Macbeth not only is the shortest of William Shakespeare’s great tragedies but also is anomalous in some structural respects. Like Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622) and only a very few other Shakespearean plays, Macbeth is without the complications of a subplot. Consequently, the action moves forward in a swift and inexorable rush. More significantly, the climax—the murder of Duncan—takes place very early in the play. As a result, attention is focused on the various consequences of the crime rather than on the ambiguities or moral dilemmas that had preceded and occasioned it.
In this, the play differs from Othello, where the hero commits murder only after long plotting, and from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), where the hero spends most of the play in moral indecision. Macbeth is more like King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), where destructive action flows from the central premise of the division of the kingdom. However, Macbeth differs from that play, too, in that it does not raise the monumental, cosmic questions of good and evil in nature. Instead, it explores the moral and psychological effects of evil in the life of one man. For all the power and prominence of Lady Macbeth, the drama remains essentially the story of the lord who commits regicide and thereby enmeshes himself in a complex web of consequences.
When Macbeth first enters, he is far from the villain whose experiences the play subsequently describes. He has just returned from a glorious military success in defense of the Crown. He is rewarded by the grateful Duncan, with preferment as thane of Cawdor. This honor, which initially qualifies him for the role of hero, ironically intensifies the horror of the murder Macbeth soon commits.
Macbeth’s fall is rapid, and his crime is more clearly a sin than is usually the case in tragedy. It is not mitigated by mixed motives or insufficient knowledge. Moreover, the sin is regicide, an action viewed during the Renaissance as exceptionally foul, since it struck at God’s representative on Earth. The sin is so boldly offensive that many have tried to find extenuation in the impetus given...
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