Macbeth (Vol. 57)
See also Macbeth Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 44, 80.
Most likely written in 1606 and based on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. Many critics have speculated that Shakespeare compressed the action and time frames of the tragedy for increased dramatic shock. Macbeth has often been praised for its artistic coherence and the intense economy of its dramatic action, which is replete with vivid scenes of violence and treachery. Although many critics have remarked on the overwhelming nature of the violent action in the play, it has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Early critical scholarship of the play focused mainly on comparative analyses of Macbeth with traditional medieval morality plays, as well as Shakespeare's treatment of topical and political issues. Many of these analyses focused their attention on examining Macbeth as primarily a political play that focused on and was written expressly to commemorate the accession of James I to the throne of England. While interest in studying the play as a political allegory continues to interest critics, it is the contrast of opinions between critics who perceive Macbeth as a tragic hero and critics who see him merely as an evil and egotistical character that has evolved into one of the most enduring themes of modern critical scholarship regarding the play. Other areas of critical interest include the study of ethics, political ideology, and gender issues in the play, as well as psychological approaches to Macbeth’s character.
Many scholars suspect that some of the scenes in Macbeth were added and other scenes were modified by someone other than Shakespeare. David Lowenthal (1989) proposes that despite this possibility, all the disparate scenes combine to present a unified vision of human life. According to Lowenthal, Macduff and his family present a Christian contrast to Macbeth and the supernatural elements in the play, relying on natural order and God for their own preservation. In the end, the play divulges that the world is not the dark or unintelligible place it seems, and that although there are contrasts and evil in the world, the forces of good are more fundamental and lasting and eventually overcome the chaos to reestablish a coherent human existence. Joseph A. Bryant (1988) takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy due to Macbeth's wicked and malicious character. Bryant maintains that whether wicked or noble, “the epiphany that tragedy brings … is available to all alike … the unjust as well as the just.”
Much of the twentieth-century scholarship of Macbeth has focused on both the political ideology and ethical considerations of the play. In an essay discussing these issues, Alan Sinfield (1986) stresses that the play focuses on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil. For example, Macbeth's victory over Duncan's enemies in the beginning of the play is violent, yet it is not considered evil because it is in the service of the prevailing power. However, Macbeth's later actions, especially Duncan's murder, represent evil because it disrupts established power. In England, at the time Macbeth was written, this would have been an extremely topical matter because of such contemporary events as the Essex rebellion in 1599 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, both of which had resulted in many years of state violence. Barbara Riebling (1991) also discusses Macbeth as a political play and feels that while most scholarship has focused on the contextual ideologies prevalent at the time it was written, it can also be read as a discourse in civic humanism. Riebling feels that in Macbeth, Shakespeare studies the consequences of misrule in a Machiavellian context rather than a Christian one. Therefore, though Duncan is a Christian ruler, it is his very Christianity that invites disaster in the Machiavellian world.
Recent scholarship has also increasingly focused on Shakespeare's depiction of women in his plays, and Macbeth has been central to this analysis for many scholars. Joost Daalder (1988) contends that although Shakespeare did not portray men more favorably than women, he did have a strong sense of which traits and actions were “male” and which were “female,” and believed that women should not attempt to cross over into the male domain. The critic points to Lady Macbeth's attempt to adopt a male role and deny her womanhood, which proves disastrous and harms both herself and others. Similarly, William T. Liston (1989) maintains that the play presents a conflation of sex roles and gender, where, if men and women step outside their roles, they lose their humanity. In Liston's opinion, it is the liberation from their defined roles which destroys both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In contrast, Janet Adelman (1987) theorizes that Macbeth presents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power. According to Adelman, maternal power permeates the play via the figures of Lady Macbeth, the witches, and Macbeth's relationship to both, and that his relationships to these women represent primitive fears about the loss of male identity and autonomy. Adelman stresses that the issue of male autonomy was a common thread in many other Shakespearean plays, including King Lear and Henry IV, and that Macbeth presents his most powerful introduction to the realm of maternal malevolence unleashed in the absence of paternal protection.
The level of violence and chaos that permeates the play has led to numerous psychological interpretations of the characters and action in Macbeth. Pierre Janton explores the theory that the fear of assuming manhood is Macbeth's tragic flaw. The critic contends that it is this flaw that leads him to annihilate all the potential and virtual father figures in the play. Robert L. Reid (1992) proposes that the play is fundamentally concerned with showing the horrific consequences of a truly heroic spirit embracing evil. From Reid's perspective, the three murders in the play denote the three stages of the evolution of evil in Macbeth's psyche. According to Reid, Macbeth's victims ultimately represent the human bonds he breaks, and his degeneration into evil is deliberately worked into the psychological and dramatic design of the play.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Macbeth and the Meaning of Tragedy,” in Kentucky Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-17.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1987, Bryant takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy.]
