Macbeth Macbeth (Vol. 44)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 108,240 words.)