Macbeth (Vol. 69)



Among Shakespeare's shortest and most visceral dramas, Macbeth was most likely written in 1606. Principally based on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), the play details the rapid and brutal rise of the warrior Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, followed by his subsequent intrigues, atrocities, and eventual demise on the field of battle. 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 violent action in the play, its nightmarish atmosphere, and the enigmatic nature of its hero, the drama has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Representing such a view, L. C. Knights (see Further Reading) evaluates the foul consequences of an unchecked “lust for power” in the drama, allowing Shakespeare to outwardly dramatize the internal distinctions between good and evil and the human potential to pervert moral order. Similarly, Richard S. Ide's (1975) structural analysis of the work highlights a dichotomy between the psychological tragedy of Macbeth and the symbolic interplay of good and evil in the drama, which Ide argues are integrated in the play's final act. Nicholas Brooke (1990) evaluates the rich poetic language and abundant interpretive signification in the play, elements that have been the primary interest of generations of critics.

Modern analyses of Macbeth have generally concentrated on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience and fate, his descent into corruption, and his ambivalent status as a tragic and sympathetic figure. Dolora G. Cunningham (1963) elucidates what is essentially an orthodox view of Macbeth as a pathologically ambitious individual who repudiates his humanity, and though confronted by remorse, ultimately acquiesces to a base desire for evil. Peter Ure (1974) takes a somewhat different approach, regarding Macbeth as less a study in villainy than a tragic and horrifying glance into the imagination of a man who, having murdered once only to be ravaged by guilt, resolves to think no more. In a complementary analysis of Macbeth's character, Lisa Low (1983) asks why audiences seem to identify with this violent murderer, arguing that Shakespeare's drama allows spectators to imaginatively enter the recesses of Macbeth's mind, to associate their feelings of guilt with his, and to find in his defeat the possibility for redemption. While Shakespeare's violent Thane of Glamis and short-lived King of Scotland continues to draw the vast majority of critical attention, to a much lesser degree twentieth-century commentators have also focused on Lady Macbeth. Representing what is generally viewed as a traditional estimation of the character, George William Gerwig (1929) interprets Lady Macbeth as a psychological portrait of unchecked, “feminine” ambition, projected toward the motivation and achievement of her husband.

Although Macbeth has enjoyed a long and storied stage history, the end of the twentieth century has witnessed a relative paucity in accomplished theatrical performances of the tragedy. Filling in this gap, many critics have turned their attention to the equally rich history of Macbeth as the subject of film, video, and television. Kenneth S. Rothwell (2000) examines the enduring appeal of Trevor Nunn's 1979 film production of the drama, occasioned by its digital rerecording at the end of the century. Praising Nunn's cinematically innovative direction and skilled evocation of the play's nightmarish dramatic and psychological landscape, Rothwell also admires the outstanding performances of Ian McKellen as an anguished Macbeth and Judi Dench as his manipulative wife. Arthur Lindley (2001) discusses the influential 1948 film version of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles. While former critics have generally decried the film as reductive and un-Shakespearean, Lindley instead concentrates on its ahistorical evocation of medieval Europe, and its lasting impact on subsequent cinematic interpretations of the epoch. Considering other filmed productions of Macbeth, David G. Hale (2001) observes that even as numerous critics have asserted that the drama suggests a harmonious ending in the downfall of its protagonist, a number of BBC television and feature film productions of the tragedy have tended to imply a continued state of historical instability that persists long after Macbeth's defeat.

