John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Modern Criticism and Critical Controversies

May 2, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Macbeth criticism varies widely in terms of the critical approaches taken. Macbeth criticism begins in the 18th century, where the moral lessons of the play tended to be stressed. Thus Samuel Johnson summed up the play as “The danger of ambition well described.” And, in typical 18th century fashion, Johnson’s friend, the great actor David Garrick even rewrote the play so as to make the moral theme even more clear. Thus Garrick adds at the very end Macbeth saying,

I dare not ask for mercy.
It is too late, hell drags me down. I sink,
I sink—Oh!—my soul is lost forever!

This view of the play tends to see it more like a medieval morality play, with good triumphing over evil, than a modern psychological drama.

Influenced by the Romantic movement and perhaps by the rise of the novel, 19th century critics tended to make character more of the issue. Thus while they still acknowledge the moral themes of the play, the romantic critic’s focus less on the lesson of Macbeth and more on his character. Thus DeQuincy talks about how in Macbeth “the retiring of the human heart, and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is ‘unsexed;’ Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed.” And thus Coleridge explains Macbeth’s vulnerability to the witches’ prophesies by talking about the beliefs of actual soldiers: “Superstition, of one sort or another, is natural to victorious generals; the instances are too notorious to need mentioning.”

This focus on character reaches its culmination in the early 20th century with the contributions of A.C. Bradley and Sigmund Freud. The influence of Bradley on Shakespeare criticism in the early 20th century cannot be overestimated. (The critic Alexander Leggatt refers to a comic poem where “Shakespeare’s ghost failed an exam on his own plays because he had not read Bradley.”) While still acknowledging the good versus evil theme of the play (made dramatic by a dark/light opposition), Bradley saw Macbeth’s destiny as coming from his character, his tragic flaw. Thus he analyzed Macbeth as if Macbeth were a real person, and saw the poetry of his speeches more as evidence of Macbeth’s poetic genius than Shakespeare’s. Similarly Sigmund Freud analyzed the Macbeths as if they were patients on his psychoanalytic couch, seeing their psychological difficulties and tragic ends coming from the trauma of their being childless.

Refuting Bradley and Freud, L.C. Knights published a famous essay in 1933, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Here Knights made fun of the kinds of questions represented by his title, pointing out that indeed Macbeth is a dramatic poem, that the Macbeths are not real people and that although in the play Lady Macbeth talks of having nursed at least one baby, we can never know how many children she had. Caroline Spurgeon goes further (and more usefully) in this emphasis on the poetic surface of Shakespeare’s plays with her groundbreaking work Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935). Much like a botanist classifying flora, Spurgeon described the predominant imagery in each Shakespeare play. Macbeth’s “ill-fitting garments,” ”the reverberation of sound echoing over vast regions,” light as life/virtue as opposed to dark as evil/death, and (an image that according to Spurgeon is found in much of Shakespeare’s work) sin as a disease. Spurgeon convincingly demonstrates, with many examples, that these images indeed are the poetic touchstones of Macbeth, that “an appreciable part of the emotions we feel throughout of pity, fear, and horror is due to the subtle but repeated action of this imagery upon our minds, of which in our preoccupation with the main theme, we remain often largely unconscious.” So here instead of analyzing the minds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, we are analyzing the minds of the readers or hearers of the play.

But in the 20th century, discussion of the characters has gone on side by side with discussion of the poetry. Thus many critics have asked who the three witches are, whether they are supernatural, natural, or something in between. While Bradley wrote, for example, “There is not a syllable in Macbeth to imply that they are anything but women.” But Harold Goddard argued that the witches have a supernatural effect on us, “giving the impression of mighty and inscrutable forces behind human life.” “Devils and angels”—and witches—, he argues, “are out of fashion,” but for Goddard they represent something real, not necessarily in some metaphysical realm, but in human psychology, in the unconscious mind. And so Goddard begins his essay on Macbeth with an epigraph from Thoreau: “Men are probably nearer to the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.”

From the 18th century on, critics have talked about Macbeth as “Shakespeare’s descent into Hell,” but, Goddard points out, “it is also his spring myth.” He alludes to Northen mythology, pointing out how Malcolm and his soldiers carrying the branches from Birnam wood in front of them evokes the myth of coming spring, the vanquishing of winter and war by spring and peace.

Many critics have resisted such psychological and mythic approaches, and prefer to see Macbeth as an explicitly Christian play. Thus W.A. Murray argues, “It [Macbeth], if ever poem was so, a traditional Catholic Christian poem, the moral vitality of which is rooted in an uncompromising medieval faith, and in a pre-scientific view of the nature of reality.” This is the 18th century point of view updated, as is Willard Farnham’s argument that Macbeth is “a morality play, written in terms of Jacobean tragedy. Its hero is worked upon by forces of evil, yields to temptation in spite of all that his conscience can do to stop him. . .and is brought to retribution by his death.”

The polish critic Jan Kott turned such traditional interpretations on their head, arguing that Macbeth shows the absurdity of the world and that history is nightmare. Macbeth has only one theme, Kott says, “murder.” Thus after his first murder, Macbeth declares that the world is changed, that “from this instant/ There’s nothing serious in mortality;/ All is but toys. . .” (II.iii.90-92). And so before he dies all Macbeth can do is “to drag with him into nothingness as many living beings as possible.” “This is the last consequence of the world’s absurdity,” Kott writes, ignoring any Christian affirmative morals in the play. “Macbeth is still unable to blow the world up. But he can go on murdering till the end.”

While Harold Bloom acknowledge that Macbeth is “overtly medieval Catholic,” it seems not set in Scotland but in “the cosmological emptiness as described by the ancient Gnostic heretics.” Here he comes known more on Kott’s side than Samuel Johnson’s, seeing “Christianity as irrelevant to Macbeth.” He stresses that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most imaginative hero, and that the enigma of the play is “its protagonist’s hold upon our terrified sympathy.” Bloom argues that we respond to the play with terror, but problematically we discover Macbeth “more vividly within us the more deeply we delve.” Shakespeare makes us identify and sympathize with a murderer: this is the problematic experience of reading or seeing Macbeth.

In recent years, gender critics have taken on Macbeth. Marilyn French sees the play as showing the victory of the masculine over the feminine, with there being at the plays’ end “a totally masculine world,” Lady Macbeth dead and the witches gone. Janet Adelman, in a feminist psychoanalytic reading, similarly argues that Macbeth begins “by unleashing the terrible threat of destructive maternal power and demonstrates the helplessness of its central male figure before that power. . . .” Like French she sees the end of the play as a consolidation of male power, a solving of the male’s problems through elimination of the feminine.

In 2000 Frank Kermode wrote Shakespeare’s Language, with a non-professional audience in mine. He describes a use of language that is unique to Macbeth, “an idiosyncratic rhythm,” built on oppositions and alternatives (fair and foul, grow and not grow, is and is not), and shows that while equivocation is a theme of the play it is also a habit of the play’s language. Finally, in the tradition of Spurgeon, he points to certain words and themes that are “the matrices of the language in Macbeth”: time, man, done, blood, darkness. The reader of the play can focus on these words in reading and gain a deeper understanding of how the play works.

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