Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Essay - Macbeth (Vol. 29)

Macbeth (Vol. 29)



See also Macbeth Criticism (Volume 44), and Volumes 57, 69, 80, 90.

Recent criticism of Macbeth has been preoccupied with the play's presentation of opposing moral values, with the conflicts between natural and supernatural, male and female, and good and evil being the particular focus of critical debate. Thomas McAlindon (1991), for example, has analyzed the title character's entire motivation in terms of metaphysically opposing forces, maintaining that "the meaning of Macbeth's ambition [is] deeply enmeshed in Shakespeare's conception of microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, so that it … dramatises a struggle between the forces of unity and disunity." Other scholars, however, have maintained that such concentration on the drama's oppositional elements simplifies the protagonist's ethical position. Reading the play in the light of performance, R. A. Foakes (1962) stated: "Appearance and reality are no longer separated and set side by side, but are … confused or identified with one another, so that 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' evil and good become hard to distinguish for Macbeth, and he is not only the hero, but the villain of this play as well." Similarly, François Laroque (1989) and Stanley Wells (1994) argue that Shakespeare uses equivocal language in his discussion of the natural and the supernatural, thus denying primacy to either. Other critics, such as Barbara L. Parker (1970) and Huston Diehl (1983), have even contended that the ambiguities in Macbeth ultimately suggest a sceptical attitude to the possibility of any reliable human knowledge of the world.

Another primary concern of modern scholars has been the treatment of gender issues. Both Stanley Cavell (1993) and Robert Kimbrough (1983) maintain that Shakespeare blurs traditional gender distinctions in the play. Kimbrough argues that "while Shakespeare in Macbeth criticizes the destructive polarity of masculine versus feminine, constantly informing the play is his recognition of a fuller, healthier way of life, his vision of potential human wholeness, his androgynous vision." By contrast, Carolyn Asp (1981) has focused on the masculine presence in the drama, claiming that Macbeth represents Shakespeare's criticism of an extreme masculine stereotype: "as Macbeth accepts a false masculinity that simultaneously fosters the illusion of his godlike power and diminishes his total human development, he is alienated from the very society that inculcates the stereotype."

The character of Macbeth remains problematic for modern critics. According to J. A. Bryant (1961), Macbeth is a wholly negative character who possesses the capacity for good but chooses to commit evil instead: "Macbeth is certainly diabolical, and he does the Devil's work; but like the Devil he has willed himself into his desperate position, and he is captive of nothing except the Providence he chose to ignore." Other critics, such as Robert B. Heilman (1966), emphasize the ambivalent nature of Macbeth, describing the title character as "the criminal as tragic hero." In examining the play as it appears in performance, Julian Markels (1961) and E. A. J. Honigmann (1976) have maintained that the fundamental ambivalence of the play resides in the response of the audience. They argue that Shakespeare's handling of staging, structure, and symbolism compels the audience both to empathize with Macbeth and to be morally repulsed by him. While some critics, such as Clifford Leech (1967), have claimed that these ambiguities represent Macbeth's leading "a more abundant life through his guilt," T. McAlindon (1973) insists that the ambiguity itself is symptomatic of Macbeth's "breakdown in natural and appropriate relationships, and the semantic disorders and social confusion which are necessarily attendant upon such a breakdown." This response to Macbeth as hero and villain, and Macbeth's apparent insight into his own condition and decline, are for Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) and Barbara Everett (1989) essential to Shakespeare's creating a truly "tragic" character. As Mack writes in "The Voice in the Sword": "Our Macbeth is a hero as well as villain, and our response to him is multiple … what we have been shown is the destruction of a soul, whose intuitions of a life beyond life are his glory and become his ruin." Thus, for many contemporary critics, the complex relations between the natural and the supernatural, the masculine and the feminine, and good and evil, especially in the character of Macbeth, may not be dichotomies in which Shakespeare depicts clearly dominant elements, but rather ambiguous relation-ships complicated by Shakespeare for the sake of tragic implication.

Language And Symbolism

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1966)

SOURCE : "Image and Symbol in 'Macbeth'," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 45-54.

[In the following essay, Muir surveys the recurring images and symbols in Macbeth, focusing in particular on images of light and darkness, order and chaos.]

A good deal has been written about the imagery of Macbeth since Caroline Spurgeon showed [in Leading Motives in the Imagery of Shakespeare's Tragedies] that the iterative image was that of a man in ill-fitting garments. It has been pointed out, for example, that the image can be interpreted in more than one way and that we need not necessarily suppose that Shakespeare looked on his hero as a small man in garments too large for him: we may rather suppose that the point of the image is that the garments were stolen or that they symbolize the hypocrisy to which Macbeth is reluctantly committed when he embarks on his career of crime. It has also been pointed out that this particular image should be considered in relation to a wider group of tailoring images, of which the imaginary tailor, admitted by the Porter of Hell-gate, may be regarded as a kind of patron.

What is more important is that, since the publication of R. B. Heilman's [This Great Stage (1948) and Magic in the Web (1956)], W. H. Clemen's The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery and G. Wilson Knight's series of inter pretations, Miss Spurgeon's concentration on a single iterative image, even though numerically predominant, is apt to be misleading. The total meaning of each play depends on a complex of interwoven patterns and the imagery must be considered in relation to character and structure.

One group of images to which Cleanth Brooks called attention [in The Well Wrought Urn, 1947] was that concerned with babes. It has been suggested … that Shakespeare may have noticed in the general description of the manners of Scotland included in Holinshed's Chronicles that every Scotswoman 'would take intolerable pains to bring up and nourish her own children'; and H. N. Paul pointed out [in The Royal Play of 'Macbeth', 1950] that one of the topics selected for debate before James I, during his visit to Oxford in the summer of 1605, was whether a man's character was influenced by his nurse's milk. Whatever the origin of the images in Macbeth relating to breast-feeding, Shakespeare uses them for a very dramatic purpose. Their first appearance is in Lady Macbeth's invocation of the evil spirits to take possession of her:

      Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.

They next appear in the scene where she incites Macbeth to the murder of Duncan:

      I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me—
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as
Have done to this.