Late twentieth-century interpretation of Macbeth has continued the process of studying the complex thematic nuances of this tragedy, particularly in its combined and potentially apocalyptic treatment of evil, violence, and sexuality. Sheldon P. Zitner (1964) comments on the generic status of Macbeth as a work that, despite its depiction of the extremes of human wickedness, remains a tragic narrative rather than a melodramatic representation of evil. R. A. Foakes (1982) offers a complementary view, regarding the drama as an intricate exploration of ambition and its tragic consequences, while highlighting its evocative imagery of death. Displacing the thematic concentration on ambition, Bert O. States (1985) looks to Macbeth's so-called ‘pity’ soliloquy in Act I, scene vii, to uncover the apocalyptic implications of the drama. Violent contradiction and disguised evil lie at the center of Franco Ferrucci's (1980) estimation of Macbeth. Presenting an unorthodox reading, Ferrucci contends that Macduff, who is generally seen as the embodiment of virtue and justice that balances Macbeth's sinful ambition, is just as despicable as his rival. In true Machiavellian fashion, Macduff plays at being good more convincingly than the usurping Scottish king, according to Ferrucci. The link between violence, debased sexuality, and the supernatural is the focus of Dennis Biggins's 1976 analysis, illuminating the process by which these motifs, personified in the Weird Sisters, drive the action of Macbeth. Margaret Omberg's (1996) psychological study revisits the perennial question, asked flippantly by L. C. Knights decades earlier: “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Taking the inquiry seriously, Omberg maintains that Macbeth's failure to produce an heir is psychologically and thematically fundamental to the tragedy. Turning to the religious and philosophical implications of Macbeth, Jan H. Blits (1996) studies the drama's concern with the limits of virtue and the violation of human and natural order.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Richard S. Ide (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Ide, Richard S. “The Theatre of the Mind: An Essay on Macbeth.ELH 42, no. 3 (fall 1975): 338-61.

[In the following essay, Ide observes the seemingly divided structure of Macbeth as both the psychological tragedy of Macbeth and a symbolic/cosmological tragicomedy of good and evil—two perspectives that intersect in Duncan's murder and are integrated in Act V of the drama.]

Certainly one of the most difficult problems facing the critic of Macbeth is its bipartite structure. The play appears to be two plays. The striking change in tone and perspective at the structural seam1 shifts emphasis away from the psychological tragedy...

(The entire section is 9831 words.)

Nicholas Brooke (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Brooke, Nicholas. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, edited by Nicholas Brooke, pp. 1-82. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Brooke surveys the importance of stage illusion to Macbeth and examines Shakespeare's rich use of language in the drama.]


Macbeth was first produced at a time of radical theatrical change in England. It seems to have been written during 1606 and to have been presented at the Globe Theatre fairly late in that year, and so to have been conceived for performance in daylight, in a constantly light space which could not be physically...

(The entire section is 7719 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

George William Gerwig (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: Gerwig, George William. “Lady Macbeth.” In Shakespeare's Ideals of Womanhood, pp. 133-50. East Aurora, N.Y.: The Roycroft Shops, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Gerwig interprets Lady Macbeth as a psychological “study in ambition,” albeit a self-sacrificing form of ambition that risks everything for another.]

Shakespeare's negative studies are as interesting and as valuable as his positive, for often the lessons of life may be learned quite as well from an example of what not to do as from an example of what to do.

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth represents the extreme of one form of temptation that may beset a woman, ambition;...

(The entire section is 4525 words.)

Dolora G. Cunningham (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Cunningham, Dolora G. “Macbeth: The Tragedy of the Hardened Heart.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 1 (winter 1963): 39-47.

[In the following essay, Cunningham views Macbeth in terms of his repudiation of his own humanity and subsequent surrender to a compulsion for evil.]

At the closing of the fearful scene in which Macbeth decides to murder his king, he himself foresees the tragic distortion to which he has committed his human nature (I. vii. 79-82):

I am settled and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show;
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

He has given...

(The entire section is 4914 words.)

Peter Ure (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Ure, Peter. “Macbeth.” In Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays by Peter Ure, edited by J. C. Maxwell, pp. 44-62. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Ure follows the development of Macbeth's character throughout the play, suggesting that he is a tragic and sympathetic, rather than evil, figure.]

                                                  Who then shall blame
His pester'd senses to recoil and start,
When all that is within him does condemn
Itself, for being there?

Macbeth, v.ii.22-25

In the three previous tragedies the protagonists are faced with situations which are...

(The entire section is 7299 words.)

