Macbeth Literary Criticism

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  • 0:02 Background on ''Macbeth''
  • 1:19 A.C. Bradley's Interpretation
  • 2:20 Cleanth Brooks'…
  • 3:37 Janet Adelman's…
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Like all of Shakespeare's plays, 'Macbeth' has intrigued generations of literary critics. This lesson will examine some of the most popular critical approaches to the play.

Background on Macbeth

Shakespeare's Macbeth is one of his darkest and oddest plays. While none of Shakespeare's great tragedies can be called cheery, Macbeth is distinguished even from those other plays by an underlying bleakness and by its interest in dark, supernatural forces. Like all of Shakespeare's great plays, Macbeth has fascinated literary critics for centuries. These critics have tried to make sense of the play's messy plot, supernatural elements, shocking violence, and unforgettable characters like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

So what exactly is literary criticism? Simply put, literary criticism is a reader trying to make sense of a work of literature through analysis, interpretation, and appreciation. Literary criticism usually appears in writing, in the form of critical essays or books, but whenever a group of readers discusses their reaction to a play or book, they, too, are doing literary criticism.

It's best to think of literary criticism not as a key to unlocking the mysteries of a play, but instead as an ongoing conversation among readers who all add to the understanding of the play, by adding their own analysis and opinions. In this lesson, we'll look at three of the most influential critics of Macbeth and what they added to the conversation about the play.

A.C. Bradley's Interpretation of Macbeth

One of the most important critics of Macbeth in the twentieth century was Oxford professor A.C. Bradley. Bradley's book Shakespearean Tragedy, a collection of lectures on Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, helped to establish those four plays as the definitive Shakespearean tragedies after it was published in 1904.

Bradley was interested in the character and personality of Shakespeare's characters. He popularized the idea that the heroes of the four tragedies were all undone by a tragic flaw, or a certain deficit of character that leads to their downfall. Bradley argued that Macbeth's tragic flaw was ambition, as his lust for power, egged on by Lady Macbeth, is what leads him to kill King Duncan and set in to motion all of the other tragic events of the play. Though Bradley is thought of as an old-fashioned by many modern Shakespeare readers, his ideas had a huge impact on interpretation of the play, as many people today still see it primarily as a play about ambition.

Cleanth Brooks' Interpretation of Macbeth

Harvard professor Cleanth Brooks was one of the major proponents of new criticism, an approach that was popular in the mid-twentieth century and argued that earlier critics like Bradley tended to look at Shakespeare's characters as real people and not as fictional works of literature. New critics examined poems and plays as self-contained works of art, highlighting the writer's use of literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, and irony.

In his essay 'The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,' included his book of criticism The Well-Wrought Urn, Brooks looks particularly at Shakespeare's use of symbolism, or the use of an object to represent an idea or emotion. Brooks argues that an important symbol in the play is clothing, which is used in various ways to represent the idea that Macbeth is disguising himself in the stolen clothes of King Duncan.

One line in particular Brooks analyzes is when Macbeth describes the daggers used to kill Duncan as 'unmannerly breeched with gore.' Macbeth is comparing the two daggers to men's legs, wearing only their 'breeches' (or underwear). But these breeches are made of 'gore' or blood. Brooks shows how this symbolism of clothing repeats itself throughout the play.

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