Macbeth critical articles

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1. Physchoanalytical Criticism

Karin Thomson

Shakespeare Institute

The following essay deals with the effects of repressed emotion on the conscious and unconscious

states of Lady Macbeth. In doing so it explores the motives behind the actions of the two central


An analysis of Lady Macbeth's repressed emotional complexes throws light on the motives behind

the tragedy. American psychoanalyst, lsador H Coriat, states that she is not "a criminal type or an

ambitious woman but the victim of a pathological mental dissociation arising upon an unstable

daydreaming basis ...due to the emotional shocks of her past experiences". The past experience,

which causes such a deep disturbance in Lady Macbeth, is the loss of her child.

Lady Macbeth's daydreams are partly ambitious, partly sexual. They demonstrate her desire to be

queen and put an heir on the throne, as compensation for childlessness. She redefines both her own

and her husband’s sexual roles. Like the witches with their manly beards, she 'unsexes' herself. The

heir she creates is the new unnatural Macbeth, "untimely ripped " from the bloody death of


That Lady Macbeth had a child, or children, has been the subject of much discussion. The text

clearly indicates that at some point she had "given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe

that milks me" [I.vii.54-9]. We are not given any reference to what has become of the child, only

that now they are childless.

Unlike other women in Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth is extremely isolated. She has no companion,

no female confidente or children. Her life centres completely on her husband and there is a strong

bond between the two. She is his "dearest partner of greatness".  He is the only person she reveals

her thoughts to. The needs of the state, society and friendship are more prominent to Macbeth than

to her, therefore she finds them easier to break. This isolation leads her to self-centredness,

daydreaming and a state near hysteria, as shown by her reaction to Macbeth's letter. In analysis of

hysterics one of the prominent characteristics of the patients is daydreaming.

In Lady Macbeth's reaction to the witches prophecy we can see the foundation of the illness which

will lead to her mental disintegration. She suppresses her fear and assumes a bravery, which she

does not really possess. The "valour" of her "tongue" is not the valour of her heart. She represses

her 'womanly' nature, her compassion, humanity and cowardice. The horror of Macbeth’s thoughts

shows in his face and is always near his conscious thoughts. After Duncan's murder Macbeth

expresses his fear and horror, but Lady Macbeth again chooses to repress her feelings [II.ii.30-3l]:

"These deeds must not be thought

After these ways; so, it will make us mad."

Shakespeare shows an awareness of the damage caused by repressed emotion when Malcolm says

to Macduff:

"Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er fraught heart and bids it break."

[IV .iii.208-1 0]

Lady Macbeth shows a "false face" to everyone, including herself Her true self is only revealed in

an unconscious state -in her sleep and her eventual somnambulistic state.

With a great strength of will Lady Macbeth dominates the situation in her waking state to achieve

her obsessive ambition for her husband. In the preparation for the murder she is cool and

calculating, manipulating her husbands will to the extent of her own. She redefines manliness for

him as the ability to be unfeelingly brutal and goads him into proving this to her. The sexual energy

involved in her persuasion is evident in her language. This energy is sublimated into ambition and

culminates with Duncan's murder and the bloody rebirth of Macbeth as an unnatural son and heir to

the throne.

Ambition, in Macbeth's case, develops into criminality and like an uncontrollable force destroys the

better part of him as the play progresses. He is described as "valiant cousin" and "worthy

gentleman " in the first scene, after the brutal murder of the king's enemies. However, his reaction

to the witches prophecy betrays a rather more devious nature. The witches instigate the tragedy by

stimulating Macbeth's unconscious wish to be king. Macbeth starts with horror because he is tom

between private ambitions and his public face. He wants to be considered valiant and worthy, but

he also wishes to be king. The witches have offered this wish. Banquo, by contrast, is innocent of

Macbeth's darker thoughts, and questions:

"why do you start, and seem to fear

Things that do sound so fair?" [I.iii. 50-51 ]

Macbeth is already 'rapt' by a daydream of himself as king, which he passes on to his wife. His

abilities, his power and skill as a bloodthirsty warrior are about to be turned on a society which

doesn't suspect him. When addressing the king [I.iv .23-27] Macbeth uses words such as

" honour". Thirty lines later he states in an aside "Let not light see my

black and deep desires". Macbeth's unconscious wishes have been brought forward \. into

conscious thought where they will stay.

Lady Macbeth actively avoids thinking about what she has done. Progressively her unconscious

works on her and betrays her in her dreams. It does not seem accidental that her mental fragility

increases as the bond between husband and wife weakens. Her repressed fears emerge and cause

the somnambulistic state in which she enacts a condensed panorama of her crimes. Lady Macbeth's

predisposition towards daydreaming, the sublimation of her desire for a child and the repression of

her guilt over Duncan's murder lead to this mental state.

