Skip to main content
Macbeth /

Further Reading: Macbeth

Adelman, Janet. “ ‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth.” In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Marjorie Garber, pp. 90–121. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Focusing on Macbeth’s repeated question, “What’s he / That was not born of woman?” Adelman argues that Macbeth simultaneously represents the fantasy of absolute, destructive maternal power and the male fantasy of absolute escape from this power. Only through the ruthless elimination of all female presence are the primitive fears of male identity ultimately assuaged and contained. Initially the witches, with their prophecy that Macbeth fulfills, and Lady Macbeth, impelling him to murder by her equation of masculinity and regicide, appear to wield great power over him as their pawn, and the play’s images of masculinity and femininity are terribly disturbed. While Duncan combines attributes of the father and the mother in harmonious relation, male and female break apart with his assassination, the female becoming either helpless or poisonous, the male bloodthirsty. There is the suggestion that Duncan has failed to provide protective masculine authority. This father-king cannot shield either his vulnerable female self or his sons from the violence provoked in Macbeth by the maternal malevolence of the witches and Lady Macbeth, who are identified with each other. “Through this identification, Shakespeare in effect locates the source of his culture’s fear of witchcraft in individual human history, in the infant’s long dependence on female figures felt as all-powerful: what the witches suggest about the vulnerability of men to female power on the cosmic plane, Lady Macbeth doubles on the psychological plane.” Adelman then charts the declining power of the witches as the play enters its fourth act, when we discover they have masters and they become less terrifying and more comic. They have only ever been English witches, Adelman observes, and not the more menacing Continental witches associated with “the ritual murder and eating of infants, the attacks specifically on the male genitals, the perverse sexual relationship with demons.” Such threatening features are instead transferred to Lady Macbeth in her relationship to Macbeth, who comes to imagine “her as male and then reconstitutes himself as the invulnerable male child of such a mother.” While the play punishes Macbeth for his fantasy of absolute escape from maternal power, it nonetheless “curiously enacts the fantasy that it seems to deny,” specifically in the figure of Macduff: “in affirming that Macduff has indeed had a mother, [the play] denies the fantasy of male self-generation; but in attributing his power to his having been untimely ripped from that mother, it sustains the sense that violent separation from the mother is the mark of the successful male.”

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 1904. Reprint, London: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Bradley finds Macbeth simpler than Shakespeare’s other tragedies, “broader and more massive in effect.” “The whole tragedy is sublime.” He focuses on the psychological makeup of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, finding that Duncan’s murder is a moment of radical change in the protagonists’ characters. With his emphasis on psychology, Bradley is concerned to make Macbeth entirely free of any coercion by the witches, leaving him responsible for Duncan’s murder and those that follow: “Shakespeare nowhere shows . . . any interest in the speculative problems of foreknowledge, predestination and freedom.” The witches are neither “fate, whom Macbeth is powerless to resist,” nor “symbolic representations of the . . . half-conscious guilt of Macbeth.” According to Bradley, Macbeth is “a great warrior, somewhat masterful, rough, and abrupt,” but with the imagination of a poet—an imagination through which conscience works to affect him with horror at evil. “But he has never . . . accepted as the principle of his conduct the morality which takes shape in his imaginative fears.” The instant he murders Duncan, the futility of his act “is revealed to Macbeth as clearly as its vileness had been revealed beforehand.” There ensues a “perpetual agony of restlessness . . . which urges him to causeless action in search of oblivion.” Yet “there remains something sublime in the defiance with which, even when cheated of his last hope, he faces earth and hell and heaven.” Lady Macbeth is initially characterized by “an inflexibility of will, which appears to hold imagination, feeling, and conscience completely in check.” She is appalling and sublime, apparently invincible but also apparently inhuman. “We find no trace of pity . . . ; no consciousness of the treachery and baseness of the murder; . . . no shrinking even from the condemnation or hatred of the world.” However, she is shocked by the hideousness of Duncan’s murder when she sees it reflected, upon its discovery, in the faces of others, and “her nature begins to sink.” She loses the initiative—“the stem of her being seems to be cut through”—while the opposite occurs with her husband, who “comes into the foreground.”

