It’s probably fair to say that there’s more than enough literary criticism written on Macbeth, but among the plethora of Macbeth lit crit I’ve come across, I’ve noticed two dominant critical approaches to reading the play, which are historicism and feminism.
Wait – what’s a ‘critical approach’?
Broadly speaking, ‘critical approaches’ in literature are different ways for us to read, interpret and analyse a text.
For instance, if we choose to read a novel from a feministic angle, we would be primarily concerned with how female interests, rights and desires are portrayed in the book.
Alternatively, if we read a play from a historicist perspective, we would be looking at how the historical events and social dynamics that surrounded the author influenced the production of her text.
Besides historicist and feminist, there are many other critical approaches, from Marxist to psychoanalytic to post-Structuralist to deconstructivist to postcolonial to environmental (‘Ecocriticism’) – and more. To most people, this probably all sounds a bit hilarious, or baffling – or both.
Most likely both.
And of course, there’s the option to not adopt any ‘approach’, but to simply engage with a text ‘as is’ by looking only at its language, form and content. It’s called a ‘textualist’ or ‘essentialist’ approach – ‘Practical Criticism’ and ‘close reading’ are examples of this (which I use quite often, especially in my poetry analysis, which you can check out here).
Why Macbeth makes sense for historicist and feminist criticism
But back to Macbeth: There are clear reasons for why the play is ripe for historicist and feminist interpretation.
First, it was written at the cusp of a significant political transition: after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James I, a Scotsman, succeeded Queen Bess, effectively putting an end to a matriarchy which had lasted for almost half a century. Second, despite being named after its male protagonist, Macbeth is a play in which female characters arguably hold the most power.
Given our awareness of Liz I’s looming legacy at the time of Shakespeare’s writing of Macbeth, the historical and feministic intersections of the play should become all the more apparent.
What if we were to read Macbeth from another angle…?
The purpose of this post, however, is to move away from the more dominant critical narratives around Macbeth. Specifically, I’m choosing to read the play through the lens of psychoanalytic theory.
As an interdisciplinary field crossing psychology, pathology, history and culture, psychoanalytic studies is an entire beast on its own.
The ‘unconscious’ – a core Freudian term – is the part of our mind where all repressed thoughts are stored. These thoughts are repressed because they are, according to Freud, perverse by standards of civilisation (e.g. incestuous desires), but while we stash them away in our mental recesses, they never really go away, instead seeking expression through various forms in everyday life (e.g. dreams, sexual innuendoes, jokes, slips of the tongue – hence the term ‘Freudian slip’)
A classic Shakespearean text for psychoanalytic studies is Hamlet, specifically regarding the ‘Oedipus Complex’ (the theory that sons are, on a subconscious level, sexually attracted to their mothers, and in turn, wish to supplant the father).
This pattern of desire is evident in the Prince’s conflicted emotions towards his mother, Queen Gertrude, and his marked hatred for his stepfather, King Claudius.
But Macbeth could also be viewed as the tragedy of a man with an intensely repressed ‘unconscious’, which I’ll go on to illustrate through the following ideas:
- Key idea 1: The ‘unconscious’ as a harbinger of danger
- Key idea 2: The Witches and Lady Macbeth as ‘surrogate mothers’ to Macbeth
- Key idea 3: The ‘death drive’ as an inescapable compulsion
For a lucid overview of psychoanalytic criticism, you can check out Purdue’s page here.
Or watch me explain it all in the video below:
Key idea 1: The unconscious as a harbinger of danger
One of the central tenets in Freudian psychoanalysis is that dreams are a reflection of our unconscious desires.
Whatever thoughts and feelings we’ve repressed during the day, Freud posits, they will eventually seek an outlet elsewhere, one such being our dreams at night, when our truest, most private selves come peeping out from under the sheets.
For ordinary people, dreams may be a cause of mild embarrassment (at times intense shame), as we are forcibly ‘reminded’ of our crush on a friend’s wife / husband, or of our less-than-civilised wish to throttle a cruel boss. But most people would never act on these unconscious ‘cues’ in real life.
In Macbeth, however, the protagonist does act on his unconscious, and there’s an argument to be made that his actions aren’t so much driven by his own volition as they are by his inability to control the subterranean mind.
Early on in the play, Banquo introduces the notion of dreams as an omen, when he tells Macbeth after their encounter with the Three Witches on the heath –
I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters;
To you they have show’d some truth.
The key word here is “some” – why “some truth”, as opposed to just “truth”? If we recall, the witches prophecy in Act 1 Scene 3 that Macbeth will become king, as will Banquo’s issue.
But what they don’t reveal is how these prophecies will materialise (through legitimate or illegitimate means), or how long Macbeth’s kingship would last (not very long). This begs the question of whether Banquo has dreamt the other, more sinister part of the “truth”, but is here not relaying it to Macbeth.
If we consider Banquo’s later suspicions of Macbeth’s culpability (“I fear,/Thou play’dst most foully for’t”, 3.1), for which the play doesn’t ever provide a clear reason, then this ‘dream’ he alludes to could be viewed as an early warning that he’s received about what Macbeth would do.