In her somnambulism Lady Macbeth repeatedly acts out the events connected to and resulting from

Duncan's murder: Macbeth's murder of Banquo; the murder of Macduff’s wife and children;

Macbeth's terror at the banquet; the letter of the witches prophecy. All these events torment her,

demonstrating to the audience, not only repressed guilt at her own crimes, but guilt at helping to

create a man who could commit these crimes. The central symbol of her guilt and fear is the smell

and sight of blood. She demonstrates compulsive neurosis in the continual washing of her hands,

which she feels, are contaminated. "A little water" cannot clear her of the deed which "cannot be

undone". Her contamination is of both body and soul.

Awake, Lady Macbeth exhibits emotionless cruelty, while in a somnambulistic state she shows pity

and remorse. Her sleeping personality must be taken as her true one because the unconscious is

uninhibited and uncensored. Her true self is more powerful than the false warrior queen she plays

in her waking hours. She ends in a state, which is neither awake nor asleep. Unable to live the lie or

face the truth, her only escape is death.


2. Christian Perspectives on Macbeth

Jane Kingsley – Smith

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Macbeth's struggle with his conscience over the murder of Duncan is not merely an internal drama.

Shakespeare externalizes the forces of evil in his creation of the witches. And, whilst there are no

good angels, several characters are described as having some divine function or appealing to God.

Hence, Macbeth dramatizes certain Christian beliefs that would have been understood as such by

Shakespeare's contemporaries. Walter Clyde Curry writes:

Shakespeare has informed Macbeth with the Christian conception of a metaphysical world of

objective evil. The whole drama is saturated with the malignant presences of demonic forces; they

animate nature and ensnare human souls by means of diabolical persuasion, by hallucination,

infernal illusion, and possession. They are, in the strictest sense, one element in that Fate which

God in His providence has ordained to rule over the bodies and, it is possible, over the spirits of

men. (92-3)

The new king for whom Shakespeare wrote his play, James ~ popularized the idea of such forces of

evil in his own work Demonology. Christian philosophy of the period imagined two opposing

realms of good and evil, commanded by God and the Devil. The manifestation of each power on

earth occurred internally in the spirit of man and externally in the activity of angels and demons.

Criticism of Macbeth inevitably centers on the symbolic battle between good and evil in the play.

The characters are lined up on the appropriate sides. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, for their

acceptance of demonic prophecy as well as their bloody deeds, are posed against the forces of

heaven. The latter include most obviously Duncan and Edward, both 'holy' kings, Banquo who

declares 'In the great hand of God I stand' (2.3.129) and Malcolm and Macduff who restore the

kingdom to 'grace'. This structure of evil destroyed is viewed as an example of God's providence by

most Christian critiques. Providence can be seen in the destruction of the criminal Macbeth; the

restoration of Scotland to its rightful heir and the end of Macbeth's dark reign; but above all, in

God's victory against Satan. One question the Christian critic must answer is why God has not

intervened sooner. Macduff grieves at the murder of his family and asks: 'Did heaven look on/ And

would not take their part?' (4.3.225-6). However, Robert Rentoul Reed argues that God's triumph is

all the more impressive in the play because of this suspense:

The bringing by God of a merely wicked man to judgment is worthy perhaps of a perfunctory

glory .If, however, He brings to judgment a wicked man who has usurped, against God's law, the

throne of a kingdom and who, for his own ends, has delivered that kingdom over to Satanic powers,

over which he maintains a nominal command, has God not translated His otherwise perfunctory

glory into a kind of magnificent resurrection, in which is seen His real glory? Such, at least, is the

suggestion of the denouement of this play. (197-8)

The argument for divine providence may also be extended to explain the rise of Macbeth himself

J. A. Bryant argues that God must have 'elected to correct Scotland in some way and prepare it for

a much greater role in history under the treble scepter of Banquo's descendant, James VI' (171).

The reductive implications of this critical approach are obvious. Macbeth becomes merely a foil to

God's greatness or a pawn in the cosmic battle between good and evil

Christian criticism can offer a more character-based approach but again, this depends on Biblical

allegory. Walker imagines the murder of Duncan as partaking of the central Christian tragedy, that

is, the crucifixion of Christ. Macbeth/Judas describes how Duncan/Christ:

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against

The deep damnation of his taking-off,

And pity, like a naked newborn babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

That tears shall drown the wind. (1.7.17-25)

The storm during the night of the murder, the reference to the temple cracking and the linking of

Macbeth with a second Golgotha all reinforce this association. The murder has also been likened to

Cain's fratricide whilst Curry sees the moral degradation of Macbeth following an archetypal

pattern exemplified by Lucifer and Adam. Angel/man's self-love leads him to desire what is denied

him by God. Crucially, it is at this point of turning away from God that man is vulnerable to the

influence of the Devil's agents whether they are witches, demons or the promptings of another

human being. Lady Macbeth's call upon 'murd'ring ministers', 'sightless substances' and 'thick night'

to fill her with 'direst cruelty' (1.4.39-53) has often been referred to as a wish for demonic

possession. Macbeth's relationship with evil is similar to that of Marlowe' s Dr F austus. Macbeth

imagines that he too has sold his soul to the devil for some temporal good: 'mine eternal jewel/

Given to the common enemy of man' (3.1.68-9). Like Faustus, he is unable to repent.

It is in these terms that Macbeth's decision to embrace evil and to wade in blood is explored. He is

a man guilty of self-love who is influenced by the witches and by his wife to murder Duncan.

Having achieved the throne, he continues in his course, not because of any predestination, but to

defy providence which will give his crown to Banquo's heirs. Moreover, Reed argues that

Macbeth's increasingly bloody acts are a deliberate attempt to silence his conscience but also to

destroy his moral nature, which manifests his bond with God. Macbeth struggles to become an

enemy to providence and to God himself.

There are a number of obvious limitations to this critical perspective. It cannot explain why an

audience will identify with the murdering, 'hell-hound' Macbeth (for an excellent analysis of this

imaginative sympathy sees Robert B. Heilman's 'The Criminal as Tragic Hero'). Furthermore,

Macbeth and his wife are inevitably reduced to puppets, either literally possessed by evil spirits or

subject to the great operation of divine providence. Neither of these perspectives allows for the

complexity of Macbeth's characterization nor for his own lack of religious guilt. He does not show

any repentance at the end nor does he recognize his crimes as crimes against God, which the

morality play certainly required (see Morris). It might also be argued that although there are a

number of important Biblical allusions here these do not add up to an equal battle between good

and evil. The latter is a far more powerful and immediate force in the play.




3. Macbeth: 'The frame of Things Disjoint' or Deconstruction Enacted

Victoria Stec

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Trying to define 'deconstruction' is rather like being asked to weigh air -it is, to say the least.

a nebulous concept to grasp. However, considering deconstruction in relation to Macbeth may give

the theory some substance and may help to open up angles on the play that would not otherwise be


The words 'fair is foul and foul is fair' (1.1.10) shake our whole universe of meaning. If either can

signify the other, where do we look to for stability, or is there no such thing as stability in the world

of Macbeth? A world where everything is clearly and correctly labelled is a safe and comforting

place. A world where labels can be erased is threatening to contemplate. The crisis at the heart of

Macbeth is in some ways a perfect expression of what some 2Oth century theorists call

'deconstruction'. It is important, though, to keep in mind that when considering the play in this

light, we are imposing a modern day notion on the play, which it was not written to fit.

Many times in this play, binary oppositions are invoked only to be subverted -the foul/fair pairing

in the first brief scene alerts us to this and the witches themselves are not easily labelled since they

'look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earthl And yet are on't' (1.3.339-341). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

embody subversions of the expected gender attributes -Macbeth is 'too full o'th'milk of human

kindness' (1.5.16) whereas Lady Macbeth wishes to be 'unsexed' and offers her 'milk for gall'

(1.5.47). However, deconstruction is not concerned with mere reversals of order, but with a sense

of undecidability once an accepted order has been shaken. It denies the ultimate polarization of

meaning of binary oppositions such as foul/fair good/bad,. man/woman and suggests that meaning

is not so clear-cut.

Banquo can only conceive of a world where meaning is secure. Although he acknowledges that

'instruments of darkness' may exist, his view that they 'Win us with honest trifles, to betray's\ In

deepest consequence' (1.3.123-124) is the usual black/white, good/bad view which Macbeth

immediately decentres, introducing disorder where Banquo has seen order with 'This supernatural

soliciting Cannot be ill, cannot be good' (1.3.129-130). The traditional 'literary criticism' description of this

being the 'sickening see-saw' of Macbeth's mind perpetuates the idea of oppositions, suggesting that

Macbeth is vacillating between good and evil, a view which does not allow for the possibility of

something of each being present. Macbeth's ability to recognize that the significance of something

is in fact undecideable is partly what makes his character so disturbing and yet so fascinating.

Trying to see the play from a deconstructionist angle (if there is such a thing, since it must by

definition defy description) makes us realize that to see Macbeth as an out and out 'baddie' is too

simplistic a view.

Macbeth fights against the 'undecideable' as the play progresses. When the witches insist that they

do 'a deed without a name' (4.1.64) Macbeth insists that he must know it at any cost - 'even till

destruction sicken' ( 4.1.76) .The answers that the witches then give him are enigmatic and lead

him to false conclusions, proving that to try to 'name' the 'deed' will only result in inaccuracy, since

the 'undecideable' cannot be pinned down. In the final act of the play it seems as if Macbeth has

found that he cannot live with 'indecision' and he tries to become a man of action. In a few lines at

the end of5.3, Macbeth uses an astonishing number of imperatives- 'send', 'skirr', 'hang', 'give',

'cure', 'pluck', 'raze', 'cleanse' (5.3.37-46) as if fina11y trying to ground himself in a world of fixed

meaning but the moment is brief. The death of Lady Macbeth precipitates his full recognition of

emptiness and futility. To conclude that everything signifies nothing is to partake of a profoundly

nihilistic vision. Macbeth asks the age-old questions about the meaning of life and realizes that

there are no answers since anything that can be expressed is not the answer .

