(Shakespearean Criticism)


Most likely written in 1606 and based on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. Many critics have speculated that Shakespeare compressed the action and time frames of the tragedy for increased dramatic shock. Macbeth has often been praised for its artistic coherence and the intense economy of its dramatic action, which is replete with vivid scenes of violence and treachery. Although many critics have remarked on the overwhelming nature of the violent action in the play, it has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Early critical scholarship of the play focused mainly on comparative analyses of Macbeth with traditional medieval morality plays, as well as Shakespeare's treatment of topical and political issues. Many of these analyses focused their attention on examining Macbeth as primarily a political play that focused on and was written expressly to commemorate the accession of James I to the throne of England. While interest in studying the play as a political allegory continues to interest critics, it is the contrast of opinions between critics who perceive Macbeth as a tragic hero and critics who see him merely as an evil and egotistical character that has evolved into one of the most enduring themes of modern critical scholarship regarding the play. Other areas of critical interest include the study of ethics, political ideology, and gender issues in the play, as well as psychological approaches to Macbeth’s character.

Many scholars suspect that some of the scenes in Macbeth were added and other scenes were modified by someone other than Shakespeare. David Lowenthal (1989) proposes that despite this possibility, all the disparate scenes combine to present a unified vision of human life. According to Lowenthal, Macduff and his family present a Christian contrast to Macbeth and the supernatural elements in the play, relying on natural order and God for their own preservation. In the end, the play divulges that the world is not the dark or unintelligible place it seems, and that although there are contrasts and evil in the world, the forces of good are more fundamental and lasting and eventually overcome the chaos to reestablish a coherent human existence. Joseph A. Bryant (1988) takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy due to Macbeth's wicked and malicious character. Bryant maintains that whether wicked or noble, “the epiphany that tragedy brings … is available to all alike … the unjust as well as the just.”

Much of the twentieth-century scholarship of Macbeth has focused on both the political ideology and ethical considerations of the play. In an essay discussing these issues, Alan Sinfield (1986) stresses that the play focuses on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil. For example, Macbeth's victory over Duncan's enemies in the beginning of the play is violent, yet it is not considered evil because it is in the service of the prevailing power. However, Macbeth's later actions, especially Duncan's murder, represent evil because it disrupts established power. In England, at the time Macbeth was written, this would have been an extremely topical matter because of such contemporary events as the Essex rebellion in 1599 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, both of which had resulted in many years of state violence. Barbara Riebling (1991) also discusses Macbeth as a political play and feels that while most scholarship has focused on the contextual ideologies prevalent at the time it was written, it can also be read as a discourse in civic humanism. Riebling feels that in Macbeth, Shakespeare studies the consequences of misrule in a Machiavellian context rather than a Christian one. Therefore, though Duncan is a Christian ruler, it is his very Christianity that invites disaster in the Machiavellian world.

Recent scholarship has also increasingly focused on Shakespeare's depiction of women in his plays, and Macbeth has been central to this analysis for many scholars. Joost Daalder (1988) contends that although Shakespeare did not portray men more favorably than women, he did have a strong sense of which traits and actions were “male” and which were “female,” and believed that women should not attempt to cross over into the male domain. The critic points to Lady Macbeth's attempt to adopt a male role and deny her womanhood, which proves disastrous and harms both herself and others. Similarly, William T. Liston (1989) maintains that the play presents a conflation of sex roles and gender, where, if men and women step outside their roles, they lose their humanity. In Liston's opinion, it is the liberation from their defined roles which destroys both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In contrast, Janet Adelman (1987) theorizes that Macbeth presents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power. According to Adelman, maternal power permeates the play via the figures of Lady Macbeth, the witches, and Macbeth's relationship to both, and that his relationships to these women represent primitive fears about the loss of male identity and autonomy. Adelman stresses that the issue of male autonomy was a common thread in many other Shakespearean plays, including King Lear and Henry IV, and that Macbeth presents his most powerful introduction to the realm of maternal malevolence unleashed in the absence of paternal protection.

The level of violence and chaos that permeates the play has led to numerous psychological interpretations of the characters and action in Macbeth. Pierre Janton explores the theory that the fear of assuming manhood is Macbeth's tragic flaw. The critic contends that it is this flaw that leads him to annihilate all the potential and virtual father figures in the play. Robert L. Reid (1992) proposes that the play is fundamentally concerned with showing the horrific consequences of a truly heroic spirit embracing evil. From Reid's perspective, the three murders in the play denote the three stages of the evolution of evil in Macbeth's psyche. According to Reid, Macbeth's victims ultimately represent the human bonds he breaks, and his degeneration into evil is deliberately worked into the psychological and dramatic design of the play.

