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.
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