The questions about the authorship of some parts of the play mean that the accepted view of

Macbeth as being 'by William Shakespeare' has been shaken and replaced by an 'undecideable', the

truth of which will probably never be known. The Complete Oxford Edition lists~\1acbet,l: as

being 'by William Shakespeare (adapted by Thomas Middleton)' and it is now generally thought

that the scenes featuring Hectate were probably penned by Middleton, but the exact extent of

Middleton's involvement with the play will remain a ground of 'undecidability' among scholars.

Shakespeare's intention in writing the play is an 'undecideable' which will never be known. The

play has been seen as courting the favour of King James by dealing with one of his favourite

subjects, witchcraft, and showing Banquo, whose descendant James claimed to be, in a good light.

It can also be argued that these things are superficial and that the play can be read as subversive of

the monarchy. The rather puzzling and much neglected 'English' scene between Malcolm and

Macduff (4.3) can be illuminating here. Malcolm, for no apparent reason convinces Macduff that

he is really a depraved figure before telling him that this was an invention. Macduff’s reaction 'Such

welcome and unwelcome things at once 'Tis hard to reconcile' (4.3 .139-40) reminds us of

Macbeth's 'So fair and foul a day I have not seen'

(1.3.36) which in turn links us back to the words of the witches' 'Fair is foul and foul is fair'. This

makes an traceable line from the witches to the next King of Scotland (a line taken up in Polanski's

film of the play) and thus arrests any heroic momentum that the play might have

had since the potential monarch is given at least a taint of that which we have associated with

Macbeth, the monarch who is in place through murder. Like the 'yin' and 'yang' sign where the

black has a tiny dot of white and the white has a tiny dot of black, the 'good' and 'bad' in this play

are not as easily defined as one might think. The function of the English scene is therefore

extremely important for it implicitly shakes the very concept of the divine right of kings by

pointing out that the label 'king' is just that -a label with no 'essence' of divinity in it.

At the risk of perpetrating a gross anachronism, it can be said that Macbeth recognizes, long before

Derrida, that signifiers have no meaning in themselves. The essence of things is not in their labels

and is in fact inexpressible. That is why, in performance, Macbeth's line "Twas a rough night'

(2.3.60) usually receives a laugh -after Lennox's extraordinary description of the unruly elements,

the line reveals the inadequacy of any words to describe the horror of events. Why, then, does

Shakespeare take the length of a whole play to tell us that he cannot adequately express what he

means? Of course, Shakespeare was not a deconstructionist and so was not constrained by such

terms. Perhaps the deconstructionist view can be thought of as being like a game of charades -the

word itself cannot be uttered and you use many words to get around it and communicate what you

mean to others. Except that, for the deconstructionist, there is no word waiting to be revealed, for

the real essence of anything is incommunicable. Any word that is revealed will still be a charade

and the game is never over . To consider a play in this way is therefore to open up endless

interesting questions but to offer no conclusions.





4. Macbeth and Feminism

Dr. Caroline Cakebread

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Shakespeare's Macbeth is a tragedy that embodies the polarities of male and female power, a play

which seems to dramatize the deep divisions that characterize male-female relationships in all his

plays. As Janet Adelman writes, "In the figures of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches, the

play gives us images of a masculinity and a femininity that are terribly disturbed." At the same

time, critics have tended to discuss the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a way

that further highlights this division, viewing Macbeth as a victim of overpowering feminine

influences that characterize the world around him, from the appearance of the bearded Witches at

the beginning of the play, to the presence of Lady Macbeth throughout. Sigmund Freud writes of

Lady Macbeth, that her sole purpose throughout the play is "that of overcoming the scruples of her

ambitious and yet tender-minded husband...She is ready to sacrifice even her womanliness to her

murderous intention...” For many feminist critics, however, the opinion of Freud and other critics

that Macbeth is merely a victim of feminine plotting is an unsatisfactory response to this play. On

the most basic level, it is Macbeth who actually murders the king while Lady Macbeth is the one

who cleans up the mess.

A more fruitful approach would be a closer examination of the different types of women who are

being represented throughout the play, rather than viewing the women en masse, as part of a dark

and evil force "ganging up" on Macbeth. Indeed, feminist criticism can help to point the way

towards a clearer understanding of the sort of society Shakespeare is portraying in this tragedy.

Terry Eagleton points out his belief that "the witches are the heroines of the piece",

As the most fertile force in the play, the witches inhabit an anarchic, richly ambiguous zone both in

and out of official society; they live in their own world but intersect with Macbeth's. Theyare poets,

prophetesses and devotees of female cult, radical separatists who scorn male power .

For Eagleton, the witches, existing on the fringes of society, are not necessarily the "juggling

fiends" (5.7.49) that Macbeth professes them to be at the end of the play. Instead, as feminist

critics, we might well ask ourselves about the brutal nature of the society in which Macbeth is

living and the effects that traditional labels of "masculinity" and "femininity" have on that society.