For years the one tragedy that almost all Americans read, or at least encountered, was Shakespeare's Macbeth. High schools regularly included it in the curriculum for the senior year, perhaps preferring it to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare because of its brevity, its simple plot line, and its melodramatic appeal. Among professional critics, however, enthusiasm for the play has never been high. Robert P. Heilman in a 1966 essay, revealingly entitled “The Criminal as Tragic Hero,” set forth the principal reason for that.1 Tragedy, he argued, echoing centuries-old opinion, presents a “noble enterprise,” one of uncommon dignity and ethical sophistication, which fails, not because the protagonist is wicked or malicious but because he is afflicted by some recognizable human frailty that causes him or her to err. The reasoning has usually been that we who participate vicariously in that enterprise contemplate the protagonist's downfall with pity and terror but in the process achieve emancipation from the crippling effects which those emotions normally produce.
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SOURCE: “Macbeth: Shakespeare Mystery Play,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philology, Spring, 1989, pp. 311-57.
[In the following essay, Lowenthal examines the mysteries in Macbeth—including character reversals and questions of fact and motivation—and concludes that the play “mixes pessimism with a more fundamental optimism.”]
PRELIMINARY VIEW OF THE SUBJECT
In its date of composition, Macbeth falls about midway between Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and like them is known only from the First Folio. Its condition, however, seems not to be as good as theirs, or so say the editors, some of whom find it too short—it is one of the shortest of the plays—and suspect paring by hands other than Shakespeare's. All the editors are sure there have been additions by another hand in at least one or two scenes (see K. Muir's Arden edition, pp. xii-xiii, xxiii-xxxiii). Despite such scholarly uncertainties, Macbeth, along with Caesar, and some of the history plays, is popularly considered one of Shakespeare's most political plays, as well as one of his best. To Abraham Lincoln it was the best: “Nothing,” he said, “equals Macbeth.” How simple and moral is its story! Led on by the prophecy of witches, Macbeth and his Lady succeed in secretly murdering King Duncan and gaining Scotland's throne. Yet...
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Criticism: Ethics And Political Ideology
SOURCE: “Macbeth's War on Time,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 319-42.
[In the following essay, Foster offers an account of Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics and history.]
James I, in his preface to the Basilikon Doron (1603), notes that men must “be very warie in all their secretest actions, and whatsoeuer middesses they vse for attaining to their most wished ends.” This is especially true, he says, in the affairs of kings:
for Kings being publike persons, by reason of their office and authority, are as it were set (as it was said of old) vpon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders eyes are attentiuely bent to looke and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest drifts: Which should make Kings the more careful not to harbour the secretest thought in their minde … assuring themselues that Time the mother of Veritie, will in the due season bring her owne daughter to perfection.1
We have no record of James's critical response to Macbeth, but there are many who would applaud his meditation on the old figure of the “player-king” as a commentary on Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy: Truth, the daughter of Time, has at last a coming-out party in Act V, as riddling prophecies are unravelled, and as King...
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SOURCE: “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 63-77.
[In the following essay, Sinfield contends that Macbeth is a political play that centers on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil.]
It is often said that Macbeth is about ‘evil’, but we might draw a more careful distinction: between the violence which the State considers legitimate and that which it does not. Macbeth, we may agree, is a dreadful murderer when he kills Duncan. But when he kills Macdonwald—‘a rebel’ (I.ii.10)—he has Duncan's approval:
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name), Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel, Which smok’d with bloody execution, Like Valour's minion, carv’d out his passage, Till he fac’d the slave; which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops, And fix’d his head upon our battlements. Duncan. O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!
Violence is good, in this view, when it is in the service of the prevailing dispositions of power; when it disrupts them it is evil. A claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence is fundamental in the development of the modern State; when that claim is successful, most...
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SOURCE: “Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 273-86.
[In the following essay, Riebling analyzes Macbeth as a discourse in civic humanism, contrasting the principles of Machiavellian governance to those of Christianity.]
“I love my city more than I love my soul,” Machiavelli wrote in a letter to a friend. If we take him at his word—including the belief that he has a soul—Machiavelli is describing the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. In both of his major theoretical works, The Prince and The Discourses, he presents this sacrifice as more likely the deeper one ventures into politics, and as virtually unavoidable for the prince. Machiavelli's works shocked sixteenth-century audiences, who were accustomed to seeing Christian and civic virtue as interchangeable; in his version of truth, “la verità effettuale,” political virtù is ineluctably at odds with religion and its rules. The English were particularly appalled by Machiavelli's ideas; hence the enormous popularity in the late sixteenth century of the villainous “stage Machiavel.” For centuries medieval and Renaissance citizens had been assured of an essential harmony between religious and political truths—any apparent conflicts were resolved either by a rejection of worldly values or their procrustean...
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Criticism: Gender Issues
SOURCE: “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Marjorie Garber, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 90-121.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Adelman suggests that Macbeth represents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power.]
