Macbeth (Vol. 90)
See also Macbeth Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 69, 80.
Literary scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth sometime around 1606—after James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne as James I in 1603 and before the tragedy's first recorded performance at the Globe Theatre in 1611. The principal source for the play is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), although critics have pointed out that Shakespeare manipulated certain aspects of the historical record to reinforce James I's claim to the English crown. Given that Macbeth is Shakespeare's briefest tragedy by far, many literary historians have speculated that the 1623 Folio edition of the play is based on a substantially revised quarto version that has since been lost. Indeed, many late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century critics have continued to speculate on the play's uncertain textual and performance origins, but to date these scholars have discovered no new evidence to support their theories. Another recent critical trend has focused on a close analysis of the language in Macbeth, demonstrating that it exposes the discursive and the representational limitations of the tragic genre, that linguistic models of duplicity shape the play, and that the witches' poetic discourse is echoed repetitively by the other characters. In addition, a number of recent commentators have analyzed several dichotomies in Macbeth, such as the protagonist's vacillation between static philosopher and active murderer, the clash of nihilism and existentialism, and the conflict between a heroic pagan ethic and Christian values of conscience and meekness.
Several modern critical discussions of the character of Macbeth have explored various aspects of his inner psychological conflict. In his 1990 essay, H. W. Fawkner argues that absence is the central structural theme of Macbeth and analyzes the protagonist as a character who remains distanced from his own actions. Piotr Sadowski (2001) asserts that Macbeth is chiefly concerned with his masculinity as he progresses from a state marked by honor and conscience to a state in which he becomes preoccupied with remorseless ambition and the consolidation of power. Paul A. Cantor (2000) identifies a fundamental tension in Macbeth between the heroic pagan ethic and Christian values associated with conscience and meekness. According to Cantor, Macbeth's attempt to synthesize these antithetical values causes him to conceive of a debased form of absolutism that negates both ethics systems and corrupts his perspective of the natural order. Tzachi Zamir (2000) contrasts the philosophical implications of Macbeth's nihilistic preoccupation with the absence of value and temporality with Macduff's emotional and highly temporal existentialism.
Theater critics have praised Gregory Doran's 1999-2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth as one of the more successful attempts in recent years at staging Shakespeare's tragedy. Presented in modern dress, the production emphasized the stark, timeless influence of evil and the devastating impact of its corrupting influence on human ambition. Further, as Katherine Duncan-Jones (1999) points out, Doran's textual cuts successfully transformed the play “from historical melodrama to contemporary psychodrama.” Yet, despite their approbation for the production, many reviewers argued that Doran's visual style sometimes created a sense of dislocation or incoherence that undermined the overall integrity of his artistic vision. In contrast to Doran's production, Terry Hands's 2000 staging of Macbeth has been considered one of the most notorious modern interpretations of the tragedy. Conceived as a vanity project for the popular American television actor Kelsey Grammer, the production was a theatrical debacle marred by shabby production values, declamatory acting, and a lack of directorial insight. Critics nearly unanimously maligned Grammer's portrayal of Macbeth, arguing that while the actor spoke Shakespeare's verse clearly, he nevertheless recreated a one-dimensional, dispassionate, and dowdy tragic figure. Commentators were much more receptive to Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 touring production of the play, which included a hall-of-mirrors set, sumptuous costumes from a number of historical periods, choreographed fight sequences, and real horses ridden by Duncan and Malcolm. Most critics agreed that one of the director's most intriguing innovations was to cast young actors in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As a result, David A. Rosenberg (2003) observed, “Shakespeare's tragedy became the story of a young couple who find themselves steeped way over their heads in blood.” Ultimately, theater reviewers applauded Ninagawa for presenting what Bruce Weber (see Further Reading) termed a “gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting” reading of Macbeth.