The nature of gender roles in Macbeth--a play which is ostensibly about the exchange and

usurpation of political authority amongst men--is brought to the fore at the very beginning of the

play, in the figures of the three Witches in Act One, scene one: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair"

(1.1.12) they tell us. Marilyn French points out the role of the Witches in establishing what she sees

as the dynamic of ambiguity that will characterize gender relationships throughout the play. As she


They are female, but have beards; they are aggressive and authoritative, but seem to have power

only to create petty mischief. Their persons, their activities, and their song serve to link ambiguity

about gender to moral ambiguity.

The witches challenge our assumptions about masculine and feminine attributes from the very start,

with their beards and their prophecies. In juggling with the contradictory values of fair and foul,

they call into question the moral systems and standards upon which this play will operate.

Shakespeare's witches exist on the fringes of a society in which feminine attributes denote

powerlessness and destruction (Duncan, Lady Macduff) and in which traditionally masculine

values are equated with power.

Indeed, Macbeth's first appearance, covered with blood and receiving high praise for the slaughter

of others, gives us our first idea about the acceptable patterns of behaviour, which govern the

"masculine" side of this world:

For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name!--

Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel

Which smoked with bloody execution,

Like valour's minion

Carved out his passage till he faced the slave,

Which ne'er shook hands nor bade farewell to him

Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,

And fixed his head upon our battlements. (1.2.16-23)

Macbeth receives the title of "brave Macbeth" amongst his peers for his role as butcher and killing

machine. His ruthlessness is welcomed as valorous and wins him the accolades of his male peers.

Thus, masculine power in the play, the society represented by Duncan, is more like the world of

"juggling fiends" to which Macbeth links the witches when they cease to be of use to him at the end

of the play.

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty. (1.5.39-42)

As Macbeth's "partner of greatness"(1.5.10), Lady Macbeth's "sacrifice of her womanliness" to

echo Freud--"unsex me here"--further highlights the importance of the acceptance of traditionally

masculine qualities in order to achieve power in the play. "Come to my woman's breasts/ And take

my milk for gall"( 1.5.46-47) she asserts, reinforcing the fact that she is trading her traditional

feminine role as mother and nurturer in exchange for a power which accords with the violent,

masculine world of which her husband is a part. In this world, femininity is not an attribute to be

equated with power and, in the murder of Duncan (a king whom Janet Adelman describes as weak

and ineffectual), feminine attributes lead to virtual erasure in terms of power politics. Here, there is

no place for vulnerability.

I have given suck, and know

How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I sworn

As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59)

Lady Macbeth, in moving from nurturing mother to infanticide, represents a shift from the passive

“milky" masculinity she associates with the weak men in the play to a power position which

resonates with a sense of maternal evil. While this is one of the most disturbing points in the play,

it also marks the crossing of a divide between male and female power, a transgression which is

marked by such. violent and disturbing imagery. In the murder of Duncan, Macbeth also highlights

the violent nature of male-female divisions, especially, as Janet Adelman points out, in envisioning

himself as a Tarquin figure in approaching the sleeping king: "..thus with his stealthy pace,/With

Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design/Moves like a ghost" (2.1...). Tarquin, the rapist, the

violator of female innocence, becomes Macbeth, the killer of kings and usurper of power. Here,

power relationships! amongst men pivot upon images of male sexual aggression and violence.

At the end of this play, power will be assumed by a man who is not born of any woman, as the

witches prophesy: "for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.94-95). This prophesy is

misread by Macbeth and yet it is extremely telling, since it predicts the complete eradication of

female power which will ensue at the end of the play, with Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff dead.

Now widowed, Macduff, who was born by caesarean section, is a man with no mother, especially

since a caesarean birth in Shakespeare's time inevitably led to the death of the mother. In the end, it

is in the divide between male and female worlds in Macbeth that the nucleus of tragedy lies.




5. New Historicist Criticism: Macbeth and Power

Wiatt Ropp

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Stripped of Shakespeare's poetic style and skilful characterization, Macbeth is revealed as little

more than a petty tyrant. Like Machiavelli's Prince, Macbeth seeks power as an end in itself and

sees any means as justified provided it helps him achieve his goal. It is a standard image of power:

an individual, or small group, occupying a position of authority from which he (seldom she)

attempts to force his will upon others. Today's equivalent of a feudal monarch is the power-hungry

politician, the cult leader, or the ruthless business tycoon. But the new historicist conception of

power is different; rather than being a top-down affair that originates from a specific place or

individual, power comes from all around us, it permeates us, and it influences us in many subtle

and different ways. This idea of decentralized power, heavily indebted to post-structuralist

philosophy (see Derrida and Foucault), is sometimes difficult to understand because it seems to

have an intangible, mystical quality. Power appears to operate and maintain itself on its own,

without any identifiable individual actually working the control levers.

This new historicist notion of power is evident in Macbeth in the way in which Macbeth's apparent

subversion of authority culminates in the re-establishment of that same type of authority under

Malcolm. A ruthless king is replaced with another king, a less ruthless one, perhaps, but that is due

to Malcolm's benevolent disposition, not to any reform of the monarchy. Similarly, the subversion

of the play's moral order is contained, and the old order reaffirmed, by the righteous response to

that subversion. In other words, what we see at the beginning of the play--an established monarch

and the strong Christian values that legitimize his sovereignty--is the same as what we see at the

end of the play, only now the monarchy and its supporting values are even more firmly entrenched

thanks to the temporary disruption.