Brown, John Russell. Macbeth. Shakespeare Handbooks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brown’s handbook devotes chapters to the play’s date of composition and textual provenance, a scene-by-scene commentary, cultural contexts and sources, and the afterlife of Macbeth in the theater, on film, and in criticism. Brown thinks that the play was probably written and first performed late in 1606 or early the following year; he reprints Dr. Simon Forman’s diary account of a revival at the Globe on April 20, 1611, the earliest documented performance of the play. Public interest in witchcraft during the early years of the century, changing views toward Scotland, challenges to royal absolutism, debates about the qualities required for a good monarch, and interest stirred by the Gunpowder Plot trial early in 1606 are all part of the play’s cultural context. While Shakespeare borrows from the Bible and Book of Common Prayer (see, for example, the Porter episode in 2.3, which reflects “Christian beliefs and superstitions more specifically than elsewhere” in the play), his primary source was Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (extensively excerpted by Brown in order to reveal Shakespeare’s choices). The author speculates that Shakespeare might have approved additions to the original text—e.g., songs taken from Middleton’s The Witch and two entries for Hecate in 3.5 and 4.1.38 SD–43—even if he did not actually write them. The text’s “unusual brevity could also be a consequence of a revision that had to accommodate additional singing, dancing and spectacle for performances at court or Blackfriars.” The eighty-page commentary, informed by textual issues and theatrical concerns, demonstrates how the dialogue, at crucial moments in the plot, “repeatedly quickens the senses and frees the imagination of those who speak and those who hear,” and how Shakespeare’s handling of the onstage action “repeatedly directs attention to innermost thoughts and physical sensations.” The chapter on key productions and performances includes discussion of William Davenant’s staging (late 1660s) and the performances of David Garrick and Sarah Siddons (eighteenth century), Henry Irving and Ellen Terry (nineteenth century), Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh (1955), Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company production (1976), and Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in Gregory Doran’s revival for the same company (1999) and for the Young Vic (London, 2000). Adaptations singled out for comment include Charles Marowitz’s A Macbeth (1969), Eugène Ionesco’s Macbett (1972), Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979), Welcome Msomi’s frequently revived Umabatha (1970), and a well-received Japanese version by Yukio Ninagawa (1980) that enjoyed a re-production in 1998. The chapter on cinematic treatments considers three films: Akira Kurosawa’s “masterpiece,” Throne of Blood (1957); Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971); and Trevor Nunn’s 1978 video version of his 1976 staging noted above. In the final chapter, Brown examines a selected number of critical views (most dating from the 1950s on) under the headings of verbal language, characters, arguments and themes, structure and genre, and theatrical events in the play’s afterlife. A briefly annotated bibliography rounds out the volume.

Calderwood, James L. If It Were Done: “Macbeth” and Tragic Action. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Calderwood addresses Macbeth from three different—but not entirely discrete—perspectives. First, he argues for the play’s indebtedness to Hamlet, not because of similarities but because the two tragedies are almost systematically opposed; Macbeth is the “photographic negative of Hamlet” or the “counter-Hamlet.” Hamlet’s words are opposed to Macbeth’s action. Hamlet is full of “pre-action,” the revenge not coming until the end, while in Macbeth the regicide comes early and its consequences linger on. Hamlet appears to sleep in inaction for most of his play; Macbeth, having killed Duncan, can sleep no more. “In Hamlet the middle—the interim, the gap, the space between two persons or events—is always clogged. . . . Macbeth features an increasingly easy erasure of inbetweenness in the interests of immediacy.” Second, Calderwood discusses the play as a tragedy “about the nature of tragedy,” finding Macbeth to deviate relentlessly from the Aristotelian observation that tragedy is an imitation of an action that is whole and complete in itself, with a beginning that does not follow from something else, a middle, and an end from which nothing follows. Macbeth “does not begin where it seems to begin because its action has already begun,” as the Weïrd Sisters in its first scene are waiting until “the hurly-burly’s done” and “the battle” between Duncan’s forces and the rebels has been “lost and won.” Furthermore, the end of Macbeth so closely resembles its beginning that we are left to wonder how its action can be complete: at the beginning Macbeth wins a battle to secure Duncan on the throne, and at the end Macduff wins another battle to install Malcolm on the throne. Macbeth also appears incomplete because Shakespeare does not stage the play’s central action, the murder of Duncan, and because Macbeth himself does not understand his murder of Duncan to be the completion of necessary action, but has to supplement that murder with the murders of Banquo (itself left incomplete by the escape of Fleance) and of Macduff’s wife and family (that crime left unfinished by Macbeth’s failure to kill Macduff). Third, Calderwood questions “the assumption that Macbeth’s evil can be sharply divided from the prevailing Scots good.” He observes that the narration of the play’s opening battle presents “Scots culture as founded on savagery” insofar as it figures Macbeth and Banquo “as priestly leaders of the royal forces . . . [who] preside over a ceremony in which the Scots are purged and exalted by the shedding of sacred blood in the king’s cause.” Therefore, while in murdering Duncan, “Macbeth violates basic cultural tabus, . . . his deed issues . . . from an impulse to transcend bestiality and achieve cultural distinction” through violence, which the play has represented as the means through which the distinction is made between king and subject in Scotland. Finally, the play seems to move toward a ritual as it ends with the violent invasion of Scotland to “terminate violence by purging the country of the pharmakos,” the scapegoat, Macbeth. However, tragedy cannot be reduced to ritual: “we witness a divided Macbeth, a tyrant yet one who acknowledges repellence in himself as well as in the world outside him.” As his enemies view him as “merely a ‘cursed usurper,’ a ‘butcher,’ . . . in some measure Macbeth shares their judgment [and] he transcends their judgment. It is the destiny of tragic heroes to be isolated in self-division and nuance, as the world they have violated returns to an oblivious but healing wholeness.”

