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About this book

This Guide provides a survey of the wide range of responses to Macbeth, as well as the key debates and developments from the seventeenth century to the present day. Chronologically structured, the Guide summarizes and assesses key interpretations, sets them in context and supplies extracts from criticism which exemplify critical positions.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
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.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Development of Macbeth Criticism

Abstract
The dates of the composition and first performance of Macbeth are uncertain. Most critics and editors suggest that it was composed in 1606 — this is the date given by, for example, the Oxford Shakespeare1 — but in his introduction to his Arden edition, Kenneth Muir points to earlier dates that have been suggested — 1599 and 1601, for example — though he himself opts for the period 1603 to 1606.2 The main reason for the 1606 dating is that there are several references in the Porter scene (2.3) to ‘equivocation’ — a term strongly linked with the Superior of the English Jesuits, Father Henry Garnett (1555–1606), who was hanged, drawn and quartered on 3 May 1606 for alleged complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. Garnett had become notorious for his defence of equivocation — of making a statement that seemed to have one meaning then privately adding further words to it which gave it quite a different meaning (for further discussion of this, see Chapter 4 of this Guide). It is, however, possible that the references to ‘equivocation’ were a topical insertion into an earlier text.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. The Nineteenth Century: Romantic and Victorian Macbeth

Abstract
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw, in Romanticism, an explosion of cultural energy across Europe which linked up with the tumultuous political events of that period — the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars — to give a sense of a world in turmoil. In the drama, fiction and poetry which emerged at this time, the constraints of the eighteenth century were challenged, stretched and sometimes snapped and thrown off, and this had its impact on the way that the dramatic and literary texts of the past were understood — and certainly on the way in which people responded to Shakespeare. Those elements of his work which seemed faults in the perspective of neoclassical criticism appealed much more to the Romantic imagination. This did not mean a wholesale rejection of eighteenth-century approaches, however: the emphasis on character which had emerged in the later eighteenth century was continued and developed as Shakespeare, and some of his protagonists, were reconstructed as proto-Romantic figures. A key text in this process was Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817), a work of great vivacity and perception by the essayist, journalist and critic William Hazlitt.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. The Early Twentieth Century: Tragedy, Psychoanalysis and Imagery

Abstract
In between 1900 and 1940, literary criticism, including criticism of Shakespeare, was transformed. There were a range of reasons for this, but two main ones stand out. One was the emergence of those literary texts which have come to be called modernist — texts such as Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce (1882–1941) and The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965); these texts were difficult to read in terms of nineteenth-century poetry and fiction — difficult, it could be said, in the way in which Shakespeare was difficult — and if they were to be properly understood, new and more rigorous techniques of interpretation were required. The other main reason was the development of the study of literature as an academic discipline: literary criticism could no longer simply be the occupation of the man of letters: it was a professional activity which required specialist expertise — in particular, the ability to read and interpret demanding texts; and, here again, Shakespeare’s texts, not least Macbeth, were notably demanding. In this transformation of literary criticism, especially as it applied to Shakespeare, A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy played a complex role. Bradley certainly gave close attention to the text and he tried to weave his local observations into broader interpretations and into a general theory; but many of his assumptions seemed open to question and came under strong attack. His book has not gone away, however: still in print, it remains valuable, both for its suggestive insights and for the ways in which it helps us to understand the subsequent development of Macbeth criticism in the twentieth century.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. The Mid-Twentieth Century: History, Nature and Evil

Abstract
Whatever their differences, the interpretations of Macbeth which we considered in Chapter 3 had one thing in common: they paid little attention to the historical and political aspects and contexts of the play. Only Freud makes a historical comparison, linking the theme of childlessness in Macbeth with the theme of Elizabeth I’s childlessness, but this is not central to his argument. In 1944 and 1950, however, there would be two significant pieces of writing — one a short chapter, the other a whole book — that did raise historical and political questions. Another question — of what would later come to be called gender — would be raised in an essay of 1950 by Eugene M. Waith. These historical, political and gender aspects of the play would not be pursued in the 1950s; but they are worth considering both in their own right and for the way in which they feed into later twentieth-century criticism. The first of them — the short chapter — occurs in E. M. W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944).
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. The Later Twentieth Century: Politics, Violence and Ideology

Abstract
In the later twentieth century, large changes came over literary criticism. The sense that the interpretative approaches which had emerged in the 1930s had outlived their usefulness and were producing largely repetitive readings, the development and dissemination of literary and cultural theory, and the entry of a new generation into university teaching, all combined to bring about a revolution in the ways critics understood literary texts. From the 1980s, critics would draw on a rich variety of perspectives — structuralist, historical, anthropological, political, post-structuralist, psychoanalytical, feminist and new historicist — as they scrutinized Macbeth for its contradictions and ambivalences, for the points at which its apparently secure value structure broke down. A pioneering example of such scrutiny was provided by Harry Berger Jr. at the start of the 1980s.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. The Later Twentieth Century: Language, Subjectivity and Subversion

Abstract
Post-structuralism and deconstruction had emerged in France in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that they began to impinge strongly on literary studies in the United Kingdom and the United States; as key works were translated, commentaries and explications appeared, and controversy raged. These two movements of ideas challenged cherished and often unexamined assumptions on which much literary interpretation — including the interpretation of Shakespeare — had proceeded until then. These assumptions included the notion that texts were organic wholes in which all apparent contradictions were eventually resolved; that language gave access to truth; and that human subjectivity was a unity. Instead, post-structuralism saw texts as montages of disparate elements, texts as constructing truth rather than revealing it, and human subjects, who were constituted in language, as split, while deconstruction held that any text would, necessarily, subvert itself, dissolve the grounds on which it was supposedly based.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. The Later Twentieth Century: Men, Women and Witches

Abstract
Many varieties of feminist literary criticism developed in the 1970s and 1980s, but one of the most powerful linked feminism with psychoanalysis. This was not a straightforward link; many elements of psychoanalysis could themselves be seen as open to feminist critique, as displaying sexist biases in their ideas of what constituted normative female and male sexuality and identity. Nonetheless, the link often proved enabling; and a combined feminist-psychoanalytic approach could seem, in many ways, well suited to Macbeth, a play which Freud himself had already tackled and which, especially through the figures of the witches and Lady Macbeth, raises key questions about femininity, and also — as Eugene M. Waith had noticed back in 1950 — about masculinity. The first major feminist-psychoanalytical reading of the 1980s came from Coppélia Kahn.
Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion: The Twenty-first Century and Future Directions

Abstract
In this Guide, we have explored key examples of essential criticism of Macbeth from the seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth century. We have examined interpretations which approach the play from a wide variety of angles — for example, character, tragedy, imagery, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, psychoanalysis and feminism — and we have seen that each of these approaches has yielded insights, intriguing suggestions and topics for further debate. Most critics today see criticism as fruitfully interminable — it can never come to an end, never deliver the complete, final and definitive interpretation of a text — and criticism of Shakespeare seems an especially vivid demonstration of this. We know there is much more to say about Macbeth. In what directions might Macbeth criticism develop in the early twenty-first century?
Nicolas Tredell
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