It is almost as if some outside force carefully orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing

power structures. Consider, for example, a military leader who becomes afraid of the peace that

undermines his position in society. In response to his insecurity, he creates in people's minds the

fear of an impending enemy--whether real or imaginary, it doesn't matter.

As a consequence of their new feelings of insecurity, people desire that their leader remain in

power and even increase his power so that he can better defend them from their new II enemy. II

The more evil and threatening our enemies are made to appear, the more we believe our own

aggressive response to them is justified, and the more we see our leaders as our valiant protectors

(Zinn,Declarations of Independence 260-61,266). Military or political power is strengthened, not

weakened, when it has some kind of threatening subversion of contain ( Greenblatt 62-65).

The important point about the new historicist notion of power, however, is that it is not necessary

for anyone to orchestrate this strengthening of authority. Duncan certainly doesn't plan to be

murdered in order that the crown will be more secure on Malcolm's head after he deposes Macbeth.

The witches can be interpreted as manipulating events, but there is nothing to indicate that they are

motivated by a concern to increase the power and authority of the Scottish crown. It is not

necessary to believe in conspiracy theories to explain how power perpetuates itself; the circular and

indirect, rather than top-down, way in which power operates in society is enough to ensure that it is

maintained and its authority reinforced.

The theater illustrates this point in that the Renaissance theater--its subject matter, spectacle,

emphasis on role-playing--drew its energy from the life of the court and the affairs of state--their

ceremony, royal pageants and progresses, the spectacle of public executions (Greenblatt 11-16). In

return, the theater helped legitimate the existing state structures by emphasizing, for example, the

superior position in society of the aristocracy and royalty.

These are the class of people, the theater repeatedly showed its audience, who deserve to have their

stories told on stage, while common people are not worthy subjects for serious drama and are

usually represented as fools or scoundrels.

Revealing the inherently theatrical aspects of the court and affairs of state runs the risk of

undermining their authority--if people on stage can play at being Kings and Queens, lords and

ladies, then there is always the possibility that the audience will suspect that real Kings and

Queens, lords and ladies, are just ordinary people who are playing a role and do not actually

deserve their position of wealth and privilege. But the very existence of the theater helped keep the

threat of rebellion under control by providing people with a legitimate, though restricted, place to

express otherwise unacceptable ideas and behavour (Mullaney 8-9). Within the walls of the

theater, it is acceptable to mock the actor playing a king, but never the king himself; it is acceptable

to contemplate the murder of a theatrical monarch, but never a real one.

Macbeth deals with the murder of a king, but Shakespeare turns that potentially subversive subject

into support for his king, James I. Queen Elizabeth died without a direct heir, and a - power

vacuum is a recipe for domestic turmoil or even war. The consequences of Macbeth's regicide and

tyranny illustrate the kinds of disruption that were prevented by the peaceful ascension to the

throne of James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots. The "good king" of England ( 4.3 .147) who gives

Malcolm sanctuary and supports his cause as the rightful successor to the Scottish crown is an

indirect reference to James I. Macbeth is about treason and murder, but Malcolm's description of

the noble king (147-59), and the stark contrast between him and Macbeth, reinforces the idea that

good subjects should see their king as their benefactor and protector.

Shakespeare was not coerced into flattering his king. There was official censorship in his time, but

it is unlikely that he needed anyone to tell him what he could or could not write; he knew the types

of stories that were acceptable to authority and desirable to his paying public. Whether or not

Shakespeare felt constrained by these limitations, or even consciously recognized them, is not the

point; the point is that he worked within a set of conventions and conditions which relied upon and

reinforced the governing power relations of his time, and so there was no need for him to be

manipulated by a government censor looking over his shoulder. If Shakespeare had not known the

boundaries of the acceptable, or had not conformed to the demands of power, he would never have

become a successful playwright.

According to new historicism, our own relationship to power is similar to that of Shakespeare's: we

collaborate with the power that controls us. Without necessarily realizing what we are doing, we

help create and sustain it, thus reducing the need for authority figures to remind us what to do or

think. Once we accept the cultural limitations imposed on our thought and behavour, once we

believe that the limits of the permissible are the extent of the possible, then we happily police






6. Marxist Criticism: Macbeth as Ideology

Wiatt Ropp

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Macbeth embodies aspects of the dominant ideology of Shakespeare's time; today, his plays are

regarded as cultural icons because their underlying ideas are still useful to the ideology of our time.

