Macbeth (Vol. 44)
See also Macbeth Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 57, 80.
From the 1700s to the present, critics have praised the artistic coherence οf Macbeth and the intense economy of its dramatic action. Earlier commentators as well as contemporary critics have frequently remarked on the play's vivid depiction of treachery and bloodshed, its nightmarish atmosphere, the exploration of the issue of free will versus fate, and the enigmatic nature of its hero. In the late twentieth century, however, there has been a shifting and complex response to the play and its chief protagonist. Although scholars continue to evaluate its relationship to the traditional medieval morality plays as well as its treatment of dynastic issues, they are no longer inclined to view Macbeth as a simplistic allegory of good versus evil or royalist propaganda vindicating the monarchy of James I. There is currently a sharp division among commentators on the question of whether Macbeth is a sympathetic figure with whom audiences and readers can identify, as they do with Lear, Hamlet, and Othello, or whether Macbeth is an egotistical and unadmirable character. Nevertheless, critics generally agree that Macbeth dominates the play in a way that is unique among Shakespeare's tragic heroes.
Late twentieth-century commentary on Macbeth frequently focuses on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience, his descent into corruption, and whether his fate is predestined. Dieter Mehl (1983) has centered his wide-ranging discussion of the play on Macbeth's agonizing internal conflicts and the stages of his moral corruption, contending that Shakespeare depicts his protagonist as an inherently good man who only succumbs to temptation after a harrowing struggle with his conscience. In Mehl's judgment, the nature of evil—and its hold over individual characters—is the essential issue of Macbeth. Similarly, R. A. Foakes (1996) has described the play as Shakespeare's most penetrating analysis of the concept of evil. Foakes regards Macbeth as an essentially moral man who, because of his wife's bullying and his own ambition, fatally compromises his gentler instincts and destroys his own humanity, ending up a victim as well as a villain.
Many recent commentators have discussed the question of whether the term "tragic hero" is appropriate for a dramatic protagonist who devolves into a murderous tyrant. In the context of these discussions, they have examined the means by which audiences and readers are led to identify with Macbeth, to sympathize with his fate, and to some degree even admire him. Robert B. Heilman (1966) has examined the issue of the hero's problematic stature, arguing that because we are induced to share Macbeth's perspective on events, his emotional turmoil, and his terrible anxieties, we find ourselves empathizing with him and achieving an expanded vision of human nature and of ourselves. From Heilman's perspective, Macbeth is no ordinary villain but rather a man with an exceptional capacity to feel, imagine, and suffer, and thus he evokes our pity and understanding. Arthur Kirsch (1984) also has focused on Macbeth's ambitious nature, emphasizing the emptiness of his desires and the insatiability of his aspirations. The critic characterizes Macbeth as the most egotistical of Shakespeare's tragic heroes and suggests that it is extremely difficult either to sympathize with him or to admire him. By contrast, Michael Davis (1979) has interpreted Macbeth as a tragedy of courage, in which Shakespeare explores the nature of manliness and the implications of defining oneself solely in terms of valor. Davis proposes that Macbeth's unquenchable desire to master his fate and overcome all obstacles must inevitably lead either to defeat—or to emptiness—if he conquers all his foes. In Davis's judgment, when Macbeth places his future in the hands of the witches, he relinquishes his autonomy and becomes unmanned.
Indeed, emasculation is one of Macbeth's principal anxieties, according to psychoanalytic criticism. Other subconscious tensions discovered in the play by commentators using this approach include incestuous or oedipal fears. Macbeth has been the subject of a large number of psychoanalytic interpretations. Over the last thirty years, traditional Freudian or oedipal readings of the play have been augmented by many commentators. Robert N. Watson (1984), for example, has argued that Shakespeare portrays Macbeth's crimes as symbolic infringements on the normal cycles of procreation and generation. He asserts that Macbeth's transgressions should be seen as crimes rooted in ambition rather than sexual perversion. In another departure from conventional Freudian interpretations, H. R. Coursen (1985) has offered a Jungian approach to the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. From this perspective, the couple is seen as unconsciously exchanging masculine and feminine capacities as Macbeth allows his inherent proclivity toward introversion and human kindness to be dominated by his wife's dynamic and aggressive temperament. Kay Stockholder (1987) also has evaluated the nature of the relation between the play's chief protagonists. She argues that they are bound together by a love that associates passion with violence rather than tenderness and, further, that their intimacy dissipates after Duncan's murder because henceforth Macbeth becomes the unimaginative man of action his wife initially believed him to be. In the critic's judgment, the play's dream-like quality is reflected in the relationship between the Macbeths as well as by the witches, who help position the play on the boundaries between the dreaming and waking states.
