To the playhouse, where we saw Macbeth, which, though I have seen it often, yet is it one of the best plays for a stage, and a variety of dancing and music, that ever I saw.
– Samuel Pepys, 1667
In reading some bombast speeches of Macbeth, which are not to be understood, [Ben Jonson] us’d to say that it was horror, and I am much afraid that this is so.
– John Dryden, 1667
To say much in the Praise of this Play I cannot, for the Plot is a sort of History, and the Character of Mackbeth (sic) and his Lady are too monstruous (sic) for the Stage. But it has obtained, and in too much Esteem with the Million for any Man yet to say much against it.
– Charles Giddon, 1710
The Arguments by which Lady Macbeth persuades Her Husband to commit the Murder afford a Proof of Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Human Nature. She urges the Excellence and Dignity of Courage, a glittering Idea which has dazzled Mankind from Age to Age, and animated sometimes the Housebreaker and sometimes the Conqueror; but this Sophism Macbeth has for ever destroyed by distinguishing true from false Fortitude in a Line and a half, of which it may almost be said that they out to bestow Immortality on the Author though all his other Productions had been lost. “I dare do all that may become a Man, / Who dares do more is none.”
– Samuel Johnson, 1745
The poet has given to Macbeth the very temper to be wrought upon by such suggestions. The bad man is his own tempter. Richard III had a heart that prompted him to do all that the worst demon could have suggested, so that the witches had been only an idle wonder in his story; nor did he want such a counselor as Lady Macbeth…But Macbeth, of a generous disposition, and good propensities, but with vehement passions and aspiring wishes, was a subject liable to be seduced by splendid prospects, and ambitious counsels… Macbeth’s emotions are the struggles of conscience; his agonies are the agonies of remorse. They are lessons of justice, and warnings to innocence. I do not know that any dramatic writer, except Shakespear, (sic) has set forth the pangs of guilt separate from the fear of punishment.
– Elizabeth Montagu, 1769
This short dialogue between Duncan and Banquo, whilst they are approaching the gates of Macbeth’s castle has always appeared to me a striking instance of what in painting is termed repose. Their conversation very naturally turns upon the beauty of its situation…The subject of this quiet and easy conversation gives that repose so necessary to the mind after the tumultuous bustle of the preceding scenes, and perfectly contrasts the scene of horror that immediately succeeds. It seems as if Shakespeare asked himself, What is a prince likely to say to his attendants on such an occasion? Whereas the modern writers seem, on the contrary, to be always searching for new thoughts, such as would never occur to men in the situation which is represented.
– Joshua Reynolds, 1780
The low porter soliloquy I believe written for the mob by some other hand, perhaps with Shakespeare’s consent-and that finding it take, he with the remaining ink of a pen otherwise employed just interpolated it with the sentence, ‘I’ll devil-porter it no further…’ Of the rest not one syllable has the ever present being of Shakespeare.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, c. 1813
Macbeth (generally speaking) is done upon a stronger and more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespear’s (sic) plays. It moves upon the verge of an abyss, and is a constant struggle between life and death. The action is desperate and the reaction is dreadful. It is a huddling together of fierce extremes, a war of opposite natures which of them shall destroy the other… The whole play is an unruly chaos of strange and forbidden things, where the ground rocks under our feet. Shakespear’s genius here took its full swing, and trod upon the farthest bounds of nature and passion.
– William Hazlitt, 1817
We must then bear in mind, that the first idea of murdering Duncan is not suggested by Lady Macbeth to her husband: it springs within his mind, and is revealed to us before his first interview with his wife-before she is introduced, or even alluded to… It will be said, that the same ‘horrid suggestion’ presents itself spontaneously to her on the reception of his letter; or rather, that the letter itself acts upon her mind as the prophecy of the Weird Sisters on the mind of her husband, kindling the latent passion for empire into a quenchless flame... The guilt is thus more equally divided than we should suppose, when we hear people pitying ‘the noble nature of Macbeth,’ bewildered and goaded on to crime, solely or chiefly by the instigation of his wife.