In between these two passages, Macbeth himself, debating whether to do the deed, admits that

          Pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast,

would plead against it; and Lady Macbeth, when she first considers whether she can persuade her husband to kill Duncan, admits that she fears his nature:

It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

Later in the play, Malcolm, when he is pretending to be worse even than Macbeth, says that he loves crime:

       Nay, had I pow'r, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.

In these passages the babe symbolizes pity, and the necessity for pity, and milk symbolizes humanity, tenderness, sympathy, natural human feelings, the sense of kinship, all of which have been outraged by the murderers. Lady Macbeth can nerve herself to the deed only by denying her real nature; and she can overcome Macbeth's scruples only by making him ignore his feelings of human-kindness—his kinship with his fellow-men.

Cleanth Brooks suggests therefore that it is appropriate that one of the three apparitions should be a bloody child, since Macduff is converted into an avenger by the murder of his wife and babes. On one level, the bloody child stands for Macduff; on another level, it is the naked new-born babe whose pleadings Macbeth has ignored. [In The Business of Criticism, 1959] Helen Gardner took Cleanth Brooks to task for considering these images in relation to one another. She argued that in his comments on 'Pity, like a naked new-born babe' he had sacrificed

a Shakespearian depth of human feeling … by attempting to interpret an image by the aid of what associations it happens to arouse in him, and by being more interested in making symbols of babes fit each other than in listening to what Macbeth is saying. Macbeth is a tragedy and not a melodrama or a symbolic drama of retribution. The reappearance of 'the babe symbol' in the apparition scene and in Macduff's revelation of his birth has distracted the critic's attention from what deeply moves the imagination and the conscience in this vision of a whole world weeping at the inhumanity of helplessness betrayed and innocence and beauty destroyed. It is the judgment of the human heart that Macbeth fears here, and the punishment which the speech foreshadows is not that he will be cut down by Macduff, but that having murdered his own humanity he will enter a world of appalling loneliness, of meaningless activity, unloved himself, and unable to love.

Although this is both eloquent and true, it does not quite dispose of Brooks's interpretation of the imagery. Miss Gardner shows that, elsewhere in Shakespeare, 'a cherub is thought of as not only young, beautiful, and innocent, but as associated with the virtue of patience'; and that in the Macbeth passage the helpless babe and the innocent and beautiful cherub 'call out the pity and love by which Macbeth is judged. It is not terror of heaven's vengeance which makes him pause, but the terror of moral isolation. Yet, earlier in the same speech Macbeth expresses fear of retribution in this life—fear that he himself will have to drink the ingredients of his own poisoned chalice—and his comparison of Duncan's virtues to 'angels, trumpet-tongued' implies a fear of judgment in the life to come, notwithstanding his boast that he would 'jump' it. We may assume, perhaps, that the discrepancy between the argument of the speech and the imagery employed is deliberate. On the surface Macbeth appears to be giving merely prudential reasons for not murdering Duncan; but Shakespeare makes him reveal by the imagery he employs that he, or his unconscious mind, is horrified by the thought of the deed to which he is being driven.

Miss Gardner does not refer to the breast-feeding images—even Cleanth Brooks does not mention one of the most significant—yet all these images are impressive in their contexts and, taken together, they coalesce into a symbol of humanity, kinship and tenderness violated by Macbeth's crimes. Miss Gardner is right in demanding that the precise meaning and context of each image should be considered, but wrong, I believe, in refusing to see any significance in the group as a whole. Macbeth, of course, is a tragedy; but I know of no valid definition of tragedy which would prevent the play from being at the same time a symbolic drama of retribution.

Another important group of images is concerned with sickness and medicine, and it is significant that they all appear in the last three acts of the play after Macbeth has ascended the throne; for Scotland is suffering from the disease of tyranny, which can be cured, as fever was thought to be cured, only by bleeding or purgation. The tyrant, indeed, uses sickness imagery of himself. He tells the First Murderer that so long as Banquo is alive he wears his health but sickly; when he hears of Fleance's escape he exclaims 'Then comes my fit again'; and he envies Duncan in the grave, sleeping after life's fitful fever, since life itself is one long illness. In the last act of the play a doctor, called in to diagnose Lady Macbeth's illness, confesses that he cannot

       minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart.

Macbeth then professes to believe that what is amiss with Scotland is not his own evil tyranny but the English army of liberation:

What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

On the other side, the victims of tyranny look forward to wholesome days when Scotland will be freed. Malcolm says that Macbeth's very name blisters their tongues and he laments that 'each new day a gash' is added to Scotland's wounds. In the last act Caithness refers to Malcolm as 'the medicine of the sickly weal',

And with him pour we in our country's purge
Each drop of us.

Lennox adds:

          Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the

Macbeth is the disease from which Scotland is suffering; Malcolm, the rightful king, is the sovereign flower, both royal and curative. Macbeth, it is said,

Cannot buckle his distemper'd cause
Within the belt of rule.

James I, in A Counter-blast to Tobacco, referred to himself as 'the proper Phisician of his Politicke-bodie', whose duty it was 'to purge it of all those diseases, by Medicines meet for the same'. It is possible that Shakespeare had read this pamphlet, although, of course, disease-imagery is to be found in most of the plays written about this time. In Hamlet and Coriolanus it is applied to the body politic, as indeed it was by many writers on political theory. Shakespeare may have introduced the King's Evil as an allusion to James I's reluctant use of his supposed healing powers; but even without this topical reference, the incident provides a contrast to the evil supernatural represented by the Weird Sisters and is therefore dramatically relevant.

The contrast between good and evil is brought out in a variety of ways. There is not merely the contrast between the good and bad kings, which becomes explicit in the scene where Malcolm falsely accuses himself of avarice, lechery, cruelty and all of Macbeth's vices, and disclaims the possession of the king-becoming graces:

Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.

There is also a contrast throughout the play between the powers of light and darkness. It has often been observed that many scenes are set in darkness. Duncan arrives at Inverness as night falls; he is murdered during the night; Banquo returns from his last ride as night is again falling; Lady Macbeth has light by her continually; and even the daylight scenes during the first part of the play are mostly gloomy in their setting—a blasted heath, wrapped in mist, a dark cavern. The murder of Duncan is followed by darkness at noon—'dark night strangles the travelling lamp'. Before the murder Macbeth prays to the stars to hide their fires and Lady Macbeth invokes the night to conceal their crime:

Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry 'Hold, hold'.

