Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Essay - Macbeth (Vol. 90)

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, increasingly non-authorial, revisions, excisions, additions. In this respect, Shakespeare plays have always been the free-floating signifiers of postmodern theory, standing for an infinitely variable range of signifieds. As I have argued in “What Is a Text,” the play, even in print, is always a process.

In the case of Macbeth, we are well into the process from the outset, since the earliest surviving version of the play, that included in the folio, is demonstrably a revision. It includes songs for the witches, given in the text only as incipits (‘Come away, come away, etc.’; ‘Black spirits, etc.’). These are songs from Middleton's play The Witch. In performance they would have been accompanied by dances, which means that in the theater these scenes took a good deal longer than they do on the page. The manuscript of Davenant's version of the play, prepared around 1664, includes the whole text of the witches' songs from Middleton—these are really musical dialogues, short scenes. The fact that Davenant did not supply his own witches' material at these points, as he did elsewhere, suggests that the Middleton material was already a standard feature of the play.1

The elaboration of the witches' roles could have taken place anywhere up to about fifteen years after the play was first performed, but the presence of the Middleton songs suggests that Shakespeare was no longer around to do the revising, which presumes a date after 1614. Why, only a decade after the play was written, would augmenting the witches' roles have seemed a good idea? To begin with, by 1610 or so witchcraft, magic, and the diabolical were good theater business—Barnabe Barnes's The Devil's Charter was at the Globe in the same season as Macbeth, and Marston's The Wonder of Women, with its sorcery scenes, was at the Blackfriars. Jonson's Masque of Queens, performed at court in 1609, inaugurated a decade of sorcery plays and masques, including The Tempest, The Alchemist, The Witch, The Witch of Edmonton, The Devil Is an Ass, and the revived and rewritten Doctor Faustus.

The ubiquitousness of theatrical magic is perhaps sufficient reason for the elaboration of the witches in Macbeth, but for me, it does not account for everything. When Macbeth, after the murder of Banquo, goes to consult the witches, and they show him a terrifying vision of Banquo's heirs, Hecate proposes a little entertainment to cheer him up:

I'll charm the air to give a sound
While you perform your antic round,
That this great king may kindly say
Our duties did his welcome pay.


The tone of the scene here changes significantly: the witches are not professional and peremptory any more, they are lighthearted, gracious, and deferential. We may choose to treat this as a moment of heavy irony, though Macbeth does not seem to respond to it as such; but if it is not ironic, the change of tone suggests that the ‘great king’ addressed in this passage is not the king on stage, but instead a real king in the audience, Banquo's descendant and the king of both Scotland and England.

The editors of both the recent Oxford and Cambridge editions have resisted the suggestion that this moment in Macbeth reflects the local conditions of a court performance, observing that nothing in the scene positively requires such an assumption. This is true enough, but I also see nothing implausible about it, and though there is no record of a court performance, King James surely must have wanted to see a play that included both witches and his ancestors. What are the implications if we assume that the text we have is a revision to take into account the presence of the king, and that his interest in witchcraft also accounts for the augmentation of the witches' scenes, so that the ‘filthy,’ ‘black and midnight hags’ become graciously entertaining after they have finished being ominously informative? Such a play would be significantly less author-centered than our familiar text: first because it is reviser-centered—and the presence of the Middleton scenes implies that Shakespeare was not the reviser—and second, because it is patron-centered, taking a particular audience into account. To this extent Shakespeare's Macbeth is already, in the folio version, a significantly collaborative enterprise. But if this is correct, it also means that this version of Macbeth is a special case, devised for a single occasion, a performance at court, not the play in repertory, the play for the public.

This leads us to another question: how did this text become the ‘standard’ version—why was it the right version to include in the folio? It needs to be emphasized that this is a question whether we assume that a performance before the king is involved or not: there is no denying that this is a revised text with non-Shakespearean material. Most attempts to deal with this issue beg the question, assuming that what we have is indeed the wrong text, and that Shakespeare's first editors would never have included it if they had had any alternative. The right text, the text we want (the promptbook, or even better, Shakespeare's holograph) must have been unavailable, lost—burned, perhaps, in the destruction of the Globe in 1613, as if only a conflagration could explain the refusal of Hemminge and Condell (who promise, after all, ‘the true original copies’) to give us what we want. But perhaps it was included precisely because it was the right text—whether because by 1620 this, quite simply, was the play, or, more interestingly, because the best version of the play was the one that included the king.