– Anna Brownell Jameson, 1833
The poet has endowed these creatures [the weird sisters] with the power to tempt and delude men, to entangle them with oracles of double meaning, with delusion and deception, and even to try them, as Satan in the book of Job, with sorrow and trouble, with storms and sickness; but they have no authority with fatalistic power to do violence to the human will. Their promises and their prophecies leave ample scope for freedom of action; their occupations are ‘deeds without a name.’ They are simply the embodiment of inward temptation; they come in storm and vanish in air, like corporeal impulses, which, originating in the blood, cast sisters only in the sense in which men carry their own fates within their own bosoms. Macbeth, in meeting them, has to struggle against no external power, but only with his own nature; they bring to light the vile side of his character… He does not stumble upon the plans of his royal ambition, because the allurement approaches him from without; but his temptation is sensibly awakened in him, because those plans have long been slumbering in his soul. Within himself dwell the spirits of evil which allure him with the delusions of his aspiring mind.
– G.G. Gervinus, 1849-50
The weird sisters, says Gervinus, ‘are simply the embodiment of inward temptation.’ They are surely much more than this. If we must regard the entire universe as a manifestation of an unknown somewhat which lies behind it, we are compelled to admit that there is an apocalypse of power auxiliary to vice, as real as there is a manifestation of virtuous energy… The history of the race, and the social medium in which we live and breathe, have created forces of good and evil which are independent of the will of each individual man and woman. The sins of past centuries taint the atmosphere of to-day. We move through the world subject to accumulated forces of evil and of good outside ourselves.
– Edward Dowden, 1881
If you want to know the truth about Lady Macbeth’s character, she hasn’t one. There never was no such person. She says things that will set people’s imagination to work if she says them in the right way: that is all. I know: I do it myself. You ought to know: you set people’s imaginations to work, don’t you? Though you know very well that what they imagine is not there, and that when they believe you are thinking ineffable things you are only wondering whether it would be considered vulgar to have shrimps for tea, or whether you could seduce me into ruining my next play by giving you a part in it.
– George Bernard Shaw, 1921 letter to actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell
We are confronted by mystery, darkness, abnormality, hideousness: and therefore by fear. The word ‘fear’ is ubiquitous. All may be unified as symbols of this emotion. Fear is predominant. Everyone is afraid. There is scarcely a person in the play who does not feel and voice at some time a sickening, nameless terror. The impact of the play is thus exactly analogous to a nightmare, to which state there are many references.
– G. Wilson Knight, 1930
But Macbeth is at bottom any man of noble intentions who gives way to his appetites. And who at one time or another has not been that man? Who, looking back over his life, cannot perceive some moral catastrophe that he escaped by inches? Or did not escape. Macbeth reveals how close we who thought ourselves safe may be to the precipice. Few readers, however, feel any such kinship with Macbeth as they do with Hamlet. We do not expect to be tempted to murder; but we do know what it is to have a divided soul. Yet Hamlet and Macbeth are imaginative brothers. The difference is that Macbeth begins more or less where Hamlet left off.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
That the man who breaks the bonds that tie him to other men...is at the same time violating his own nature and thwarting his own deepest needs, is something that the play dwells on with a special insistence.
– L.C. Knights, 1959
This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil, however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence. Nowhere is this clearer than in Macbeth.
– Frank Kermode, 1972
Critics who chide me for dwelling on unpleasant and even bloody subjects miss the point: art shows us how to get through and transcend pain, and a close reading of any tragic work (Macbeth comes immediately to mind) will allow the intelligent reader to see how and why the tragedy took place, and how we, personally, need not make these mistakes. The more violent the murders in Macbeth, the more relief one can feel at not having to perform them. Great art is cathartic; it is always moral.
– Joyce Carol Oates, c. 1980
In a fairy tale such wishes would cost us dearly, and justly; yet we cannot really feel guilty for having them. In his susceptibility to conventional human desires, and his momentary willingness to forget the reasons they must be suppressed, Macbeth is one of us.
– Robert Watson, 1984
A claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence is fundamental in the development of the modern State; when that claim is successful, most citizens learn to regard State violence as qualitatively different from other violence and perhaps they don’t think of State violence as violence at all.... Macbeth focuses major strategies by which the State asserted its claim at one conjuncture.
– Alan Sinfield, 1986
He cannot bear to wait. He cannot endure the ‘interim.’ Pondering interims is exactly what Macbeth cannot abide. That is why he is associated throughout the play with prematurity, with getting there or doing something before something or somebody else. This is a valuable quality in a warrior, in a life-or-death emergency. But Macbeth is always in an emergency, desperate to overtake, to leap over, to outrun.
