Something Wicked This Way Comes — Macbeth's Ethan Hawke and Jack O'Brien Talk Motivation and Myth

By Carey Purcell
21 Dec 2013

Ethan Hawke
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Comparing Macbeth to Beethoven's 9th Symphony or the Beatles album "Abbey Road," Hawke said he believes there's never a bad time to approach Shakespeare's tragedy.

"I remember last year when 'Lincoln' came out and I read 'Team of Rivals.' It mentions that Macbeth was his favorite play, and he always kept it with him, and I remember wondering, 'Why? Why would Abraham Lincoln study a play?'" Hawke said. "Because in it is the riddle to the human psyche — what makes us tick? What makes good people tick, and what makes 'bad people' tick?" 

O'Brien also commented on the play's presentation of good and evil and its universality. "It's a good person gone bad, who still keeps going bad, instead of pulling themselves back," O'Brien said. "The first person who did that was Macbeth."

"Jack said this to us first day of rehearsal — Shakespeare, so much of the time, in a lot of his histories, bends his mind to understanding the insight of great people," Hawke added. "For example, the Henrys is kind of how ordinary men become great men. And this is the story about someone who was a great man [who] became an evil man. It can't be the story of an evil person; it's the story of a person just like you or I, and how if you dance with the wrong demons, they'll take you down."

The demons in Macbeth first appear as three witches, roles that O'Brien cast to be played by men: John Glover, Malcolm Gets and Byron Jennings. Hawke commented on this decision, saying, "It's always kind of a place, I think, where every director starts their production. What are the witches? Who are the witches?"

The witches are just one of Macbeth's mythical aspects, which, O'Brien said, contribute to the play's universal appeal. "[It] speaks to all of us, because on some level, we wonder if we had the opportunity, would we make anything like these choices — and if we did, would we come back to tell the tale?" O'Brien said. "And often we think, 'Yes, I can, because I'm special, I'm smart, I'm a movie star, I'm president, I'm singular.' And that is hubris. That is a lie."

"It's all really a metaphor," Hawke added. "There are good angels and bad demons and they're at work in all of us. Largely in my mind, it seems, which angel are you feeding? Whichever one you're feeding gains strength."