This would make it an anomaly in the folio, a version of the play prepared for a single, special occasion, rather than the standard public theater version. In fact, the play as it stands in the folio is anomalous in a number of respects. It is a very unusual play textually: it is very short, the shortest of the tragedies (half the length of Hamlet, a third shorter than the average), shorter, too than all the comedies except The Comedy of Errors. It looks, moreover, as if the version we have has not only been augmented with witches' business, but has also been cut and rearranged, producing some real muddles in the narrative: for example, the scene between Lennox and the Lord, 3.6, reporting action that has not happened yet, or the notorious syntactic puzzles of the account of the battle in the opening scenes, or the confusion of the final battle, in which Macbeth is slain onstage, and twenty lines later Macduff re-enters with his head. Revision and cutting were, of course, standard and necessary procedures in a theatre where the normal playing time was two hours; but if theatrical cuts are to explain the peculiarities of this text, why was it cut so peculiarly, not to say ineptly? Arguments that make the muddles not the result of cutting but an experiment in surreal and expressionistic dramaturgy only produce more questions, rendering the play a total anomaly, both in Shakespeare's work and in the drama of the period.

The very presence of the witches is unusual. Shakespeare makes use of the supernatural from time to time—ghosts in Richard III, Julius Caesar, and most notably in Hamlet, fairies and their magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Prospero's sorcery in The Tempest, Joan of Arc's and Marjory Jourdain's in the Henry VI plays, and Rosalind's claim to be a magician at the end of As You Like It—but there is no other play in which witches and witchcraft are such an integral element of the plot. Indeed, whether or not King James was in the audience, the fact that it is the witches who provide the royal entertainment can hardly be accidental. The king was intensely interested in witchcraft; his dialogue on the subject, Dæmonology, first published in Edinburgh in 1597, was reissued upon his accession to the English throne in 1603—there were three editions in that year alone. This and the Basilicon Doron, his philosophy of kingship, were the two works that he chose to introduce himself to his English subjects, and as I have argued elsewhere, witchcraft and kingship have an intimate relationship in the Jacobean royal ideology.3 This is a culture in which the supernatural and witchcraft, even for sceptics, are as much part of reality as religious truth is. Like the ghost in Hamlet, the reality of the witches in Macbeth is not in question; the question, as in Hamlet, is why they are present and how far to believe them.

Like the ghost, too, the witches are quintessential theatrical devices: they dance and sing, perform wonders, appear and disappear, fly, produce visions—do, in short, all the things that, historically, we have gone to the theater to see. They open the play and set the tone for it. On Shakespeare's stage they would simply have materialized through a trap door, but Shakespeare's audience believed in magic already. Our rationalistic theater requires something more theatrically elaborate—not necessarily machinery, but some serious mystification. For Shakespeare's audience, the mystification is built into their physical appearance, which defies the categories: they look like men and are women. The indeterminacy of their gender is the first thing Banquo calls attention to. This is a defining element of their nature, a paradox that identifies them as witches: a specifically female propensity to evil—being a witch—is defined by its apparent masculinity. This also is, of course, one of the central charges leveled at Shakespeare's theater itself, the ambiguity of its gender roles—the fact that on Shakespeare's stage the women are really male. But the gender ambiguity relates as well to roles within the play—Lady Macbeth unsexes herself, and accuses her husband of being afraid to act like a man. What constitutes acting like a man in this play? Killing, obviously, but anything else? Lady Macbeth unsexing herself, after all, renders herself, unexpectedly, not a man but a child, and thus incapable of murder: ‘Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't (2.2.12-13). Indeed, the definitive relation between murder and manhood applies to heroes as well as villains. When Macduff is told of the murder of his wife and children and is urged to ‘Dispute it like a man,’ he replies that he must first ‘feel it as a man’ (4.3.220-2). Whatever this says about his sensitivity and family feeling, it also says that murder is what makes you feel like a man.

