Of the five major Shakespearean tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet,
King Lear, and Othello—Macbeth is in some ways the most accessible. For one
it is the shortest. For another the witches continue to attract audiences just as
they did during Elizabethan times. In addition he cinematographic approach of the last
act—cutting easily from scene to scene—works as well as it did in Shakespeare’s time.
Thus, the play is a natural to introduce students to the Shakespeare canon. Probably it
doesn’t rival Romeo and Juliet in popularity with students or Julius Caesar with teachers,
but nevertheless it is a finished, representative work of the best of William Shakespeare.
In addition the main theme—ambition—one which is relevant to Americans today,
can be witnessed again and again, especially during our quadrennial presidential elections.
“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent,” Macbeth muses; there are those seeking
to attract the public eye for whom this statement applies equally well.
I cannot say I enjoyed reading Macbeth the first time. It was an assignment and, as
do many students, I disliked having to read the play. However, over the years of teaching
the play and re-reading it—by choice—I have come to regard the play with respect and
simultaneously admiration for the playwright. The play communicates its own special
numen. Macbeth is the most tightly unified of the Shakespearean tragedies, and it is filled
with major themes—ambition, definition of character, allegiance to one’s state and king—
and some which may be regarded as minor—sleep, drink, and humor. None of them
could be sacrificed as together they make a unity of approach meant to satisfy the general
audience and the groundlings. As one who has a foot in both camps, I believe the play is