Destroy Your Sight With a New Gorgon: “Don’t Look Now” and Macbeth
Originally written for Episode 61 on Don’t Look Now (1973) and C.H.U.D. (1984).
“Do you fear/ things that sound so fair?”
~ The Tragedy of Macbeth, William Shakespeare
“Just chance, a flick of a coin.”
~ “Don’t Look Now,” Daphne du Maurier
In all my viewings of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, I had foolishly not been interested in reading the 1970 story by Daphne du Maurier that inspired it. After tracking it down, I was surprised by the echoes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which if present in the film, I had missed. I spent time reading the story and working through the play and noticed several recurring images and tropes, including those of vision or seeing (or lack thereof), prophecies, fate, haunting, reversals, motherhood, murderous children, and daggers. At some point I may try to fully explicate the comparisons, but for now, I’m focusing on the beginning and ending of both written works.
The opening scenes set up similar stories of horror, but work inversely. Macbeth opens with The Weird Sisters, three witches rhyming about foul weather and predicting even fouler events. They speak in rhyme and reversals making their speech uncanny, while also giving it the sound of spell casting. One reversal, good is bad and bad is good, sets up a core image of the play. The natural world and natural order are being flipped and the witches, though they can be read as outside these boundaries, possibly represent the unnatural that is taking control over Scotland, most importantly through regicide, the worst crime that could be committed at the time. The opening scene of the witches in a storm is also a version of “a dark and stormy night.”
In “Don’t Look Now,” du Maurier opens the story with a married couple on a dinner date during their vacation in Venice, playing one of their “holiday games” in which they create increasingly perverse narratives about people around them. The scene has a warm playfulness, a couple playing at being detectives like Nick and Nora, from The Thin Man (1934), or one of Hitchcock’s couples. Rather than begin with Gothic gloom, du Maurier sets the reader up for a kind of matrimonial bliss, or recovery of bliss through the healing of dining and travel. She begins in familial mirth, only to slowly displace it. We soon find out that the husband, John, is trying to comfort his wife, Laura, after the death of their daughter from meningitis.
Similar to how the Weird Sisters in their first scene connect themselves to Macbeth by mentioning him and a place that they will meet in the future, John’s first words are about “a couple of old girls” who are trying to “hypnotize” him. We soon find out that the “old girls” are twin sisters on vacation from Scotland, and the blind one has psychic abilities. They believe John has the gift as well, though he denies it and doesn’t trust them.
The Weird Sisters “hypnotize” characters in Macbeth, or seemingly do as their words, especially their reversals, get picked up by others. Their words from the first scene (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”) are Macbeth’s first words of the play (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen”). These hint at a crisis in the world, good can be evil and evil can be good. Even King Duncan, the character of highest social status and therefore also representing the potential for highest earthly good, echoes the structure of the witches’ reversal in his first scene. When calling for execution on the present Thane of Cawdor and for his title to be given to Macbeth, he says, “What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.” Interestingly, the now doomed Thane has no other name, which presents a doubling effect, as if the “Thane of Cawdor” the name itself were cursed. In fact, many versions of the play leave the audience with the notion that mighty Macduff, born of blood and often seen leaving the play covered in blood, becomes the next cursed Cawdor. This may represent the power the Weird Sisters have and may be Duncan foretelling his death. Macbeth also wins the crown “lost” by Duncan.
The first scene in which Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches’ parallels with the opening dinner scene of “Don’t Look Now.” Upon seeing the witches, Banquo, a noble general and Macbeth’s friend, says:
[…]What are these
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ Earth,
And yet are on ’t?—Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
Banquo’s words extend the reversals in the play established by the Weird Sisters and Macbeth. They are women, but not (witches were believed to frequently have facial hair). They stand in front of him, yet look inhuman. Already Banquo is unnerved by the “unnatural” qualities of these women. He even associates them with the Devil later. Where Macbeth’s words (“So foul and fair a day”) hint at the ambiguous nature of the post-battle atmosphere, it is one of victory and death. Banquo expresses it in terms of interpretation, of reading, of looking, and the inability to perform these actions. He can’t interpret what the Weird Sisters are, nor does he approve of their prophecies.
In the “holiday game” that John plays with Laura at the opening of “Don’t Look Now,” Laura says, jokingly, that the women across from them are “male twins in drag.” John elaborates on the narrative by describing the twins as criminals in disguise and possible hermaphrodites with hypodermic needles ready to “hypnotize” their prey. For what, exactly, is unclear, but John and Laura, while being playful, are also trying to perversely one-up each other. Similar to Banquo’s wariness at the mixed gender of the witches, John and Laura reveal their uneasiness through jokes about these women being first men in drag, then hermaphrodites, each step transgressing further from their “natural order.”
Just as the Weird Sisters have prophecies for Macbeth, the twins have prophecies for John. Similar to the apparitions that appear to Macbeth and give him warnings that he misinterprets as acknowledgements of his ultimate power, John ignores the warnings, and also misinterprets his own visions, which cost him his life. John misreads what he sees in his own head as Macbeth misreads what the apparition of his own decapitated head tells him. Laura tells him, “I’m not sure of [the twin’s] exact words, but she said something about the moment of truth and joy being as sharp as a sword, but not to be afraid, all was well.” The moment of truth, when John realizes that he has indeed seen the future, is when he experiences his own absurd death by a knife-throwing disfigured dwarf. It’s like a figure straight from Poe invades the short story, just as the apparitions that Macbeth sees begin to take form and invade his own. I suppose the joy could also be the truth? Or maybe the joy is that John gets to recognize the absurdity of the situation.
The inversion comes full circle, though not neatly, with the endings. Macbeth’s Scotland sees the natural order restored, whereas “Don’t Look Now,” shows how lightly tethered to the world ideas like “order” may be. Macbeth battles at the end, there might be some glory in that. John chases what appears to be a child, again, another misreading, that turns unexpectedly deadly. There is consolation and resolution in Macbeth, the natural order, the rightful king and representative of God on Earth, is restored (though one may wonder about Macduff). Not so with du Maurier’s work, where the closest to heaven we get are John’s last words: “Oh, God, […] what a bloody silly way to die …”
I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.
1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals
2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).
3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet