Points of Comparison: Macbeth, Casablanca

Dr Tony Hall NUI GalwayIn this article, using a question on Literary Genre from the English Leaving Certificate Higher Level paper 2008, we will compare and contrast Michael Curtiz’s film Casablanca and Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, prescribed texts for 2012-2013. Literary Genre is a comparative mode for examination at Higher Level in 2012 and 2013.

Q. Take key moments from … two texts from your comparative course and compare the way in which the emotional power of these scenes was created.

While Casablanca and Macbeth are from different historical eras and literary genres, they are both propagandistic or jingoistic narratives. Casablanca was premiered in 1942 after the US entered the Second World War on the side of the Allies. Symbolic characterisation runs throughout the film. Rick’s character potentially symbolises the reluctant, and perhaps conflicted US position prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Ilsa and Victor are from Northern and Central Europe respectively, representing German-occupied Europe and the Resistance. Renault’s character represents the vacillating loyalties of Vichy France while Major Strasser, his Nazi cronies and the Italian Officer Tonnelli symbolise the fascist Axis. 1983 BBC production of Macbeth for TV
Macbeth could have been written by Shakespeare as an admonition or warning not to commit regicide and treason. This is a potential theme throughout Shakespearean tragedy. Duncan can be interpreted as a metaphor for the divine right of kings. The tragedy warns of the perils – personal and national – of treason. Both texts were possibly created to please particular audiences: Casablanca: American public opinion during World War II, and Macbeth: the monarchy, specifically King James I.

Both texts also use irony and prophecy to create emotional impact. In Casablanca, in the barroom scene where a melancholic Rick is drinking heavily as Sam plays the piano, the accompanying dialogue is highly prescient and emotive. The audience knows that Pearl Harbour was attacked on December 7th, 1941. Therefore Rick’s tragically-ironic remark to Sam heightens the tension; he seems directly to allude to the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the US’s general lack of readiness for war. This event was so devastating at the time – like September 11th, 2001 – that President Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy”. It changed the course of the war, awakening the sleeping giant that was the US, bringing them directly into the conflict. Rick and Sam’s dialogue places the film and the audience in the midst of history, and this crucial period in the Allied struggle against Nazi Germany and the Axis. This amplifies the emotional power of the text. Compared to our experience of the film today, it must have been especially poignant for American audiences of the time. The use of body language, particularly Rick’s pounding the table, is also symbolic and helps to evoke the tension of this key moment in the film:

Rick: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
Sam: Uh, my watch stopped.
Rick: I’ll bet they’re asleep in New York. I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.
Suddenly, he pounds the table and buries his head in his hands. Then he raises his head, trying to regain control. 

The witches speak prophetically to Macbeth and Banquo in the fateful third scene of the first act. Though they speak in contradictions, their double-talk is full of ironic prophecies, like the irony in the film music of Casablanca, which we will presently discuss. The witches’ prophesying is at once beguiling and bewildering for Macbeth because the witches tell him everything he wants to hear – that he will be king: “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be King hereafter!” But it is what they do not say, and what they say about Banquo that troubles him. It is Banquo who will father kings: “Thou [Banquo] shalt get kings, though thou be none”. They seem to prophesy that though Macbeth may be king, he will reign without issue, without a son to succeed him. As the witches’ prophecies come true, the tension and emotional power of the play increase, as does the incongruity of the circumstances, drawing the characters – principally Macbeth – and the audience into the witches’ spell. The witches’ ironic prophecies propel the narrative to its tragic climax. Banquo’s character is reputed to be based on an ancestor of King James I. Further evidence perhaps that the play was written to please a contemporary audience, specifically James I.
Like in Casablanca, body language is also used to heighten the tension in Macbeth. This is powerfully expressed in the sleep walking scene and trance like state of Lady Macbeth, and her bloodied hand: “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!” Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hand is a further physical symbol of the eternal evil of murder. As Macbeth ironically predicts, King Duncan’s regicide is not a deed that will be “done, when ’tis done.”  So unnatural is the murder of the king, Macbeth has perturbed nature to the extent of potentially killing sleep itself: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep”. The mysterious embodiment of the witches also creates dramatic tension in key moments of the play because we – and the protagonists – cannot be sure if the witches are human or something else: ethereal and supernatural.
In Banquo and Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches, Banquo cannot decide whether they are female or male, the suggestiveness of the language in this scene leaving open the possibility that they might be something entirely different altogether: “you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so.”
At the end of the same scene, as he laments their exit, because he is being seduced by the prophecies they speak, and wishes to hear more from them, Macbeth alludes to the witches’ supernatural potential: “Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted As breath into the wind. Would they had stayed!”

