'Macbeth': Easy Questions, Difficult Answers

Derick Marsh


Macbeth is not an obscure play. The course of the action, unlike that of Hamlet, can easily be summarized. Most readers and audiences can come to some general agreement on what the play is about, provided that they can offer answers to the two major questions of understanding that the play poses. These answers, it need hardly be said, cannot be precise and absolute, since Shakespeare's plays, like life, never allow us the delusion of perfect understanding. Nevertheless, we do need to decide what we are invited to think and feel about Macbeth and what he does. In particular, we have to consider why he acts as he does; why, in the first place, he kills Duncan, and then why, acting as he does, he can still attract our interest, sympathy, even admiration. The answer to the first of these questions appears to be the easier, but is in fact the more difficult. I shall argue that in the end, the answer to both questions is the same: he acts, and we respond, because we recognize in him and in ourselves an all too human, ordinary fallibility. He is neither the puppet of evil forces that some critics would make him, nor the inhuman monster that Malcolm's final dismissal of him as "this dead butcher" would suggest.

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