Macbeth, as he goes towards the chamber of the sleeping Duncan, describes how

            o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep.

The word 'night' echoes through the first two scenes of the third act; and Macbeth invokes night to conceal the murder of Banquo:

       Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day …
       Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do

In the scene in England and in the last act of the play—except for the sleep-walking scene—the darkness is replaced by light.

The symbolism is obvious. In many of these contexts night and darkness are associated with evil, and day and light are linked with good. The 'good things of day' are contrasted with 'night's black agents'; and, in the last act, day stands for the victory of the forces of liberation (v, iv, I; v, vii , 27; v, viii, 37). The 'midnight hags' are 'the instruments of darkness'; and some editors believe that when Malcolm (at the end of Act IV) says that 'The Powers above / Put on their instruments' he is referring to their human instruments—Malcolm, Macduff and their soldiers.

The opposition between the good and evil supernatural is paralleled by similar contrasts between angel and devil, heaven and hell, truth and falsehood—and the opposites are frequently juxtaposed:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good.
             Merciful powers
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!
           It is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Several critics have pointed out the opposition in the play between night and day, life and death, grace and evil, a contrast which is reiterated more than four hundred times.

The evidence for this has gone beyond imagery proper and most modern imagistic critics have extended their field to cover not merely metaphor and simile, but the visual symbols implied by the dialogue, which would be visible in performance, and even the iteration of key words. The Poet Laureate once remarked that Macbeth is about blood; and from the appearance of the bloody sergeant in the second scene of the play to the last scene of all, we have a continual vision of blood. Macbeth's sword in the battle 'smok' d with bloody execution' he and Banquo seemed to 'bathe in reeking wounds'; the Sergeant's 'gashes cry for help'. The Second Witch comes from the bloody task of killing swine. The visionary dagger is stained with 'gouts of blood'. Macbeth, after the murder, declares that not all great Neptune's ocean will cleanse his hands:

       this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Duncan is spoken of as the fountain of his sons' blood; his wounds

       look'd like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance.

The world had become a 'bloody stage'. Macbeth, before the murder of Banquo, invokes the 'bloody and invisible hand' of night. We are told of the twenty trenched gashes on Banquo's body and his ghost shakes his 'gory locks' at Macbeth, who is convinced that 'blood will have blood'. At the end of the banquet scene, he confesses wearily that he is 'stepp'd so far' in blood, that

       should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

The Second Apparition, a bloody child, advises Macbeth to be 'bloody, bold, and resolute'. Malcolm declares that Scotland bleeds,

       and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.

Lady Macbeth, sleep-walking, tries in vain to remove the 'damned spot' from her hands:

Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

In the final scene, Macbeth's severed head is displayed on a pole.… The subject of the play is murder, and the prevalence of blood ensures that we shall never forget the physical realities in metaphysical overtones.

Equally important is the iteration of sleep. The first statement of the theme is when the First Witch curses the Master of the Tiger:

Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and his wife

In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly;

while Duncan, 'after life's fitful fever … sleeps well'. An anonymous lord looks forward to the overthrow of the tyrant, when they will be able to sleep in peace. Because of 'a great perturbation in nature', Lady Macbeth

        is troubled with thick coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.

The key passage in the theme of sleeplessness, derived apparently from Holinshed and Seneca's Hercules Furens, occurs just after the murder of Duncan, when Macbeth hears a voice which cries 'Sleep no more!' It is really the echo of his own conscience.… As Murry puts it [in Shakespeare, 1935]:

He has murdered Sleep, that is 'the death of each day's life'—that daily death of Time which makes Time human.

The murder of a sleeping guest, the murder of a sleeping king, the murder of a saintly old man, the murder, as it were, of sleep itself, carries with it the appropriate retribution of insomnia.

As Murry's comment suggests, the theme of sleep is linked with that of time. Macbeth is promised by the Weird Sisters that he will be king 'hereafter' and Banquo wonders if they 'can look into the seeds of time'. Macbeth, tempted by the thought of murder, declares that 'Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings' and decides that 'Time and the hour runs through the roughest day'. Lady Macbeth says she feels 'The future in the instant'. In his soliloquy in the last scene of Act I, Macbeth speaks of himself as 'here upon this bank and shoal of time', time being contrasted with the sea of eternity. He pretends that he would not worry about the future, or about the life to come, if he could be sure of success in the present; and his wife implies that the conjunction of time and place for the murder will never recur. Just before the murder, Macbeth reminds himself of the exact time and place, so that he can relegate … 'the moment to the past from which it will never escape into the future'. Macbeth is troubled by his inability to say amen, because he dimly realizes he has forfeited the possibility of blessing and because he knows that he has become 'the deed's creature'. The nightmares of the guilty pair and the return of Banquo from the grave symbolize the haunting of the present by the past. When Macbeth is informed of his wife's death, he describes how life has become for him a succession of meaningless days, the futility he has brought upon himself by his crimes:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

At the very end of the play, Macduff announces that with the death of the tyrant 'The time is free' and Malcolm promises, without 'a large expense of time' to do what is necessary ('which would be planted newly with the time') and to bring back order from chaos 'in measure, time, and place'.

From one point of view Macbeth can be regarded as a play about the disruption of order through evil, and its final restoration. The play begins with what the witches call a hurly-burly and ends with the restoration of order by Malcolm. Order is represented throughout by the bonds of loyalty; and chaos is represented by the powers of darkness with their upsetting of moral values ('Fair is foul and foul is fair'). The witches can raise winds to fight against the churches, to sink ships and destroy buildings: they are the enemies both of religion and of civilization. Lady Macbeth invokes the evil spirits to take possession of her; and, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth's mind begins to dwell on universal destruction. He is willing to 'let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer' merely to be freed from his nightmares. Again, in his conjuration of the witches in the cauldron scene, he is prepared to risk absolute chaos, 'even till destruction sicken' through surfeit, rather than not obtain an answer. In his last days, Macbeth is 'aweary of the sun' and he wishes 'the estate of the world' were undone. Order in Scotland, even the moral order in the universe, can be restored only by his death. [In Dramatic Providence in Macbeth, 1958] G. R. Elliott contrasts the threefold hail with which Malcolm is greeted at the end of the play with the threefold hail of the witches on the blasted heath: they mark the destruction of order and its restoration.

