Literary scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth sometime around 1606—after James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne as James I in 1603 and before the tragedy's first recorded performance at the Globe Theatre in 1611. The principal source for the play is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), although critics have pointed out that Shakespeare manipulated certain aspects of the historical record to reinforce James I's claim to the English crown. Given that Macbeth is Shakespeare's briefest tragedy by far, many literary historians have speculated that the 1623 Folio edition of the play is based on a substantially revised quarto version that has since been lost. Indeed, many late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century critics have continued to speculate on the play's uncertain textual and performance origins, but to date these scholars have discovered no new evidence to support their theories. Another recent critical trend has focused on a close analysis of the language in Macbeth, demonstrating that it exposes the discursive and the representational limitations of the tragic genre, that linguistic models of duplicity shape the play, and that the witches' poetic discourse is echoed repetitively by the other characters. In addition, a number of recent commentators have analyzed several dichotomies in Macbeth, such as the protagonist's vacillation between static philosopher and active murderer, the clash of nihilism and existentialism, and the conflict between a heroic pagan ethic and Christian values of conscience and meekness.
Several modern critical discussions of the character of Macbeth have explored various aspects of his inner psychological conflict. In his 1990 essay, H. W. Fawkner argues that absence is the central structural theme of Macbeth and analyzes the protagonist as a character who remains distanced from his own actions. Piotr Sadowski (2001) asserts that Macbeth is chiefly concerned with his masculinity as he progresses from a state marked by honor and conscience to a state in which he becomes preoccupied with remorseless ambition and the consolidation of power. Paul A. Cantor (2000) identifies a fundamental tension in Macbeth between the heroic pagan ethic and Christian values associated with conscience and meekness. According to Cantor, Macbeth's attempt to synthesize these antithetical values causes him to conceive of a debased form of absolutism that negates both ethics systems and corrupts his perspective of the natural order. Tzachi Zamir (2000) contrasts the philosophical implications of Macbeth's nihilistic preoccupation with the absence of value and temporality with Macduff's emotional and highly temporal existentialism.
Theater critics have praised Gregory Doran's 1999-2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth as one of the more successful attempts in recent years at staging Shakespeare's tragedy. Presented in modern dress, the production emphasized the stark, timeless influence of evil and the devastating impact of its corrupting influence on human ambition. Further, as Katherine Duncan-Jones (1999) points out, Doran's textual cuts successfully transformed the play “from historical melodrama to contemporary psychodrama.” Yet, despite their approbation for the production, many reviewers argued that Doran's visual style sometimes created a sense of dislocation or incoherence that undermined the overall integrity of his artistic vision. In contrast to Doran's production, Terry Hands's 2000 staging of Macbeth has been considered one of the most notorious modern interpretations of the tragedy. Conceived as a vanity project for the popular American television actor Kelsey Grammer, the production was a theatrical debacle marred by shabby production values, declamatory acting, and a lack of directorial insight. Critics nearly unanimously maligned Grammer's portrayal of Macbeth, arguing that while the actor spoke Shakespeare's verse clearly, he nevertheless recreated a one-dimensional, dispassionate, and dowdy tragic figure. Commentators were much more receptive to Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 touring production of the play, which included a hall-of-mirrors set, sumptuous costumes from a number of historical periods, choreographed fight sequences, and real horses ridden by Duncan and Malcolm. Most critics agreed that one of the director's most intriguing innovations was to cast young actors in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As a result, David A. Rosenberg (2003) observed, “Shakespeare's tragedy became the story of a young couple who find themselves steeped way over their heads in blood.” Ultimately, theater reviewers applauded Ninagawa for presenting what Bruce Weber (see Further Reading) termed a “gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting” reading of Macbeth.
Many modern critics assert that the text of Macbeth reveals several clues about its genesis. Garry Wills (1995) examines the specific placement of stage directions, textual cues for clothing and props, and alternative emendations for proscribed editorial revisions to propose a number of ways in which Macbeth might have been more clearly perceived by a Jacobean audience than by a modern one. Similarly, Stephen Orgel (2002) comments on the dynamic theatrical processes and ideological concerns that might have influenced revisions of the play prior to the publication of the 1623 Folio. Orgel focuses on the evolving dramatic treatment of the witches as a reflection of the changing mores and cultural attitudes of each new generation that reinterprets the tragedy. Rebecca Lemon (2002) applies the notion of equivocation and Jacobean ideological concerns to the language of Macbeth, demonstrating that the duplicitous didacticism inherent in the scaffold speeches of condemned Elizabethan and Jacobean traitors shapes the political tone of the play. Lemon concludes that while such language infuses the speech of the traitors Cawdor and Macbeth, Malcolm also adopts this linguistic model of dissimulation to orchestrate his own claim to the Scottish monarchy. In another semantic study of Shakespeare's tragedy, David L. Kranz (2003) analyzes the structural and thematic implications of repetitive verse, indicating that the witches' words are echoed in the linguistic patterns of the other characters.