Charlton, H. B. “Macbeth.” In Shakespearian Tragedy, pp. 141–88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

For Charlton, “Macbeth explores imaginatively and dramatically the operations of the human conscience as it worked in a spiritual epoch before it had been precisely named.” Macbeth’s conscience is “mainly a feeling of fear,” and evil in Macbeth is “unnaturalness rather than unrighteousness. . . . The afterworld remains mistily beyond the edges of the known, and exerts no pressure on the minds and the feelings of living men.” The measure of human worth is “unswerving courage against greatest odds,” and Macbeth is only vaguely aware that other conditions limit the scope within which bravery may properly act. Among these conditions are the obligations of “kinship, of loyalty, and of hostship,” as well as the desire to be worthy of the tribute of fame. Macbeth’s conscience operates as much through his corporeal as his spiritual agencies, his fear of violating natural obligations registering itself in the breakdown of harmony in his “state of man”: “The hand is incapable of performing the willed movement; the eye distorts the image it perceives; the very hair erects itself unseasonably; the blood flushes or leaves pale the face, unsubjected to a controlling will. . . . Imagination intensifies the fear inordinately until function is smothered in enervating surmise.” Even as Macbeth becomes habituated to murder, he is incapable of destroying his human nature, which, as it endures the accumulating unnaturalness of his action, only increases his sensitivity and spiritual awareness. “Through Macbeth, man appears to be discovering human nature and the principles or laws which are its very essence. In the end, these laws emerge as something not hostile to, but as it were, precedent to all and every formulation of them in terms of religious dogma. . . . Macbeth appears to stand as the symbol of a crucial moment in human history, the moment at which mankind discovered itself to be possessed of capacities for entering on unending vistas of spiritual progress.”

Coleridge, S. T. “Notes for a Lecture on Macbeth” [c. 1813]. In Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, edited by Terence Hawkes, pp. 188–99. New York: Capricorn, 1959.

Despising 2.3.1–43 (with the character of the Porter), Coleridge focuses on the Weïrd Sisters, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Banquo. He offers to generalize the principles underlying the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: “Macbeth mistranslates the recoilings and ominous whispers of conscience into prudential and selfish reasonings, and after the deed, the terrors of remorse into fear from external dangers—like delirious men that run away from the phantoms of their own brain, or, raised by terror to rage, stab the real object that is within their own reach; while Lady Macbeth merely endeavours to reconcile him and her own sinkings of heart by anticipation of the worst shapes and thoughts, and affected bravado in confronting them.” Coleridge describes a Macbeth who “is powerful in all things but [who] has strength in none. Morally he is selfish; i.e., as far as his weakness will permit him to be. Could he have everything he wanted, he would rather have it innocently. . . . Lady Macbeth . . . is . . . of high rank, left much alone, and feeding herself with day-dreams of ambition, she mistakes the courage of fantasy for the power of bearing the consequences of the realties of guilt. Hers is the mock fortitude of a mind deluded with ambition; she shames her husband with a super-human audacity of fancy which she cannot support, but sinks in the season of remorse, and dies in suicidal agony.” It is the first appearance of the Weïrd Sisters that establishes the “keynote of the character of the whole play.” Coleridge sets the powerful invocation of the imagination in this scene in contrast to the comparatively mundane opening of Hamlet. He goes on to contrast the openness with which Banquo responds to the Weïrd Sisters with Macbeth’s brooding melancholy, concluding that Macbeth has already been tempted by ambitious thoughts.

Garber, Marjorie. “Macbeth: The Male Medusa.” In Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality, pp. 116–65. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Sigmund Freud famously denied any relation between the literary appearance of ghosts or apparitions and the Unheimlich, or uncanny. In response Garber argues that Macbeth, with its witches, ghost, and apparitions, “is the play of the uncanny—the uncanniest in the canon”—and that “the uncanny is nothing less than the thematized subtext of” the play, which is about the transgression of boundaries and about dislocation, “something let out to wander,” like the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth or the ghost of Banquo at the banquet. The essay begins with a review of the stage traditions surrounding Macbeth, particularly the prohibition against using the name Macbeth in the theater outside of performance. The play itself stages the revelation of that which is not to be looked upon in, for example, what the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé calls “a seemingly fortuitous violation” through which we see the witches prematurely at the beginning of the play, or later in what Macduff, unexpectedly finding Duncan murdered, calls “a new Gorgon,” one of the feminized mythological monsters the sight of which turned the observer to stone. Macduff’s mythological allusion becomes the occasion in Garber’s essay for a wide-ranging exploration of the Gorgon Medusa’s significance in classical and Renaissance art and literature, with each significance related to Macbeth. Garber canvasses the Italian mythographer Caesare Ripa, the English Francis Bacon, the Scottish James I in his book Basilikon Doron, and even the archaeological remains of Roman Britain that include many images of the female Medusa and some of a male one. From Macbeth Garber produces a seemingly endless list of manifestations of the uncanny: “the witches’ riddling prophecies, the puzzling, spectacular apparitions, the walking of trees and sleepers, the persistent sense of doubling that pervades the whole play: two Thanes of Cawdor; two kings and two kingdoms, England and Scotland themselves doubled and divided; two heirs apparent to Duncan; the recurrent prefix ‘Mac’ itself which means ‘son of’; the sexually ambiguous witches replicated in the willfully unsexed Lady Macbeth.”

