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 entire section is 25422 words.)
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, apparitions, a sleepwalking scene, and climactic battles culminating in a hand-to-hand combat in which the villain-hero is killed by his virtuous adversary. Macbeth himself is more like Richard II I than any of the intervening tragic protagonists. Both men are great warriors who come to the throne not by warfare but by murder. Both sink further and further into blood as they struggle to extricate themselves from the consequences of their deeds, and both are tormented by conscience. The fates of both men are inextricably linked with those of their countries, and each of them is finally defeated in personal combat by a representative of the forces of virtue who thereby purges the state of evil and restores the health of the nation. Each play, too,...
(The entire section is 23689 words.)
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 was a unisexual operation. Post-conscience-ness sensed as much with its invention of the myth of androgyny, a myth most readily available in the Judeo-Christian version of God the Creator as an Androgyne, creating humanity in the image of that androgyny, with the division of humanity into separate sexes following, and falling hard upon. We are still suffering from the shock.
In spite of the evolution of two sexes within humanity, the internal and external physical differences between female humans and male humans remain infinitesimal; yet these small differences loom large because of the evolution of consciousness, or mind. With the evolution of mind, differences between females and males became ground plots for constructs...
(The entire section is 11504 words.)
Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 12-24.
[In the following essay, Heilman presents an analysis of Macbeth as a moral agent, focusing on the protagonist's ability to elicit positive feelings from the audience.]
The difficulties presented by the character of Macbeth—the criminal as tragic hero—have led some critics to charge Shakespeare with inconsistency, others to seek consistency by viewing the initial Macbeth as in some way morally defective, and still others to normalize the hero by viewing the final Macbeth as in some way morally triumphant. Perhaps a recollection of Lascelles Abercrombie's enthusiastic phrase, [The Idea of Great Poetry], 'the zest and terrible splendour of his own unquenchable mind' (1925), and of Wilson Knight's comparable 'emerges at last victorious and fearless' [in The Wheel of Fire, 1930], helped stir L. C. Knights to complain [in How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?, 1933] that 'the critics have not only sentimentalized Macbeth—ignoring the completeness with which Shakespeare shows his final identification with evil—but they have slurred the passages in which the positive good is presented by means of religious symbols'. Even after this, so unflighty an editor as...
(The entire section is 32191 words.)
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 violence.
Coursen, H. R. "A Jungian Approach to Characterization: Macbeth" In Shakespeare's "Rough Magic": Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 230-44. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.
Employs a Jungian taxonomy to describe Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with regard to their tendencies toward introversion and extroversion.
Doran, Madeleine. "The Macbeth Music." Shakespeare Studies X V I (1983): 153-73.
Analyzes Shakespeare's use of such devices as rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and assonance to argue that Macbeth is a "musical" play.
Ferrucci, Franco. "Macbeth and the...
(The entire section is 581 words.)