By "ideology" Marxism does not mean simply a belief system, but a deliberately manipulative set

of ideas that benefit the ruling classes and encourage the majority of people to have a false

understanding of social reality and its socio-economic foundations. According to traditionalists,

Shakespeare transcends ideology and socio-economic relations; studying his plays, according to

this point of view, increases people's knowledge of their national and linguistic heritage, reveals to

them eternal truths about the human condition, and develops in them a more sophisticated sense of

aesthetic taste. Seen from a Marxist perspective, however, there is a more insidious reason for

keeping Shakespeare in the schools:

Shakespeare is beloved of educators and politicians because he is useful in legitimizing established

authority and its supporting values and beliefs.

Macbeth's ambitious violence subverts his world's natural order (see Tillyard for a discussion of the

Elizabethan idea of an ordered world), and it results in the ruin of himself and those around him.

Macbeth perverts the play's religious order by consulting evil spirits; like Adam he undermines the

patriarchal order by giving in to his wife's temptations; he violates the political order by regicide

and tyranny; and he violates the moral order with lies and murder. The consequences of this

disorder are inescapable and are manifested in cosmic upheaval (2.3.50-57), insanity, and military


The play's underlying message assumes that society's natural condition is a God-given harmonious

order. Such religious beliefs might be incompatible with today's more secular perspectives, but the

logic of the argument remains the same even if we believe that our essentially ordered state of

affairs is the result of a representative government and the self-regulating processes of private

enterprise and the free market. Either way, disorder results from challenges to the status quo, that

is, to the state of affairs that is generally considered to be natural and good--at least by those in

society who benefit from them. In Macbeth disorder takes the form of rebellious lords, evil spirits,

political scheming and violence; modern demons of chaos come disguised as Communists,

homosexuals, unwed mothers, and the lazy poor. Ideology leads us to believe that if it were not for

these "unnatural," debilitating afflictions, society would be more or less perfectly ordered and

without conflict. Ideology encourages us to count as enemies anyone who we are told defies

established authority and disrupts the social order and to believe that these enemies are f1Jlly

deserving of our contempt and persecution.

Marxism argues that our ideas and beliefs are intimately connected to our material and social

reality--they evolve out of that reality and reflect it. Art expresses, in new and unusual ways, our

ideas and beliefs, but this does not mean that all art is ideological. To understand a work of art's

connection to ideology, it is necessary to examine how it is used in a specific cultural context: is it

used primarily to support the status quo or to challenge it? Many of our most cherished notions

have achieved their importance in art, religion and politics because of their usefulness to those in

power--that is, because they have proved useful in glossing over the contradictions and difficulties

of social reality.

Throughout history cultures have developed social and economic inequalities of one kind or

another, such as those between rich and poor, men and women, one race and another. If society is

to operate smoothly, then it is necessary that these various inequalities be accepted, or at least

passively tolerated, by the different groups involved. The purpose of ideology is to provide

explanations for socio-economic inequalities, to convince the oppressed groups in society that their

condition is justified and a result of their own failings, and to reassure the dominant groups that

they deserve their superiority .

Although the dominant groups benefit most from these social arrangements, it is not quite accurate

to say that they produce ideology .The true champions and makers of ideology are society's

"intellectuals" (Chomsky 72-74); in other words, those people who, in one way or another, tell

people what they should think and do: teachers, priests, social scientists, political pundits,

philosophers, artists and their critics. Intellectuals have always considered their mental labor to be

superior to the physical labor of the masses, and so they have felt a natural affinity toward the

upper echelons of society. Intellectuals tend to look to the wealthy, ruling classes for protection and

patronage; in return they offer justifications for the current social arrangements and assure the

ruling classes that they deserve their superior status. More importantly, intellectuals soothe the

troubled minds of the rest of us with such platitudes as "We must obey our leaders and learn to

accept our proper place in society" ; "If you are poor , you have only yourself to blame"; "Do not

despair if you are treated unfairly, because heaven will be your reward"; and "Leave all that tricky

political stuff to the experts and watch a play instead." By this definition, Shakespeare was an

"intellectual" of Renaissance England: he relied on the ruling classes for patronage, and he knew

how to support the status quo and keep his plays respectable so as not to fall our to favor. As the

Marxist writer George Orwell puts it,

Shakespeare liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in

the most servile way. He is also noticeably cautious, not to say cowardly, in his manner of uttering

unpopular opinions. Almost never does he put a subversive or skeptical remark into the ..mouth of

a character likely to be identified with himself (430)

The bawdy, irreverent ramblings of the Porter in Macbeth hardly count as serious social criticism.

However, no one can blame Shakespeare for wanting to avoid being hung, drawn and quartered by

offended aristocrats. It is possible to argue that Shakespeare subtly challenged authoritarianism in

his own way and that dissent in the mouth of a fool is better than no dissent at all. Then again, it is

also possible to argue that a good way to convince people you are not an establishment stooge is to

pretend to be a clandestine dissident.

Modern political critics argue that Shakespeare's plays ingeniously subvert establishment

orthodoxy by exposing how power and ideology operate in society ( see Greenblatt, Dollimore, and

Kavanagh). Their arguments are intriguing, but rather than assume that Shakespeare's plays

exemplify a modern political attitude, it is just as easy to believe that literary critics are simply

skilled at reading him in such a way as to give credence to their own beliefs (Levin 500-2).

