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Macbeth was first printed in the First Folio edition in 1623; it was the only extant version
available. Believed to have been first performed in 1606, Macbeth is the only play for which
an eyewitness account of the play at the Globe survives. Simon Forman, a physician and an
astrologer who was interested in magic and witchcraft, has described the performance of
the play in his Book of Play (1611). One of the most dramatically intense of Shakespeare’s
plays, Macbeth is also known for its economy. The fact that it is very short has led critics to
believe that the text was subjected to many excisions, revisions, and interpolations. The
three episodes where goddess Hecate appears bear no impact on the play, and, it is also
different in style. For these reasons, it is held that those episodes are interpolations from
Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, a Jacobean tragicomedy play.
The first page of Macbeth, printed in the Second Folio of 1632
When a page is folded once, which gives two leaves, then it is referred to as a folio; if a
page is folded twice, which would give four leaves, then it is referred to as a quarto. The
first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays was published in the Folio edition in 1623.
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The chief source of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England,
Scotlande, and Irelande (1587). Shakespeare might also have consulted other accounts of
Macbeth’s rule from George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) and Andrew of
Wyntoun's poem The Original Chronicle of Scotland. Traces of Reginald Scot’s The
Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) are also found in the play. Apart from these sources,
Macbeth being the most Jacobean of plays, Shakespeare could also have referred to the
three treatises of James I: Daemonologie (1597), Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598), and
Basilikon Doron (1597).
Jacobean tragedy refers to the plays written during the reign of James I (1603−1625). In
comparison to Elizabethan drama, Jacobean theatre was characterized as being ‘decadent’
in nature (Boyce 794). The late works of Shakespeare are characterized as Jacobean.
Other notable works include Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, John Webster’s The
White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613), Middleton’s The Changeling (with
Rowley, 1622) and Women Beware Women (1627). Macbeth is referred to as a Jacobean
play since the character Banquo in the play is a descendant of the Stuarts, as is James I.
Also, in the original source of Holinshed, Banquo was an accomplice in the murder of
Duncan. But, by keeping Banquo out of the murder, Shakespeare is exculpating Banquo,
so as not to displease James I.
A Jacobean playwright, poet and pamphleteer, Middleton often collaborated with Thomas
Dekker. He also worked with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens (published in 1623). It is
widely held that he revised Shakespeare’s Macbeth since two songs from his tragicomedy
The Witch (of uncertain date, but probably written after Macbeth; was published only in
1778) are incorporated into it. Early in his career, he remained an anonymous assistant to
Shakespeare, but later he went on to establish himself as one of the prominent playwrights
of his time. In 1606, he wrote his first major tragedy The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607) for the
King’s Men. His most famous comedy is A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (printed in 1630).
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
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(As You Like It 2.7.139−140) 1
This very familiar refrain from Shakespeare would serve as a useful point of departure in
analyzing Macbeth through the interstices of history, theatre, and language. While this line
lends itself to multiple interpretations which often contradict or coalesce with each other—as
all of Shakespeare’s plays always do—one of the perspectives that emerges from these lines
is the allusion to the futility of life. In essence, life here is reduced to the performative act
on the vestiges of the stage, wherein, devoid of meaning and profundity, the players
‘merely’ enact their spectral entrances and exits. This nihilism and skepticism that engulfs
the outlook of life also permeates the self of Macbeth as the play draws to a close in the
following lines:
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(Macbeth 5.5.24−28 2)
The lines from As You Like It are significant on another level too: they collapse the
demarcation between theatre and life; between art and reality. Conventionally, theatre and
other literary forms were held to facilitate the imaginary, which was distinguished from what
characteristically blurring the boundary between art, which falls under the realm of the
imaginary, and life, which falls under the realm of reality. The fluid rendition of the
boundary between theatre and life in As You Like It, in a way, becomes the larger trope of
the New Historicist analysis of Macbeth and the belief in witchcraft that was widely prevalent
around the early modern period.
Proudfoot, Richard, Ann Thompson, and David Scott Kastan, eds. The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works.
London: AS, 2001.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. Kenneth Muir. UK: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd,
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It is an approach to literature that takes into account the historical context, the production,
and the consumption of texts. It primarily opposes the formalism of New Criticism (which
tends to focus on the text by isolating it from its historical context) as well as the modes
employed by structuralism, poststructuralism, and hermeneutics in understanding the
meaning of a literary text.
It questions the preoccupation of new critics, especially F.R.
Leavis, with moral value, and also challenges the idea of the canon. New historicism is
inclined towards Marxism, as the terms production and consumption used above in this
context indicate. This approach is predominantly associated with two periods in the English
literary history: Renaissance and Romanticism. Stephen Greenblatt is a distinguished
scholar of the Renaissance period and his renowned works are Renaissance Self-Fashioning
(1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations (1988); and Jerome McGann and Marjorie Levinson
are notable scholars of the Romantic period.
New Historicism is often understood as the American equivalent of cultural materialism, a
term used by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams. Cultural materialism examines the
literary texts of the past through the contemporary historical contexts. The major
proponents of cultural materialism include Catherine Belsey, Jonathan Dollimore, and Allan
Sinfield, who also reject formalism and liberal humanism that dominated the literary studies
of the first half of the twentieth century. In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural
Materialism (1985), a collection of essays edited by Dollimore and Sinfield, they sought to
politicize and historicize Shakespeare. By emphasizing on the historical context, they
challenged the liberal humanist approach to literature, in general, and Shakespeare studies,
in particular, through the prism of timelessness. By showing how the texts, during their
production, are formed within the ideological milieu of that particular era, they challenged
characterization in literature. Not only did they underline how the production of a text is
influenced by the ideology of its time, they also emphasized on how, conversely, literary
texts themselves dictate the formation of ideology, so that cultural materialism becomes a
two-way approach. While approaching a text of the past through the prism of contemporary
historicity, as they did in Political Shakespeare, they look at how it is received, adapted, and
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Scholars are often divided between acknowledging witchcraft, on the one hand, as a
practice in reality and, on the other hand, as a construct of the imagination. This, in turn,
informed their ideological stance towards witch-hunt. Those who acknowledged witchcraft as
reality perceived it as a potential threat and had, therefore, endorsed witch-hunt, extortion
of confession under torture, and persecution of the culprits. But the others who believed
witchcraft to be the stuff of fantasy had adopted a sceptical attitude towards witch-hunt and
had condemned the execution of the innocent victims on that pretext. This latter belief
gained widespread momentum towards the end of the early modern period.
In his influential essay, ‘Shakespeare Bewitched’, Stephen Greenblatt historicizes the beliefs
around witch cult and how it shapes theatre practices of that time, by looking specifically at
Macbeth. He draws a contrast between the witchcraft treatises Malleus maleficarum by
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger who affirm the existence of witch cult, and The
Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot who repudiates such practices. The former views
the boundaries between the real and the imaginary as porous while the latter views it as
properly defined.
Kramer and Sprenger’s affirmation of witch cult and its existence in the realm of reality
involved ‘the initial task … to reverse a dangerous current of literate disbelief’ (Greenblatt
109). That is, they challenged the sceptics of witchcraft—who attributed it to the realm of
the imaginary—and transferred its practice to the realm of reality. This is because, by
denying the existence of witchcraft, the sceptics are actually ‘deny[ing] the real menace of
witchcraft’. This enterprise of transferring witchcraft to the realm of reality has a lot to do
with religious doctrines which clearly demarcated the boundary between the good and the
The Holy Scriptures identify the good by defining it against dark forces like the devil,
witchcraft and magic. Hence, by denying the existence of the witch cult, the sceptics of
witchcraft are, in essence, challenging the doctrines of religion itself. It is this that prompts
advocates of witch-hunt like Kramer and Sprenger to deem it ‘heretical to deny the real
menace of witchcraft’ (111). To that end, Malleus maleficarum, argues Greenblatt, ‘sets as
its task the transfer of a set of concepts, images, and fears from the zone of the imaginary
to the zone of the real.’ Hence, the nightmares are given a ‘corporeality’ by Kramer and
Furthermore, for Kramer and Sprenger, even if one associates witch cult with fantasy and
imagination—like the sceptics do—in that realm too one cannot mistake the influence of the
devil. The following lines from Malleus maleficarum demonstrate this:
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It is useless to argue that any result of witchcraft may be a phantasy and unreal,
because such a phantasy cannot be procured without resort to the power of the
devil, and it is necessary that there should be made a contract with the devil, by
which contract the witch truly and actually binds herself bodily and truly cooperates
with, and conjoins herself to, the devil (115).
Hence, for Kramer and Sprenger, whether one locates witchcraft in reality or fantasy is
immaterial since the contract with the devil can be made in both the realms.
Malleus maleficarum, in fact,demonstrates the process through which the devils invade the
minds of the witches and make contracts there. It shows how, through direct corporeal
intervention, the devils implant themselves in the minds, so that what happens in the
thoughts acquires a materiality and is hence taken to be real. This process is referred to as
‘interior temptation’ and, according to Greenblatt it is this that makes Macbeth see a dagger
before his eyes (116). By giving corporeality to the processes that happen in the mind,
Kramer and Sprenger are blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality.
Reginald Scot, on the other hand, redefines the boundary between the imaginary and the
real. His The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which offers the greatest critique of beliefs around the
witch cult, argues that the women who are accused of witchcraft are merely poor and old
hysterics who are incapable of differentiating between fantasy and reality. Scot fears the
negative potential of the imaginative faculties since it is capable of making the ‘absent
present,’ with the consequent effect of thousands of innocent victims being persecuted
(123). He denounces witchcraft as the product of fantasy and categorically distinguishes it
from reality.