The slippery, indeterminate physical identity of the witches adds to the tension of these key opening scenes of the play. This is amplified by the fact that it is not only the supernatural witches but the human characters that are contradictory in Macbeth. They do and speak different things. Their actions and their words can be very different. Indeed, what they say and what they mean can be very different. An example of this is the subtext scene (4.3) between Malcolm and Macduff, where Malcolm hopes to bring Macduff’s true feelings out into the open, to determine if he can trust him as an ally who will help him to bring peace to the kingdom. Malcolm’s wordgame with Macduff stands in stark contrast to that of Macbeth, who deceives only to advance his own selfish interests. Ironically, King Duncan observes this paradox of personality in the opening act of the play: “There’s no art, To find the man’s construction in the face.” 1942 Casablanca movie poster

Characters are also changeable in Casablanca. They do and speak different things. However, while in Macbeth characters do and speak different things for personal gain, in Casablanca the main protagonists have a moral compass. For example, Rick brusquely brushes off Annina but afterwards helps her and her husband Jan to win at the roulette table, in order to raise the funds they need to secure their safe passage out of Casablanca:

Annina: Oh, but if you knew what it means to us to leave Europe, to get to America! Oh but if Jan should find out! He is such a boy! In many ways I am so much older than he is.
Rick: Yes, well, everybody in Casablanca has problems. Yours may work out. You’ll excuse me.
Rick abruptly rises.

Rick’s harsh and dismissive words following Annina’s plea for help are in stark contrast with the benevolent way he ultimately helps her and her husband to win at roulette. Rick’s words and actions are the inverse of the self-serving contradictions of characters in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, in particular the main protagonist and malefactor, Macbeth.

The endings and resolutions of these two dramatic and emotive texts are both very similar, but they also stand in contrast to each other; both leaving the audience with utterly different feelings. The neat, clipped ending of Macbeth after all the carnage that preceded it is a deliberate narrative ploy by Shakespeare to make the audience feel completely uneasy.
Even though poetic justice has been served for Macbeth, we are right back at the start again: the restored King Malcolm heaping praise upon, and lavishly promoting his thanes and allies: “And make us even with you. My thanes and kinsmen, Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland In such an honour named.” It exactly mirrors the opening scenes of the play when King Duncan praises “noble Macbeth” and promotes him for his fealty and valour in battle: “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive Our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, And with his former title greet Macbeth.”
The neat conclusion of Macbeth is less than reassuring and the audience is left with the feeling that the bloody cycle of regicide and retribution could begin all over again. History looks like it will repeat itself. The ending of Casablanca is also very neat but it contrasts starkly with the troubling denouement of Macbeth; Casablanca’s conclusion leaves the audience with a much more hopeful feeling. The characters have set aside their selfish interests and vanity; they are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. The battle between good and evil is being fought, and it looks like good will win out. The main characters are fighting for a common cause, and not out of selfish motives.
This is expressed well in the words of Victor, when he says to Rick: “And welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win”; Rick and Victor symbolising the common struggle of the US and Allied Resistance against totalitarianism. Rick’s character expresses the selflessness of the the film’s main protagonists when he says to Ilsa: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” This utter selflessness stands in very stark contrast to the utter selfishness of characters in Macbeth. The protagonists in Macbeth seem willing to do anything to promote and realise their own selfish ambitions and interests, even if it means a mother viciously killing her own child, as Lady Macbeth shockingly reveals:

“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

Both texts also use props as evocative ciphers. In the closing sequences of Casablanca, Louis discards a bottle of water with the Vichy label on it, then he disdainfully kicks the bin, spilling the bottle’s contents. It is a highly symbolic moment, as outlined in the film’s screenplay: “As he pours the water into a glass, Renault [Louis] sees the Vichy label and quickly DROPS the bottle into a trash basket which he then KICKS over.” The bloody dagger in Macbeth is also a very important prop that features in a key moment of the tragedy. As the blood-soaked dagger signals the end of human and humane Macbeth, the discarded bottle of Vichy water symbolises the end of French complicity with the Nazi regime. Although there is a comparative link between the texts in these shared symbolic moments, they are starkly contrasted endings. Renault and France have started down the path to freedom and democracy; Macbeth to murderous action, treason and tyranny: “And take the present horror from the time Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives: Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” Splash screen of Shakespeare in Bits Macbeth app for iPad

An important comparative link between both texts is their aesthetic potential – their capacity to engage the audience’s senses. Casablanca is often regarded as a melodrama – different aspects of the film heighten and amplify each other. This is shown in the music of the film. Music is used evocatively throughout Casablanca. The particular device that Michael Curtiz uses in the film is that of leitmotif, or recurring musical piece. In Casablanca, the leitmotif is: “As Time Goes By.” The tempo, intonation and volume of the song changes to enhance the key moments in the film. Music is used symbolically in the film, for example: the key moment where Victor orders the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out Major Strasser and his Nazi cronies as they sing the symbolic German military song (with its origins in the Franco-Prussian War): “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine”).

