Macbeth: A Guide to the Play

By H. R. Coursen | Go to book overview

PREFACE

The purpose of this reference book is to provide a guide to Macbeth for both the student and the professional. Students can introduce themselves to the issues that have grown up around the play since the early seventeenth century. For the professional, this outline encourages further study and new insights as the play approaches its four-hundredth anniversary. The Scottish play continues to lend itself to newer critical paradigms -- psychological, feminist, and postmodernist criticism, for example -- and continues to be produced on stage in ways that demonstrate its remarkable versatility as play-text.

No brief study of any play by Shakespeare can be exhaustive. What follows is an outline that looks at the textual issues of the script and at the sources, with more analysis of Antony and Cleopatra than most. How can a play be indebted to one that undoubtedly followed it in the canon? A scene-by-scene analysis of the script suggests the issues that a stage production must resolve. Any discussion of the themes of the play insists that the religious background of the early sixteenth century be explored, since this play, more than any other in the canon, emerges from its theological context. This material is not difficult, but it must be outlined in some detail in light of the materialist attack on "essentialism."

This play, like others in the canon, raises some perplexing questions on which the critics can disagree but which performance must address on this side of John Keats's "negative capability," which "Shakespeare possessed so enormously." Keats defined it as "where a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" ( 1817). As critics, we must make up our minds about the options that the scripts offer, perhaps because it is our own identity that is bound up in our response. We are like actors taking on a role and bringing our own experience to the role to complete it. A director in the theater must ask (and answer) questions such as: What do the Weird Sisters look like? Does Lady Macbeth faint in the scene in which the

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