Macbeth is a play that seems to go to extremes, though not always immediately appealing ones: it has been variously regarded as the most concentrated, most humourless, most rapid, most topical, most tremendous, most vehement and most violent of Shakespeare’s tragedies.1 It is certainly the shortest, and, in theatrical lore, the unluckiest, to be named only indirectly (‘the Scottish play’) for fear that the utterance of its actual title may bring toil and trouble. While not quite as central to Western culture as Hamlet, it offers an apparently inexhaustible store of cultural references, and in one key area it surpasses Hamlet — it provides an unparalleled set of images of feminine monstrousness, transgression and remorse: Lady Macbeth has ingrained herself into cultural consciousness in a way that pale Ophelia never can. If Hamlet has held up a mirror in which Western man has often seen not wholly unflattering images of himself, Macbeth provides a reflection which Western man — and Western woman — find less easy to contemplate steadily; characteristically, it has been turned to an oblique angle to catch, as in a glass darkly, the image of the abhorred other — tyrant, murderer, lethal spouse and mother — in comparison with which our own virtue may shine.
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