Among Shakespeare's shortest and most visceral dramas, Macbeth was most likely written in 1606. Principally based on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), the play details the rapid and brutal rise of the warrior Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, followed by his subsequent intrigues, atrocities, and eventual demise on the field of battle. 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 violent action in the play, its nightmarish atmosphere, and the enigmatic nature of its hero, the drama has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Representing such a view, L. C. Knights (see Further Reading) evaluates the foul consequences of an unchecked “lust for power” in the drama, allowing Shakespeare to outwardly dramatize the internal distinctions between good and evil and the human potential to pervert moral order. Similarly, Richard S. Ide's (1975) structural analysis of the work highlights a dichotomy between the psychological tragedy of Macbeth and the symbolic interplay of good and evil in the drama, which Ide argues are integrated in the play's final act. Nicholas Brooke (1990) evaluates the rich poetic language and abundant interpretive signification in the play, elements that have been the primary interest of generations of critics.
Modern analyses of Macbeth have generally concentrated on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience and fate, his descent into corruption, and his ambivalent status as a tragic and sympathetic figure. Dolora G. Cunningham (1963) elucidates what is essentially an orthodox view of Macbeth as a pathologically ambitious individual who repudiates his humanity, and though confronted by remorse, ultimately acquiesces to a base desire for evil. Peter Ure (1974) takes a somewhat different approach, regarding Macbeth as less a study in villainy than a tragic and horrifying glance into the imagination of a man who, having murdered once only to be ravaged by guilt, resolves to think no more. In a complementary analysis of Macbeth's character, Lisa Low (1983) asks why audiences seem to identify with this violent murderer, arguing that Shakespeare's drama allows spectators to imaginatively enter the recesses of Macbeth's mind, to associate their feelings of guilt with his, and to find in his defeat the possibility for redemption. While Shakespeare's violent Thane of Glamis and short-lived King of Scotland continues to draw the vast majority of critical attention, to a much lesser degree twentieth-century commentators have also focused on Lady Macbeth. Representing what is generally viewed as a traditional estimation of the character, George William Gerwig (1929) interprets Lady Macbeth as a psychological portrait of unchecked, “feminine” ambition, projected toward the motivation and achievement of her husband.
Although Macbeth has enjoyed a long and storied stage history, the end of the twentieth century has witnessed a relative paucity in accomplished theatrical performances of the tragedy. Filling in this gap, many critics have turned their attention to the equally rich history of Macbeth as the subject of film, video, and television. Kenneth S. Rothwell (2000) examines the enduring appeal of Trevor Nunn's 1979 film production of the drama, occasioned by its digital rerecording at the end of the century. Praising Nunn's cinematically innovative direction and skilled evocation of the play's nightmarish dramatic and psychological landscape, Rothwell also admires the outstanding performances of Ian McKellen as an anguished Macbeth and Judi Dench as his manipulative wife. Arthur Lindley (2001) discusses the influential 1948 film version of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles. While former critics have generally decried the film as reductive and un-Shakespearean, Lindley instead concentrates on its ahistorical evocation of medieval Europe, and its lasting impact on subsequent cinematic interpretations of the epoch. Considering other filmed productions of Macbeth, David G. Hale (2001) observes that even as numerous critics have asserted that the drama suggests a harmonious ending in the downfall of its protagonist, a number of BBC television and feature film productions of the tragedy have tended to imply a continued state of historical instability that persists long after Macbeth's defeat.
Late twentieth-century interpretation of Macbeth has continued the process of studying the complex thematic nuances of this tragedy, particularly in its combined and potentially apocalyptic treatment of evil, violence, and sexuality. Sheldon P. Zitner (1964) comments on the generic status of Macbeth as a work that, despite its depiction of the extremes of human wickedness, remains a tragic narrative rather than a melodramatic representation of evil. R. A. Foakes (1982) offers a complementary view, regarding the drama as an intricate exploration of ambition and its tragic consequences, while highlighting its evocative imagery of death. Displacing the thematic concentration on ambition, Bert O. States (1985) looks to Macbeth's so-called ‘pity’ soliloquy in Act I, scene vii, to uncover the apocalyptic implications of the drama. Violent contradiction and disguised evil lie at the center of Franco Ferrucci's (1980) estimation of Macbeth. Presenting an unorthodox reading, Ferrucci contends that Macduff, who is generally seen as the embodiment of virtue and justice that balances Macbeth's sinful ambition, is just as despicable as his rival. In true Machiavellian fashion, Macduff plays at being good more convincingly than the usurping Scottish king, according to Ferrucci. The link between violence, debased sexuality, and the supernatural is the focus of Dennis Biggins's 1976 analysis, illuminating the process by which these motifs, personified in the Weird Sisters, drive the action of Macbeth. Margaret Omberg's (1996) psychological study revisits the perennial question, asked flippantly by L. C. Knights decades earlier: “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Taking the inquiry seriously, Omberg maintains that Macbeth's failure to produce an heir is psychologically and thematically fundamental to the tragedy. Turning to the religious and philosophical implications of Macbeth, Jan H. Blits (1996) studies the drama's concern with the limits of virtue and the violation of human and natural order.