Harris, Jonathan Gil. “The Smell of Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 58 (2007): 465–86. The original essay is incorporated into Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, chapter 4, “The Smell of Gunpowder: Macbeth and the Palimpsests of Olfaction” (pp. 119–39) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Arguing that the smell of “thunder and lightning” at the beginning of Macbeth is as theatrically significant as its acoustic power, Harris widens the usual auditory and visual emphasis of historical phenomenological studies to include the olfactory. With Proust’s repeated allusions to smell and memory as a reference point, Harris “locate[s] in smell . . . a polychronicity: that is, a palimpsesting of diverse moments in time.” The author’s polychronic reading of Macbeth’s “smellscape” reveals “an explosive temporality through which the past can be made to act upon, and shatter the self-identity of, the present.” The malodorous smell of gunpowder and fireworks used in the seventeenth century to create the “fog and filthy air” and the illusion of thunder and lightning in the first scene would have entailed for the playgoer “a palimpsesting of temporally discrete events and conventions: the contemporary Gunpowder Plot, the older stage tradition of firework-throwing devils and Vices, and the abandoned sacred time of Catholic ritual in which fair and foul smells [of burning incense] signified, respectively, divine and satanic presence.” Each of these memories would have rendered the play’s pyrotechnics “untimely” in the sense of being transformed “into something else, something unstuck in [or out of] time.” The stink emitted by the detonated squib allowed “a supposedly superseded religious past to intervene in and pluralize the Protestant present.” Harris concludes that a polychronic approach to the “time-traveling” associations of smell in Macbeth makes us more sensitive to “the extent to which the vagaries of matter, time, and memory on the Shakespearean stage . . . demand special, and necessarily incomplete, practices of interpretation.”

Hawkins, Michael. “History, Politics, and Macbeth.” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 155–88. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Examining political questions that concerned Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Hawkins discusses how these debates are dealt with in Macbeth. He finds Macbeth treating four issues in particular: (1) Macbeth’s taking decisive action, commended as likely to bring success in the midst of political uncertainty; (2) Macbeth as a “free agent,” the witches notwithstanding; (3) Macbeth as having the political advantage over his opponents in that he knows the future; and (4) Macbeth as successful when following the prophecies, “unsuccessful when he tries to thwart them.” Hawkins goes on to consider Shakespeare’s exploration of political concerns in three coexisting phases of politics in Macbeth: the prefeudal, characterized by blood and kinship relations; the feudal, in which personal obligations extend beyond kinship relations to include outsiders; and the postfeudal, with the role of king greatly enhanced. Relevant to the prefeudal phase is the murder of Duncan as a kinsman that gives rise to the “classic solution of the blood feud,” with Duncan and Malcolm avenged on Macbeth through their agent Macduff, who is also avenging the murder of his own family. Also associated with prefeudal politics, for Hawkins, are “the dangers of wifely domination and uxoriousness and the hollowness of childlessness,” although, argues Hawkins, it is precisely because Macbeth is childless that the blood feud ends with his death.

Feudal politics are manifest in the play through the “existence of a thanely class, supposedly possessed of the chivalric virtues of personal courage, loyalty, and honour.” In debate within feudal politics are manliness (in the sense of personal courage) and its relation to ambition, as opposed to loyalty. While Macbeth questions his wife’s absolute relation of manliness to violence, nonetheless the beginning and the end of the play present such a relation in Macbeth’s feats of war and Macduff’s attack on him. Feudal politics also characterize personal courage as arising from “the admired virtues of love of greatness, magnanimity, and desire for fame,” all forms of ambition that may be a threat to loyalty. Finally, in terms of postfeudal politics centered on monarchy, Macbeth explores the legitimacy of the monarch, the extent to which his judgment (poor in Duncan’s case) is subject to the review of his subjects, and the extent to which they enjoy the right to resist, especially through violence. These topics arise in the play not only from Macbeth’s assassination of Duncan but also from the invasion of Scotland later by a largely English army to seat Malcolm on the throne.