All through the play ideas of order and chaos are juxtaposed. When Macbeth is first visited by temptation his 'single state of man' is shaken and 'nothing is but what is not'. In the next scene (I, iv) Shakespeare presents ideas of loyalty, duty, and the reward of faithful service, in contrast both to the treachery of the dead Thane of Cawdor and to the treacherous thoughts of the new thane. Lady Macbeth prays to be spared 'compunctious visitings of nature' and in the next scene, after the description of the 'pleasant seat' of the castle with its images of natural beauty, she expresses her gratitude and loyalty to the king. Before the murder, Macbeth reminds himself of the threefold tie of loyalty which binds him to Duncan, as kinsman, subject and host. He is afraid that the very stones will cry out against the unnaturalness of the murder, which is, in fact, accompanied by strange portents:

Lamentings heard i' th' air, strange screams of
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confus'd events
New hatch'd to th' woeful time.

The frequent iteration of the word 'strange' is one of the ways by which Shakespeare underlines the disruption of the natural order.

Passages which older critics deplored, and which even H. N. Paul regarded as flattery of King James, may be seen as part of the theme we have been discussing. Macbeth's curious discourse on dogs is one of these passages. It was inserted not mainly because of James's proclamation on the subject, but to stress the order of nature—naturae benignitas—'the diverse functions and variety within a single species testifying to an overruling harmony and design' and it is used to persuade his tools to murder Banquo. In the scene in England, Malcolm's self-accusations—in particular his confession of wishing to uproar the universal peace and confound all unity on earth—are disorders contrasted with the virtues he pretends not to have and with the miraculous powers of the pious Edward.

Reference must be made to two other groups of images, which I have discussed elsewhere in some detail—those relating to equivocation and those which are concerned with the contrast between what the Porter calls desire and performance. The theme of equivocation runs all through the play. It was suggested, no doubt, by the topicality of the subject at Father Garnet's trial, but this links up with 'the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth', the juggling fiends 'That keep the word of promise to our ear / And break it to our hope', and Macbeth's own equivocation after the murder of Duncan:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality—
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

Macbeth's intention is to avert suspicion from himself by following his wife's advice to make their 'griefs and clamour roar upon' Duncan's death. But, as he speaks the words, the audience knows that he has unwittingly spoken the truth. Instead of lying like truth, he has told the truth while intending to deceive. As he expresses it later, when full realization has come to him, life has become meaningless, a succession of empty tomorrows, 'a tale told by an idiot'.

The gap between desire and performance, enunciated by the Porter, is expressed over and over again by Macbeth and his wife. It takes the form, most strikingly, in the numerous passages contrasting eye and hand, culminating in Macbeth's cry—

What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine

and in the scene before the murder of Banquo when the bloodstained is no longer Macbeth's, but Night's:

       Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.

In the sleep-walking scene, Lady Macbeth's unavailing efforts to wash the smell of the blood from her hand symbolize the indelibility of guilt; and Angus in the next scene declares that Macbeth feels

His secret murders sticking on his hands.

The soul is damned for the deeds committed by the hand.

It has recently been argued that the opposition between the hand and eye provides the clearest explanation of that division in Macbeth between his clear 'perception of evil and his rapt drift into evil'. Lawrence W. Hyman suggests [in Tennessee Studies (1960)] that Macbeth is able to do the murder only because of the deep division between his head and his hand. The

almost autonomous action of Macbeth's dagger, as if it had no connection with a human brain or a human heart, explains the peculiar mood that pervades the murder scene … As soon as he lays down the dagger, however, his 'eye' cannot help but see what the hand has done.

A study of the imagery and symbolism in Macbeth does not radically alter one's interpretation of the play. It would, indeed, be suspect if it did. In reading some modern criticisms of Shakespeare one has the feeling that the critic is reading between the lines and creating from the interstices a play rather different from the one which Shakespeare wrote and similar to a play the critic himself might have written. Such interpretations lead us away from Shakespeare; they drop a veil between us and the plays; and they substitute a formula for the living reality, a philosophy or a theology instead of a dramatic presentation of life. I have not attempted to reshape Macbeth to a particular ideological image, nor selected parts of the play to prove a thesis. Some selection had to be made for reasons of space, but I have tried to make the selection representative of the whole.

We must not imagine, of course, that Macbeth is merely an elaborate pattern of imagery. It is a play; and in the theatre we ought to recover, as best we may, a state of critical innocence. We should certainly not attempt to notice the images of clothing or breast-feeding or count the allusions to blood or sleep. But, just as Shakespeare conveys to us the unconscious minds of the characters by means of the imagery, so, in watching the play, we may be totally unconscious of the patterns of imagery and yet absorb them unconsciously by means of our imaginative response to the poetry. In this way they will be subsumed under the total experience of the play.

And what of the producer? It would be quite fatal for him to get his actors to underline the key images—to make them, as it were, italicize them with a knowing wink at the professors in the stalls or the students in the gallery. All we should ask of the producer in this matter is that he should give us what Shakespeare wrote, and all that Shakespeare wrote, and that he should not try to improve on the script provided by the dramatist.

T. McAlindon (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Macbeth," in Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 197-219.

[In the following essay, McAlindon discusses the numerical symbolism that reinforces Macbeth as a "tragedy of ambition."]

Even though the text overtly invites us to do so, nothing might seem more reductive than to consider Macbeth as a tragedy of ambition. The meaning of Macbeth's ambition, however, is complex, being deeply enmeshed in Shakespeare's conception of microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, so that it reaches out to engage in a significant relationship with everything else in the play. In this respect Shakespeare is developing a conception of ambition which was systematically and explicitly articulated in Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, where the hero, a 'fiery thirster after sovereignty' (Part I,, justifies his ambition and its attendant violence by an appeal to the dynamics of Nature:

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
                              (Part I,II.vii. 18-20)

Thus 'martial' Tamburlaine is identified throughout with the element of fire, at once the 'noblest' and most 'aspiring' as well as the most destructive of the elements. Zenocrate is the Venus whose tears moderate his violence, his marriage to her being analogous to the concordant discord of Nature herself. Her death unleashes all the destructiveness in his nature, so that he ends his career with the burning of Babylon and dies as the victim of a fiery fever.