Many modern critics assert that the text of Macbeth reveals several clues about its genesis. Garry Wills (1995) examines the specific placement of stage directions, textual cues for clothing and props, and alternative emendations for proscribed editorial revisions to propose a number of ways in which Macbeth might have been more clearly perceived by a Jacobean audience than by a modern one. Similarly, Stephen Orgel (2002) comments on the dynamic theatrical processes and ideological concerns that might have influenced revisions of the play prior to the publication of the 1623 Folio. Orgel focuses on the evolving dramatic treatment of the witches as a reflection of the changing mores and cultural attitudes of each new generation that reinterprets the tragedy. Rebecca Lemon (2002) applies the notion of equivocation and Jacobean ideological concerns to the language of Macbeth, demonstrating that the duplicitous didacticism inherent in the scaffold speeches of condemned Elizabethan and Jacobean traitors shapes the political tone of the play. Lemon concludes that while such language infuses the speech of the traitors Cawdor and Macbeth, Malcolm also adopts this linguistic model of dissimulation to orchestrate his own claim to the Scottish monarchy. In another semantic study of Shakespeare's tragedy, David L. Kranz (2003) analyzes the structural and thematic implications of repetitive verse, indicating that the witches' words are echoed in the linguistic patterns of the other characters.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Orgel, Stephen. “Macbeth and the Antic Round.” In The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage, pp. 159-72. New York: Routledge, 2002.
[In the following essay, Orgel comments on the dynamic theatrical processes and ideological concerns that might have influenced revisions of Macbeth prior to the publication of the 1623 Folio. The critic focuses on the dramatic treatment of the witches in particular as a reflection of the changing mores and cultural attitudes of each new generation that reinterprets the tragedy.]
I begin my consideration of Macbeth some years before the folio, for what seem to me good historical reasons: while it is certainly true, as historians of the book from Stanley Morison to D. F. McKenzie and Randall McLeod have insisted, that works of literature do not exist independent of their material embodiment in texts, the printing of Shakespeare's plays is, nevertheless, really incidental. In their inception, in their conception, they are not books but scripts, designed to be realized in performance; and in this form they are not at all fixed by their material embodiment, whether quarto or folio (to say nothing of Riverside, Oxford, or Pelican), but fluid and open-ended. To realize them requires an infinite number of collaborative, often non-authorial, decisions, both textual and interpretive, which in turn eventuate in continual,...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Fawkner, H. W. “The Assassination of Intentionality.” In Deconstructing Macbeth: The Hyperontological View, pp. 77-97. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Fawkner maintains that absence is the central structural theme of Macbeth and analyzes the protagonist as a character who remains distanced from his actions.]
3.1 THE ASSASSINATION OF INTENTIONALITY
As I now approach the dramatic crisis of murder itself, my criticism will situate itself inside what is loosely known as the “noble-murderer interpretation.” This is the reading favored by actors like Garrick and Olivier and discussed by quite a number of significant critics. The basic idea, here, is that Shakespeare's genius does not bother to stage the banal notion of a bad man entering evil but of a very good man entering evil. However, and this is a crucial dimension of the current enterprise, I do not myself read this transition (in the noble-murderer reading) from good to evil as a “fall” from good, as a common type of tragic “tainting.” I do not think that Macbeth at any point “becomes evil” in order to become a murderer (although murder in itself obviously is evil). I think, with John Bayley, that it “is essential to the hypnotic tension of the play that Macbeth should not seem in any ordinary way ‘responsible’ for his...
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SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 315-51. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.
[In the following essay, Cantor identifies a fundamental tension between the heroic pagan ethic and the Christian values associated with conscience and meekness in Macbeth. The critic maintains that Macbeth's attempt to synthesize these antithetical values causes him to conceive of a debased form of absolutism that negates both ethics systems and corrupts his perspective of the natural order.]
I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that [men were] bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change [they] ever experienced—that change which occurred when [they] found [themselves] finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. … Suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and “suspended.” … They felt unable to cope with the simplest undertakings; in this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect … they were reduced to their “consciousness.” … I believe there has never been such a feeling of misery on earth … and at the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased...
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SOURCE: Sadowski, Piotr. “The Masculine in Macbeth.” In Gender and Literature: A Systems Study, pp. 297-325. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, Sadowski asserts that the “masculine principle” is a crucial agent in Macbeth's progression from “statism,” wherein he is concerned with honor and conscience, to a state of “endodynamism,” wherein he becomes preoccupied with remorseless ambition and the consolidation of power.]