Leggatt, Alexander. “Macbeth: A Deed without a Name.” In Leggatt, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity, chapter 7 (pp. 177–204). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Central to Leggatt’s examination of the intertwined themes of violation and identity in Shakespeare’s tragedies is the idea that just as the actor playing a role is and is not the character, so a “character is and is not so and so.” This “doubleness” in the character’s identity “links with the doubleness of the act of atrocity that breaks him/her,” the violation “becom[ing] figuratively connected with other acts, including acts of love” (e.g., Romeo and Juliet’s first sexual encounter and the shedding of Tybalt’s blood). As the idea of violation pervades not only the individual character violated but that character’s other relationships, “relationship itself comes into question.” In Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, an act even its perpetrators find difficult to name, haunts the play, taking on a life of its own. With echoes of Doomsday permeating the scene of discovery (2.3.89–92, 94, and 148), the regicide “become[s] the essence of all crime, and crime itself, in a breakdown of meaning, infiltrates the idea of judgment.” Emphasizing the importance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a couple, Leggatt reads the violation of Duncan as a “displaced sexual act” that “consummate[s] their marriage.” Although the marital relationship begins to unravel in the aftermath of the murder, the couple’s reaching out to each other in Act 5, when each is most alone, shows that the bond firmly established in the initial scenes is not completely destroyed. Although physically absent, Macbeth is the addressee in the “one-sided conversation” of his wife’s sleepwalking sequence (5.1); similarly, Lady Macbeth, though dead, pervades all of the ideas expressed in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech (5.5.22–31). In these scenes, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, after struggling throughout the play to deny their humanity, exemplify “the human bond” in a way that continues to haunt readers and audiences alike. The final section of the chapter takes up the unsettled nature of the play’s ending: i.e., the troubling absence of Donalbain, the “inhuman stoicism” of Siward, the unreassuring echo of the Witches in the repeated cries of “Hail” (5.8.65, 70, and 71), and the chilling virginity of Malcolm. What appears on the surface to be a loud public play, beginning and ending with the sounds and sights of battle, “has at its still, frightening center a murder in a domestic space, and turns out on closer inspection to be one of Shakespeare’s most intimate dramas, his fullest examination of a marriage,” one “sealed in blood.”

McEachern, Claire. “The Englishness of the Scottish Play: Macbeth and the Poetics of Jacobean Union.” In The Stuart Kingdoms in the Seventeenth Century: Awkward Neighbors, edited by Allan I. Macinnes and Jane Ohlmeyer, pp. 94–112. Portland, Ore.: Four Courts Press, 2002.

Responding to the doubleness often identified as the play’s signature quality, McEachern reads Macbeth’s “refractive vision” as one of national identity; “its source, that of a newly Jacobean England’s sense of cultural difference.” With the 1603 accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England as James I, England’s awkward neighbor to the north, once “alien and . . . other,” was now “admirable . . . and self.” As England “begins to be imagined not as an exclusively self-determining property” (the elect nation and sole occupant of the island celebrated in John of Gaunt’s “sceptered isle” tribute [Richard II 2.1.45]), she finds herself entering into a new relationship that requires a new national perspective. In the Elizabethan period, a distinguishing marker of Scottish versus English thinking was Scotland’s inclusive rather than exclusive concern with boundaries. McEachern underscores this distinction in describing the idea of Scotland at that time as custodial, rooted in “fierce kin-bonds,” while that of England was monarchal, embodied in a chaste and royally resistant authority that emphasizes the alliance of monarchy with exclusion. When James became King of England, however, the monarch’s body was no longer one of “exclusion but of forceful inclusion.”

McEachern concentrates on four scenes near the end of Macbeth (4.3 through 5.3) to argue that the tragedy “comprehends that of Elizabethan patriotism itself.” Malcolm and the Scottish rebels, in their fight against Macbeth’s tyranny (5.2), seek “an infusion of English manhood to supply the loss of Scotland’s own,” something “gracious England” is ready to supply (4.3.53–54); Macbeth, on the other hand, as he fights for a Scotland defined by “images of bounded security” (5.5.2–8), targets his anger not only at the rebels but even more at the invading “English epicures” (5.3.9). Whereas Malcolm mirrors Scottish inclusion in his first royal act, the naming of former thanes as earls (5.8.74–77), Macbeth reflects English exclusivity in his fierce drive to preserve the purity of Scotland’s borders. The disassociated mind and body of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, the cut branches of Birnam Wood, and the decapitated head of Macbeth all figure “the severing of a language of nationhood from its original roots.” In short, Shakespeare uses the “death of a Scottish patriot . . . [to make] us feel the loss of a thoroughly English nation.”

Moschovakis, Nick, ed. Macbeth: New Critical Essays. Shakespeare Criticism Series 32. New York: Routledge, 2008.

The editor opens this anthology with a “discursive bibliographic essay,” organized around the “shifting relationship [over four centuries] between two conflicting strains” in the play’s critical and theatrical reception: the “dualistic” Macbeth, which “assures us . . . that we can tell ‘good’ from ‘evil,’ ” versus the “problematic” Macbeth, which “throw[s] doubt on our ability to distinguish” the two, thereby “substantiating the weird sisters’ contention that ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (1.1.12).” The majority of the seventeen essays that follow the introduction focus on the discourses of politics, class, gender, the emotions, and the economy: Rebecca Lemon, “Sovereignty and Treason in Macbeth”; Jonathan Baldo, “ ‘A rooted sorrow’: Scotland’s Unusable Past”; Rebecca Ann Bach, “The ‘Peerless’ Macbeth: Friendship and Family in Macbeth”; Julie Barmazel, “ ‘The servant to defect’: Macbeth, Impotence, and the Body Politic”; Abraham Stoll, “Macbeth’s Equivocal Conscience”; Lois Feuer, “Hired for Mischief: The Masterless Man in Macbeth”; Stephen Deng, “Healing Angels and ‘Golden Blood’: Money and Mystical Kingship in Macbeth”; Lisa A. Tomaszewski, “ ‘Throw physic to the dogs!’: Moral Physicians and Medical Malpractice in Macbeth”; and Lynne Dickson Bruckner, “ ‘Let grief convert to anger’: Authority and Affect in Macbeth.” Two essays consider topics in performance theory: Michael David Fox, “Like a Poor Player: Audience Emotional Response, Nonrepresentational Performance, and the Staging of Suffering in Macbeth”; and James Wells, “ ‘To be thus is nothing’: Macbeth and the Trials of Dramatic Identity.” Other selections deal with particular productions and adaptations: Laura Engel’s analysis of Sarah Siddons’s Lady Macbeth, Stephen M. Buhler’s examination of Barbara Garson’s MacBird and Seth Greenland’s Jungle Rot, BI-QI Beatrice Lei’s look at Macbeth in Chinese opera, Kim Fedderson and J. Michael Richardson’s account of recent “migrations of the cinematic brand,” and Bruno Lessard’s exploration of “hypermedia Macbeth.” In the final essay, “Sunshine in Macbeth,” Pamela Mason “offers perspectives on the First Folio text, its handling by modern editors, and the relationship between text and performance.”