The character of Macbeth and the whole atmosphere in which he moves set Shakespeare's tragedy at a vast remove from Marlowe's. But in addition to the common subject of an ambitious usurper, and the shared Renaissance sense that ambition can be a noble virtue or a deadly vice, the two plays have an underlying philosophical affinity that must have been readily perceptible to Renaissance audiences. Macbeth's ambition is a desire not so much for power and wealth as for 'greatness'. It proceeds from a restless striving which he himself scarcely understands and which compels him to 'o'erleap' all obstacles of person, time, and place so as to win, as tokens of his transcendent worth, golden opinions and the golden round. It is a form of desire made manifest not only in martial valour but also in a powerful imagination which obliterates the achievements and satisfactions of the present with its bewitching delineations of future deeds. It makes him yearn always for 'more' (I.iii.70), drives him to 'do and … do and … do' (line 10), makes him vault beyond great and greater to 'the greatest' (line 117). But counter-balancing this compulsion towards striving and strife is Macbeth's 'milk of human kindness' (I.v.14), signifying the impulse which binds him to others in affectionate partnership; thus before his tragic transformation he is a man loved (; IV.iii.13) as well as admired by all. Emblematised as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Banquo in defence of a just social order, this union of contrary impulses is already on the point of collapse at the beginning of the play; and its collapse is Macbeth's and his country's tragedy. Critics have rightly pointed out that although Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, it has some claim to being 'the most complex and subtle in its statement'. Many, too, have pointed out the characterisation of its criminal hero has a strange ambivalence which is reflected in a ubiquitous sense of doubleness. That the play's subtle complexities are generated by its dualistic outlook is generally acknowledged; what remains to be emphasised is that its dualistic character emanates from a particular construction of reality which Shakespeare absorbed from his own culture.

Perhaps more than any of the other tragedies, Macbeth dramatises a struggle between the forces of unity and disunity. Without opening up the debated question as to what extent it is a tragedy tailored to please King James, one can reasonably detect in this emphasis a discreet nod in the direction of James's title—in which he himself took pride—as the prince of peace and union. The emphasis can be seen in the characterisation of Duncan as a conscientious ruler who leaves fighting to those of his nobility who relish it, rewards them generously for their endeavours, and seeks to bind them all to him and to each other in a gracious and fruitful mutuality. Although the order which Duncan represents is a feudal order, Shakespeare naturalises, validates, and interprets it not by the discourse of hierarchy but by that of contrarious unity. Some three years before Macbeth, Middleton and Dekker celebrated James's coronation and progress through the city of London with an 'entertainment' which actually personifies the Four Elements and shows them joining hands in a renunciation of their 'natural desire / To combat each with other'—symbolising an end to the dissensions which afflicted English society at the close of Elizabeth's reign. So too Shakespeare delineates the essential significance of Duncan's character in the superb passage where he and Banquo evoke an image of nature's opposites, both elemental and sexual, joyfully united in a procreant harmony ( To argue that Macbeth deploys the 'naive', 'geriatric', unequivocal discourse of a metaphysically sanctioned absolutism, and that this hierarchical discourse is mischievously negated at every point by a double-vision discourse that reflects the deconstructive energies and indeterminacies of language (a subversive process which Shakespeare himself was by implication unaware of) is entirely unacceptable. As even this purportedly 'naive' and 'geriatric' passage suggests, the double vision of the play is manifestly the product of its controlling discourse: the harmonious order jointly imagined by Duncan and Banquo accommodates hierarchy, but it is essentially a loving partnership of nature's opposites; and the poetry no less than the dramatic context makes clear that this contrarious, 'pendent' order is as fragile and vulnerable as it is fruitful.

Evil is regularly referred to in the most orthodox manner in Macbeth as unnatural, on the assumption that whatsoever is natural is good. But this simple conception of nature is assimilated to a more comprehensive view which acknowledges 'nature's mischief (I.v.50) no less than its bounty (III.i.97), compunction (I.v.4), and love. The fate of Macduff's nest and its abandoned 'birds', pitilessly destroyed 'At one fell swoop' by Macbeth's 'Hell-kite' (IV.iii.216-19), stands in diptychal relation to the Duncan-Banquo passage on the temple-haunting martlet and correlates with numerous imagistic echoes of nature's dark ferocity. This natural ferocity is intimately associated with demonic evil and with the attempt of the fallen angels (IV.iii.22) to undo the work of the Creator; many in Shakespeare's audience would no doubt have recalled standard Christian doctrine to the effect that the strife of the elements in the world and in humankind was a consequence of the Adamic fall. But the demonic supernaturalism of the play functions more as intersification than as explanation: it adds horror, mystery, and awe to the extraordinary spectacle of cruel violence erupting in the 'gentle weal' and its most 'worthy gentleman'. The most important insight furnished by the play is that the equiv ocating witches and the malignant spirits that tend on mortal thoughts are potent precisely because they are in tune with the bewildering doubleness of the natural order.

One of the most remarkable features of this tragedy is the way in which number symbolism co-operates with nature symbolism in the process of signalling key ideas relating to the tragic theme of disunity and chaos. This may be largely due to the fact that here, as in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare the tragedian shows a more than usual interest in time, the movement of the heavenly bodies, and history. The tradition of numerical symbolism and the temporal sensibility were closely related in literature since there was a natural connection between the time sense, astronomy, and the art of exact measurement according to number.

