When I was a kid, we had a trampoline in our backyard. While my mother worked, I stayed home after school with my older sister, who was eight years older and happy to have that trampoline utterly invaded by a legion of teenage boys who played a game the leader among them had invented and named “I Am the Big Penis.” The rules were simple: A bottle of frozen water was placed in the center of the trampoline. That was the penis. Any boy grazed by the penis must endure a double bouncing by the other boys collected on the trampoline. If he could avoid being thrown to the ground by the bounce, he could continue the game.
If not, those remaining continued without him until one boy, the big penis, reigned supreme. At least until the following afternoon when the brutal campaigns to have the biggest dick on the neighborhood trampoline began afresh. There were tears and there was fighting. Collar and tail bones were broken. Eventually there was a roof incident in which a disgraced former big penis attempted a jump so desperate it caused the other penises to reconsider their interest in the battle, though they kept halfheartedly jouncing the ice penis around on the odd afternoon until they’d all drifted to some other means of adolescent dick measuring.
Conflict, dicks, death, with a bit of overlap hither and yon — this is the core of I Am the Big Penis and also of Macbeth, especially in Joel Coen’s version. Commonly thought to be Shakespeare’s “King James play” and first performed just a few years after the King of Scotland also ascended the English throne, the play is often read in the context of The Gunpowder Plot, a treasonous attempt by English Catholics to murder James and his eldest son. Macbeth is the story of a sonless usurper growing increasingly paranoid that some other dick is going to stab that crown right off him, the same way he got it in the first place. His wife encourages the stabbing. But like all Shakespeare’s plays, part of Macbeth’s genius lies in how it can be molded for myriad purposes. For example, over 300 years later, Orson Welles used Macbeth to make a statement about the House of Un-American Activities and its attempt to root out communism, adding a character called the Holy Man who switches sides as needed, undermining the notion of “Christian law and order,” as Professor of Film at University of North Georgia Jeff W Marker puts it.
And while Coen’s version takes what it needs from Welles’s film in its stark black-and-white design and focus on its characters’ interiority, it also finds its own narrative, apropos for our time, within its arrangement of Shakespeare’s iambs coupled with Coen’s original set design: Dicks beget dicks beget dicks. Chopping one down only means that more dicks pop up in its place, and the resultant, desperate paranoia born from a game of I Am the Big Penis is a display of sound and fury signifying nothing save desiring power for power’s own sake.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is Joel Coen’s first film since his brother and longtime collaborator Ethan’s announcement that he would be bowing out of their partnership, at least for a while. The tone of the singular Coen’s Macbeth is a departure from the pair’s other works, like their takes on No Country for Old Men and True Grit, which consistently found humor in despair and violence that wasn’t readily apparent in their source material. In one brief break from the film’s starkness, Macbeth’s drunken porter (played brilliantly by Stephen Root) explains, "Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance."
The line is, of course, referring to alcohol-induced impotence, but at its heart, Macbeth is also about dicks, desire, and the conflicts created by fear of one or the other proving fruitless — from Lady Macbeth, (played by Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand, reliably Hollywood’s only convincing argument for nepotism) wishing she had one so she could handily kill all her husband's foes, to Denzel Washington’s tonally perfect Macbeth losing his hard-on for murder at the last second while his wife chastises him to "Screw his courage to the sticking place" and put his sword in the king already.
In Act III, Scene IV, Lady Macbeth is asked “How late at night is it?” to which she responds, “Almost at odds with morning, which is which. It's almost morning. You can't tell whether it's day or night.” Coen clearly took the beauty of this line literally, as it is almost never clearly day or night in his version, instead just an interplay of shadow, light, and mist illuminating or darkening the brutalist geometry of his sparse, Gothic cathedral-inspired set. And the Gothic points of Coen’s archways, windows, and doorways, create an eeriness that architecture critic Irénée Scalbert describes as a sort of case of melancholy:
“As one stands in a gothic nave, the eye feels no urge to follow their lines from pier to vault and down again…,” Scalbert writes in The Nature of Gothic. “Instead, the eye stays still and looks straight ahead. It is this stillness that expands the sense of time. Anyone who has attended a service in a gothic building will be familiar with the ennui…But it is not the structure that is confining; rather the eye, having no specific place to rest, dilates, fills the space.”
There is almost no furniture, surrounding landscape, or other set dressing in Macbeth’s castle, only these columns, the arches they form, and the shadows they throw down; shadows that look like swords if we’re being mature, but if we are being honest, they look like a bunch of dicks.
A lancet window takes its name from another word for sword and is the shape we most commonly associate with gothic cathedrals: high and narrow, with a pointed head. These lancet shapes either appear throughout the film as singular points of light in the dim or as multiple points — the dick swords thrust their heads across the aisle Macbeth must cross to the vision of the dagger he’ll graphically force Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan to quite literally deep throat moments later.
As Banquo wonders if he is truly to be the “root and father of many kings” as the weird sisters foretold, the blackness from which he delivers this monologue is broken by five phallic slivers of light with Banquo and son eventually emerging from the tip of the largest. Or Macbeth again ensconced by the shapes as he orders Banquo’s murder just after a scene in which Fleance, son of Banquo, is yet again backlit by a great, glowing lancet. A dick shape within a wider, yonic triangle as the Macbeths worry together that they’ve but “scorched the snake” in murdering their king. The dicks reliably appear when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are being dicks, when a character wonders if the products of his dick will be any good, and as Birnam wood literally comes to Dunsinane, ejaculating leaves through a blasted open lancet window as Duncan’s son Malcolm leads an army to defeat his father’s stabber.
Macbeth, of course, is also a play about heirs. And as Macbeth’s paranoia around these male heirs — Duncan’s, Banquo’s, and Macduff’s — grows, a veritable nesting doll of dicks chases him through the hallways of the barren castle he paces. Likewise, barren Lady Macbeth’s brief candle is extinguished as she flings herself to the foot of a staircase capped with a couple of dicks, having not been effectively unsexed enough for direst cruelty after all.
If this dick-laden Macbeth does not necessarily invoke the gallows humor of most Coen brothers films, it does mirror a playful, repetitive absurdity found in their best work, one that always ultimately underscores a bleak kind of truth. And the truth at the heart of Joel Coen’s stark worldbuilding in Macbeth, like in Welles’s 1948 version, probably cannot be separated from its time. 2021 finds America just off four years of paranoia-fueled, vindictive leadership by a tyrant even supporters agree is a dick, a nation that two years into a pandemic still watches its leaders play an endless game of I Am the Big Penis over everything from abortion rights to free covid tests, strutting and fretting as they cross swords and monologue and get themselves on television in acts largely signifying nothing beyond indifference to suffering and monomaniacal interest in power.
In the end, Macbeth’s head is separated from his body as he forgets the battle in a grab for his crown. The crown goes to Malcolm, son of Duncan, but the film ends with Fleance galloping down the future, his movement disrupting a shrieking murder of crows and leaving one with a sense that there’s another one coming up right behind the next.
Emily Alford is a former Jezebel staff writer and currently a freelance essayist and culture writer living in Los Angeles. She has a PhD in English and an enucleated cocker spaniel.