Newstok, Scott L., and Ayanna Thompson, eds. Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

The Newstok and Thompson anthology of twenty-six new essays provides an interdisciplinary approach to “the various ways Macbeth has been adapted and appropriated within the context of American racial constructions.” In the introductory essay “What is a ‘Weyward’ Macbeth?” Ayanna Thompson defines “weyward” as “weird, fated, fateful, perverse, intractable, willful, erratic, unlicensed, fugitive, troublesome, and wayward.” Such semantic diversity (mirroring the typographical “multiplicity and instability” of the Folio’s “weyward” and “weyard”) makes it “precisely the correct word for Macbeth’s role in American racial formations.” A companion essay by Celia R. Daileader (“Weird Brothers: What Thomas Middleton’s The Witch Can Tell Us about Race, Sex, and Gender in Macbeth”) tackles the “weyward” qualities of the playtext itself. The next five essays (grouped under the heading “Early American Intersections”) explore how debates about freedom, slavery, and racial/national identity haunt nineteenth-and early twentieth-century treatments of the Scottish play: Heather S. Nathans, “ ‘Blood will have blood’: Violence, Slavery, and Macbeth in the Antebellum American Imagination”; John C. Briggs, “The Exorcism of Macbeth: Frederick Douglass’s Appropriation of Shakespeare”; Bernth Lindfors, “Ira Aldridge as Macbeth”; Joyce Green MacDonald, “Minstrel Show Macbeth”; and Nick Moschovakis, “Reading Macbeth in Texts by and about African Americans, 1903–44: Race and the Problematics of Allusive Identification.” Section Three, titled “Federal Theatre Project(s),” includes Lisa N. Simmons, “Before Welles: A 1935 Boston Production”; Marguerite Rippy, “Black Cast Conjures White Genius: Unraveling the Mystique of Orson Welles’s ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth”; Scott L. Newstok, “After Welles: Re-do Voodoo Macbeths”; and Lenwood Sloan, “The Vo-Du Macbeth!: Travels and Travails of a Choreo-Drama Inspired by the FTP Production.” Moving to early twenty-first-century stagings, Section Four “provide[s] . . . snapshots of five distinctly racialized adaptations of Macbeth”: Harry J. Lennix, “A Black Actor’s Guide to the Scottish Play, or, Why Macbeth Matters”; Alexander C. Y. Huang, “Asian-American Theatre Reimagined: Shogun Macbeth in New York”; Anita Maynard-Losh, “The Tlingit Play: Macbeth and Native Americanism”; José A. Esquea, “A Post-Apocalyptic Macbeth: Teatro LA TEA’s Macbeth 2029”; and William C. Carroll, “Multicultural, Multilingual Macbeth.” The essays in the remaining three sections address “different facets of Macbeth’s allusive force in music, film, and drama”: Wallace McClain Cheatham, “Reflections on Verdi, Macbeth, and Non-Traditional Casting in Opera”; Douglas Lanier, “Ellington’s Dark Lady”; Todd Landon Barnes, “Hip-Hop Macbeths, ‘Digitized Blackness,’ and the Millennial Minstrel: Illegal Culture Sharing in the Virtual Classroom”; Francesca Royster, “Riddling Whiteness, Riddling Certainty: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth”; Courtney Lehmann, “Semper Die: Marines Incarnadine in Nina Menkes’s The Bloody Child: An Interior of Violence”; Amy Scott-Douglass, “Shades of Shakespeare: Colorblind Casting and Interracial Couples in Macbeth in Manhattan, Grey’s Anatomy, and Prison Macbeth”; Charita Gainey-O’Toole and Elizabeth Alexander, “Three Weyward Sisters: African-American Female Poets Conjure with Macbeth”; Philip C. Kolin, “ ‘Black up again’: Combating Macbeth in Contemporary African-American Plays”; and Peter Erickson, “Black Characters in Search of an Author: Black Plays on Black Performers of Shakespeare.” Richard Burt’s epilogue, “Oba Macbeth: National Transition as National Traumission,” considers “the weyward nature of historical transmission” in the context of the “current socio-political moment: the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama.” An appendix on selected productions of Macbeth featuring nontraditional casting rounds out the volume.