According to the working definition adopted in the previous chapter, tragedy as a literary mode describes events leading towards an irreversible disturbance of the protagonist's functional equilibrium, often realized in death, or at least to a permanent maladaptation in the form of his or her total alienation from social relations. The critic Bernard McElroy calls this maladaptation “the complete disorientation of the individual from his most basic assumptions about himself and the world around him.”1 Literary plots of this type are most likely to be generated by situations characterized by excessive competitiveness and the accompanying violence—both masculine, endodynamic features, as distinct from acceptance and love—features usually associated with the feminine Eros as the principle of relatedness. Such an understanding of the tragic mode in terms of gender and dynamism of character is fully borne out by...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “God's Murderer.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5043 (26 November 1999): 24.
[In the following review, Duncan-Jones calls Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Macbeth an interesting interpretation of the play as contemporary psychodrama.]
Gregory Doran's brilliant, though not quite faultless, production is designed for touring. The performance style is so mobile and energetic that it seems as if the players are limbering up to sprint all the way to Tokyo, where they will shortly arrive, as so many soldiers and assassins do in the course of the play, almost too breathless to deliver their urgent messages. The Folio's already short text has been considerably shortened, and it too gallops along, concluding in little over two hours. Major cuts to the final act are particularly crucial in transforming Shakespeare's text from historical melodrama to contemporary psychodrama. While the Folio's Macbeth explicitly rejects suicide as the cowardly act of a “Roman fool”, Antony Sher's bright-eyed psychotic is the agent of his own punishment, running forward to impale himself on a minuscule knife wielded by Macduff (Nigel Cooke). His number is up, and, as he is carried off like a stuck pig, he is closed in upon by thickening mist and a tree-welding army.
We are shown no “dead butcher”, but a manic obsessive who has imposed...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 2 (29 May 2000): 35.
[In the following review, Taylor maintains that Terry Hands's minimalist staging of Macbeth lacked passion and energy. The critic further avers that Kelsey Grammer's portrayal of Macbeth was not the disaster that some critics called it, but merely pedestrian.]
If audiences are willing to accept a reasonably competent, underlit staged reading of Shakespeare's Macbeth in order to see Kelsey Grammer, aka TV's Frasier, play a leading Shakespearean role on Broadway for the first time, then the director, cast and producers of this production can relax. If, on the other hand, there are expectations of anything resembling a blood-red, deeply felt investigation of the play and its characters, there is much cause for concern. On the level of a staged reading, Grammer's performance of the title role is by no means a disaster, nor is it sufficient reason for mounting this production. Never for a moment does he become Shakespeare's anguished Scot, remaining instead a stolid, somewhat flat-footed middle-class, middle-aged man in a reading. Not that anyone else in the cast succeeds any better, Diane Venora being a major disappointment as Lady Macbeth.
Grammer, who has had more than a little Shakespearean experience including appearances in Broadway productions of Macbeth and Othello,...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 5 (19 June 2000): 38.
[In the following review of Terry Hands's Macbeth, Isherwood asserts that Kelsey Grammer gave an inadequate performance of the title role in an undistinguished production.]
If you're going on an ego trip, you might as well travel first-class. So why is Kelsey Grammer, the lovable star of TV's Frasier and a man who can certainly afford luxurious accommodations, returning to Broadway in a poor man's Macbeth? As star vehicles go—and the production is without question a star vehicle—this underpopulated, underdirected and practically undesigned Macbeth is the equivalent of a dilapidated Chevy Nova. The production's paltry texture might be forgivable—or at least forgettable—if it surrounded a central performance of great insight or vitality, but Grammer's Macbeth, though handsomely and intelligently spoken, is essentially an empty star turn, a series of fancy speeches magnanimously tossed to the audience as if Director Terry Hands plays up all the most familiar conceptions about Shakespeare's briefest, bluntest tragedy. Yes, Macbeth is an unremittingly dark journey into the mind of a man seduced into evil by his ambition, so the show unfolds on a gloomy, bare stage drenched in baleful black paint. A single torch—the light of good shining bravely in a benighted...
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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Fierce Kindred Spirits, Burning for a Throne.” New York Times (22 June 2000): E1, E5.
[In the following review, Brantley commends Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Macbeth as insightful and assured, particularly citing the intense performances of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.]
Their glittering, too-open eyes are scary, so luminous that you expect them to glow in the dark. But while the usual witches and ghosts are in attendance, it is something less supernatural that gives this power couple's gaze its intensity in the Royal Shakespeare Company's thrilling new production of Macbeth, which runs through Sunday at the Long Wharf Theater here.