Scot also says, ‘I for my part have read a number of conjurations, but never could see anie
divels of theirs, except it were in a plaie’. Here, not only is he dismissing the veracity of the
witch cult, he is also attributing to theatre (‘plaie’/play) the credentials of fantasy as
opposed to reality. Consequently, he reaffirms the popular perception of the need for art to
be distinguished from reality, a distinction which Shakespeare mystifies in the lines quoted
from, amongst other works, As You Like It.
As for Macbeth, like Greenblatt observes, it ‘manifests a deep, intuitive recognition that the
theatre and witchcraft are both constructed on the boundary between fantasy and reality,
the border or membrane where the imagination and the corporeal world, figure and
actuality, psychic disturbance and objective truth meet’ (125). The boundaries between
fantasy and reality are constantly juggled and tantalized through the appearance and
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disappearance of the witches. When Banquo first sees them, confronted with disbelief at
seeing supernatural figures in front of them, he questions:
I’ th’ name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?
In these lines, Banquo is questioning whether the weird sisters belong to the realm of reality
or of fantasy, but the answer evades him. Faced with a similar proposition, Macbeth
observes of this phenomenon:
Into the air; and what seemed corporal,
Melted, as breath into the wind
In these lines too, like in Banquo’s, corporeality and abstraction are juxtaposed against each
other, making it impossible for the audience to distinguish between reality and fantasy. But
it is this juggling with the expectations of fantasy and reality that adds the aura of
mystification to the play. By not resolving the binaries, Shakespeare thereby effectively
enchants and ‘bewitches’ his audience.
Théodore Chassériau: Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath
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Historical study of witchcraft has distinguished between two types of practices in witch cult:
the continental witchcraft and the English belief in witchcraft. It is believed that continental
witches made pact with the devil, could fly, and have sexual relations with demons. Such
views were established in the works of demonologists like Heinrich Kramer and James
Sprenger in Malleus maleficarum and Francesco Mario Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum
(1608). The English witch on the other hand does not make pacts with devils or have sexual
relations with him; she was believed to have mediated with imps or familiars, who are
spirits in the form of animals (Willis 138). Witchcraft also distinguished itself according to
gender. Magicians, for example, were considered to be educated and were also thought to
use the art for astronomy or divination. But witches, on the other hand, were taken to be
uneducated and poor, and were known to be the ‘cunning folk’ of the village (136).
Consequently, women were the primary targets of witch-hunt.
King James I had Scot’s books burnt owing to the threat it posed to the stability of his
kingdom. In 1563, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Parliament passed the Act against
Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, and it decreed that any conjuring of evil spirits
is punishable by death. This was followed by a series of witch-hunts, trials, and
persecutions. Around the 1580s and 1590s, witchcraft became the subject of exploration in
plays, religious tracts, treatises, and other discourses (Willis, 135). In the year 1590, James
I witnessed the sensational trials in which confessions were extorted from some 300
witches. Most famously, Agnes Samson, a purported witch, was said to be involved in
raising storms against James’s ship when he was returning from Oslo after marrying Anne,
the daughter of the king of Norway (Stallybrass 27). These experiences led to James I’s
interest in witchcraft, the outcome of which was his treatise Daemonologie (1597).
By the time James I ascended the throne in England, there already existed a strong
connection between witchcraft and monarchy. Hence, even though witch-hunt declined in
the reign of James I, he was weary of the destabilizing effects of such practices on his
sovereignty. In Daemonologie, he expounds the vulnerability to which such beliefs can
subject his kingdom (Callaghan 262).
The divine right of kings is a political and religious doctrine that defends monarchical
absolutism by establishing the sovereignty of the monarch. It holds that the king is
ordained by divine will and is hence not answerable to any earthly authority, be it the
representatives of the institution of religion, aristocracy, or the people. While this idea
first originated during Reformation, it gained accreditation during the reign of James I
who had expounded this doctrine in his treatises, Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598)
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and Basilikon Doron (1597).
A firm believer in the ‘divine right of kings,’ James I further demonstrated his erudition
through the Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1597). In Trew Law,
he expounds the divine right of kings and the idea of the true king who governs according
to law. It argues that kings were ordained by providence and hence it establishes the
monarch as the sovereign ruler. Basilikon Doron was written for James’s eldest son and
heir, Prince Henry, who had died aged thirteen. Here too he adheres to the doctrine of the
divine right of the kings. He also sets out the practical responsibilities of a monarch and
distinguished between a lawful king and a tyrant.
Believing as he did in the doctrine of the divine right of kings, James I perceived the
monarch as the direct representative of God. Going further, he proclaims that kings were
called ‘gods’ even by God himself. Given this, he believed that as ‘god’s lieutenant,’ or
rather as gods themselves, the monarchs are always under the threat of attack by the
devil’s dark forces. He believed that the king could be subjected to demonic attack any
time. In so believing, he is glorifying the institution of monarchy since that ‘implied that it
was one of the bastions protecting this world from the triumph of Satan’ (Stallybrass 27).