Lisa Low (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Low, Lisa. “Ridding Ourselves of Macbeth.” Massachusetts Review 24, no. 4 (winter 1983): 826-37.

[In the following essay, Low contends that Macbeth is sympathetic to audiences in his remorsefulness, and that he guides the drama toward a possible path of redemption.]

But where there is danger,
There grows also what saves.


Unlike most tragic heroes, Macbeth is much less sinned against than sinning, which makes him a strange candidate for our affections.1 He does not fall prey to infirmity like Lear, nor is he ignorant of what he does like Oedipus. He is not like Romeo, well-intentioned but too hasty; nor...

(The entire section is 4738 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date 2000)

SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. “Shakespeare Goes Digital.” Cineaste 25, no. 3 (June 2000): 50-2.

[In the following excerpted review of Trevor Nunn's 1979 production of Macbeth recorded on video, Rothwell praises the haunting performances of Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, as well as Nunn's skilled direction.]

The critically acclaimed Trevor Nunn Macbeth (1979), re-recorded on VHS for HBO, returns theater to primal ritual. Macbeth is Shakespeare's journey into the heart of darkness, which probes into the nether regions of the unconscious where shameful desires lie hidden like the damned frozen in ice at the center of...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Arthur Lindley (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Scotland Saved from History: Welles's Macbeth and the Ahistoricism of Medieval Film.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2001): 96-100.

[In the following essay, Lindley considers Orson Welles's film version of Macbeth as a powerful influence on later filmic representations of the European Middle Ages.]

I want to consider Welles's Macbeth in a different frame from the usual ones, viewing it less as a Shakespearean or Wellesian film than as a medieval one. From its opening words, the film stakes a claim to historicity—claiming to depict the period of Christianity's first penetration of a barbarian world—that is belied by virtually everything that follows: the visual invocations of westerns and film noir, the anachronistic grotesqueries of costuming, the fabular simplification of character to the demands of a parable about the resistible rise of gothic tyranny, what Michael Anderegg (84) has called the “post-nuclear” devastation of its landscape. In creating this notional and abstract version of the Middle Ages as a theatre in which to play out an estranged version of the political concerns of the late 1940s, Welles works against Shakespeare to suppress the Renaissance context of the original play, substituting in particular a myth of the eternal return of tyranny—“Peace, the charm's wound up”—for the linear and progressive development of Scotland and England invoked in Shakespeare's text. In Welles's version, as in Polanski's later and better one, Macbeth doesn't lead to King James; he leads to another Macbeth.

In so doing, Welles both conforms to and helps to shape the conventions that have controlled the depiction of the Middle Ages for at least the last fifty years of film history. Arguably, this film has had a greater impact, for better or (mostly) for worse, on medieval films than on Shakespeare or Shakespearean film. Part of that impact has been to reinforce the prevailing confusion of “dark ages” with Middle Ages; this Macbeth is, after all, an extreme example of that equation of the medieval with mud, murk, monks, and bloodshed common to people who know little about the period and care less. Welles's own attitude toward the period is concisely expressed in the version of the coming of the Renaissance given in his Introduction to The Mercury Shakespeare:

Down in Italy … men had taken the hoods of the dusty, dusky old Middle Ages off their heads and begun to look around. … Books were being written instead of copied; people had stopped taking Aristotle's word for it and were nosing around the world, taking it apart to see what made it run.

(Qtd. in Kodar 210)

Cruel as it is to cite a man's popularizations against him, this constitutes fair warning. If you start from this view of the Middle Ages, you are unlikely to use them as anything except a pretext for talking about something else. In that, unfortunately, Welles is the precursor of an entire genre of medieval films. I want to put his Macbeth in the context of that genre.