It has long been recognised that Macbeth abounds in trinities and that this accords with the traditional association of the number three with the rituals of witchcraft. But threes and twos, trebling and doubling, are closely linked throughout the play; and this relationship, I would add, is extended to include the idea of endless multiplication—'terrible numbers', 'multitudinous seas', 'the multiplying villainies of nature', 'confineless harms'. What this pattern does—or would have done for a Renaissance audience attuned to cosmological discourse—is to evoke in large the Pythagorean concept of cosmos as limit and measure and of chaos as the unlimited, the innumerable. In its totality, therefore, the number pattern corresponds with Macbeth's grim calls for the frame of things to disjoint (IH.ii.16) and the united elements to 'Confound and swallow … up' all natural and human order (IV.i.52-60) if his desires are not fulfilled. More particularly, this symbolic pattern focuses sharply on the idea that 'doubleness' is the root cause of tragic change and confusion, so that the witches' refrain, 'Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble' (IV.i.10-11, 19-20, 35-6) might be taken as the play's epigraph.

… [In] A Midsummer Night's Dream and (less obviously) Othello Shakespeare exploited the traditional association of 'the indefinite binarie' with the undoing of unity and limit, and with error, rebellion, duplicity, confusion, darkness, and devilry. More obviously relevant to the concerns of Macbeth, this symbol is thoroughly integrated to the tragedy and semantically modified to support its special pattern of meaning. On the one hand, the symbol signifies excess, transgression of limit, the beginning of multiplication (doubling). It relates thus to Macbeth's fondness for the word 'more' ('Tell me more!') and his contempt for 'enough' ('And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!'"). It relates also to Banquo's prayer for restraint (II.i.8), to his warning that unlawful augmentation may mean loss (lines 26-7), and his perception that Duncan, who retires to bed 'shut up / In measureless content' (lines 16-17), has discovered the great paradox that self-fulfillment entails self-containment. But doubleness also signifies duality-without-unity, contradiction, duplicity, and so, too, confusion and doubt (there is covert play throughout on the aural link between 'double' and 'doubt': 'I … begin / To doubt th'equivocation of the fiend' etc.). The most frequent manifestations of doubleness are specifically stylistic and are to be found in the extensive use of antithesis, paradox, oxymoron, pun, equivocation, and dramatic irony (a form of continuous and unintentional pun or equivocation.) But doubleness as a numerical phenomenon is heavily stressed throughout, and at the start it is projected in such a way as to illuminate the whole nature of the impending tragedy. In scene ii (after the three witches have chanted their confusingly dualistic sing-song—'the battle's lost and won', 'Fair is foul and foul is fair'), the Captain reports on the progress of the battle against the rebels, and in doing so depicts a fierce struggle between two almost undistinguishable opponents (in this context even the names of the two men add to the sense of near-identical opposites). The battle, reports the Captain, stood 'doubtful', like 'two spent swimmers that do cling together / An d choke their art (I.ii.7-10). Then 'brave Macbeth' 'carv'd out' a passage through the rebels until he confronted 'the merciless Macdonwald' (on whom 'the multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm') and quickly sliced him in two, having first 'unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops' (lines 7-23). The next part of the Captain's report focuses on the heroic partnership of Macbeth and Banquo, and here the emphasis is on the way uncurbed valour might prove self-destructive: undo the unity of the self, make the hero his own enemy. The two men were 'As cannons overcharg'd with double cracks' (where 'crack' signifies both 'split' and 'explosion'). Undaunted by the increased numbers on the opposite side, they 'Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe' and seemed as if they would 'memorise another Golgotha' (lines 37-41). The impression of doubleness, doubt, and confusion which emanates from these two passages—Duncan's 'worthy gentleman' is also a 'butcher' (v.vii.69) in the making; the two honourable captains threaten to emulate the soldiers who crucified Christ—is reinforced in Rosse's account of the battle and causally associated once more with the idea of excess: Macbeth stood firm against Norway's 'terrible numbers' and confronted the rebellious Thane of Cawdor 'with self-comparisons, / Point against point, rebellious arm 'gainst arm, / Curbing his lavish spirit' (lines 53-8). The hint of contrarious transformation arising from the syntactic displacement of the word 'rebellious', which should qualify the second 'arm', is resoundingly accented at the end of this scene by the King's declaration that Macbeth is to be rewarded with Cawdor's title.

In the third scene Macbeth meets the witches for the first time, and their equivocal prophecies begin the process of Assuring his unstable identity. Because they tell him 'Two truths' (that he is both Glamis and Cawdor), and also revive old thoughts about murdering Duncan (as is usually inferred from his guilty 'start' at line 51), Macbeth judges that their 'soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good'. Banquo resolves this paradox by recourse to standard Christian doctrine, remarking that the instruments of darkness tell us trifling truths 'to betray's / In deepest consequence'. But Macbeth seems not to hear his 'partner', for he drifts off immediately into the 'Two truths' soliloquy and reveals that his 'single state of man' is so shaken that nothing is but what is not: in imagination, he is already murdering the King whom he serves so valiantly (I.iii.122-44).

Initially, Lady Macbeth's influence is more important than that of the witches in undoing Macbeth's single state. She is fully conscious of how doubtful he stands ('Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it … wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win' (I.v. 16-19). She is also possessed of an instinct for doubling, and a contempt for unity, singleness, and limit, that will overwhelm him. In her hypocritical welcoming of Duncan, she protests that all her service, 'In every point twice done, and then done double, / Were poor and single service' when matched against his generosity ( This prepares for her assault on Macbeth. His 'better part of man' claims that to do more than becomes a man is to be none; but she retorts with consuming conviction that on the contrary he would be 'so much more the man' if he were to murder Duncan (I.vii.46-51). And before this vision of being 'so much more' the man he is—with his courage' 'screw'd to the sticking place'—Macbeth collapses in awe: 'Bring forth men children only!'

One of Shakespeare's favourite symbols for the binary nature of human beings, the hand (our two-handedness), is incorporated in the pattern of symbolic doubleness and developed into one of the most imaginatively potent verbal and visual motifs in the play. In Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, there was the hand of love and the hand of hate, the hand that unites and the hand that violently divides. Here that symbolic dichotomy remains, but the eye joins the gentle hand in opposition to its violent counterpart. This complication of the manual symbol allows it to mesh with the light-darkness dualism and at the same time to serve as an index of the psychophysical disorder which Macbeth and his wife bring upon themselves—and ultimately on the whole of Scotland—when they commit themselves to the path of murder. In I.iv and I.v, each of them independently identifies the hand with action that is not only violent but also wilfully blind: carried out so swiftly as to escape the restraining censorship of the eye, symbolising (as the most sensitive of the bodily organs) that side of human nature which recoils in pain from the perception of physical cruelty. Macbeth's,

                         Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my dark and deep desires!
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

is echoed in his wife's

                              Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, 'Hold, hold!' (I.v.47-51).