All the three treatises of James I have a direct correlation with Macbeth. If from
Daemonologie, resonances of the practice of witchcraft can be traced in Macbeth, from Trew
Law and Basilikon Doron Shakespeare has borrowed the ideas of a lawful good king, who is
embodied in the figure of Duncan, and a usurping tyrant, who is exemplified by Macbeth.
Duncan is portrayed as a dutiful and virtuous king, so much so that Macbeth fears that his
goodness will embody the form of an angel and plead against his murder:
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;…
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Even more illustrative of the portrayal of Duncan as a virtuous and saintly king is the scene
where, after his murder, Macduff reports the bloody deed as a ‘sacrilegious Murther’ which
was done by breaking into the ‘Lord’s anointed Temple’. The use of the word ‘sacrilegious’
transcends the limitations of treason which is implied by the word regicide—where a ‘king’ is
murdered—and extends to the realm of profanity and heresy where the sanctity and
holiness of ‘god’ itself it violated and murdered. This godly portrayal of Duncan is further
exemplified by the use of the word ‘Lord’ to refer to him and the use of the word ‘temple’ to
refer to his chamber.
By contrast, Macbeth is referred to as a ‘butcher’ and his rule as tyrannical; Lady Macbeth in
turn is referred to as his ‘fiend-like Queen’. Through these juxtapositions, we have the
contrasting images of Duncan who is portrayed as a saintly and virtuous king, and Macbeth
and Lady Macbeth who are shown as the diabolical antithesis of divinity.
Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cow’d my better part of man:
And be these juggling fiends no more believed
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.
Macbeth speaks the above lines when he finds out that the prophecy of the weird sisters
carried a double sense with it. This prophecy, by proclaiming that ‘none of woman born’
shall harm him, raises the hope of Macbeth. Emboldened by this prophecy, Macbeth
unleashes his brutal power against everyone who challenges him. Even as he sees the forest
of Birnam move towards his castle in Act V, Scene VII—as the apparitions had predicted—
his conviction in the prediction of the witches remains unassailed. But in his final
confrontation with Macduff, just when he proclaims his invincibility, Macduff reveals that he
was not naturally ‘born’ of a woman, but was ‘untimely ripp’d’. Ironically, till that moment,
Macbeth does not ‘doubt the equivocation of the fiend/ That lies like truth’ (5.5.43−4). In
the end, when he realizes that the witches have paltered with him in a double sense, he
confounds them.
In the play, it is interesting to note that it is equivocation which destabilizes the natural
order of things, and yet it is the very same concept that helps restore that order. The
manner in which equivocation functions is worth analyzing here. Its physiognomy is such
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that equivocation does not lie outrightly; rather, it teases and touches upon truth at first,
and then proceeds to take one away from it in a deft and playful way. It first secures the
confidence of the subject by giving a glimpse of truth, and then proceeds to palter with
one’s understanding of it.
In the play, the witches predict the title of the Thane of Cawdor as well as the throne of the
king for Macbeth. While Macbeth wants to believe these prophecies, the fact that it comes
from a fantastical source makes him ponder over the plausibility of the prediction. Before
long, however, his faith in the prediction of the weird sisters is secured when Ross
announces that he is conferred with the title of the Thane of Cawdor. After having secured
his faith, the witches succeed in luring Macbeth to further partake in series of riddles that
follow it.
Henry Fuseli: Macbeth, Banquo and the witches on the heath
Banquo, it must be noted, in fact sees through this equivocation and warns Macbeth of it:
That, trusted home,
Might enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But ‘tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of Darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence
He says that the forces of evil secure one's trust by materializing trivial promises, and then
lure one to partake in the darker and treacherous riddles where one is eventually victimized
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by betrayal. He warns Macbeth by saying that in fulfilling the trivial promise of making him
the Thane of Cawdor, the witches are enkindling Macbeth's (dormant) ambition to reach
after the more dangerous pursuit of the throne. Already one can see the tricks of the
witches at work here as Macbeth starts wondering whether he should actively do something
to materialize the prophecy, or whether it will automatically be fulfilled without his stirring,
'If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/Without my stir'. What the witches
here do, then, is to lie through truth, thereby 'lying like truth'.
This paradox becomes the central paradigm for the analysis of Macbeth in Stephen
Mullaney's 'Lying like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason in Renaissance England'.
Through a New Historicist analysis, Mullaney usefully lays bare the physiognomy of
representation. The most obvious historical context alluded to in the text's handling of
equivocation is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where Father Garnet was accused of
equivocating and was later tried and executed for treason. The Treason Act of 1534 made
the questioning of the king's authority a treason which could be punishable by death
(Mullaney 110).
