Analysis of Macbeth and Other Works by Shakespeare – New York Review of Books



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“Macbeth himself seems tormented by the question. To be sure, his anxiety derives in part from a straightforward prudential concern, a fear that what he metes out will inevitably be meted out to him, measure for measure. But his queasiness has deeper roots in his sense of ethical obligation, in this case the obligation to obey and serve the king his master. His wife, who knows her husband’s character all too well, has already cannily anticipated his inner struggle:

Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.


Hence faced with the perfect opportunity to seize the crown—King Duncan is a guest in his castle—Macbeth holds back. He is, he reflects, Duncan’s kinsman and subject, and at this moment he is also the king’s host, “who should against his murderer shut the door,/ Not bear the knife myself.” Above all, there has been nothing in the king’s comportment that would make his murder a remotely justifiable act. (Shakespeare characteristically altered his source in order to eliminate evidence of Duncan’s incompetence and thus to eliminate a rational basis for his assassination.) On the contrary, Macbeth broods,

this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.


“Meek” is a strange word to describe a king whom we have just seen conducting a bloody military campaign and ordering the summary execution of his enemy, the Thane of Cawdor. But it serves to intensify Macbeth’s brooding on the deep damnation that will befall Duncan’s assassin.”


Long-form review of Shakespeare’s use of political power or status in his stories, including detailed analysis of Macbeth.


  • Stephen Greenblatt


  • Shakespeare and the Uses of Power


  • New York Review of Books


  • April 12, 2007


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