reminded of that anecdote when Kubrick was adapting The Shining.

    A phone starts ringing. After the third ring, we hear rustling and groaning, then a crash and a cry of ‘ouch.’

    A light comes on illuminating the left third of the screen. The light comes from a bedside table lamp. A groggy Stephen King answers the phone while looking at one of those old wind-up alarm clocks.

    As the camera cuts to a closeup of the clock, showing the time is ten past 3, we hear:

    Stephen King: “Hello, who is this?”
    We hear the distinctive voice of Stanley Kubrick, but the camera is still focused on the clock.
    “Do you believe ghosts really exist?”

    The camera cuts to a closeup of a puzzled King, hair dishevelled. He puts on his glasses, as he thinks.

    After some thought, he replies: “I guess I do.”

    Voice of Kubrick: “That’s what I thought.”

    An audible click is heard as Kubrick hangs up, leaving the camera to fade out on the puzzled King.

  3. For this to make a good school exercise, I think I’d want each pupil to write a short essay explaining their choices. That way, even if I didn’t agree I could appreciate the reasoning. (I’m currently marking at college so these issues weigh onmy mind.)

    Shakespeare was writing with King James I as his number one audience, so he had to assume belief in witchcraft as a given. The virtue of his ambiguity is that one can make one’s own interpretive choices. I go for the supernatural because I want to have fun.

    Also, everything the witches predict comes true, and semi-scientific ideas like psychic powers weren’t available to Shakespeare: the play does assume the existence of the supernatural. (Kubrick won’t accept ghosts — except he really does in his film — but he apparently regards telepathy as fine.)

  4. Not for the opening , but I’ve always thought it would be a fun idea to have the scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’a ghost focus on the revellers, with Macbeth and his wife going mad on the edges of the frame. So imagine an Altmanesque moving camera, where in the background Macbeth sloely has a nervous breakdown. We can maybe fleetingly see a Bannquo like figure, but Macbeth’s growing hysteria must be overwhelmed by general chatter until his breakdown can’t be ignores and takes center stage visually. At which point the camera can pan up and down as we see nothing as Macbeth sees something

  5. Not showing Banquo at all makes perfect sense, it depends how tied to Macbeth’s perspective you want to be. I don’t think it makes sense to show the knife, unless you cut all the lines, because he’s describing what you see… in general, cutting huge swathes of text is probably a good idea. Filmmakers get hung up on the idea that no images could be better than Shakespeare’s language, but in cinema, images more or less trump ANY language, even if the images aren’t that good…

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