(Shakespearean Criticism)


Among Shakespeare's shortest and most visceral dramas, Macbeth was likely written in 1606. Principally based on individuals and events described in 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. Spurred by the murky prophesies of three witches and the urging of his determined wife, Macbeth kills benevolent King Duncan, only to discover that this initial act of violence demands further bloodshed. Wracked by guilt while seeking to secure his tenuous position, he commits a string of atrocities that leads to his eventual death on the field of battle. Macbeth is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest tragedies, often praised for its artistic coherence and the intense economy of its dramatic action, which is replete with vivid scenes of carnage and treachery. Regarded as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil, critics of Macbeth often study the play's extensive violence, its nightmarish atmosphere, and the enigmatic nature of its hero.

Scholars have primarily concerned themselves with the drama's title figure, a skilled warrior whose battlefield virtues contrast with his unchecked ambition, moral blindness, propensity to violence, and tyrannical nature once he ascends to the Scottish throne. Plagued by obsessive guilt for his nefarious deeds, Macbeth exudes a tragic grandeur and elicits a perverse sympathy from audiences that has intrigued generations of critics. Julian Markels (1961) concentrates on Macbeth as a tragic figure according to the classical, Aristotelian definition, reading Macbeth as a tragedy of personal degeneration. For Markels, Macbeth's villainous acts exist within a frame of moral relevance that points toward his ultimate spiritual redemption, particularly as he regains his former heroic valor at the drama's conclusion. Macbeth's tragic undulation between primal destruction and Christian redemption also figures prominently in Michael Long's (1989) study of the character. For Long, Macbeth is a quintessential man of action. In the tragedy's ever-changing balance between primordial evil and Christian salvation, however, Macbeth struggles with an insatiable, primeval, and satanic desire for annihilation. While Shakespeare's brutal Thane of Glamis and short-lived King of Scotland continues to draw the vast majority of critical attention, to a lesser degree contemporary commentators have also analyzed Lady Macbeth. Although a relatively small role in terms of lines spoken, Lady Macbeth is generally considered one of the most fascinating female characters in Shakespearean drama. Garry Wills (1995) summarizes her dramatic appeal as a strange amalgam of unrepentant evil, repressed ambition, diabolical sexuality, and maddening guilt. Turning to a subordinate figure in the play, John Turner (1992) discusses the infrequently assessed King Duncan. Acknowledging that Duncan is generally cast as a weak figure in performance and virtually ignored by critics who see him as merely a virtuous ruler, Turner interprets the murdered king as a symbol for feudal ideology. A proponent of political bonds based on the ideal of mutual reciprocity and trust, Duncan and the social framework he represents collapse when confronted by the unrestrained malice of Macbeth.

A notorious work in production with a long and storied theatrical history, Macbeth continues to be one of Shakespeare's most compelling stage plays, in part due to its mystique as a powerful dramatization of evil. In recent years, the work has elicited a range of experimental approaches and demonstrated its international appeal. Reviewing a 1995 adaptation of the drama by Zen Zen Zo, an independent theater company in Kyoto, Owen E. Brady finds this interpretation to be an expressionistic mixture of horror and comedy, and a frenetic, ritualized performance that distilled Macbeth into an iconic representation of human corruption. Kit Baker witnessed a 1997 production of Macbeth in the Croatian capital of Zagreb under the direction of Henryk Baranowski. Baker notes Baranowski's concentration on the internalized brutality of Shakespeare's drama, capturing its strong psychological resonance with disturbing and provocative visual metaphors, particularly evocative in light of Zagreb's war-torn atmosphere. For Baker, the principal flaw of the production was its relentless gloom, which seemed to deaden any redemptive movement in the play. Bruce Weber attended a 2002 Japanese-language production directed by Yukio Ninagawa, which was long on style but short on substance according to the critic. Weber claims that the beautiful and graceful actors, dazzling spectacle, and breathtaking choreography ensured audiences would be entertained, but that Ninagawa left the deeper dramatic issues of the tragedy largely unexplored. Reviewing the 2001 season at the Shakespearean Globe, Lois Potter finds Tim Carroll's highly stylized staging of Macbeth as a contemporary upper-class social event effective by degrees, but at times uneven. Potter admires the believable interpretations of Macbeth and his wife as modern socialites, but contends that Carroll's attempt lacked any real context in which the events of the drama could logically unfold. Viewing the same production, Richard Hornby gives an even more negative evaluation. Although Hornby admires Carroll for his innovative interpretation of Shakespeare and praises the clearly articulated verse, he maintains that everything else—choreography, set, characterization, and costumes—led to unmitigated disaster. Looking back to the early twentieth century, Irena R. Makaryk (1998) examines a 1924 performance of Macbeth directed by the avant-garde Ukrainian Les' Kurbas. Kurbas's modernist approach employed extreme expressionistic and stylized methods, using them not to convey Macbeth's internal turmoil, but rather to question the relationship between theater and objective reality. The results scandalized bourgeois theatergoers. Still, the impact of Kurbas's modernism on stage interpretations of Macbeth remains evident in contemporary productions, in which a tension between expressionistic abstraction and psychological realism prevails.