Macbeth’s unconscious, on the other hand, first manifests through his hallucination of the dagger in Act 2 Scene 1, which happens right before he ‘does the deed’ of murdering Duncan in his bedchamber.
Why does Shakespeare have Macbeth imagine the weapon before carrying out the deadly act?
One possible reason is that he’s showing Macbeth to be a victim of his ‘unconscious’, and by extension, suggesting that our free will is often constrained by a more powerful force – our unregistered desires. Note that in Macbeth’s dagger hallucination soliloquy, he begins with a string of questions about the genesis of the dagger vision. Where does it come from, he asks, because his rational self isn’t what’s summoned it forth –
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
There’s a touch of the Freudian in the coinage of “heat-oppressed”, if we understand “heat” to connote desire, and “oppressed” to indicate repression.
The implication is that while Macbeth wishes to murder Duncan so he can usurp the Scottish throne, he has been suppressing this wish, and he’s not sure how much longer he can keep his unconscious kettle from boiling over.
The imagery of “the mind” and “brain” underscores that the cognitive function is the dominant faculty directing his actions, but it turns out the organ which supposedly enables rational thought is also one that houses illicit desires – some of which the individual may not even be aware of.
The notion that Macbeth is spurred on by his unconscious is further reinforced by the reference to “wicked dreams” later in this same speech, after he acknowledges that the dagger is, in fact, a hallucinatory product of his inner desires –
Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep;…
Slumber, as peaceful as the act may seem, is portrayed instead to be a dangerous thing: “The one halfworld” that is asleep “seem[s] dead”, and the association of sleep and death characterises slumber as a morbid act. Dreams are personified as a “wicked” agent who “abuse[s]” the metaphorised “curtain’d sleep”, but of course it isn’t the dreams themselves that are wicked, but the ingredients of those dreams, which in the Freudian view stems from our unconscious.
In Macbeth’s case, because his unconscious contains such transgressive desires as regicidal usurpation, his dreams become a nightly haunt from which he can’t escape (especially since all it takes to disturb sleep is a lifting of the ‘curtain’), as they steadily push him towards the ‘wish fulfilment’ of realising his “vaulting ambition”.
Key idea 2: The Witches and Lady Macbeth as ‘surrogate mothers’ to Macbeth
One of the more evident patterns in the play is its fascination with the maternal instinct. For a character who is so obsessed with power, Macbeth is rather powerless in the face of the women around him.
A possible interpretation for this is that he views them as surrogate ‘mothers’ who yield a natural authority over him. There’s a discernible pattern of female control throughout the play, beginning with the Witches’ damning prophecy in Act 1, which is then activated by Lady Macbeth’s prodding of her husband in Act 2. Later, when Macbeth loses his sanity at the sight of Banquo’s ghost, he seeks help and counsel from none other than his wife and the Witches.
There’s a sense that the women in his life function as his ‘surrogate mothers’, to whom he turns for guidance at points of desperation, even though these ‘mothers’ act against type, being not protective and nurturing, but instead destructive and dismissive.
Indeed, he is ultimately undone by a single-minded misunderstanding about the most biological aspect of motherhood – he doesn’t realise that mothers can give birth in more ways than one, and is therefore defeated by Macduff, who was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb, rather than being “of woman born” in the natural way.
In the Macbeths’ exchange about the Witches’ prophecy, their conversational cadence resembles more like the sort we’d hear from a mother-and-son dialogue, rather than a husband-and-wife one. Upon Macbeth’s arrival at their castle with news of the King’s visit that night (“Duncan comes here tonight”, 1.5), Lady Macbeth is the one who directs the course of their conversation, specifically with her sharp, insistent questions –
My dearest love,
Duncan comes here to-night.
And when goes hence?
To-morrow, as he purposes.
And shortly after, when Duncan has dined at the Macbeths’ castle
He has almost supp’d: why have you left the chamber?
Hath he ask’d for me?
Know you not he has?
The interrogative tone of Lady Macbeth’s questions cast her in a matriarchal stance, as she asserts the sort of steely forcefulness that often seems like a mother’s prerogative.
Interestingly, Macbeth is comfortable with this dynamic; indeed, he seems to need his wife’s verbal cues to know what his next steps are. He allows his wife to ‘emasculate’ him, as it were, by probing at his manhood and berating him for showing weakness, but instead of fighting back, he absorbs it all as a respectful son would the harsh but honest words of a mother.
When Lady Macbeth cries for the “spirits… [to] come to my woman’s breasts/And take my milk for gall”, we see that her self-perception is fundamentally maternal – even with the replacement of milk for bitterness, her role remains a giver of guidance and momentum, but in her case it is directed not towards a son, but to her husband.
Likewise, Macbeth’s behaviour in front of the witches reminds one of a guileless, impatient child who struggles with ambiguities. To him, their words aren’t just supernatural prophecy; they are psychological sustenance that, at least for the dramatic life of the play, keeps him going with a definite sense of purpose.
Instead of waiting for the prophecy to take its course and manifest in time, Macbeth rushes to fulfil the witches’ words as a filial son does to live up to a mother’s expectations (this pattern is also applicable to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship). Note that in Macbeth’s communication with the witches, he’s always begging them to give him answers, like a child thirsting for knowledge from a worldly-wise adult –
Speak, if you can: what are you?