Norbrook, David. “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography.” In Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, pp. 78–116. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Norbrook separates himself from the practitioners of cultural materialism and new historicism prominent in the 1980s. Of the cultural-materialist readings of Shakespeare’s plays, he writes that “The very plays that a generation ago were acclaimed as bastions of traditional values in a declining world are now seen as radically subverting all values and authority.” Of the new-historicist readings, he says that “when this [cultural-materialist] approach seems inadequate, it may be argued that this [new-historicist] subversion in fact subtly reinforced the very power structures that were being challenged.” Norbrook is uncomfortable with both approaches because “they effectively reduplicate the stark oppositions presented by absolutist propagandists: either monarchy or anarchy.” To situate Macbeth in the context of the political debates of its own time, Norbrook draws extensively on histories of Scotland that include accounts of Macbeth’s rule written in the sixteenth century by such highly educated and politically engaged humanist historians as John Major, Hector Boece, and George Buchanan, all of whom had “studied at the Sorbonne [in Paris] when it was a center of radical political thought.” Norbrook locates in the work of these historians of Scotland radical political theories. For example, Buchanan argued that kings were to be chosen by their nobles and could reign only at the pleasure of their nobles, who had the right to overthrow and even kill kings corrupted by power. According to Norbrook, Shakespeare, who “took a sophisticated political interest in Scottish history,” revised the radicalism found in these historical accounts; nonetheless, Macbeth engages with such accounts “in a subtle, oblique, carefully weighed manner, rather than through violent reaction.” Some anomalies and contradictions in the play arise from difficulties in their source material; an example is the play’s ambivalence about whether the throne of Scotland is inherited through patrilineal descent or is awarded through election by the nobles—an issue often in dispute in Scottish history. All in all, for Norbrook, “Macbeth was a figure bound to evoke ambivalent responses from a Renaissance humanist. If the audience can sympathize with Macbeth even though he outrages the play’s moral order, it may be because vestiges remain of a worldview in which regicide could be a noble rather than an evil act.”

Sinfield, Alan. “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals.” Critical Quarterly 28 (1986): 63–77.

Sinfield sets out to disturb the conventional reading of Macbeth by arguing that it is grounded in certain distinctions that are called into question by the play itself. The first such distinction is between allegedly legitimate violence used in the service of the State (such as Macbeth’s “unseaming” the rebel Macdonwald “from the nave [i.e., navel] to the chops [i.e., jaws]” on the battlefield) and so-called illegitimate violence against the State (such as Macbeth’s assassination of Duncan). The play, though, according to Sinfield, breaks down this distinction by presenting the violence used against Macbeth’s State as legitimate. A second distinction postulated by the conventional reading of the play is between a monarch whose claim to the throne is legitimate and whose rule is therefore just (Duncan) and a tyrant who usurps the throne and goes on to oppress his people (Macbeth). Again, according to Sinfield, the play does not maintain this distinction consistently, for it appears to have Macbeth both enjoy proper election to the monarchy by the thanes and nonetheless tyrannize Scotland. Sinfield traces the conventional reading of the play to writing by James I of England and VI of Scotland, particularly his The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, and finds a historical basis for questioning these views in the writing of George Buchanan, whose published works on Scottish history James sought to suppress.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Macbeth and Witchcraft.” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 189–209. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Viewing witchcraft in Macbeth as an expression of a dominantly patriarchal society, Stallybrass describes both the actual Renaissance beliefs about witches and “the function of such beliefs.” One Renaissance belief is that witches are opposed to monarchy: witches “might kill the king or forecast the hour of his death or seek to know who would succeed the living monarch.” The belief in such an antithesis between monarchy and witchcraft had as its corollary the following: “If kingship is legitimated by analogy to God’s rule over the earth, and the father’s rule over the family and the head’s rule over the body, witchcraft establishes the opposite analogies, whereby the Devil attempts to rule over the earth, and the woman over the family, and the body over the head.” Macbeth gathers up in its representation of witches a wide range of beliefs about them, associating witches (and therefore Macbeth, who seeks to preserve his connection to them) with the grand (disorders in nature, prophecy) and the inconsequential (familiars—Graymalkin and Paddock—“withered” old women, petty vendettas, swine-killing). Lady Macbeth is shown to practice witchcraft when she invokes the overthrow of nature within herself. Yet in the latter half of the play witchcraft is shown to fail: in the sleepwalking scene, for example, Lady Macbeth is reduced by the return of “the compunctious visitations of nature,” and the witches themselves become the agents who present the providential future of Scotland’s monarchy—the witches now reduced to what was their antithesis. Before Stallybrass attempts to generalize about the function of witchcraft in Macbeth, he also canvasses the representation of witchcraft in the most notorious Continental scholarly work on the subject, Krämer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (1486), and in anthropological writing on social functions of witchcraft in Ghana and Nupe. In these cases and in Macbeth, he concludes, the sociological function of witchcraft is the confirmation of the prevailing patriarchal ideology through the repression of women by means of moving the debate about gender hierarchy to “the undisputed ground of ‘Nature,’ ” in, for example, as noted above, Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Stallybrass resists critical attempts to find in Macbeth any historically or politically transcendent meaning.

