William Shakespeare's Macbeth

William Shakespeare's Macbeth

William Shakespeare's Macbeth

William Shakespeare's Macbeth


-- Presents the most important 20th-century criticism on major works from The Odyssey through modern literature

-- The critical essays reflect a variety of schools of criticism

-- Contains critical biographies, notes on the contributing critics, a chronology of the author's life, and an index


Critics remark endlessly about two aspects of Macbeth, its obsession with "time," and its invariable recourse to metaphors of the stage, almost on the scale of Hamlet. Macbeth, my personal favorite among Shakespeare's dramas, always has seemed to me to be set in a Gnostic cosmos, though certainly Shakespeare's own vision is by no means Gnostic in spirit. Gnosticism always manifests a great horror of time, since time will show that one is nothing in oneself, and that one's ambition to be everything in oneself is only an imitation of the Demiurge, the maker of this ruined world.

Why does Shakespeare give us the theatrical trope throughout Macbeth, in a universe that is the kenoma, the cosmological emptiness of the Gnostic seers? In Hamlet, the trope is appropriate, since Claudius governs a play-act kingdom. Clearly, we confront a more desperate theatricality in Macbeth, where the cosmos, and not just the kingdom, is an apocalyptic stage, even as it is in King Lear. Macbeth's obsession with time is the actor's obsession, and the director's, rather than the poet-playwright's. It is the fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, thus ruining the illusion, which is that one is anything at all.

What always remains troublingly sympathetic about Macbeth is partly that he represents our own Oedipal ambitions, and partly that his opposition to true nature is Faustian. Brutally murderous, Macbeth nevertheless is profoundly and engagingly imaginative. He is a visionary Jacobean hero-villain, but unlike Richard III, Iago, and Edmund, and unlike the hero-villains of Webster and Tourneur (Bosola, Flamineo, Ludovico, Vindice), Macbeth takes no pride or pleasure in limning his night-piece and finding it his best. Partly that is . . .

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