Come now, you've seen the look that beams so unnervingly from the faces of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, the show's splendid stars, and if you're a New Yorker, you encounter it daily. It's a ravenous, lusty look that even the most sycophantic smile can't camouflage. Stronger than any sex drive, it is pure, simple ambition, and these Macbeths are positively drunk on it.
Without making the obvious bids for topical relevance, the director, Gregory Doran, has shaped Shakespeare's tale of regicide and its discontents into a harrowing and disturbingly funny parable for the dawn of the 21st century. This Macbeth, which bears scant...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 6 (26 June 2000): 30.
[In the following review, Isherwood praises Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) staging of Macbeth, singling out the portrayals of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter.]
It appears that Broadway got the wrong Macbeth. On the same night that Kelsey Grammer's production was opening to dismal notices in New York, the Royal Shakespeare Co. gave the first of about a dozen performances of its acclaimed new version of the tragedy as part of the New Haven Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Both productions are stark, dark and streamlined, both are performed in modern dress and without an intermission. But if the basic conceptions are similarly hued, there's a world of difference in the execution. In contrast with [Terry] Hands' desiccated, lifeless Broadway version, Gregory Doran's staging for the RSC's Macbeth is full-blooded and intense, compellingly alive in virtually every scene.
It's topped by a pair of riveting performances from Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Shakespeare's famously nefarious married couple. To see Sher's blazingly, almost confusingly human Macbeth is to realize that there may be no connecting the psychological dots of this maddeningly complex character. Macbeth ricochets inconsistently between bloodthirsty acts and anguished...
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SOURCE: Rosenberg, David A. Review of Macbeth. Back Stage 44, no. 3 (17 January 2003): 48.
[In the following review, Rosenberg maintains that Yukio Ninagawa's production of Macbeth was a gripping and intelligently crafted interpretation of Shakespeare's play.]
Scottish play, my eye! The Macbeth that the Ninagawa Company presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a fierce, exciting, harsh, and impassioned samurai drama set in a hall of mirrors that reflected not only the actors, but also the audience. As directed by Yukio Ninagawa, Shakespeare's tragedy became the story of a young couple who find themselves steeped way over their heads in blood.
This is the ultimate power duo, thrust into a chaotic world before experience can teach them how to handle their lives. As with any great work of art, the play opens up new meanings every time it's performed. Here the implication was that Macbeth is a callow, irresponsible youth whose physicality far outstrips his intellect.
The production also stressed that this is a work about fathers and sons. Bent on murdering Banquo and his son, Fleance, before they can produce heirs, or slaughtering Macduff's wife and kids, this Macbeth was a petulant, vengeful, rash adolescent. (“He has no children!” shouted Macduff upon learning of the king's crime.)
Performed in Japanese with occasionally...
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SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “Macbeth.” In Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, pp. 125-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Wills explains obscure passages and words in Macbeth—such as the specific placement of stage directions, textual cues for clothing and props, and alternative emendations for proscribed editorial revisions—and examines the ways in which the play might have been more clearly perceived by a Jacobean audience than by a modern one.]
Lady Macbeth asks of her evil spirits that they make her insensitive (stopping up the passages of remorse, 1.5.44), and she is relieved to see that wine contributes to that useful deadening (2.2.1). Macbeth wants his own psychic mechanism to be short-circuited. At first he simply observes that “function / Is smother'd” when his surmise leaps toward new possibilities (1.3.140-41). But he soon desires that the eye not know what the hand is up to (1.4.52), that events swallow up consequences (1.7.1-4). He marvels that acts could go forward without the spur of thought or decision (1.7.25-28). Once launched into action, he cannot look back (3.4.135-37), and he will not look any farther ahead than to the instant task, too horrible to contemplate, but not too horrible to do without contemplating it. He tells his wife to be innocent of such knowledge (3.2.45) and so far as possible keeps himself...
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SOURCE: Zamir, Tzachi. “Upon One Bank and Shoal of Time: Literature, Nihilism, and Moral Philosophy.” New Literary History 31, no. 3 (summer 2000): 529-51.