Mullaney uses the slightly archaic term ‘amphibology’ to refer to ambiguity and he applies it
to the context at hand. According to him, ‘Amphibology marks an aspect of language that
neither treason nor authority can control. It is a power that cannot be trammelled up,
mastered, or unequivocally defined, but it is a power’. He further notes that ‘Language
behaves strangely and impulsively in the play, as if with a will of its own’ (115). This
untamable nature of language and the elusive power of amphibology threaten the
sovereignty of the king, and it is exactly this evasion from control that prompts James to
eliminate the equivocator.
A conspiracy against James I by a group of young Catholic gentry, the Plot (1605) conspired
to blow up the Parliament and kill James I, so that he could be replaced with a Catholic
monarch. Father Garnet was one of the conspirers who was accused of plotting against the
king and he was also famous for using equivocation to defend himself. The Gunpowder Plot is
alluded to in the Porter scene of Macbeth.
Mullaney argues that a lie can be defined or outlawed, but ‘amphibology lies like truth’ and
it cannot be brought under the control of authority (117). The traitor, according to him, is
‘seduced by a language without origin’. He says that ‘amphibology seduces the traitor’ and
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with it ‘we move into a linguistic sphere the law cannot control,… beyond which authority
can only watch and listen to treason’s amphibolic speech’ (112).
While the motives behind Father Garnet’s plot are obvious, it comes across as striking that
he also made effective use of the device of equivocation. According to James I, Garnet had
lied. But according to the Church, in the eyes of God, he had not lied. They validate that he
has used the theologically sanctioned device of equivocation for a religious cause and is
hence not guilty. However, as was ironically remarked by the porter, this did not equivocate
Father Garnet to heaven, for he was executed. Nevertheless, the destabilizing power of
language over monarchic authority is firmly established here.
Both Mullaney and Greenblatt provide a New Historicist perspective of Macbeth. Although
they contextualize the play in the historic particularities of the Early Modern period—be it
the practice of witchcraft, the idea of monarchy, or religion—the most remarkable similarity
between their analysis is the disruptive, threatening, and subversive potential of language.
Going back to Reginald Scot’s perspective, witchcraft is merely representational; it figures in
art forms like theatre and literature and not in reality. These figurative representations are
given corporeality and hence, behind this lurks ‘a misplaced faith in metaphor’. ‘The
problem then,’ writes Greenblatt, is ‘the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of
language’ (119). It is the poets, as masters of language, who transfer corporeality to
immaterial fantasies. While Scot condemns this enterprise of the poets, it is exactly this that
sets them apart: their ability to ‘imaginatively manipulate’ language and provide visibility to
the invisible. Hence, Mullaney’s and Greenblatt’s analyses unearth the subversive and
bewitching potential of language, a venture that proves most useful in understanding
Macbeth—a play predominantly dealing, as it does, with witchcraft and authority.
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so
These lines show that equivocation not only governs language and dictates sovereignty, but
that it also (de)constructs gender and identity in the play. The previous sections
demonstrated how ambiguity, through the aid of language, conjures reality through fantasy
and how through its evasiveness threatens the sovereignty of the monarch. Apart from
blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality in the discourse of witchcraft and
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undermining the authority of the king in the discourse of monarchy, equivocation also
serves to render fluid the binary construction of gender categories, as the lines quoted
above demonstrate. While witches are traditionally perceived to be women, Shakespeare is
deliberately challenging such popular beliefs by introducing the beards.
Androgyny is not only confined to the external appearance of characters, it is also extended
into the gender roles assumed by them. For example, Duncan is portrayed as an
androgynous parent. He is fulfilling the role of both the paternal father and the maternal
nurturer, in the absence of the mother, to his sons. However, as Janet Adelman notes, this
androgynous personification borders more towards ‘female vulnerability’ than towards
‘masculine authority’ (54). In doing so, it fails to live up to the ideal sense of manhood and
in retribution, the play seems to punish this by eliminating the character.
The other most significant character who willingly adopts an androgynous role, albeit an
unnatural and a bloody one at that, is of course Lady Macbeth. She summons the
‘murdering ministers’ to purge her of feminine virtues by unsexing her:
Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it!
Not only does she entreat the dark spirits to fill her with cruelty, she also wants them to
arrest the ‘compunctious visitings of Nature,’ lest she succumb to the frailties of feminine
nature, which would end up aborting the pursuit of her ambition. It is as if the self of Lady
Macbeth is a carrier filled, not so by choice, with feminine forbearance—which she wants to
unsex and to unfill, by choice, with masculine dictates. In her dramatic unsexing, Lady
Macbeth becomes the ‘murdering mother’ 3 , thereby adopting an unnatural androgynous
Phrase taken from the title of Stephanie Chamberlain’s article, ‘Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the
Murdering Mother in Early Modern England’.
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Yet another potent source of analysis of Lady Macbeth’s unsexing of gender role is the scene
where she fantasizes infanticide.