That the eye has largely displaced the gentle hand as the violent hand's opposite (moving the emphasis away from simple contrast to the idea of an intense and traumatic revulsion) is most clearly shown when Macbeth steels himself for the killing of Banquo:

                               Come, seeling
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens …

The most memorable uses of the hand—eye opposition are both visual and verbal. The dagger which marshals Macbeth towards Duncan's chamber is a false creation of the heat-oppressed brain which makes fools of his eyes as it moves invitingly before hi, 'the handle toward my hand' (H.i.33-44). The play on 'hand' and 'handle' simultaneously identifies the hand with the dagger and hints at its alienation from the body. This hint is confirmed after the murder with Macbeth's horrified cry: 'What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes' (line 59). Lady Macbeth's remark that a little water will clear the blood from his hands is, of course, echoed by her obsessive hand-washing in the final act. But what I wish to stress about that delirium is the way in which it restores the original symbolic antithesis. For she is now in imagination the sympathetic and loving wife whose hand is tenderly extended to comfort her distraught husband: 'Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed' (V.i.48-63). This image of what might have been is undercut in the last scene with Malcolm's news that Macbeth's fiend-like queen took off her life 'by self and violent hands' (V.ix.36-7). The double-hand symbol occurs also in the contrasting allusions to the 'hand accurs'd' ( which rules Scotland and that of the gracious king whose 'touch' cures those afflicted with ulcerous diseases 'pitiful to the eye'—'such sanctity hath / Heaven given his hand' (IV.iii.144-52). This is clearly the antithesis which encloses the hand—eye opposition, since gracious Edward's hand is visually paralleled in the first half of the play by that of gracious Duncan: 'Give me your hand. Conduct me to mine host: we love him highly' (

The equivocating, duplicitous witches are initially instrumental in destroying Macbeth's single state of man by playing on his twofold nature, ensnaring him in doubleness, and projecting him unrestrained into a realm of multiplying villainy. Their identification with threeness, however, is no less emphatic than that with doubleness; it functions as a continuous reminder that Macbeth is undone by his desire for more, his belief that the titles of Glamis and Cawdor are not enough.

Why the number three should be associated with witchcraft in Christian tradition might seem puzzling. The Christian deity after all is a Holy Trinity; indeed in many cultures, three is a symbol of fullness, power, and divinity. The explanation, of course, lies in the fact that witchcraft, like devilry, is a rival system which parodies what is seeks to overthrow.

The witches' threeness, like their doubleness, is encoded in the play at every level of expression. The resources of language (as well as the structure of the human body) are such that it was much easier for Shakespeare to give continuous and unobtrusive expression to the idea of an ensnaring duality; and he had already had abundant practice in doing so. But he addressed the problem of encoding threeness in an astonishingly thorough and inventive manner. Character grouping at a secondary level, and also emblematic imagery, provide periodic echoes of Act I's opening emphasis on 'we three'. The Porter admits three imaginary sinners into Hell, the first an equivocator (II.iii.4- 17). Macbeth hires three murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, the third apparently an afterthought to 'make assurance double sure' (IV.i.83). And in Macbeth's final meeting with the witches, his demand for 'more' (line 103) of their 'more … than mortal knowledge' (I.v.2) is answered by three equivocal apparitions and then by 'a show of eight kings … Banquo following'—a group of nine, the witches' favourite multiple of three. This procession reflects the ironic process of retributive reaction against Macbeth's lust for more that is now well under way in the tragedy. Thus it seems to him as if the line of kings descending from Banquo 'will … stretch out to th' crack of doom' and he cries in rage, 'I'll see no more' (IV.i.117-18). The 'twofold balls and treble sceptres' (line 121) carried by some of the kings bring together the two fatal numbers in a manner which connects contemporary history (in the person of King James, supposed descendant of Banquo) with the retributive process. The twofold balls are usually taken to refer to the double coronation of James at Scone and Westminster; the treble sceptres were the two used for investment in the English coronation, and the one used in the Scottish coronation. This two—three emblem would seem to signify both unified duality and authentic fullness or supremacy (i.e. divinely sanctioned kingship).

Threeness is mirrored also in action and time. The witches make three appearances in all (if we follow the general view that III.V. is not Shakespearian). Duncan, it would seem, is murdered at 3 a.m., and the Porter and his friends carouse until the same hour. Macbeth commits three major crimes: the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff's family; and one of the most striking—and generally unnoticed—facts about the first crime is that it involves two additional and entirely unplanned murders: little did Lady Macbeth think when she sent the terrified Macbeth back with the daggers that he would spontaneously kill the two grooms. The Macbeths appear as king and queen for the first time at the beginning of the third act ('Thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all', line I); and Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking is seen by the Doctor only on the third night (V.i.I).

It is language itself, however, that the number three most conspicuously informs; and this is always effected in such a way as to accent the motifs of doubleness and excess. The chant which opens the play begins with a couplet followed by a triplet: five lines in which the witches proclaim their threeness and at the same time identify themselves with confounding opposites and storm-chaos:

1 Witch. When shall we three meet again?
        In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2 Witch. When the hurly-burly's done,
        When the battle's lost and won.
3 Witch. That shall be ere set of sun.

Each of them departs at the behest of a familiar, two of which are named. The name of the Third Witch's familiar is withheld; it will be added on the third appearance of the witches—in the third line of the scene (IV.i.3). In fact the addition of a tantalising third is the principle which structures the witches' greeting—a kind of mock investiture (I.iii.48-50) in which each line is itself a structure of three threes:

1. Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane
  of Glamis!
2. Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane
  of Cawdor!
3. Witch. All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King

Banquo picks up this triple pattern in his interrogation of the witches: 'M y noble partner / You greet with present grace, and great prediction / Of noble having and of royal hope' (lines 54-6). Anticipating the royal entry of Act HI , scene i, Macbeth translates the triple promise into a royal drama which will reach its desired climax after the second act: 'Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme' (lines 127-9; cf. lines 116-17). Two scenes later Lady Macbeth appropriates the triple greeting and grimly determines that its third component will materialise: 'Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promis'd' (I.V.13-14).