The unsettling quality of the witches goes beyond gender. Their language is paradoxical; fair is foul and foul is fair; when the battle's lost and won. One way of looking at this is to say that it constitutes no paradox at all: any battle that is lost has also been won, but by somebody else. The person who describes a battle as lost and won is either on both sides or on neither; what is fair for one side is bound to be foul for the other. In a brilliantly subversive essay, Harry Berger, Jr., suggested that the witches are in fact right, and are telling the truth about the world of the play—that there really are no ethical standards in it, no right and wrong sides.4 Duncan certainly starts out sounding like a good king: the rhetoric of his monarchy is full of claims about its sacredness, about the deference that is due to it, how it is part of a natural hierarchy descending from God, how the king is divinely anointed, and so forth. But in fact none of this is borne out by the play: Duncan's rule is utterly chaotic, and maintaining it depends on constant warfare—the battle that opens the play, after all, is not an invasion, but a rebellion. Duncan's rule has never commanded the deference it claims for itself—deference is not natural to it. In upsetting that sense of the deference Macbeth feels he owes to Duncan, maybe the witches are releasing into the play something the play both overtly denies and implicitly articulates: that there is no basis whatever for the values asserted on Duncan's behalf; that the primary characteristic of his rule, perhaps of any rule in the world of the play, is not order but rebellion.

Whether or not this is correct, it must be to the point that women are the ones who prompt this dangerous realization in Macbeth. The witches live outside the social order, but they embody its contradictions: beneath the woman's exterior is also a man; beneath the man's exterior is also a woman; nature is full of competing claims, not ordered and hierarchical but deeply anarchic; and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge the reality and force and validity of the individual will—to acknowledge that all of us have claims that conflict with the claims about deference and hierarchy. This is the same recognition that Edmund brings into King Lear when he invokes Nature as his goddess. It is a Nature that is not the image of divine order, but one in which the strongest and craftiest survive—and when they survive, they then go on to devise claims about Nature that justify their success, claims about hierarchies, natural law and order, the divine right of kings. Edmund is a villain, but if he were ultimately successful he would be indistinguishable from the Duncans and Malcolms (and James I's) of Shakespeare's world.

Here is a little history: the real Macbeth was, like Richard III, the victim of a gigantic and very effective publicity campaign. Historically, Duncan was the usurper—that is what the rebellion at the beginning of the play is about, though there is no way of knowing it from Shakespeare. Macbeth had a claim to the throne (Shakespeare does know this: Duncan at one point in the play refers to him as ‘cousin’ (1.4.14)—they were first cousins, both grandsons of King Malcolm II). Macbeth's murder of Duncan was a political assassination, and Macbeth was a popular hero because of it. The legitimate heir to the throne, whose rights have been displaced by the usurping Duncan, was Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth ascended the throne, he was ruling as Protector or Regent until Lady Macbeth's son came of age (she did have children—it is Shakespeare who deprives her and Macbeth of those heirs). Macbeth's defeat at the end of the play, by Malcolm and Macduff, constituted essentially an English invasion—the long-term fight was between native Scottish Celts and Anglo-Norman invaders, with continental allies (such as the Norwegian king) on both sides. One way of looking at the action is to say that it is about the enforced anglicization of Scotland, which Macbeth is resisting.

Shakespeare knows some of this. In Holinshed, Macbeth not only has a claim to the throne, he also has a legitimate grievance against Duncan. Moreover, in Shakespeare's source, Banquo is fully Macbeth's accomplice, and the murder of Duncan has a good deal of political justification. All this would be very touchy for Shakespeare, because Banquo is King James's ancestor, and if Duncan is a saint, then Banquo is a real problem, the ancestor one wants to forget. Shakespeare's way of handling Banquo fudges a lot of issues. Should he not, as a loyal thane, be pressing the claim of Malcolm, the designated heir, after the murder? Should he remain loyal to Macbeth as long as he does? In fact, this is precisely the sort of question that shows how close the play is to Hamlet: in both plays, the issue of legitimacy remains crucially ambiguous. Nobody in Macbeth presses the claim of Malcolm until Malcolm reappears with an army to support him, anymore than anyone in Hamlet presses the claim of Hamlet. In both plays, there is deep uncertainty about the relation between power and legitimacy—about whether legitimacy constitutes anything more than the rhetoric of power backed by the size of its army.

The issue of legitimacy provides, in fact, a powerful tragic impetus in the play. Duncan tries to legitimize...

(The entire section is 7155 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

H. W. Fawkner (essay date 1990)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 8920 words.)

Paul A. Cantor (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 15622 words.)

Piotr Sadowski (essay date 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 12501 words.)