Scholars are interested in uncovering the complex thematic structure of Macbeth, approaching the drama from many perspectives in order to embrace its combined psychological, moral, philosophical, social, and linguistic concerns. Miguel A. Bernad (1962) identifies five thematic levels in Macbeth, including the tragedies of Macbeth's personal disintegration, Lady Macbeth's guilty ambition, the moral collapse of a valiant soldier into a murderer, the inversion of social order precipitated by Macbeth's violent usurpation, and finally the theological component of the drama as a tale of mortal sin without repentance. Maynard Mack (1981) offers a complementary list of themes in Macbeth, seeing the work as the delineation of a usurper's rise and fall, a documentation of Renaissance concerns with witchcraft, a parable of pride, a metaphysical study of the distinction between what is real and what is unreal, an exposition of the collapse of communal bonds, and a moral tale of judgment focused on a deeply flawed human being. Macbeth is seen as a “tragedy of equivocation” by many critics, who generally view Macbeth's deep ambivalence and amorality as a central theme in the work. Irena Kałuża (1990) applies the concept of equivocation to the drama as a whole, interpreting Macbeth as a play that achieves its tragic balance through doubt, deception, hypocrisy, and hidden meaning. William O. Scott (1986) focuses on a process of recognizing and decoding equivocal statements, from the witches' inscrutable prophesies to Macbeth's own vague and deceptive self-avowals. A. R. Braunmuller (see Further Reading) also examines the play's varied language and imagery, noting that Macbeth's poetic, sometimes impenetrable speeches and Shakespeare's use of paradox, antithesis, and contradiction serve a thematic function by mirroring Macbeth's attempts to conceal and evade his murderous crimes, hiding them from others and himself. Taking a philosophical approach to theme, King-Kok Cheung (1984) applies Søren Kierkegaard's notion of existential dread to Macbeth, observing the effects of an ominous, ambivalent, and indefinable fear that suffuses the drama. Lastly, Leon Harold Craig (2001) studies Macbeth as Shakespeare's most metaphysical work. According to Craig, the foreboding evil that pervades the tragedy is a cosmological one that calls into question the nature of reality, appearance, time, contingency, and being.

Miguel A. Bernad (essay date winter 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernad, Miguel A. “The Five Tragedies in Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 1 (winter 1962): 49-61.

[In the following essay, Bernad offers a thematic survey of Macbeth, emphasizing five distinct aspects of tragedy—physical, psychological, moral, social, and theological—within the play.]

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare's Macbeth is the artistry with which the playwright has woven five distinct tragedies into one. Hamlet is intriguing, King Lear is profound, but Macbeth is complex, and it is this complexity which gives the play its richness, making a study of it so rewarding and every...

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Maynard Mack (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mack, Maynard. “The Many Faces of Macbeth.” In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, pp. 183-96. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Mack examines many of the central thematic concerns of Macbeth, including usurpation, witchcraft, pride, crime, the blurring of the real and unreal, the collapse of community, and final judgment.]


After Lear, Macbeth seems at first glance a simple play. Seen in one light, it simply tells the brutal story of a Scottish usurper whom Shakespeare had read about in one of his favorite...