For five years at the National University of Singapore I taught an honors-year seminar in Film and History, originally designed to compare and contrast the ways in which films of the Middle Ages and those dealing with recent history reconstruct the past. I quickly figured out that almost all the “history” was in the latter, modern half of the course. Soon after, I realized that virtually none of my medieval films—Welles's included—was reconstructing the past at all, at least not in the detailed, furniture-fixated way of, say, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993). Also unlike Scorsese but more importantly, the medieval films did not work from the assumption that the past was of inherent interest or historically connected to the present. While the recent past is customarily presented as causatively connected to the present, the medieval past is virtually always presented as an analogue—usually for our basest behavior—a distant, alienating mirror, as Welles's Scotland is an estranged version of Germany or that more abstract place, Fascism-land.

To see what I mean, let's look at one of the most familiar opening sequences in nominally historical film: the one from Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957), a work which shares to a remarkable extent the stylistic vocabulary of Macbeth. Let me remind you of the elements of that famous sequence: the hawk hanging in the stormy sky accompanied by a notably shrill version of the Kyrie Eleison; a rocky shore under dark cliffs between an empty sea and an empty sky; two isolated figures, one with a dagger at hand, waking on the rocks; a Wellesian, voice-over reading of Revelations 8; the chess set with the sea behind it; Block's failed attempt to pray; the appearance of the monastically robed Death; the two figures sitting down to play.

Is this the Middle Ages? While notionally in 1349, we are actually in Beckett-time (that is, Any- or No-time), the major difference being that in this case Godot has come and turned out to be just what we thought he would be, though disguised as Mephistopheles. The place, nominally if namelessly Swedish, is a beach midway between T. S. Eliot's and Neville Shute's. The actors we meet later are on their way to Elsinore, presumably to entertain Fortinbras. We are looking, in short, at the painfully familiar Never-never-but-Always land of mid-twentieth century European high modernism, the same territory inhabited by Jeanette Nolan's furred and Freudianized Lady Macbeth. If we are in any historical period, it is less the 1340s of the plot premise than the sub-atomic early 1950s, with universal death looming out of the northern sky. As Peter Cowie has written, the film “reflect[s] the trepidation of the Cold War era.” A child of the fifties myself, I react to that hawk by wanting to crawl under my school desk.

The music is medieval—if you assume that the Kyrie is automatically “medieval”—but filtered through modernist, electronic distortion. Even Block's chess set has clearly been borrowed from another, more highly polished age. And, of course, Antonius and Jons have landed on this beach conspicuously without ship or other means of transport, called, like Death himself, by the needs of allegory, and landed in a notional 1340s derived more from mystery plays and woodcuts—and an earlier Bergman play—than from any but the flimsiest of historical records. Even the meals they later eat will be symbolic: from beatific (and intertextual) strawberries and milk to bitter bread. Not to labor an obvious point too long, we are looking—as we are in Welles's Macbeth—at a version of the Middle Ages that has been carefully lifted out of historical sequence in order to serve as an alienating device for viewing the mid-century present and/or the timeless present of parable. This is not a fault, merely a fact. What is perhaps more striking is how many films, even those ostensibly committed to reproducing the medieval past—Vincent Ward's The Navigator (New Zealand 1988), even Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995)—put it to similarly ahistoric purposes. In so doing, they reflect a way of seeing enshrined in Macbeth and perfected in The Seventh Seal. I once thought the ahistoricism of Bergman's film an exception; in fact, it's the rule. The Age of Innocence manages to be both a meticulous (re)construction of its recent period and a meditation on the evolution of modern sexual mores and visual codes. There is no inherent reason why medieval films could not do likewise—those, at least, with the money Welles lacked to afford meticulous reconstruction—but, in my experience, they don't.

Not, of course, that one can imagine Welles wanting to do that sort of film. Virtually every significant stylistic element in Macbeth serves the common purpose of de-historicizing its world; the elaborately and insistently expressionist setting (a castle of dripping, subterranean rock whose layout persistently refuses to make literal sense); the self-reflexivity which regularly calls our attention to the soundstage and the diorama against which Banquo's murderers are posed; the use of simultaneous and/or abstract staging which allows Macbeth, for example, to change scenes by crossing directly from one part of the set to another, and which constantly invokes the stage versions from which the film evolved; the anachronistic and cross-cultural voodoo doll picked up in Welles's passage through Harlem; the extensive cross-referencing to other genres about other times—galloping horseback riders out of Republic westerns or Jeanette Nolan's embarrassing attempts at film noir seductiveness; the erasure of historical references, especially the sequence of kings from Macbeth's last encounter with the Witches; the parabolic simplification of Macbeth to a transhistorical type, even as immersion in his point of view encourages us to view the film as psychodrama, concerned with the psychology of evil, not its history.