– Adrian Poole, 1987
The reason that Macbeth can never be seen simply as a butcher, a vile renegade, or a foolish warrior who is henpecked by his wife and hoodwinked by some witches is because the complexity and subtlety of his mind are realized, through his language, to a remarkable degree.
– David Young, 1990
He comes out of [Duncan’s bedchamber] a changed man. Never can he be the same man again. There is not a single moment that he enjoys the thought of killing. It torments him, though it also impels him. And never does he enjoy the fruit of his killing. He comes out of that room demented. He went into it terrified, as he says all the time; he comes out of it crazy. Lady Macbeth has never before seen the man who comes out of that door; he is a stranger to her. They have stopped communicating and there is no way that they will ever communicate again… Had she been other than she was he would not have done it. The thought may have been present, but so was the fear of the thought: the first time we seem him think it his hair stands on end. Always the thought strikes fear into him…He does the murder for her, and it destroys them both.
– Derek Jacobi, 1998 (Macbeth in the 1993-4 RSC’s productions)
To say something was wicked meant literally to Shakespeare’s audience that it was under the spell of a witch (wicca). Something “had gotten into” Macbeth—the inner disturbance induced by whatever has the power to witch, bewitch or charm: the Weird Sisters. Interpretations of the disturbance range all the way from total infestation by supernatural powers to the mere catalyzing of Macbeth’s latent seed of ambition.
– Diana Major Spencer, 2000
The play itself equivocates, from the misleading riddles and half-truths of the weird sisters to the tortuous syntax and paradoxical phrasing that characterizes the protagonist’s most famous speeches. The play’s ambiguities and uncertainties infect almost every line so that nothing, be it the definition of masculinity or femininity, the natural world, or the basic laws of friendship, kinship and hospitality, can be considered reliable or stable. In this play everything…is subject not just to change, but to inversion. As is often the case in Shakespearean tragedy, then, the restoration of order at the final curtain is largely a hopeful illusion, the playwright leaving more than enough loose ends to entangle the future.
– Andrew James Hartley, 2000
We see Duncan exulting not only in the victory but in the bloodshed, equating honor with wounds… Yet the mild paternal king is nevertheless implicated here in his society’s violent warrior ethic, its predicating of manly worth on prowess in killing. But isn’t this just what we condemn in Lady Macbeth? Cultural analysis tends to blur the sharp demarcations, even between two such figures apparently totally opposed, and to draw them together as participants in and products of the same constellation of social values.
– Susan Snyder, 2002
For Shakespeare, tragedy will not easily give way to the efforts to deny it. In its endings, the exhausted survivors will inevitably seek to convince themselves that the tragedy has not only passed but also that its causes have been banished and the experience has at least taught worthy lessons. But the plays insist that tragedy is something far less reassuring, as the most seemingly reassuring of them, Macbeth, makes us see. Tragedy tells us that human cruelty is terrible and its consequences are not easily contained.
– David Scott Kastan, 2003
The brilliant Polish critic, Jan Kott, asserts that no one can understand Shakespeare who has not been awakened by the secret police at 3 o’clock in the morning. For Kott, it’s all about being behind the Iron Curtain, about living in fear. The themes of Shakespeare become so profoundly resonant when you live in that kind of vivid desperation, like the vivid desperation of so many of the characters in Shakespeare. And in Macbeth, bully and coward can coexist; it’s that wonderful mix of vulnerability and invulnerability. That is what the journey is for him. He is taunted by that moment when he feels himself courageous, only to be followed immediately by that emotional letdown of realizing that now he is even more vulnerable, which then in turns feeds the invulnerability and the paranoia.
– David Bell, 2006
Directed, shaped, and redirected by a potent environment, Macbeth frequently appears to have little control over his passions, desires, or thoughts—a lack of control that raises critical questions about his free will. As the play progresses, Macbeth’s prior fantasy of possessing a ‘single state of man’ increasingly gives way to internal fragmentation and the competing agencies of those internal parts.
– Mary Floyd-Wilson, 2006
Shakespeare has a tendency to register sin in olfactory terms… The opposition is most poignantly illustrated in Lady Macbeth’s remark that, ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ The ‘smell of the blood’ may be imperceptible to audiences, but it is certainly not just a metaphor to Lady Macbeth. Smell is…an index of inner moral truth.
– Jonathan Gil Harris, 2007
– Contributed by the CST Education Department