Supernatural elements in Macbeth are part of the texture of discussions of religious and theological issues in the play, and the Weird Sisters are frequently linked to the possibility of providential or deterministic interpretations οf Macbeth. Critics who have recently analyzed the play in these terms generally allude to its ambiguous or paradoxical treatment of theological issues and deny any clear-cut resolution of such questions. For example, Howard Felperin (1975) has examined the play in terms of its relation to orthodox Christian drama, pointing out ways in which it promotes traditional doctrines but subverts or revises them as well. Although the play demystifies sacred myths and symbols, the critic asserts, it shows these forms as essential to social stability and legitimate hierarchy. Charles Moseley (1988) has viewed Macbeth as an inherently religious play, one that is chiefly concerned with the conflict between good and evil in the soul of its protagonist. Moselely maintains that Macbeth is not forced to do anything: although the witches prey on his ambition, it is ultimately his refusal to express contrition for his wickedness that seals his fate. Both James L. o'Rourke (1993) and Susan Snyder (1994) have also questioned providential readings of the play, employing different approaches but reaching similar conclusions. In o'Rourke's opinion, Macbeth portrays a world that is deeply subversive of Christian metaphysics—one in which the dramatic action is determined neither by divine providence nor by human will, but instead by an irrational sequence of action and consequence. The critic regards the play as profoundly pessimistic, governed from beginning to end by an ironic perspective that obscures the distinction between good and evil. Snyder similarly has found the world of Macbeth morally unstable and the boundary between supernatural and human causality indeterminate. In her judgment, the play provides no answers to the questions it raises about the relative culpability of the witches'equivocal predictions and Macbeth's potential to commit the murder they seem to suggest to him. Indeed, she concludes, the prophecies of the Weird Sisters remain as inscrutable as Macbeth's motivations.
Harry Levin (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Two Scenes from Macbeth" in Shakespeare's Craft: Eight Lectures, edited by Philip H. Highfíll, Jr., Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 48-68.
[In the following essay, Levin examines the thematic significance of the Porter's scene and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking episode. In the former, he discerns resonances of hell and damnation, as well as an iteration of the witches'equivocal oracles; the latter scene, he suggests, epitomizes the nightmarish quality of Macbeth and repeats in miniature the play's alternating arguments regarding free will and fate.]
Hamlet without the Prince would still be more of a spectacle than Macbeth without the Thane of Glamis. Though the latter is not introspective by nature, his soliloquizing is central to the play, as he considers intentions, casts suspicions, registers hallucinations, coerces his conscience, balances hope against fear, and gives thought to the unspeakable—all this while sustaining the most energetic role in the most intense of Shakespeare's plays. Macbeth is the fastest of them, as Coleridge pointed out, while Hamlet, at almost twice its length, is the slowest. Thus the uncut Hamlet has plenty of room for other well-defined characters and for highly elaborated subplots. Whereas Macbeth, which has come down to us in a version...
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Robert N. Watson (essay date 1984)
SOURCE:'"Thriftless Ambition,'Foolish Wishes and the Tragedy of Macbeth," in Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 83-141.
[In the following excerpt, Watson supplements the traditional Freudian or oedipal interpretation of Macbeth by focusing on the symbolic aspects of the hero's ambition. In the critic's judgment, the murder of Duncan represents Macbeth's perverse attempt to establish a new identity through a ruinous disruption of the normal cycles of procreation and generation.]
Shakespeare portrays Macbeth's crimes, from first to last, as costly violations of the procreative cycle. Dr. Isadore Coriat, one of the play's first psychoanalytic critics, identifies the witches who instigate these offenses as "erotic symbols, representing, although sexless, the emblems of the generative power in nature. In the'hell broth'are condensed heterogeneous materials in which even on superficial analysis one can discern the sexual significance."20 But superficial analysis dismisses too easily the discordant aspects of that emblem. These bearded women provoke Macbeth to mix the sexual elements ruinously, as they provoked him to mix the elements of the other natural cycles that must be polarized to be regenerative: night with day, dreaming with waking, and fall with spring. Under their influence...
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Macbeth As Tragic Hero
Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 12-24.
[Here, Heilman surveys the dramatic strategies that lead us to identify with a hero who is also a murderer. The critic maintains that Macbeth is a tragedy rather than merely a melodrama or morality play, because our understanding of human nature and of ourselves increases through our experience of empathizing with him.]
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,1 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 zest and terrible splendour of his own unquenchable mind'(1925), and of Wilson Knight's comparable'emerges at last victorious and fearless'2 (1930), helped stir L. C. Knights to complain (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...
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Religious And Theological Issues
Howard Felperin (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "A Painted Devil: Macbeth" in Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy, Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 118-44.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1975, Felperin discerns a parodic gap between the Christian view of the world set forth in the medieval mystery plays and Shakespeare's adaptation of that view in Macbeth. On one hand, the critic argues, the play demystifies sacred myths and symbols by representing them as arbitrary constructs, while on the other it demonstrates that they serve an indispensable function in society.]
'Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.
The last of Shakespeare's major tragedies to depend primarily on a native tradition of religious drama is also the most widely and seriously misunderstood in its relation to it. Indeed, Macbeth might well appear to be an exception to the principle of Shakespearean revision we have educed from the earlier tragedies. In those plays, the effect of mimetic naturalization over and above the older models contained within them had been achieved precisely by revealing the moral oversimplification of those models, in sum, by problematizing them. But Macbeth is unique among the...
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Adelman, Janet. "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth" In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Rennaissance. Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Marjorie Garber, n.s. no. 11, pp. 90-121. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
An influential reading of Macbeth as a representation of male attempts to escape female domination. Adelman argues that the disappearance of female characters by the end of the play enacts a consolidation of masculine power as well as the male fantasy of achieving a family without women.
Battenhouse, Roy W. "Toward Clarifying the Term'Christian Tragedy.'" In Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, pp. 131-203. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.
Examines Macbeth as an example of Shakespeare's modification of Aristotelian premises concerning tragic catharsis. As the play progresses, Battenhouse contends, we become increasingly aware that Macbeth lacks a full understanding of the implications of his ambition; moreover, our pity and fear for him remind us of the desolation and despair awaiting all those who misuse their natural gifts.
Bayley, John. "Tragedy and Consciousness: Macbeth." In Shakespeare and Tragedy, pp. 184-200. London: Routledge & Kegan...
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