The cumulative effect of all these devices has registered on even the film's most sympathetic critics, such as Jean Cocteau:

Clad in animal skins like motorists at the turn of the century, horns and cardboard crowns on their heads, his actors haunt the corridors of some dreamlike subway, an abandoned coal mine, and ruined cellars oozing with water. … Sometimes we wonder in what period this nightmare is unfolding.

(Bazin 29)

André Bazin located it in “a prehistoric universe,” even while noting that it could be seen as a transposition of the drama of Citizen Kane (101). More recently, Michael Anderegg has suggested both that “insofar as it resembles anything other than a studio set, the world [of the film] suggests postnuclear devastation,” and that “Welles's Scotland is not so much prehistoric as outside history; his specific time and place exists as a blur; indeed we are beyond history” (84). Scotland, in my formulation, is rescued from mere history—a presumptively dead past—and lifted onto the plane of eternal, or at least contemporary, relevance: the allegorical landscape of Godot and The Seventh Seal.

If that is so, why—aside from a fidelity to the text nowhere else shown in this film—should Welles bother to place Macbeth in the Middle Ages at all? Basically, because that is where old archetypes go to die and be reborn. Once they have done so, you can—untrammeled by the demands for plausibility, surface realism, and characterization made by more recent, better known periods—stage the sort of conflicts Welles was always drawn to: superstition vs. religion, barbarism vs. civilization (at least civilization in a barbaric, i.e., medieval form), id vs. superego, Witches vs. Holy Father. (The merely individual Macbeth, remember, is equivalent to that voodoo doll: a grubby little object in the hands of the capitalized Forces of the universe.) This is, of course, the strategy of a film like John Boorman's Excalibur, where Malory is restaged as a Jungian psychodrama whose archetypal figures play out rites of passage in a once and future world. It is the strategy of Ladyhawke, with its courtship of boy/wolf and girl/falcon. The prevalence of this mode may explain why archetypes of essential sexual identity persist in medieval film when correctness has expunged them from virtually every other mode. It certainly explains why films about Robin Hood outnumber even those about St. Joan, virtually the only historical figure from the Middle Ages to have a body of films devoted to her, by so vast a margin.

I am, of course, aware that Shakespeare's Macbeth is not (quite) an historical figure, though he is one located in the linear sequence Shakespeare took from Holinshed. One problem with the film is that Welles wants to historicize that legendary figure—by placing him at the notional point of victory by the Christian force he has invented the Holy Father to embody—and to de-historicize him at the same time. That Bergman faces no such conflict of impulses may suggest that the rules of the medieval film game were more set by 1957 than they were for Welles ten years earlier.

I am also well aware that the “reconstructions” of the past are inherently constructions, shaped, as Hayden White has taught us all, by the genres of literature.1 And, while the value of film creations of the past is far better understood than it was, say, ten years ago when Robert Rosenstone had to struggle to get the American Historical Review to accept a panel of essays on historical film, it is less well understood that there are fundamentally different ways of creating these pasts. Those ways, it seems to me, are differentiated chiefly by whether we are trying to imagine only ourselves and our concerns or our ancestors—a.k.a. other people—and theirs. In both cases, the bottom line of interest may be present relevance—historical film is always about the present—but in one case you imagine something different—Newland Archer and his society, say—becoming like you; in the other, you admire (or cringe from) your own image in a distant mirror. There is, I suspect, an ethical difference (as well as a psychological one) between the two modes.