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Julian Markels (essay date summer 1961)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Markels, Julian. “The Spectacle of Deterioration: Macbeth and the ‘Manner’ of Tragic Imitation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1961): 293-303.

[In the following essay, Markels reads Macbeth as a tragedy of personal degeneration, concentrating on Macbeth as a tragic figure according to the classical, Aristotelian definition and examining his potential to elicit sympathy and find redemption.]

Nor, on the other hand, should an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by...

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Michael Long (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Long, Michael. “Doers of Deeds.” In Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Macbeth, pp. 30-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Long evaluates Macbeth as an archetypal man of action and analyzes his crimes in relation to other literary depictions of primal destruction and Christian redemption.]


Shakespeare often begins a tragedy with somebody's description of the protagonist before he comes on stage. We hear of Marcius as ‘chief enemy to the people’ before he bursts in full of fury. We hear of the ‘good and gracious’ Timon before he sweeps on distributing largesse. We...

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John Turner (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, John. “Duncan.” In Open Guides to Literature: Macbeth, pp. 36-54. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Turner studies the figure of Duncan in Macbeth, focusing particular attention on this character's status as a signifier of feudal ideology and on performance interpretations made by directors Trevor Nunn and Roman Polanski in their productions of the drama.]

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was increasingly a ‘reinforcement of patriarchy’ in England and Scotland as the new Renaissance states struggled to secure legitimacy for themselves (Stone 1979: 109). By ‘patriarchy’ I mean a...

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Garry Wills (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “Lady Macbeth.” In Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, pp. 75-89. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wills considers Lady Macbeth as the “fourth witch” in Macbeth and emphasizes the distinctive qualities of this image in theatrical performances of the play.]

Though Lady Macbeth's is not a huge part—she speaks only a third of the lines that Cleopatra does, and under half of Portia's in The Merchant of Venice—two towering (but very different) theatrical reputations were built largely on performances as Lady Macbeth: Sarah Siddons's in the eighteenth century and Ellen Terry's in the...

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Owen E. Brady (review date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brady, Owen E. Review of Macbeth. Theatre Journal 48, no. 1 (1996): 97-8.

[In the following review of a 1995 adaptation of Macbeth performed at the Zen Zen Zo theater in Kyoto, Brady discusses the expressionistic power of this bilingual English/Japanese performance and identifies several of the production's stylistic flaws.]

Seized by students in the 1960s and run by them still, Kyoto University's Seibu Kodo stands isolated in a pitted, unpaved lot strewn with refuse. This is the ramshackle headquarters for Zen Zen Zo, a theatrical experiment in cross-cultural form. A multinational troupe directed by Australian Simon Woods, Zen Zen Zo has...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Irena R. Makaryk (review date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Makaryk, Irena R. “Shakespeare Right and Wrong.” Theatre Journal 50, no. 2 (1998): 153-63.

[In the following review, Makaryk describes avant-garde Ukrainian director Les' Kurbas's 1924 modernistic, anti-bourgeois production of Macbeth, citing its ironic and expressionistic methods and stylized form.]

In an interview in Gambit in 1970, Edward Bond remarked that, as a society, “we use the play [King Lear] in a wrong way. And it's for that reason I would like to rewrite it so that we now have to use the play for ourselves, for our society, for our time, for our problems.”1 For Bond, “wrong” Shakespeare is academic...

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Kit Baker (review date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, Kit. Review of Macbeth. Theatre Journal 50, no. 2 (1998): 242-46.

[In the following review of director Henryk Baranowski's Croatian-language production of Macbeth in 1997, Baker highlights the provocative setting and its eerie, preternatural mood.]

Theater 2000 is one of Croatia's first independent theatre companies, launched in a spirit of rebellion by leading actors yearning to break from the country's officially sanctioned theatre. Founder Vili Matula chose to debut his company with Macbeth, a suitably provocative choice—the play is, after all, the story of a bloodthirsty warlord, and local parallels would not be lost on a...

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Lois Potter (review date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Potter, Lois. Review of Macbeth. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 1 (2002): 95-105.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2001 Globe season, Potter returns a mixed evaluation of director Tim Carroll's Macbeth, approving of its unconventional setting as a contemporary formal event and its individual performances, while disparaging some of Carroll's directorial additions.]

