Why has Macbeth had such a long lasting appeal to theatre audiences?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A timeless drama about success, treachery,blood, ghosts, witches, insomnia, and the phantasmagorical realm, Macbeth has something to appeal to nearly everyone of any time period. Despite the existence of the preternatural, there is much verisimilitude in Macbeth, and it is this quality, also, that interests audiences of every era. The themes of abuse of power and the madness that accompanies cupidity rings sharply in America of Richard Nixon, for instance, as does contemporary scene of politics and big government.

A fast-moving plot with the constant shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth captivate the attention of audiences of all ages and time with Shakespeare's psychological study of their minds. The character of Lady Macbeth illustrates well the "mind over matter" vulnerability.  Unlike her husband, who fights in battles and commits or orders several murders, Lady Macbeth is passive in the commitment of these heinous acts. However, she later becomes so ridden with guilt that her conscience tortures her. 

It is, then an much altered Lady Macbeth in Act V, whom the audience witness.  Now she suffers from what the doctor calls "a great perturbation," and becomes obsessed with removing the blood from the steps in the vain hope of alleviating her tortured mind/conscience:

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!....Hell is murky.  What need we fear who know it, when none can call our pow'r to accompt?  Yet who would have though the old man to have had so much blood in him? (5.1.36-41)

Macbeth, too, suffers psychological dilemmas after the first battle in Act I as he becomes obsessed with the idea of being king regardless of the consequences. Using Freudian terms, Macbeth is Id-driven to the point where he even ignores his wife's developing problems and he refuses to heed the warnings of his conscience in order to favor his "vaulting ambition."

Truly, Macbeth holds its appeal to audiences of all ages because of its timeless themes of Ambition and Appearances vs. Reality along with its complex, but all too human, characters.  Added to these factors, there is a marked effect that the atmosphere of Macbeth with its phantasmagorical realm creates with its unusual strength.  The darkness, fear, and horror "breached with gore," that permeates dreams, the desolation of the blasted heath, the vision of the dagger, the heavy air of a storm in which the "black and midnight hags" receive Macbeth in Act I, the moving forest in Act V, the imagery of blood, and night broken by flashes of glaring light and color all serve to tingle the imaginations and hearts of audiences as it all broods over them.