In a sense, we are dealing with a simple difference between two discursive constructs of history, one linear and the other non-linear. However, that the type of construct exemplified in Welles's Macbeth incorporates a denial of historical process and connection, and that that is the one usually applied to the filming of the Middle Ages. The dominant mode of medieval film—regardless of country of origin or degree of commercial calculation—is fabular, whatever claims, usually unfounded, a given film (Macbeth or its more sophisticated descendent Braveheart) may make to factuality. And, in practice, we automatically privilege the current signified over the medieval signifier, referring the boat people who are attacked and driven off by the villagers in The Navigator, for example, to their 1980s equivalents. The historical accuracy of that scene is clearly not the point. When we ask casually what the film of The Name of the Rose (Italy/Germany/France 1986) is “about,” we usually mean “what's the relevance?” (Nazis? Red Brigades? Liberal impotence in times of terrorism? Parallels enforced by the color-coding which equates Benedictines with Blackshirts and by the casting of Sean Connery in the role of tainted liberal). When Film Comment interviewed F. Murray Abraham about his role as the Inquisitor, Abraham talked exclusively and automatically about Nazis (Bachmann 16-20). If we ask what The Navigator is about, the most obvious answers are AIDS, environmental and spiritual devastation, and the ills of modern technology. While Braveheart gets an occasional fact right—some of the tactics at Stirling Bridge, for example, or the carnival elements of medieval executions—historical chronicle is not the mode in which it operates, its occasional ventures into accuracy serving only to license critical abuse. Its subject, clearly signaled, is not Scotland in the 1290s but Ireland and the rest of the Celtic fringe in the 1990s, prominently including Scotland, that “nation colonized by wankers” memorialized in Trainspotting (UK 1996), Braveheart's anti-heroic bookend. Why else has Wallace been given a fictive Irish colleague devoted to talking—in conspicuously modern dialect—about the liberation of his island? Why else does Wallace paint his face with the colors of a Scottish football supporter and lead an army that resembles nothing so much as a soccer crowd on the terraces at Ibrox Park? This war is the continuation of football by other means. Of course, Wallace's appeals to “Freedom” are anachronistic; surely in the context of so many proleptic reference—even down to the substitution of Irish pipes for Scottish on the soundtrack—they are meant to be? The opening line of the film's voice-over warns us that this is not so much a true story (though “some say” it is) as a contending fiction. It is a fiction, however, which acts by almost allegorical substitution: thirteenth-century struggles do not lead to twentieth-century ones, but mirror them. The real connection is through an ahistorical essentialism: the English always torment the Scots because it is in their eternal, sexually inadequate nature to do so; Celts resist so erratically because it is in their lovable, virile but shambolic nature to do so. Ever and always. Superficial changes of technology or dress serve only as distancing devices, allowing a Scottish audience in particular to see with renewed clarity what might be hidden behind a common currency. The past is the present and so, by an obvious extrapolation, is the future. Or, in the Welles version, “the charm's wound up”; the plot—ever and always—loops back to its beginning.

The difference between the modes of modern and medieval historical films can be summarized in a brief example. When Daniel Vigne shot The Return of Martin Guerre in its original sixteenth-century context, he treated it as a timeless parable of acting and identity. Natalie Zemon Davis, who collaborated on but later rejected the film, says that she wrote her later study, in fact, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it” (Davis 8).2 When that story is remade as Sommersby (1993) and is reset in the post-Civil War American south, its hero becomes an early proponent of racial integration and agricultural cooperatives persecuted mainly for his progressive views; i.e., he is historicized as an agent of social evolution; he is located in linear history as part of that fable of progress so common to films of recent history—think, for example, of Glory, Little Women, The Age of Innocence, or virtually any Merchant-Ivory film—and so strikingly absent from medieval films. When you think of the distant past as an estranged equivalent to the present (as Welles does) or as superior to it by virtue of faith (as Ward does), you are unlikely to think of history in terms of progress or indeed of any kind of linear development whatsoever. Having positioned his film at a point of historical change—the triumph of Christianity over the chthonic forces represented by the Witches—Welles is compelled by the conservatism of his vision not only to make the Holy Father nearly as barbarous as what he opposes but to kill off the supposed winner so that the Witches can have the last word, which is, of course, that nothing has changed.