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this
By now, the dark spirits that she summoned earlier must already have filled her with direst
cruelty, for these lines reflect not only her self-inflicted suffocation of femininity, but also
maternal malevolence. The fact that she is in communion with the dark spirits and her
allusion to maternal infanticide are aspects that clearly liken her to the witches, so much so
that she is read as the fourth witch in the play. Perception of Lady Macbeth as a fourth witch
is also fuelled, apart from the reasons stated above, by the influence she exerts over
The reference by Lady Macbeth to her child has been subject to many scholarly
interrogations, the most famous being ‘How Many Children Hath Lady Macbeth?’ by L.C.
Knights. In her article, ‘Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in
Early Modern England,’ Stephanie Chamberlain traces the maternal practices of early
modern England and shows how there was a widespread fear and anxiety about maternal
agency, especially in the context of patrilineage. Even the fact that the infant is emotionally
attached to the mother provoked fears regarding maternal agency in the patrilineal society.
Chamberlain also finds evidence of maternal infanticide in early modern England and
establishes how the society was aware of both the nurturing and destructing power of
motherhood. Given the prevalence of such anxieties regarding maternal agency, Lady
Macbeth’s allusion to maternal infanticide adds a complex dimension to the play.
Chamberlain argues that it is indeed possible that the infant whom Lady Macbeth swears to
have his brains dashed out could actually be Macbeth’s aborted partrilineal line, thereby
further confirming the fears regarding the destructive potential of maternal agency at that
In ‘Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,’ Janet Adelman argues that
there is a marked disturbance in the gender construction of the play. This is manifest, as
was discussed above, both in the androgynous parenthood of Duncan as well as the
malevolent motherhood of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s masculinity too is deeply taunted and
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disturbed by Lady Macbeth. The power exerted over him by the witches further compounds
the disturbance. The play presents the dominance of female power, and the subordination
and vulnerability of men to it. This dominance of female power is also portrayed as having
derived from unnatural gender roles and identities. Hence, to liberate men from the
influence of malevolent female domination, the play consolidates masculine power by
eliminating all females.
To sum it up in the words of Adelman: ‘To restore natural order at the end, the play bases
that order upon the radical exclusion of the female. Initially construed as all-powerful, the
women virtually disappear in the end …The [restoration] of the natural order of the end
depends on the exclusion of the female’ (65). She further adds:
The play that begins by unleashing the terrible destructive maternal power and
demonstrates the helplessness of its central male figure before that power thus ends
by consolidating male power, in effect solving the problem of masculinity by
eliminating the female … Macbeth is a recuperative consolidation of male power … At
the end of the play we are in a purely male realm (67).
Henry Fuseli: Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1810–12
‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,’ asserts T.S. Eliot in his
eponymous essay, ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ (2207). Here, Eliot points out how the
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significance of an artist is never achieved in isolation, but always in relation to the dead
poets and artists, against whom he is contrasted and compared. What this perspective
alludes to is the intertextual process through which meaning is generated. Indeed, theorists
of adaptation have often evoked Eliot’s conception of tradition and individual talent to
understand the creative paradigms of adaptation 4.
The above statement of Eliot applies to both contemporary and dead authors who are read
in relation to each other, and it is relevant even more so in the context of Shakespeare. The
art of Shakespeare, just like Eliot’s poet, does not have its meaning alone; rather it is
enriched and regenerated by constantly revisiting his art through the interpretive process of
adaptation. Adaptation of Shakespeare in turn, it may be noted, has been the norm for over
four centuries now.
To go back to Eliot, he says that when a new work of art is introduced, it naturally alters the
order of the existing works of art: ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is
something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it. The existing
monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of
the new (the really new) work of art among them’ (2207). In a similar way, the numerous
adaptations of Shakespeare, across time and space, constantly modify and revise his
meaning, so much so that any study of Shakespeare would be incomplete without analyzing
the adaptations that sustain and nourish his legacy.
The numerous alterations in the Folio text (1923) imply that there had been several
productions of the play after its first performance, which is believed to have been staged in
1606. However, the first known adaptation of Macbeth is William Davenant’s production of it
in 1663, which was staged after the theatres were reopened with the restoration of
monarchy in the year 1660. Following the English Civil War (1642−51), which was waged
between the Parliamentarians (also known as the ‘Roundheads’) and the Royalists
(Cavaliers), the Puritans had pushed the Parliament for banning the staging of plays in
London. It follows the Puritans’ viewing of theatre as a medium that propagates pleasure
and entertainment, and hence as being sinful. Consequently, theatres were shut down in
1642 and were reopened only in 1660, after 18 years. Davenant’s adaptation refined and
See Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Oxon: Routledge, 2006; and Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of
Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.
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purged much of the original version, catering to the lingering aftermath of the Puritan
stronghold in the English political landscape.