[In the following essay, Zamir considers the thematic contrast between Macbeth's nihilistic preoccupation with the absence of value and temporality and Macduff's emotional and highly temporal existentialism. For the critic, Macbeth serves as an example of the significant role that literary texts can play in the didactic representation of fundamental philosophical concerns.]
They thought him honest and they “loved him well,” a valiant, worthy gentleman. A brave man, the bridegroom of Bellona, the Roman war goddess. He won “golden opinion from all sorts of people.” But all that changed. Instead, he became despised for his treachery and feared for actions that know no moral bounds. From murdering his king to killing his past friends and from that to infanticide, Macbeth's story, at least from the perspective of others, is one of a change in reputation.1 From his own point of view—an outlook which never experiences a good name or, for that matter, any other thing as an accomplishment—things are somewhat more complicated than a simple story of loss.
There is something hollow in Macbeth. What is missing is not motivation for his actions—his “vaulting ambition” is supposed to cover that—but a sense...
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SOURCE: Lemon, Rebecca. “Scaffolds of Treason in Macbeth.” Theatre Journal 54, no. 1 (March 2002): 25-43.
[In the following essay, Lemon discusses the historicism of didactic “scaffold speeches” made by condemned traitors and examines examples of this kind of rhetoric in the language of various characters in Macbeth.]
Treason plagues Macbeth from its opening: by the second scene of the play, the first Thane of Cawdor has betrayed King Duncan, and, by the fourth scene, Malcolm confirms Cawdor's execution for treason. Reporting on the event, Malcolm declares of Cawdor that “very frankly he confess'd his treasons, / Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth / A deep repentance” (1.4.5-7).1 These lines reveal the dying last words of a traitor, familiar to its Jacobean audience as a monologue spoken from the scaffold by hundreds of prisoners.2 Such speeches were characterized by a confession of guilt and a prayer to the monarch as illustrated by Cawdor's own words.3 Recorded in chapbooks, ballads, and state papers, the “scaffold speech” was delivered by prisoners prior to execution, serving as a critical site for the apparent affirmation of the monarch and a re-establishment of communal, public order, as notably argued by Michel Foucault for early modern France, and J. A. Sharpe and Lacey Baldwin Smith for England.4
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SOURCE: Kranz, David L. “The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth.” Studies in Philology 100, no. 3 (summer 2003): 346-83.
[In the following essay, Kranz examines the structural and thematic implications of Shakespeare's use of repetitive poetry in Macbeth, particularly emphasizing how the witches' words are echoed in the linguistic patterns of the other characters in the play.]
It is a commonplace among critics of Macbeth to point out that the eponymous hero's first words echo a similarly antithetical line chanted by the witches in the opening scene of the play. Macbeth's “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.38) is noteworthy not only because it reiterates a paradoxical statement, but because it refers back to the very beginning of the play rather than to the sorceries which have just preceded Macbeth's arrival in the third scene.1 Macbeth cannot have overheard the “fair is foul” antithesis of the witches; instead, it seems to come to his mind out of the very thick air. Whether readers and audiences infer that Macbeth and the witches speak the same language by mere chance or that the latter's words have infiltrated the hero's mind simply by proximity, a close and mysterious connection between the hero and the supernatural hags is established well before the actual staged temptation of the former. Thus it is by means of verbal echo, not...
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Braunmuller, A. R., ed. Introduction to Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Presents an in-depth critical introduction to Macbeth, emphasizing the play's historical sources, major themes, language, and performance history.
Carroll, William C., ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999, 394 p.
Locates Macbeth within its Jacobean cultural context, linking the tragedy thematically to a number of contemporary discourses on such issues as Scottish history, sovereignty, rebellion, and witchcraft.
Cartwright, Kent. “Scepticism and Theatre in Macbeth.” Shakespeare Survey 55 (2002): 219-36.
Argues that Macbeth represents a confluence of the vividly intense, almost believable, theatrical experience with the emerging proclivity for skepticism which shaped the cultural attitudes of Jacobean playgoers.
Goldberg, Jonathan. “Speculations: Macbeth and Source.” In Shakespeare's Hand, pp. 152-75. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Maintains that any study of the sources used in the writing of Macbeth must acknowledge their differing social and political bases.
Gooder, Jean. “‘Fixt Fate’ and...
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