From the 1700s to the present, critics have praised the artistic coherence οf Macbeth and the intense economy of its dramatic action. Earlier commentators as well as contemporary critics have frequently remarked on the play's vivid depiction of treachery and bloodshed, its nightmarish atmosphere, the exploration of the issue of free will versus fate, and the enigmatic nature of its hero. In the late twentieth century, however, there has been a shifting and complex response to the play and its chief protagonist. Although scholars continue to evaluate its relationship to the traditional medieval morality plays as well as its treatment of dynastic issues, they are no longer inclined to view Macbeth as a simplistic allegory of good versus evil or royalist propaganda vindicating the monarchy of James I. There is currently a sharp division among commentators on the question of whether Macbeth is a sympathetic figure with whom audiences and readers can identify, as they do with Lear, Hamlet, and Othello, or whether Macbeth is an egotistical and unadmirable character. Nevertheless, critics generally agree that Macbeth dominates the play in a way that is unique among Shakespeare's tragic heroes.
Late twentieth-century commentary on Macbeth frequently focuses on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience, his descent into corruption, and whether his fate is predestined. Dieter Mehl (1983) has centered his wide-ranging discussion of the play on Macbeth's agonizing internal conflicts and the stages of his moral corruption, contending that Shakespeare depicts his protagonist as an inherently good man who only succumbs to temptation after a harrowing struggle with his conscience. In Mehl's judgment, the nature of evil—and its hold over individual characters—is the essential issue of Macbeth. Similarly, R. A. Foakes (1996) has described the play as Shakespeare's most penetrating analysis of the concept of evil. Foakes regards Macbeth as an essentially moral man who, because of his wife's bullying and his own ambition, fatally compromises his gentler instincts and destroys his own humanity, ending up a victim as well as a villain.
Many recent commentators have discussed the question of whether the term "tragic hero" is appropriate for a dramatic protagonist who devolves into a murderous tyrant. In the context of these discussions, they have examined the means by which audiences and readers are led to identify with Macbeth, to sympathize with his fate, and to some degree even admire him. Robert B. Heilman (1966) has examined the issue of the hero's problematic stature, arguing that because we are induced to share Macbeth's perspective on events, his emotional turmoil, and his terrible anxieties, we find ourselves empathizing with him and achieving an expanded vision of human nature and of ourselves. From Heilman's perspective, Macbeth is no ordinary villain but rather a man with an exceptional capacity to feel, imagine, and suffer, and thus he evokes our pity and understanding. Arthur Kirsch (1984) also has focused on Macbeth's ambitious nature, emphasizing the emptiness of his desires and the insatiability of his aspirations. The critic characterizes Macbeth as the most egotistical of Shakespeare's tragic heroes and suggests that it is extremely difficult either to sympathize with him or to admire him. By contrast, Michael Davis (1979) has interpreted Macbeth as a tragedy of courage, in which Shakespeare explores the nature of manliness and the implications of defining oneself solely in terms of valor. Davis proposes that Macbeth's unquenchable desire to master his fate and overcome all obstacles must inevitably lead either to defeat—or to emptiness—if he conquers all his foes. In Davis's judgment, when Macbeth places his future in the hands of the witches, he relinquishes his autonomy and becomes unmanned.
Indeed, emasculation is one of Macbeth's principal anxieties, according to psychoanalytic criticism. Other subconscious tensions discovered in the play by commentators using this approach include incestuous or oedipal fears. Macbeth has been the subject of a large number of psychoanalytic interpretations. Over the last thirty years, traditional Freudian or oedipal readings of the play have been augmented by many commentators. Robert N. Watson (1984), for example, has argued that Shakespeare portrays Macbeth's crimes as symbolic infringements on the normal cycles of procreation and generation. He asserts that Macbeth's transgressions should be seen as crimes rooted in ambition rather than sexual perversion. In another departure from conventional Freudian interpretations, H. R. Coursen (1985) has offered a Jungian approach to the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. From this perspective, the couple is seen as unconsciously exchanging masculine and feminine capacities as Macbeth allows his inherent proclivity toward introversion and human kindness to be dominated by his wife's dynamic and aggressive temperament. Kay Stockholder (1987) also has evaluated the nature of the relation between the play's chief protagonists. She argues that they are bound together by a love that associates passion with violence rather than tenderness and, further, that their intimacy dissipates after Duncan's murder because henceforth Macbeth becomes the unimaginative man of action his wife initially believed him to be. In the critic's judgment, the play's dream-like quality is reflected in the relationship between the Macbeths as well as by the witches, who help position the play on the boundaries between the dreaming and waking states.
Supernatural elements in Macbeth are part of the texture of discussions of religious and theological issues in the play, and the Weird Sisters are frequently linked to the possibility of providential or deterministic interpretations οf Macbeth. Critics who have recently analyzed the play in these terms generally allude to its ambiguous or paradoxical treatment of theological issues and deny any clear-cut resolution of such questions. For example, Howard Felperin (1975) has examined the play in terms of its relation to orthodox Christian drama, pointing out ways in which it promotes traditional doctrines but subverts or revises them as well. Although the play demystifies sacred myths and symbols, the critic asserts, it shows these forms as essential to social stability and legitimate hierarchy. Charles Moseley (1988) has viewed Macbeth as an inherently religious play, one that is chiefly concerned with the conflict between good and evil in the soul of its protagonist. Moselely maintains that Macbeth is not forced to do anything: although the witches prey on his ambition, it is ultimately his refusal to express contrition for his wickedness that seals his fate. Both James L. o'Rourke (1993) and Susan Snyder (1994) have also questioned providential readings of the play, employing different approaches but reaching similar conclusions. In o'Rourke's opinion, Macbeth portrays a world that is deeply subversive of Christian metaphysics—one in which the dramatic action is determined neither by divine providence nor by human will, but instead by an irrational sequence of action and consequence. The critic regards the play as profoundly pessimistic, governed from beginning to end by an ironic perspective that obscures the distinction between good and evil. Snyder similarly has found the world of Macbeth morally unstable and the boundary between supernatural and human causality indeterminate. In her judgment, the play provides no answers to the questions it raises about the relative culpability of the witches'equivocal predictions and Macbeth's potential to commit the murder they seem to suggest to him. Indeed, she concludes, the prophecies of the Weird Sisters remain as inscrutable as Macbeth's motivations.