Other manifestations of the witches' addiction to the number three occur in I.iii just before Macbeth's arrival, and are notable for the exactness with which they are enwoven in the play's unfolding pattern of meaning. Macbeth's entry is immediately preceded by the following chant, which the witches recite in unison:

The Weird Sisters hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again to make up nine.
Peace! The charm's wound up. (lines 32-7)

In the first lines here we have doubleness, adroitly linked in the third line to the idea of ambition by means of an etymological pun: the Latin ambire means 'to go about', and ambitio means 'going about in order to win popularity and power'. More important, however, ambitious doubleness leads to threeness and thence to multiplication.

The First Witch's promise of vindictive action against the captain of the Tiger isolates the play's key word, 'do / deed', and anticipates, and numerically emphasises, the tragic pattern whereby Macbeth's 'horrid deed' traps him in a hell of torturing, sterile, restless, and endless activity:

I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do

I'll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev'n-nights nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine …
                                (lines 10, 18-23)

The word 'do' or 'deed' echoes insistently throughout the play, but on several occasions, beginning with Macbeth's, 'If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly' (I.vii.1-2), it repeats the First Witch's triple iteration (cf. lines 46-8; III.ii.43-4).

Before the final appearance of the witches, verbal threeness is heard in the ghostly voice which tells Macbeth that he will sleep 'no more' (II.ii.41-3), in the outcry after Duncan's body is discovered (' 0 horror! horror! horror!', II.iii.62), and in the Porter scene. The Porter, however, delights in conjoining threes and twos. He mimics the knocking on the door with a 'Knock, knock, knock', followed shortly by 'Knock, knock', a pattern which he repeats a few sentences later. He tells the two men who enter that he was 'carousing till the second cock' (i.e. 3a.m.), and that drink 'is a great provoker of three things'. Its provocations, he explains, are equivocal and duplicitous (II.iii.1-37).

The triadic principle affects language most conspicuously in the third and last appearance of the witches. And here too its partnership with both doubleness and limitlessness is strongly emphasised. A double 'Thrice' opens the scene (IV.i.1-2) and the couplet refrain, 'Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble' is chanted three times (lines 10-11, 20-1, 35-6). The 'secret, black, and midnight hags' (line 47) pour into their cauldron the blood of a sow that has eaten her nine farrow (line 65).

Both the first and second apparitions address Macbeth as 'Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!' (lines 71, 77), and he answers, 'Had I three ears, I' d hear thee' (line 78). Al though they warn him to beware Macduff, they tell him equivocally to

Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man … (lines 79-80)

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
                                    (lines 90-1)

In accordance with this fierce insistence on diabolical threeness, the scene ends with Macbeth's terrible determination that from now on he will set no limits—either of number ('all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line') or time ('be it thought and done')—to his killing.

The last expressions of threeness are given to the two Macbeths, and they function clearly as elements in the pattern of condign punishment which characterises the latter part of the play. Lady Macbeth's final words are, 'To bed, to bed, to bed' (V.i.64); and her sleepless husband sees himself condemned to a near-interminable succession of days and nights: 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow … '

It will be apparent, I hope, that the number symbolism which I have outlined above simply could not be a critical invention. Conventional canons of taste might wish to exclude consideration of such material from any account of Macbeth as a major Shakespearian tragedy, and relegate it instead to the pages of some learned, minor journal for the benefit of those who take pleasure in such arcane matters. To ignore it, however, would be to disregard something which clearly meant a great deal to Shakespeare; which makes Macbeth (like Julius Caesar) a far more intricate and artful play than has customarily been thought; and which provides us moreover with firm clues as to its meanings. Its special relevance in this context lies, of course, in the fact that number symbolism is part of the language of cosmology; its presence helps to support my general approach to the tragedy.

At the heart of the play lies the great cosmological theme of love and strife, articulated in Macbeth's (no longer valid) description of himself as a man with 'a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage, to make's love known' (II.iii.116-17). His tragedy is that of a valiant soldier whose courage overspills into a violent cruelty, and whose capacity for love and pity gives way to a destructive hatred that finally embraces life itself. The union of woman and man (and especially martial man) being symbolic of the union of opposites in all nature, Macbeth's marriage, like Othello's, is crucial to an understanding of his character and destiny. Lady Macbeth may be totally unlike Desdemona, but this play...

(The entire section is 25422 words.)

Supernatural Elements

Stanley Wells (essay date 1994)

SOURCE : "A Scottish Tragedy: Macbeth" in Shakespeare: A Dramatic Life, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, pp. 282-99.

[Wells is an English educator and critic whose books include Shakespeare: The Writer and His Work (1978) and Shakespeare: An Illustrated Dictionary (1978). In the following essay, Wells discusses Shakespeare's politics, characterizations, and portrayal of the supernatural in Macbeth.]

Macbeth has a well-deserved reputation as one of Shakespeare's most sheerly exciting plays, a fast-moving murder story laced with witchcraft and offering the theatrical pleasures of a ghost,...

(The entire section is 23689 words.)

Gender Issues

Robert Kimbrough (essay date 1983)

SOURCE : "Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. X V I , 1983, pp. 175-90.

[In the following essay, Kimbrough examines the portrayal of gender in Macbeth, maintaining that through the "unnatural" characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare endorses "androgeny"the harmonious blending of male and female characteristics within the individual.]

Long before "conscience was born of love," the human species had inherited a mammalian subdivision into sex, female and male, nature's way of providing generation and continuity of our species. Before mammals all generation...

(The entire section is 11504 words.)

Further Reading

Berger, Harry, Jr. "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth." Genre XV , Nos. 1-2 (Spring/ Summer 1982): 49-79.

Contends that Macbeth "as a text to be interpreted by readers provides a critique of the play as a script—that is, as the basis of performance."

Calderwood, James L. If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, 156 p.

Compares and contrasts Macbeth and Hamlet; contends that Macbeth can be understood as "a tragedy about the nature of tragedy" and examines the psychological, social, and political ramifications of Macbeth's...

(The entire section is 581 words.)