Such a version of history inevitably entails some losses; in the case of Welles's Macbeth, those losses include Shakespeare, that awkward Renaissance intervention in the otherwise seamless connection of ancient barbarism with modern. As is widely recognized, Welles largely excludes references to the play's Elizabethan cosmology and historiography. He not only marginalizes the saintly King Edward even more than the original play does, but, as we have seen, substitutes a closed loop of evil begetting further evil for the providential pattern by which the natural order expels Macbeth in order to return to its proper condition, and by which Macbeth's crimes beget the line of Banquo, stable kingship, and the eventual union of Scotland and England. Shakespearean providentialism, however severely qualified it is in the play, fits awkwardly with the film's simplified and ahistorical primitivism. As a result, Shakespeare is present in the film mostly as a transmitter of messages from the unconscious translated into the Viennese of Welles's psychologizing and as a dignifying pretext for the substitution of Welles's cruder cosmology. “Scotland,” a notional and subjective place, is thus rescued from Elizabethan as well as medieval history and relocated in the same timeless landscape as the Godot-influenced opening scenes of The Seventh Seal with its two chivalric tramps bereft on the barren shore of '50s high modernism. And, yes, that does seem to me a form of solipsism (as well as a rejection of the work of memory) that is common to the genre of medieval film, at least in part because of the influence of Welles filtered through Bergman.3


  1. See especially The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987) and, of course, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Johns Hopkins, 1973).

  2. Davis's full account both locates the original story in the specific context of the peasant culture of Foix in the 1550s and treats it as a chapter in the evolution of gender identities and what she regards as Protestant attitudes toward clerical authority.

  3. An earlier version of this paper was read at Shakespeare on Screen: The Centenary Conference, Malaga, Spain, 21-24 September 1999. Four paragraphs of this article appeared in slightly different form in my article “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film,” in the electronic journal Screening the Past 3 (May 1998), URL: <>.

Works Cited

Anderegg, Michael. Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Bachmann, Gideon. “C.I.A.: F. Murray Abraham Interviewed by Gideon Bachmann.” Film Comment 22:5 (Sept.-Oct. 1986): 16-20.

Bazin, André. Orson Welles: A Critical View. London: Elm Tree Books, 1978.

Cowie, Peter. “The Seventh Seal.” Voyager Website, April 1998.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1983.

Kodar, Oja, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Bogdanovich, eds. This is Orson Welles. New York: Harper, 1992.

Lindley, Arthur. “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film.” Screening the Past 3 (May 1998). Online. <>.

David G. Hale (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Hale, David G. “Order and Disorder in Macbeth, Act V: Film and Television.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2001): 101-6.

[In the following essay, Hale discusses Macbeth's final act in various televised and cinematic versions of the play, many of which suggest a less positive conclusion than Shakespeare's original text provides.]

Critical attention to the nature of ending in drama has been with us at least since Aristotle defined an end as “that which is inevitably or, as a rule, the natural result of something else but from which nothing else follows …” (Poetics 2.5; trans. Fyfe 31). Some sort of re-established family and/or...

(The entire section is 3149 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Zitner, Sheldon P. “Macbeth and the Moral Scale of Tragedy.” Journal of General Education 16, no. 1 (April 1964): 20-8.

[In the following essay, Zitner comments on Shakespeare's ability to present the numerous evil acts perpetrated by Macbeth without letting his tragedy degrade to the level of melodrama.]

The nemesis of tragic drama is not comedy—which also rests on a doubt of human powers—but melodrama. Melodrama reduces our sinful excellence to an unmixed, therefore untestable and unalterable, criminality or virtue. And its “happy” outcome arouses, not fear or pity—which comedy parries only with lucky blunders—but recklessness and...

(The entire section is 3275 words.)

