The witches, or weird sisters, of Macbeth have remained one of the most popular aspects of the play. The three witches, the first characters the audience encounters, are mysterious beings who set the tone for the rest of the play, most of which takes place in a similarly dark and stormy atmosphere. When the play was performed during the late English Renaissance, the witches would make their initial appearance coming up and out of the trap door on the stage of the Globe theater. Later productions included singing, dancing, and flying witches, attached to ceiling wires.
The witches also perform a more serious function than that of entertainment: their appearance in the play poses the question of whether Macbeth's actions are governed by fate or determined by his own free will. Critics have questioned the meaning behind the witches statement "All hail, Macbeth! That shall be King hereafter!" (I.iii.50). Is this statement a warning to Macbeth or does it tempt him to consider possibilities he may have thought of before? Or, is it a prophesy of the future? Through the witches, some maintain, Shakespeare questions whether our own lives are governed by fate or free will.
Questions regarding gender roles in Macbeth may also strike modern students as particularly compelling, as these roles in contemporary society continue to shift and evolve. Some observers read Lady Macbeth's persuasion of her husband to follow through on the murder of Duncan as being guided by her fascination with male power. She appeals to her husband's sense of manhood, and in effect, some maintain, uses seduction and humiliation to convince him to commit the murder. It has also been argued that Lady Macbeth rejects her own feminine "sensibilities" and takes on a more masculine role for herself because of her perception that femininity is equated with weakness. She assumes this masculine role for herself in an effort to act on her own ambition and desire for power.
Masculinity in this play appears to be defined almost exclusively by violent action, and Macbeth seems driven to prove his manhood through violent deeds, first in battle, then by murder. Macbeth's brutal slaying of Macdonwald is detailed by a sergeant: "he unseam'd him from the nave [navel] to the chops [jaws], / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (I.ii.22-3). When Macbeth begins to back away from the thought of murdering Duncan, telling his wife "We will proceed no further in this business" (I.vii.31), she questions his manhood, stating that when he initially broached the subject with her, then he was a man (I.vii.48-49). By the end of the scene, he has decided that he will kill the king. In addition to murdering Duncan, Macbeth murders the king's guards and then orders the murders of Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff s family. When Macduff learns of these last killings, Malcolm urges the grieving Macduff to take revenge, to act "like a man" (IV.iii.219).
It has been argued that Macbeth himself is distanced somewhat from the violence of the play in that he commits the murders of Duncan offstage, and he orders other people to commit the murder of Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff's family, rather than committing them himself. The notion that in the society in which Macbeth lived the stereotypical male was characterized by violence and that the violence was legitimized through warfare is agreed upon by many critics, however. Just as Macbeth uses violent means to further his own ambition, the play ends with Macbeth's violent removal from the throne and with Macduff appearing on stage with Macbeth's severed head.
Finally, the theme of ambition and how...
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it relates to governance is a major issue in the play. Macbeth lets his ambition supersede his own judgment. In I.vii, he discusses the reasons why he should not kill Duncan. He states that his loyalty to the king has several layers: he is the king's subject, his kinsmen, and his host. After highlighting the king's virtues, Macbeth acknowledges that the only reason to kill Duncan is his own "vaulting ambition" (I.vii.27). At this point, his thoughts are interrupted by Lady Macbeth. He seems to have had a change of heart, but after his wife's speech, Macbeth is determined to murder the king. After he himself is crowned, he is driven to protect what he has gained by ordering the deaths of anyone whom he considers a threat. While violence is an integral part of this warrior society, Macbeth's use of it off the battlefield to further his personal ambition, while unchecked through most of the play, is in the end not tolerated by his subjects. The twentieth century provides numerous examples of world leaders who to varying degrees abused power until their actions were checked by the citizens of their own nation or by the rest of the world. This abuse of power could take the form of one man's effort to improve his own political position, as in the case of Richard M. Nixon; his actions resulted in his resignation from the presidency. A far more extreme example would be that of Adolph Hitler, who used the power he attained to practice genocide until he was stopped through international warfare.
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1905. A classic study. Chapters on Macbeth deal with fundamental issues of evil, flawed nobility of character, and tragic choice; Bradley’s eloquent prose helps the reader appreciate the grandeur of the subject.
Harbage, Alfred. William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963. An excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s plays, accessible to the general reader while providing masterful analyses of selected plays. Discussion of Macbeth gives a scene-by-scene synopsis, illuminated by wide-ranging, sensitive, analytical commentary.
Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Informative, readable discussions of Shakespeare’s major plays based on a series of educational television lectures. Introductory chapters provide a good background to the beliefs and values of Shakespeare’s times. The chapter on Macbeth discusses elements of the play such as theme, characterization, atmosphere, and imagery.
Long, Michael. Macbeth. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to the play as well as original critical commentary. Includes chapters on stage history, literary counterparts and antecedents, and dramatic symbols, as well as scene-by-scene analysis. Long characterizes Macbeth’s tragedy as both Christian and classical, a story of radical isolation from humanity.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Alan Sinfield. Houndsmills, England: Macmillan, 1992. Contains a dozen articles on Macbeth that together provide a good idea of the intellectual issues, political concerns, and style of postmodernist criticism not only of this play but also of literature in general. Includes a useful introduction and summative chapter endnotes, plus an annotated bibliography.
Wills, Garry. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This study of Macbeth reconstructs the political and historical context of Shakespeare’s dark and troubling play, suggesting the links that its first audiences would have perceived between the Gunpowder Plot and this imaginative text.
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Adventures in English Literature. Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth.” Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z; New York: Roundtable Press, Inc., 1990.
Bradley, A.C. "Macbeth," Shakespeare: Macbeth, A Casebook. Ed. John Wain. London: MacMillan, 1968, pp.116-130.
Elliott, George Roy. Dramatic Providence in Macbeth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Everett, Barbara. "Macbeth: Succeeding," Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies. Oxford, UK: Oxford-at-the-Clarendon Press, 1989, pp.83-105.
Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Goddard, Howard C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Hopkins, Lisa. The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands. London: MacMillan, 1998.
Jorgensen, P.A. Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in "Macbeth". Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971.
Kahn, Coppelia. Man's Estate. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981.
Kimbrough, Robert. "Macbeth: Prisoner of Gender," Shakespeare Studies. Vol.16 (1983), pp.175-190.
McAlindon, Thomas. "Macbeth," Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp.197-219.
Muir, Kenneth. William Shakespeare: The Great Tragedies. London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1966.
Schmidt, Alexander. Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary; Vol. I and II. New York: Dover, 1971.
Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
Stallybrass, Peter. "Macbeth and Witchcraft,"Focus on Macbeth. Ed. John Russell Brown. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp.189-209.
Stirling, Brents. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.
Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Wells, Stanley. "A Scottish Tragedy: Macbeth," Shakespeare: A Dramatic Life. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, pp.282-299.
Willborn, David. "Phantasmagoric Macbeth," English Literary Renaissance. Vol.16, No.2 (autumn, 1986), pp.520-549.
Wilson, Harold S. On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.