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Plant Focus

Oaks in Macbeth?

I recently watched Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. I won’t comment on the merits of the film (save to say that my review would be mixed, at best, and that I could not understand how Denzel Washington received an Oscar nomination for his role—clearly being able to speak Shakesperean verse is not a requirement for that distinction). But there is, or at least I thought there should have been, a connection to oaks in the story of Macbeth. Having read Shaun Haddock’s blog post about the oaks of Dunkeld, Scotland I was looking forward to the plot’s climax, where Birnam Wood appears to advance towards Macbeth’s castle, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy:

"Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him."

As Shaun points out, a last survivor of the legendary Birnam Wood still stands: a Quercus petraea, 27 m tall with a 7 m girth, on its last legs (or crutches), perhaps, but alive nonetheless. So I assumed that I could expect a stylized rendering of this species, in line with the film noir aesthetic of Coen’s film, as we approached the denouement of the story: in preparation for battle against the Scottish tyrant, Malcolm’s liberating army invading from England tries to disguise its number by cutting down branches from the trees in Birnam Wood and using them as camouflage. So imagine my quercophiliac shock when the trees made an appearance and turned out to be maples (Acer sp.). Maples?! What was Coen trying to suggest? Some sort of prophecy about a Canadian liberation of a neighboring oppressed country?

Maples in Macbeth
Malcolm rides through an avenue of... maples? (detail bottom right) 

This deception seemed to put a seal on my dim view of the film. However, when I reread Shaun’s post, I found that I was mistaken. There is another survivor of Birnam Wood that still stands near Dunkeld, and it is an Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore in the U.K., sycamore maple in U.S. and Canada). Locals refer to it as the Young Pretender, as it is a mere 300 years old, about half the estimated age of the Birnam Oak. It turns out that Birnam Wood was in fact a mixed forest, made up predominantly of Quercus petraea and Acer pseudoplatanus. So Coen indeed had done his homework; he’d simply made the wrong choice (at least from our quercocentric point of view). This led me to wonder whether any other film directors had made the right choice, and it turns out that the ones I checked were further from the mark than Coen…

Orson Welles in his 1948 version (laced with extraordinary Scottish accents), opted for pines, perhaps because they were readily available near the left over sets from Hollywood westerns where the film was made:

Akira Kurosawa, in his 1957 adaptation, Throne of Blood, also chose conifers, which made sense given the Japanese location (perhaps someone might venture to identify the species?):

Throne of Blood

Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth was set in Scotland and filmed in various locations around the U.K., but he also opts for pine trees when portraying the “moving grove”:

Those interested in the mechanics of film production might enjoy this clip showing how that scene was filmed:

My favorite film of the play, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015), skirts the issue by following a creative reinterpretation: the prophecy becomes a metaphor, as Malcolm sets fire to Birnam Wood and the wind carries the ashes to Macbeth’s castle on Dunsinane Hill. It is difficult to tell from the images what trees are being set on fire, but oaks do not make an appearance.

So based on the cinematographic evidence, on the question of Birnam Wood conifers are in the lead for now. Does anyone know of a version (film or stage) that used oaks? (IOS members can comment below, after logging in).