Wheeler, Richard. “ ‘Since first we were dissevered’: Trust and Autonomy in Shakespearean Tragedy and Romance.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytical Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 170–87. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Wheeler’s goal is “to identify polarized trends in Shakespeare’s development, separated by generic distinctions in the earlier work [e.g., comedies, histories], which confront each other in the drama of the tragic period,” which represent “modes of seeking self-fulfillment in conditions of extreme crisis.” At one extreme, “a deeply feared longing for merger subverts relations of trust; at the other, failed autonomy gives way to helpless isolation,” as in Macbeth. “Macbeth’s desperate reliance on the will of his powerful wife” is a relation of unqualified trust, which ultimately proves destructive as he experiences “absolute aloneness” or “empty isolation . . . bereft even of desire for relations with others.” “The quest for royal manhood in Macbeth requires that Macbeth’s ambition be nurtured into action by others. After the first exchange with the witches, Macbeth is driven to achieve a magically compelling ideal of manhood articulated for him by his wife. Macbeth cannot refuse this ideal, but he cannot pursue it except by making himself a child to the demonic motherhood held out to him by Lady Macbeth.” Wheeler continues by noting that “As the merger of the two characters dissolves, Macbeth’s sustained violence, always exercised in the context of family relations—a fatherly king [Duncan], a father and son [Banquo and Fleance], and finally a mother and her ‘babes’ [Lady Macduff and her children]—only serves to isolate him further, until even the illusion of omnipotence nurtured by the witches collapses before the force of a man ‘not born of woman,’ ” Macduff. Wheeler thereby relates Shakespearean tragedy, including Macbeth, to accounts of early childhood development, like those of Margaret Mahler, who tells us that “As the ego develops along the boundaries that distinguish the world from the self, crises in the process of separation [from the mother] can engender the wish to reinhabit the symbiotic unity of infant and mother; crises within the environment provided by the mother, including those that provoke fears of ‘reengulfment,’ can lead to the defiant repudiation of essential others and to fantasies of a powerful autonomous self that magically incorporates symbiotic omnipotence.”

Wilder, Lina Perkins. “ ‘Flaws and Starts’: Fragmented Recollection in Macbeth.” In Wilder, Shakespeare’s Memory Theatre: Recollection, Properties, and Character, chapter 6 (pp. 156–70). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wilder’s study of Shakespeare’s use of mnemonic objects to “help audiences recall, or imagine, staged and unstaged pasts” examines how “props, the players, and the physical space of the stage provide the vocabulary of Shakespeare’s memory theatre.” Central to this materialist-cognitive reading of Macbeth is the role of Lady Macbeth as a “memory pedagogue”: in the first part of the play, she instructs her husband in the “masculine discipline” of forgetting; in the banquet scene, as his “sweet remembrancer” (3.4.42), she reminds him of his duties as host, thereby functioning as a “human . . . memento who shapes and directs his remembering in ways that reinforce social stability.” Probing the pathological nature of the fragmentary memories that “punctuate” the play, Wilder argues that neither Lady Macbeth’s recollection of having given suck nor Macbeth’s of the witches’ enigmatic prophecies embodies a “fully imagined past”; on the contrary, both cases exemplify “a memory culture in which masculine control and deliberate forgetting have become the norm.” The play’s chief irony is that she who urged her husband not to “be governed by undisciplined, uncontrolled remembrance” is in the end “entirely constituted by and finally destroyed by uncontrolled remembering.” The sleepwalking scene (5.1), which Wilder discusses at some length as the “ultimate expression” of “simultaneous recollection and invention,” not only “construct[s in part] an unstaged past” but also “recalls the entire play in single words” (e.g., the recurring “ones” and “twos,” “time,” “do,” and “it”). In the course of the chapter, the author examines such “mnemonically charged” devices as the absent child of Lady Macbeth’s early discourse (the violence done to the sucking babe [1.7.62–66] reverberating in Macduff’s declaration of his violent cesarean birth at 5.8.19–20), the “absent prop” of blood specified in the dialogue following the offstage murder but not in the stage directions of 2.2, the onstage “banquet” that recalls the name of the dead man who haunts Macbeth in 3.4, the evocative images conjured by the witches in 4.1 (which, taken together, make the remainder of the play “an explicitly mnemonic form as each further catastrophe recalls an element of the prophecy”), and the letters referred to by the Gentlewoman in 5.1.4–9, whose contents remain tantalizingly inaccessible. Wilder concludes that unlike the “narrative elaboration and rhetorical mastery” marking the recollections of characters in other plays by Shakespeare (e.g., Othello and Iago), recollection in Macbeth—a play in which “the past shatters”—“never quite becomes narrative.”