Tim Carroll's production of Macbeth was described to me as a failure, sometimes an “interesting failure”—so of course I was bound to be pleasantly surprised, and I was. Its basic metaphor seemed to be that of a New Year's or Halloween party, with the entire cast in...

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Richard Hornby (review date winter 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of Macbeth. Hudson Review 54, no. 4 (winter 2002): 657-63.

[In the following review of a 2001 production of Macbeth directed by Tim Carroll, Hornby maintains that nearly every aspect of the performance—including choreography, set, characterization, and costumes—was an unmitigated disaster.]

The Restored Globe Theatre in London continues to have the best spoken and worst directed Shakespeare company in the world. Artistic Director Mark Rylance's decision to have a speech expert, or “Master of Verse,” for each production has given us verse speaking that is clear, vigorously rhythmic, and nuanced. Although the actors...

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Bruce Weber (review date 6 December 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Macbeth. New York Times (6 December 2002): B3.

[In the following review of director Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 Japanese-language production of Macbeth, Weber praises the dazzling and elegant qualities of the cast, set, and choreography, but questions the overall depth of Ninagawa's interpretation.]

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting Macbeth being presented as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is that the director, Yukio Ninagawa, is 67 and the best-known director of classical theater in Japan. For in its overall glam visage as well as in many...

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King-Kok Cheung (essay date winter 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cheung, King-Kok. “Shakespeare and Kierkegaard: ‘Dread’ in Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 4 (winter 1984): 430-39.

[In the following essay, Cheung suggests that Macbeth suffers from Kierkegaardian “dread”—a fear of the indefinite that excites anxiety and a desire for the forbidden.]

Macbeth, in choosing to murder Duncan, exhibits what Kierkegaard would later diagnose as “dread.”1 Though centuries apart, both Shakespeare and Kierkegaard are steeped in the Protestant tradition; and in both, dogma is accommodated in psychology. Kierkegaard, who quotes Shakespeare regularly to illustrate his psychological concepts, has...

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William O. Scott (essay date summer 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Scott, William O. “Macbeth's—and Our—Self-Equivocations.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 2 (summer 1986): 160-74.

[In the following essay, Scott explores the relationship between self-knowledge and verbal equivocation in Macbeth.]

                                                            For even now
I put myself to thy direction, and
Unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure
The taints and blames I laid upon myself,
For strangers to my nature. I am yet
Unknown to woman, never was forsworn,
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own,...

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Irena Kałuża (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kałuża, Irena. Introduction to The Language of Deception in Macbeth: A Study in Equivocation and Hidden Meaning, pp. 9-16. Kroków: Nakladem Uniwersytetu Jagiellonkiego, 1990.

[In the following essay, Kałuża summarizes pervasive patterns of hypocrisy, deception, and equivocation in Macbeth.]

Macbeth is a tragedy with a criminal as tragic hero. For such a tragedy to achieve the right tragic effect, the evil must be balanced by other elements. In Macbeth some of the balancing factors are to be found in the very quality of the language of the play. Thus in Acts I and II Macbeth's evil-doing is contrasted with his anguished introspective...

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Leon Harold Craig (essay date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Leon Harold. “Living in a Hard Time: Politics and Philosophy in Macbeth.” In Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear, pp. 25-111. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Craig claims that Macbeth is Shakespeare's most metaphysical work, and probes the play's concern with such philosophical issues as the nature of reality, appearance, time, contingency, and being.]


Macbeth is the only work in the canon in which the word ‘metaphysical’ occurs. Once one begins to discern some of the play's...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Belson, Ken. Review of Macbeth. New York Times (1 December 2002): AR7.

Reviews Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 staging of Macbeth in Brooklyn, focusing on Ninagawa's theatrical career and his thematic evocation of mortality in the production.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 184 p.

Presents seven essays on Macbeth by Bloom and other noted contemporary critics on subjects including power, ambition, and Macbeth's criminal mind.

Braunmuller, A. R. Introduction to The...

(The entire section is 510 words.)