In the last moments of any production of Macbeth, as Macbeth feels himself increasingly hemmed in by enemies, the stage will resonate hauntingly with variants of his repeated question, “What’s he / That was not born of woman?” (5.7.2-3; for variants, see 5.3.4, 6; 5.7.11, 13; 5.8.13, 31).1 Repeated seven times, Macbeth's allusion to the witches' prophecy—“none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80-81)—becomes virtually a talisman to ward off danger; even after he has begun to doubt the equivocation of the fiend (5.5.43), mere repetition of the phrase seems to Macbeth to guarantee his invulnerability. I want in this essay to explore the power of these resonances, particularly to explore how Macbeth's assurance seems to turn itself inside out, becoming dependent not on the fact that all men are, after all, born of woman but on the fantasy of escape from this universal condition. The duplicity of Macbeth's repeated question—its capacity to mean both itself and its...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Attitude to Gender in Macbeth,” in Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Journal (AUMLA), No. 70, November, 1988, pp. 366-85.
[In the following essay, Daalder examines Shakespeare's attitude toward women as portrayed in Macbeth.]
With the new interest in ‘women's studies’ there has been a whole flurry of works devoted to the question whether Shakespeare in any significant way discriminated against—or in favour of—women.1
In my view, discussion of this issue is much clarified if we remember what Ruth Kelso wrote some thirty years ago concerning the debate about the matter which was conducted during the Renaissance itself:
Four attitudes can be distinguished in this confused debate. Some thought woman at best a necessary evil, some admitted her good in a limited and humble way but of inferior value compared to men, some took her as good and necessary equally with men, and some claimed superiority for her over men.2
I think that Kelso is amply supported by relevant evidence from the Renaissance (which we must carefully distinguish from the assertions of twentieth century commentators), and that her useful statement for one thing makes it very difficult to generalize about a supposedly universal ‘Renaissance attitude to women’....
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SOURCE: “‘Male and Female Created He Them’: Sex and Gender in Macbeth,” in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-39.
[In the following essay, Liston examines gender issues and sex roles in Macbeth, and theorizes that when men and women step out of their defined roles they lose their humanity.]
Probably none of Shakespeare's plays is so explicit in demarcating man from woman as is Macbeth. Man (including the plural and such obvious derivatives as manly, manhood, and unmanned) appears more than 40 times, almost always with a conscious sense of defining the term—or rather, of defining a person by the term. Woman (including similar formations) appears about a third as frequently, with a similar sense of precise definition.
The most obvious examples of this defining process appear in the preparations for the murder of Duncan and in the discovery of it (1.7 and 2.3); in the preparations for the murder of Banquo and the Banquet scene (3.1 and 3.4); and in the scene in which Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty (4.3). In all of these scenes, what is at issue is a definition of human nature. (Nature and derivatives appear 27 times; and kind, with similar meaning, as in the “milk of human kindness,” appears a few times also.) In several instances the words take on a highly sexual meaning, as when Lady Macbeth...
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Criticism: Psychological Approaches
SOURCE: “Macbeth's Three Murders: Shakespearean Psychology and Tragic Form,” in Renaissance Papers 1991, edited by George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Baines, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1992, pp. 75-92.
[In the following essay, originally delivered in 1991, Reid contends that the three murders committed by Macbeth are representative of the three distinctive stages of evil that evolve in his psyche.]
Macbeth is a milestone in man's exploration of … this “depth of things” which our age calls the unconscious.
Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare
Interpreters of Macbeth have focused almost exclusively on the first murder, the killing of a king in Acts I-II, as the basis for understanding the play—its social, psychological, and metaphysical meanings. Macbeth's subsequent two assassinations, of Banquo in Act III, and of Macduff's wife and children in Acts IV-V, are either ignored, or are treated simply as efforts to secure the usurped crown, or perhaps as a kind of Freudian “repetition compulsion”—the blooded man's first heinous kill engendering serial slayings.1 Neither of the subsequent murders has been accorded its own distinctive meaning and psychological motivation; they are seen as mere shadowy reenactments of the Oedipal complex which is presumed to underlie...
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Baldo, Jonathan. “The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth.” English Literary Renaissance 26, No. 3 (Autumn 1996): 531-60.
Discusses Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics.
Berryman, John. “On Macbeth.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 319-34. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
Analyzes Macbeth in the context of Elizabethan and Jacobean cultures, including an overview of the play's major themes and action.
Callaghan, Dympna. “Wicked Women in Macbeth: A Study of Power, Ideology, and the Production of Motherhood.” In Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the Twenty-First Annual Conference, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, pp. 355-69. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.
Explores the cultural conflict between patriarchy and the rule of mothers, as well as skepticism surrounding witchcraft as it is portrayed in Macbeth.
Fox, Alice. “Obstetrics and Gynecology in Macbeth.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 127-42.
Focuses on the frequent use of the vocabulary of obstetrics and gynecology in the language used by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Guj, Luisa. “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time.” Shakespeare...
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