Regardless of Shakespeare's intentions or political motivations, it is how his plays have been used

that indicates their true cultural significance. As I have argued, Macbeth, like the rest of his plays,

has proved useful, in his time and ours, as ideological support for the beliefs that our social order

and established authority is fair and that those who threaten it deserve whatever punishment and

suffering they get. This kind of ideology creates in people, especially those who suffer due to

society's socio-economic inequalities, an attitude of passive resignation, and it encourages the

opinion that change is undesirable and, even if attempted, unlikely to succeed.


7. Structuralist criticism and Macbeth

Patrick Kinnaird

Shakespeare Institute

University of Birmingham

Structuralism arose from among the individual works of linguists in Europe and America in the

1950s, the foremost proponents being Ferdinand de Saussure, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf

and Leonard Bloomfield. Its fundamental claim is that the association between words and things is

arbitrary -that a word 'meanst one thing because it doesn't mean something else -as Terence

Hawkes puts it, 6Dogmeans dog not because of what it is but because of what it is not: because it is

not bog and it is not god or log. Thus, the meaning of words lies not in the words themselves but in

the relationships which language establishes between them.' (Terence Hawkes, 'Shakespeare and

New Critical Approaches', in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. by Stanley

Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.289) Written works do not represent

'reality', but are made by a system whose relation to 'reality" is arbitrary, and it is this system of

signification which is the concern of the structuralist. Structuralism escaped the linguists and

entered other humanity subjects via Claude Levi-Strauss and Rolande Barthe, and it was the latter

who forced students of literature to confront its implications. In his essay of 1968, 'The Death of

the Author' , he argued that authors were unable to express a novel or individual vision in any

meaI'.ingful sense because he was forced to work within the system of signifiers which constituted

his language and culture: anything he might write was 'always already written'. The effect of this on

literary criticism was to fundamentally question the concept of realism in plot and in the

psychological portrayal of character, which had been so much a part of the inheritance from A.C.


There is no large body of structuralist criticism of Shakespeare, but Terence Hawkes sees it

anticipated in the work of G. Wilson Knight and L.C. Knights, whom he calls 'quasi-structuralists'

(Hawkes p.290). These writers were attacking the Bradleian psychological approach from the

1930s onwards, Knights evoking Bradley directly in his essay 'How Many Children Had Lady

Macbeth?: An Essay in the Theory and Practice of Shakespeare Criticism'. The sort of question

posed in this title is irrelevant, Knights argues, because the appearance of the children to which

Lady Macbeth has given suck is made for poetic effect: individual characterisation is subordinate to

the poetic construction of the work as a whole. Later he would write that 'the essential structure of

Macbeth, as of the other tragedies, is to be sought in the poetry' ( ' Macbeth. ' Some Shakespearean

Themes (London: Chat to & Windus, 1959), p.102). Wilson Knight refused to use criticism as a

tool for discovering authorial intent, claiming that the work itself was 'a visionary whole, close-knit

in personification, atmospheric suggestion, and direct poetic-symbolism: three modes of

transmission equal in their importance' (G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London: Oxford

University Press, 1930), p.11 ). He concentrated on the themes and images, and the metaphysical

significances of a work, without allying them to orthodox philosophies or religions.

These critics anticipated structuralism insofar as they attempted to exclude authorial intention and

notions of realism from their accounts of Shakespeare's work: authority lies in the text, not in the

author. But the New Critical 'well wrought urn' aspect of their work, as well as Wilson Knight's

metaphysical zeal, is still far from the austerity of the structuralism of the 1960s and 1970s.

There is no structuralist account of Macbeth to compare with Roman Jakobson's and

Lawrence Jones' analysis of Sonnet 129, but one indirect debt to structuralism may be found in the

way the text of Macbeth now appears to us. The work of the editor had once been to attempt to

recreate an authoritative text -that is, the text which best represents the one which the author had

intended. In asserting that the author was dead the structuralists gave editors the opportunity to

focus on the text divorced from a single authorial genius. Shakespeare: The Complete Works,

edited by Gary Taylor, Stanley Wells, John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford: The

Clarendon Press, 1986) chose to site authority in the original theatrical performances. Graham

Holdemess' and Bryan Loughrey's Shakespearean Originals series sited it in the texts of the first

editions, even when these are the so-called 'bad' quartos, which had long been dismissed as

corruptions of Shakespeare's work. In these cases authorial intent is no more important than the

various other forms of transmission - adaptations for theatrical performance, memorial

reconstruction by actors, type-setting by the printers -through which the text is filtered. In the case

of Macbeth, which is only known from the First Folio, this allowed Stanley Wells and James

Rigney -the play's respective editors in the two projects -to present it as a theatrical adaptation by

another Jacobean playwright, Thomas Middleton. However, both of these approaches to editing

leave the text to consider social, economic, political, and even technological ways of accounting for

it - ultimately it seems that structuralism has not proved an attractive way of analysing

Shakespeare's dramatic works.