The ‘bowdlerized’ version was not replaced until David Garrick’s 1744 adaptation that partly
restored Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Charles Macklin was another popular eighteenth century
actor who had played the role of Macbeth and he was famous for introducing Scottish kilts
and plaids in 1773. Towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the
nineteenth century, Sarah Siddons was renowned for playing Lady Macbeth. The most
famous actor who played Macbeth in the nineteenth century is William Macready and
against him, Charlotte Cushman played Lady Macbeth.
Later in the century, Ellen Terry
donned the role of Lady Macbeth, and while she portrayed a less aggressive version of Lady
Macbeth, her predecessors Cushman and Siddons were known to portray a violently
dominating and assertive Lady Macbeth. While traditionally Lady Macbeth was portrayed as
a frigid character, Sarah Bernhardt was famous for portraying Lady Macbeth with a
sensuous touch in the 1890s, a trend that was to become increasingly predominant in the
following centuries, especially with the introduction of adaptations in the celluloid medium
(Boyce 369).
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent, 1889
The twentieth century saw many outstanding adaptations of Macbeth. Of the theatre
productions early in the century, the most noteworthy was Barry Jackson’s 1928 modern-
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dress production. Orson Welles directed the Federal Theatre Project’s voodoo Macbeth
(1936), which garnered a lot of attention. The play had an all African-American cast and
was set in eighteenth-century Haiti. Other names include Robert Bruce Mantell, Laurence
Olivier, and John Gielgud as Macbeth; and Zoë Caldwell and Sybil Thorndike as Lady
Macbeth. Perhaps, the most famous of the twentieth-century productions would be Trevor
Nunn’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976. It starred Ian McKellen and Judi Dench
and the performance was also videotaped, the link to which can be found below.
Poster by Anthony Velonis of Welles’s Voodoo Macbeth
Even though the play was revisited in the theatre medium constantly in the twentieth
century, it was through the film adaptations that the play generated a lot of critical debate.
The play saw a lot of silent versions early in the century, the last of them being D.W.
Griffith’s starring Beerbhom Tree (Boyce 369). The next major artist associated with
Macbeth was Orson Welles, who, after his 1936 voodoo version, revisited the play in his
1948 film adaptation in which he and Jeanette Nolan played the roles of Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth respectively.
The next remarkable adaptation that chronologically follows Welles’s is Akira Kurosawa’s
aesthetically crafted Throne of Blood (1957). Here Kurosawa borrows from dramatic
conventions of the classical noh drama of Japan. Noh got established as a traditional
dramatic form in the fourteenth century and conventionally, it narrates the story
symbolically and metaphorically by emphasizing on visual appearances and movements.
Noh drama is classified into two types according to the ‘level of reality’ it presents: one
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‘genzai’, where tangible reality is represented; and two ‘mugen’, where the phantasmal is
represented and here the reality is more complex since it involves a ‘blend of natural and
supernatural planes of experience’. Throne of Blood employs the ‘mugen’ noh where we see
both the realms of the real and the supernatural are represented (Mcdonald 2).
The original Japanese poster of Throne of Blood
The décor in general, and the sparsely decorated room in particular, reflect the economy of
noh stage. The movement of Lady Washizu who follows a ‘prescribed pattern of body
movement’, whereby she does not lift her feet from the floor, but rather slides them along
the floor are in keeping with the conventions of noh theatre. In the banquet scene, the
restrained, cold, and passive face of Lady Washizu, as opposed to the strained and agitated
face of Washizu, is like a ‘female blank noh mask’ (5).
The central idea that is magnified in this film is the scene where Shakespeare’s Macbeth
epiphanically reflects upon the futility of life. The opening and the closing imagery of the
ruined castle and tombstone and the chorus’ chanting which metacritically warns about the
disastrous consequences of the pursuit of ambition is a case in point. Of the many instances
where the film deviates from the original, the portrayal of the spirit with the spinning wheel
(in the place of Shakespeare’s weird sisters) is one that merits special mention. This spirit
lacks the malevolent persona of the weird sisters and instead it seems to embody a
metaphysical personage, and her words echo the warnings of the chorus in the background.
Therefore, contrary to the deceitful and equivocating witches of Shakespeare, this spirit
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seems to embody what Terry Eagleton calls a ‘positive value’, a description, it has to be
said, that applies in this context rather than in the case of the weird sisters as he posits
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), unlike Welles’s, falls within the realist mode of cinematic
adaptation. As Sara M. Deats points out, ‘Unlike Orson Welles’s symbolic, expressionistic
version of Macbeth produced in the forties, Polanski’s film presents Shakespeare’s play from
a naturalistic viewpoint, an unromanticized, primitive landscape of blood, dirt, and rough
stone walls around dusty courtyards of drab medieval castles’ (4). Polanski incorporates
many visual juxtapositions: in the opening scene the witches place a severed arm that holds
a dagger in a pit, as well as a noose; the recurrent motif of violence is juxtaposed with that
of the bear-baiting scene; the ‘air-drawn dagger’ literally leads Macbeth to Duncan’s room
which, as Samuel Crowl rightly points out, is ‘a marvelous cinematic stroke’ (5).