Joseph A. Bryant, Jr. (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Macbeth and the Meaning of Tragedy,” in Kentucky Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1987, Bryant takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy.]

For years the one tragedy that almost all Americans read, or at least encountered, was Shakespeare's Macbeth. High schools regularly included it in the curriculum for the senior year, perhaps preferring it to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare because of its brevity, its simple plot line, and its melodramatic appeal. Among professional critics, however,...

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David Lowenthal (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Macbeth: Shakespeare Mystery Play,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philology, Spring, 1989, pp. 311-57.

[In the following essay, Lowenthal examines the mysteries in Macbeth—including character reversals and questions of fact and motivation—and concludes that the play “mixes pessimism with a more fundamental optimism.”]


In its date of composition, Macbeth falls about midway between Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and like them is known only from the First Folio. Its condition, however, seems not to be as good as theirs, or so say the editors, some...

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Donald W. Foster (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Macbeth's War on Time,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 319-42.

[In the following essay, Foster offers an account of Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics and history.]

James I, in his preface to the Basilikon Doron (1603), notes that men must “be very warie in all their secretest actions, and whatsoeuer middesses they vse for attaining to their most wished ends.” This is especially true, he says, in the affairs of kings:

for Kings being publike persons, by reason of their office and authority, are as it were set (as it was said of old) vpon a publike...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 63-77.

[In the following essay, Sinfield contends that Macbeth is a political play that centers on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil.]

It is often said that Macbeth is about ‘evil’, but we might draw a more careful distinction: between the violence which the State considers legitimate and that which it does not. Macbeth, we may agree, is a dreadful murderer when he kills Duncan. But when he kills Macdonwald—‘a rebel’ (I.ii.10)—he has Duncan's...

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Barbara Riebling (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 273-86.

[In the following essay, Riebling analyzes Macbeth as a discourse in civic humanism, contrasting the principles of Machiavellian governance to those of Christianity.]

“I love my city more than I love my soul,” Machiavelli wrote in a letter to a friend. If we take him at his word—including the belief that he has a soul—Machiavelli is describing the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. In both of his major theoretical works, The Prince and The Discourses, he presents this sacrifice as more...

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Janet Adelman (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Marjorie Garber, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 90-121.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Adelman suggests that Macbeth represents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power.]

In the last moments of any production of Macbeth, as Macbeth feels himself increasingly hemmed in by enemies, the stage will resonate hauntingly with variants of his repeated question, “What’s he / That was not born of woman?” (5.7.2-3; for variants, see...

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Joost Daalder (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Attitude to Gender in Macbeth,” in Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Journal (AUMLA), No. 70, November, 1988, pp. 366-85.

[In the following essay, Daalder examines Shakespeare's attitude toward women as portrayed in Macbeth.]

With the new interest in ‘women's studies’ there has been a whole flurry of works devoted to the question whether Shakespeare in any significant way discriminated against—or in favour of—women.1

In my view, discussion of this issue is much clarified if we remember what Ruth Kelso wrote some thirty years ago concerning the debate about the matter...

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William T. Liston (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Male and Female Created He Them’: Sex and Gender in Macbeth,” in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-39.

[In the following essay, Liston examines gender issues and sex roles in Macbeth, and theorizes that when men and women step out of their defined roles they lose their humanity.]

Probably none of Shakespeare's plays is so explicit in demarcating man from woman as is Macbeth. Man (including the plural and such obvious derivatives as manly, manhood, and unmanned) appears more than 40 times, almost always with a conscious sense of defining the term—or rather, of defining a person by the term....

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Criticism: Psychological Approaches

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Macbeth's Three Murders: Shakespearean Psychology and Tragic Form,” in Renaissance Papers 1991, edited by George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Baines, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1992, pp. 75-92.

[In the following essay, originally delivered in 1991, Reid contends that the three murders committed by Macbeth are representative of the three distinctive stages of evil that evolve in his psyche.]

Macbeth is a milestone in man's exploration of … this “depth of things” which our age calls the unconscious.

Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare


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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Baldo, Jonathan. “The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth.English Literary Renaissance 26, No. 3 (Autumn 1996): 531-60.

Discusses Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics.

Berryman, John. “On Macbeth.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 319-34. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.

Analyzes Macbeth in the context of Elizabethan and Jacobean cultures, including an overview of the play's major themes and action.

Callaghan, Dympna. “Wicked Women in Macbeth: A Study of Power, Ideology, and the Production of...

(The entire section is 495 words.)