For those of you who know a thing or three about J.K. Rowling, you know that her favorite play, arguably, is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And it makes sense: the Harry Potter series shares many similarities–women’s roles, impending war, and (the big one) prophecies–with Shakespeare’s play. In fact, the topic is so rich that I’m willing to bet a dissertation could easily be written on the subject (you’re welcome, grad students). But I want to bring quick attention to the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban: it seems that director Alfonso Cuaron, or the producers, decided that the third film should revolve around the idea of Macbeth. There were a few notable overt references to The Scottish Play, even in the tagline of the film:
(And for you hardcore Bardies:)
The other overt reference that I caught in Prisoner of Azkaban was the choir’s lovely rendition of the three witches’ scene in Act IV (full soundtrack version):
These are two very important scenes in the play, in fact, they’ve become somewhat iconic of both Macbeth and the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban. But the question remains: are these Shakespearean references significant–that is, does Macbeth play a significant role in the film and the Harry Potter series in general–or are these merely casual references that lack any real merit? My answer: yes and no.
After watching Prisoner of Azkaban a few times, I came to the conclusion that these references do serve a purpose–that is, drawing a comparison between the events of the plot and the themes and events of Macbeth. Turning the three witches’ famous scene into a song for the film was a clever way to hint that there are similarities between the film/novel and play. But I want to look specifically at the tagline, “Something wicked this way comes,” which has been used throughout literature and often parodied in pop culture. But what was happening in the context of Shakespeare’s play when the witches uttered this?
That “something” that the witches refer to is Macbeth himself, who is at this point both a murderer and traitor. In the film, however, the “something” is more difficult to define. It isn’t necessarily Voldemort because he doesn’t make an appearance in this novel or film. As I see it, there are only three possible wicked somethings: the dementors, which are essentially the manifestation of fear and came from J.K. Rowling’s own bout with depression; Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather whom the Wizarding World suspects to be evil; and Wormtail, Voldemort’s trusted minion who isn’t much of a threat to anyone even when he is supposed to be. The main antagonists in this film, in my opinion, are fear and the perceived impending danger from that fear. Sirius is ultimately friend rather than foe, and the dementors are simply poweful guards but not directly villains.
Indeed, that “something wicked” in Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be Wormtail who, we learn in the end of the film, is both a traitor and a murderer. In short, Wormtail betrayed Harry’s parents by revealing their whereabouts to Voldemort, who ultimately killed them. Then, in an attempt to escape, he framed Sirius as responsible for James’ and Lily’s death; soon thereafter, he killed twelve nearby muggles and transformed into a rat (who later became Ron Weasley’s pet, Scabbers). It is important to note that the similarities between Macbeth and Wormtail end here. In this sense I say that the Macbeth references are not entirely unwarranted, but they are superficial if the only connection between Shakespeare and Harry Potter are qualities that two very different characters share. The major connection between Harry Potter and Macbeth is much deeper: prophecies.
The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is central to both Macbeth and the Harry Potter series–that is, when a character knows about the prophecy and, because of it, ultimately fulfills it in an ironic twist of fate. J.K. says this of the prophecy in Macbeth: “If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.” There is, in fact, the self-fulfilling prophecy that is central to the Potter series, as Professor Trelawney predicts:
“The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. … Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not … and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives. … The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…”
The ambiguous language caused quite the controversy, particularly the line, “…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…” (Whether this meant both Harry and Voldemort needed to die or if one needed to vanquish the other was a topic of great debate.) Knowing what we do now, however, we know that a male child would be born at the end of July. The prophecy is actually open-ended because it could apply to both Harry Potter and Neville Longbottom. Because of this, Voldemort would have to choose (by “mark[ing] him as his equal”–the lightning scar).
Voldemort chooses Harry because Harry is a half-blood like Voldemort (not a pure-blood like Neville). I should also point out that Voldemort merely chose the boy who would have the power to destroy him–this does not necessarily mean that Harry would defeat Voldemort, simply that it was up to him to vanquish the Dark Lord. It could very well have been the case that Voldemort would defeat Harry; fortunately the reverse happened. But the series revolves around this crucial self-fulfilling prophecy, much like Macbeth.
Rowling did, in fact, draw this aspect of the Harry Potter series directly from Macbeth (though she drew many elements from different works and myths as well). She uses the prophecy as she interprets its significance in the play: Voldemort chose his enemy, and it was up to Harry to defeat Voldemort–that is, they had to make it happen on their own.
Going back to the third Harry Potter film, the references to Macbeth are more for effect–to create an atmosphere and tone similar to that in the play, and to point viewers (and readers) to its themes. However, Macbeth‘s influence is rooted much deeper in the series than casual references–the play serves an important purpose without which the series could not exist.