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.
“Speak”, “stay”, “tell me more”, “why”, “answer me”: these imperatives betray the childlike essence of Macbeth, which makes his pursuit of authority rather ironic.
What’s interesting is that there’s also a hint of the maternal in the witches’ demeanour, as they relay half-truths to Macbeth in the same way that mothers don’t always tell their children the entire truth about things (except mothers do it to protect, whereas the witches do it to mislead).
This recalls our earlier point about Banquo’s statement on “to you they have show’d some truth”, as well as the apparitions’ cloaked ‘truths’ about no man “of woman born” being able to harm Macbeth (phrased in such a way that makes Macbeth ignore the possibility of Macduff being a product of caesarean birth – “from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped”), and about Macbeth never being “vanquish’d… until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him” (but Malcolm and Macduff’s retinue will eventually uproot the trees of Birnam wood in their march towards Dunsinane).
So, the witches’ withholding of ‘truths’ is a perversion of the maternal instinct, because while mothers tell their sons half-truths out of a protective desire to shield their child from harm, the Witches push Macbeth towards his demise with every new ‘revelation’ they give, “palter[ing] with [him] in a double sense” (5.8).
From this angle, Shakespeare seems to problematise the sort of mother-son dynamic that’s misplaced from the biological to the relational realm: if a man gives in to the temptations of seeing women as substitute mothers or sources of maternal instruction, he gives up his critical thinking and judgment, and in Macbeth’s case, makes the wrong choices and ends up sabotaging himself.
Key idea 3: The ‘death drive’ as an inescapable compulsion
In his seminal essay ‘The Uncanny’, Freud posits that humans have a tendency to behave in self-destructive ways.
While this seems to contradict the ‘pleasure principle’, which states that all actions are carried out for pleasure (sexual in essence, but rechanneled into other forms after civilised conditioning), it does manifest in the many acts of self-harm that we continue to see in the world – suicide being the most extreme example.
Freud calls this the ‘death drive’, and it’s a ‘drive’ because we are urged to repeat such patterns of self-destruction, despite knowing that they are bad for us in the conventional sense.
Macbeth, in fact, is a good example of this ‘death drive’, as he largely initiates most of the circumstances which eventually lead to his defeat and demise.
For instance, he knows that the Witches are dubious creatures he should not trust (he calls them “secret, black, and midnight hags” in the apparition scene), but he actively seeks them out in Act 4 Scene 1 for clarification and validation of the prophecy, thereby repeating the self-destructive occasion for him to fall even deeper into his murderous, power-grabbing rampage.
This compulsion is reflected in the repetitive speech patterns of Macbeth’s exchange with the Witches – both in Macbeth’s insistent imperatives of “answer me” and “tell me” (“Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:”, “Even till destruction sicken; answer me/To what I ask you”, “Tell me, thou unknown power”, “tell me, if your art/Can tell so much”), and in the Witches’ strings of tricolonic echoes (“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!”, “Show! Show! Show!”).
Repetition, then, is dramatised as a metonymy for danger, as every replicated cry edges the protagonist towards the precipice of sanity.
Another strain of compulsive behaviour that manifests Macbeth’s ‘death drive’ is his need to kill. Having murdered Duncan, he technically assumes the throne and achieves his goal, but the haunting spectre of the Witches’ prophecy about Banquo’s issue and the apparition’s warning about Macduff trigger Macbeth’s desire for other murders, specifically those of Banquo and Macduff’s entire families.
The irony, of course, is that by initiating the killing of others, Macbeth is ‘driven’, as it were, towards his own death with every new death he’s responsible for, as the dramatic arc below shows:
Act 2 – Macbeth murders Duncan
Act 3 – Macbeth orders the murder of Banquo and Fleance
Act 4 – Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff’s family
Act 5 – Macbeth is murdered
It’s perhaps worth noting, then, that Macbeth nears the end of his life with the famed “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” lament, which symbolically aligns the motif of repetitiveness and compulsion with the notion of life’s death-driving monotony.
So it appears that these instances of death are not just indications of Macbeth’s violence, but more importantly, they are mirrors of the tragic hero’s self-destructive nature, which of course, compounds the tragedy of it all.
Check out my other Macbeth blog posts and videos below:
- How to ace any Shakespeare extract question – violence in Macbeth
- Analysing the supernatural in Macbeth – 3 key ideas
- Analysing ambition in Macbeth – 3 key ideas
- “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” key quote analysis (VIDEO)
- “Multitudinous seas incarnadine” key quote analysis (VIDEO)
- “Out, damned spot, out” key quote analysis (VIDEO)
2 thoughts on “Reading Macbeth with psychoanalytic theory”
It amazes me how we all interpret a text in our own authentic ways! Reading this interpretation was truly refreshing and I admire the way you articulated your ideas in a concise and engaging way, Jen. Would love to see more ‘Macbeth’-related content!
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Thanks so much! I appreciate your note, and yes, will definitely be posting more ‘Macbeth’ content soon. Let me know if there are specific topics you’d like to see.