Music is also used to lighten the mood in Casablanca, the scene where Rick hides the letters of transit in the piano as Sam and the band lead a sing-song of the uplifting “Knock on Wood.” Along with the Paris flashback scene, this scene with Sam brings some light relief to an otherwise unrelentingly tense and emotive film. The scene in Casablanca where a melancholic Rick slugs glass after glass of gin, sitting hunched and drunken, aloof from Sam and alone at a table in his dingy barroom, is in stark contrast with the bright apartment and celebratory mood of the Paris flashback scenes. In the Paris flashback Rick’s body language is totally different, even his clothes – he is wearing a flower on the lapel of his suit; he is playfully proposing to Ilsa as they joyously drink champagne. They are carefree and in love, epitomised by the windswept scenes when they are driving around Paris. The contrast between the party-mood of Paris and the pathetic drunkenness of the barroom emphasises the sadness of Rick’s isolation in Casablanca, increasing the emotional power of this key moment in the film. But even in the joyous flashback scenes in Paris, there is a sense of foreboding as we hear that the Nazi army is fast approaching the French capital:

Ilsa (frightened): Was that cannon fire, or is it my hear pounding?
Rick (grimly): Ah, that’s the new German 77. And judging by the sound, only about thirty-five miles away.

The interposing of newsreel footage of war scenes and the Wehrmacht on the offensive increases the feeling of imminent danger. Ilsa’s fateful words capture the tragic irony of the lovers’ predicament: “With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love.” Macbeth also uses lyrical music in the incantations of the witches, alliteration and assonance, trochaic tetrameter and rhyming couplets to enhance their chants. Macbeth was suspected of being a spell book and actors could be reluctant to read excerpts from the play in case they invoked spells or spirits. In the same way the witches’ prophetic chantings are filled with contradiction and irony, the music of Casablanca is filled with irony. Incongruously, key moments of the film which illustrate Rick’s cynical isolation are accompanied by some of the most romantic songs ever written, for example: “It Had to Be You”, “The Very Thought of You” and “As Time Goes By.”

From the start of the film: the setting and circumstances, the police bulletin and the narrator all leave the audience in no doubt that Casablanca is a dangerous location. Everything reinforces the idea that Casablanca is a treacherous place to be, particularly if you are vulnerable. The dialogue between Rick and his unscrupulous nightclub rival Mr. Ferrari, when Ferrari presses his case to buy Rick’s Cafe Americain, is chilling:

Rick I don’t buy or sell human beings.
Ferrari That’s too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity. In refugees alone we could make a fortune if you would work with me through the black market.

A further comparative link between the texts is in how they draw on their surroundings for emotional effect. From Casablanca’s oppressive heat and foggy airfield to the misty and mysterious heaths of Macbeth’s Forres, contradictions heighten the drama, appearing in the pathetic fallacy of the incongruous weather: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

Casablanca and Macbeth are two texts that evoke great emotional power. Although they compare in how their key moments create drama and tension, and engage their audiences, they have very different and contrasted outcomes. In Casablanca, the tension is released at the end, and we feel hopeful for the characters and for the future of humanity which they represent. However, in Macbeth, we are left with the disconcerting and troubling feeling that the cycle of tragedy has but completed one full turn.


Comprehend – Discuss – Imagine – Create

Read/watch the key moments from the two texts referred to in the essay. Describe your impression of these key moments in the texts.

Do you agree with the comparative links made in the essay? Why do you agree? Why don’t you agree?

Can you find additional/other key moments in the texts that corroborate and/or challenge the comparative links made in the essay?
What are these key moments? What happens in these key moments? When do they take place? Who is involved? Describe them, and identify the important dialogue and interactions between characters. How do these extra moments you have identified support (or contradict) the links outlined in the essay?

What other links and contrasts can you think of between the two texts?

Taking Macbeth and Casablanca as examples, what are the differences between plays and films, in how they tell stories? And what are the similarities?

Imagine you are making a film of Macbeth. What ideas would you take from Casablanca to enhance your film production and increase the dramatic tension for the audience? Choose at least one key moment in Macbeth to illustrate your ideas.

Write a screenplay that turns the key moment in the play into a dramatic film scene. Consider music, camera angles and shots, possible special effects, costumes, location, scenery, character actions, gestures, interactions and movements etc. If you can, use screenwriting software to help you.

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