Pacific professor’s Shakespeare analysis takes center stage

Courtney Lehmann

Courtney Lehmann

Millions of students and teachers studying Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” will soon be reading a critical analysis of recent film interpretations by University of the Pacific Professor of English Courtney Lehmann.

Lehmann has the rare privilege of being commissioned to write an essay for the Macbeth Third Norton Critical Edition—the only new scholarly perspective to be included in the upcoming edition, published by New York City-based W.W. Norton and Company.  

“(Norton Critical Editions) are read by more than 12 million students around the world. For every 20 students you can imagine at least one teacher, so it's a huge audience,” explained Lehmann. “The idea is that the Norton Critical Editions are the definitive edition. Not an edition, but the edition of the play.”

Lehmann’s essay will explore feminist and critical race theories of “Macbeth”—a tragedy centered on the damaging effects of political ambition.

Her work will largely focus on Joel Coen’s film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (2021) starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand and a Broadway production of the play with Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga. 

“What interests me about comparing these two is that the racial dynamics are flipped,” said Lehmann. “I’m very interested in seeing how the love story of Macbeth evolves given these different racial and power dynamics and who wins in this marriage.”

Lehmann also will be considering how contemporary versions approach Lady Macbeth’s motivation. The protagonist has often been blamed for her ambition, which was viewed as “unthinkable” in a woman at the time the play was created. 

“I’m interested to see now, nearly 420 years later, what happens with an ambitious woman? Is she demonized? Because that's what most productions I’ve seen do—they demonize her and Macbeth becomes somehow sympathetic, despite the fact that it is his hand that is in charge of the murders,” Lehmann said.

Other versions have made it more of a love story, which Lehmann believes also takes away from Lady Macbeth’s character. “What about her? What about her desires?” Lehmann asks. 

The two previous Norton Critical Editions of “Macbeth” include essays from Peter Holland, former editor of Shakespeare Survey, and Gary Taylor, editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare—“scholars of international renown,” according to Norton Critical Edition editor Robert Miola. 

“We are delighted to add Professor Courtney Lehmann to this illustrious list for our forthcoming anti-racist edition of “Macbeth,” Miola said. “She has long been writing witty, original and provocative analyses of Shakespeare, particularly as his works appear in adaptations and film interpretations.”

“It’s right in my wheelhouse,” said Lehmann, who has been enthralled by Shakespeare since the age of eight when she saw a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“This was a worldview shift, and that's what Shakespeare does. That's why he's still so popular more than 400 years after his death. He inaugurates perspectival shifts that never leave you the same,” she said.

Her passion over the years has led to illuminating research on Shakespeare’s work. She is one of only two scholars in the world to have seen and published an essay about Liz White’s all-Black production of Othello. The film was the first version of “Macbeth” to star a Black man and the only Shakespearean film directed by a Black woman. 

Lehmann is currently writing a book on women directors of Shakespeare films from 1914–2017. “These are all largely voices that have been silenced, films that have never been shown,” she said.

“I have a responsibility to rectify those wrongs,” she added. “That erasure of women's work behind the camera. We all love women in front of the camera, but they have a place elsewhere too, and simultaneously if they wish.”

Much like the filmmakers she writes about, Lehmann is hoping to break ground with her forthcoming essay, with students at Pacific getting a front-row seat.

“I think it will really enhance my teaching of ‘Macbeth,’ Lehmann said. “I'm excited to see how the scholarship impacts the way I teach the play.”