Macbeth Macbeth (Vol. 80)
by William Shakespeare

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(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...

(The entire section is 77,732 words.)