Dennis Biggins (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Biggins, Dennis. “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 8 (1976): 255-77.

[In the following essay, Biggins studies the links between sex and violence in Macbeth, as well as the association of both with the Weird Sisters.]

The consensus of critical opinion appears to be that sexuality has little structural or thematic importance in Macbeth. Thus, for example, a recent critic can refer to the play as “the purest of Shakespeare's tragedies,” in which the Porter's remarks about drink and sex might easily seem incongruous.1 Some later writers, however, have drawn attention to a sexual element in...

(The entire section is 10133 words.)

Franco Ferrucci (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Ferrucci, Franco. “Macbeth and the Imitation of Evil.” In The Poetics of Disguise: The Autobiography of the Work in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, translated by Ann Dunnigan, pp. 125-58. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Ferrucci focuses on Act V, scenes i and ii—which involve Macduff, his family, and Malcolm—as they illustrate key elements essential to the thematic structure of Macbeth. The critic argues that in this drama of violent contradiction, Macduff shows himself to be a dissimulator rather than a benevolent foil to Macbeth's evil.]

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

—i, i, 11...

(The entire section is 11364 words.)

R. A. Foakes (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth.” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 7-29. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

[In the following essay, Foakes characterizes Macbeth as Shakespeare's most complex examination of ambition and its brutal potential.]

Macbeth is Shakespeare's last and most original play on the theme of the ambitious prince finally overthrown. Its roots lie deep in the medieval and Renaissance preoccupation with tragedy as the fall of great men or women, brought low by fortune's wheel and so exemplifying the mutability of human life, or overreaching themselves and illustrating the...

(The entire section is 8297 words.)

Bert O. States (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: States, Bert O. “The Horses of Macbeth.Kenyon Review 7, no. 2 (spring 1985): 52-66.

[In the following essay, States examines Macbeth's ‘pity’ soliloquy (Act I, scene vii) in order to discover an apocalyptic reading of the drama—rather than one based upon the theme of ambition.]

                                                                                Where's the Thane of Cawdor?
We cours'd him at the heels, and had a purpose
To be his purveyor; but he rides well;
And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him
To his home before us. Fair and noble hostess,
We are your guest tonight.

(I, 6,20-25)


(The entire section is 7642 words.)

Margaret Omberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Omberg, Margaret. “Macbeth's Barren Sceptre.” Studia Neophilologica 68, no. 1 (1996): 39-47.

[In the following essay, Omberg contends that Macbeth's failure to produce an heir provides central thematic, structural, and psychological components to the tragedy of Macbeth.]

Ever since L. C. Knights held Bradley's interpretation of Shakespearean tragedy up to scorn in “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” the very title of the essay has been associated with the kind of irrelevant speculation that should not be pursued by serious criticism.1 Perhaps as a result of the inspired irony of this title there has been an understandable reluctance to...

(The entire section is 5815 words.)

Jan H. Blits (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. Introduction to The Insufficiency of Virtue: “Macbeth” and the Natural Order, pp. 1-7. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

[In the following introduction, Blits studies Macbeth’s concern with the limits of virtue and the violation of human and natural order.]

Macbeth depicts the life and soul of a Christian warrior who first becomes his kingdom's savior, then its criminal king, and finally its bloody tyrant. Set in eleventh-century Scotland, the play portrays Macbeth within the context of a moral and political order rooted in a natural order that is established by God. Far from being merely a backdrop for the play (as...

(The entire section is 3702 words.)

Further Reading


Benardete, José A. “Macbeth's Last Words.” Interpretation 1 (summer 1970): 63-75.

Considers questions of guilt, damnation, and manly virtue in relation to Macbeth's character and that of the other principal figures in the play.

Braunmuller, A. R. Introduction to The New Cambridge Shakespeare: Macbeth, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Extended survey of the sources, themes, language, and stage history of Macbeth.

Calderwood, James L. “Macbeth: Violence and Meaning.” In If It Were Done: “Macbeth” and Tragic...

(The entire section is 643 words.)