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(Shakespearean Criticism)


Recent criticism of Macbeth has been preoccupied with the play's presentation of opposing moral values, with the conflicts between natural and supernatural, male and female, and good and evil being the particular focus of critical debate. Thomas McAlindon (1991), for example, has analyzed the title character's entire motivation in terms of metaphysically opposing forces, maintaining that "the meaning of Macbeth's ambition [is] deeply enmeshed in Shakespeare's conception of microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, so that it … dramatises a struggle between the forces of unity and disunity." Other scholars, however, have maintained that such concentration on the drama's oppositional elements simplifies the protagonist's ethical position. Reading the play in the light of performance, R. A. Foakes (1962) stated: "Appearance and reality are no longer separated and set side by side, but are … confused or identified with one another, so that 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' evil and good become hard to distinguish for Macbeth, and he is not only the hero, but the villain of this play as well." Similarly, François Laroque (1989) and Stanley Wells (1994) argue that Shakespeare uses equivocal language in his discussion of the natural and the supernatural, thus denying primacy to either. Other critics, such as Barbara L. Parker (1970) and Huston Diehl (1983), have even contended that the ambiguities in Macbeth ultimately suggest a sceptical attitude to the possibility of any reliable human knowledge of the world.

Another primary concern of modern scholars has been the treatment of gender issues. Both Stanley Cavell (1993) and Robert Kimbrough (1983) maintain that Shakespeare blurs traditional gender distinctions in the play. Kimbrough argues that "while Shakespeare in Macbeth criticizes the destructive polarity of masculine versus feminine, constantly informing the play is his recognition of a fuller, healthier way of life, his vision of potential human wholeness, his androgynous vision." By contrast, Carolyn Asp (1981) has focused on the masculine presence in the drama, claiming that Macbeth represents Shakespeare's criticism of an extreme masculine stereotype: "as Macbeth accepts a false masculinity that simultaneously fosters the illusion of his godlike power and diminishes his total human development, he is alienated from the very society that inculcates the stereotype."

The character of Macbeth remains problematic for modern critics. According to J. A. Bryant (1961), Macbeth is a wholly negative character who possesses the capacity for good but chooses to commit evil instead: "Macbeth is certainly diabolical, and he does the Devil's work; but like the Devil he has willed himself into his desperate position, and he is captive of nothing except the Providence he chose to ignore." Other critics, such as Robert B. Heilman (1966), emphasize the ambivalent nature of Macbeth, describing the title character as "the criminal as tragic hero." In examining the play as it appears in performance, Julian Markels (1961) and E. A. J. Honigmann (1976) have maintained that the fundamental ambivalence of the play resides in the response of the audience. They argue that Shakespeare's handling of staging, structure, and symbolism compels the audience both to empathize with Macbeth and to be morally repulsed by him. While some critics, such as Clifford Leech (1967), have claimed that these ambiguities represent Macbeth's leading "a more abundant life through his guilt," T. McAlindon (1973) insists that the ambiguity itself is symptomatic of Macbeth's "breakdown in natural and appropriate relationships, and the semantic disorders and social confusion which are necessarily attendant upon such a breakdown." This response to Macbeth as hero and villain, and Macbeth's apparent insight into his own condition and decline, are for Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) and Barbara Everett (1989) essential to Shakespeare's creating a truly "tragic" character. As Mack writes in "The...

(The entire section is 61,886 words.)