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.