Apart from such poignant visualizations, the film also exploits Shakespeare’s susceptibility
to interpretation. Ross is shown as a third murderer; and in the scene with Lady MacDuff,
he bears a comforting and reassuring personage, but as he leave her castle, he leaves it
open for the waiting assassins, thereby literally proving Donalbain’s fear that ‘There’s
daggers in men’s smiles’ (II.IV.38) . Finally, when Donalbain seeks after the witches,
Polanski emblematically throws Shakespeare’s text open for further interpretation.
In the Western theoretical tradition, adaptation was understood through numerous concepts
like intertextuality, palimpsest, bricolage, etc. Poonam Trivedi, in her essay ‘It is the bloody
business which informs thus …’ : Local politics and performative praxis, Macbeth in India’,
offers an interesting Indian corollary to understand adaptation. She uses the image of a
banyan tree through which the processes of adaptation and translation are seen as a
‘natural process of organic, ramifying, vegetative growth and renewal, comparable perhaps
with the process by which an ancient banyan tree sends down branches which in turn take
root all around it and comprise an intertwining family of trees’ (47). Unlike the Western
tradition in which translations and adaptations are seen as secondary derivates from the
original source, in the Indian context, as the metaphor of the banyan tree implies,
translations and adaptations form an organic part of the literary and artistic tradition.
Trivedi notes that while the earlier adaptations of Shakespeare were faithful to the original,
the postcolonial adaptations saw a deconstructive approach to the texts (47). Some of the
early versions of Macbeth include Rudrapal (Bengali, 1874) and Manajirao (Marathi, 1897),
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Barnam Vana (Hindi, 1979) and Gombe Macbeth (Kannada, 1988) are some of the
twentieth century adaptations that appropriated indigenous theatrical forms like yakshagana
and incorporated Indian philosophical traditions (48).
If Kurosawa adapted Macbeth with the conventions of the Japanese noh drama, in
‘Shakespeare on the Indian Stage: Resistance, Recalcitrance, Recuperation’, Shormishtha
Panja observes how Shakespeare in India has been adapted and ‘Indianized’ through many
indigenous folk traditional forms such as Kathakali (from Kerala), nautanki (a musical form
from Uttar Pradesh), yakshagana (from Karnataka), and jatra (from Bengal that uses
substantial dialogue in its form) (215). Amongst others, she provides an analysis of Girish
Chondro Ghosh’s production of Macbeth that ‘fused’ the jatra folk tradition with the five-act
structure of Shakespeare in a way that ‘adapts’ 5 Shakespeare to the Bengali theatre (217).
What is interesting about this analysis is the critical interpretation of the
reception of Ghosh’s production. Through a cultural materialist framework, Panja shows how
the play’s production was ideologically informed by Ghosh’s own subject position as
belonging to the affluent, upper-middle class population, who were able to be a part of the
British social circles. This aspect had reflected in Ghosh’s production where he faithfully
transposed Macbeth to the Bengali stage, without localizing the contexts, locations, or, for
that matter, even names. Correspondingly, the reception of the play was also informed by
the ideological orientation of the viewers. While a reviewer of The Englishman, who had
otherwise been very critical of other performances, had conceded the brilliance of the play,
the audience had not shared this reviewer’s enthusiasm, thereby causing the production to
be withdrawn. The audiences of Ghosh have effectively challenged the mimicry of ‘colonial
powers’ in a way that compels one to label Ghosh’s production as colonial 6. This response of
the audience in itself is crucial since it bears testimony to how the people have actively
resisted colonial hegemony.
While Ghosh blamed the Bengali public to be ‘too uneducated to appreciate Shakespeare’,
the failure, as has been rightly noted in the essay, could rather be ‘taken to indicate
Shakespeare’s non-universalism’ (217). This reception is highly reminiscent of Laura
Bohannan’s effort to narrate Hamlet to the African tribes, which is recounted in
‘Shakespeare in the Bush’. Bush, who had also taken Shakespeare’s universality for
Shormishtha Panja characterizes Ghosh’s Macbeth as transposition and Amerandranath Dutta’s production of
Hamlet as adaptation since the former did not even change the names of characters to the suit the Bengali context,
whereas the latter localizes Shakespeare by ‘incorporating Bengali names, locales and situations (219).
Even though Ghosh’s production of Macbeth is colonial, it has to be noted that Ghosh’s reputation rested not on
his Shakespearean adaptations, but rather on how he innovated Bengali theatre by incorporating the five-act
structure of Shakespeare and the motifs from his play in order to ‘retell stories from Indian myth and history’
(Panja 218).
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granted, was challenged by the African tribes who metacritically interrupted and
reinterpreted the story of Hamlet as it was narrated to them from Shakespeare. The
challenge to the universality of Shakespeare should not be interpreted as the irrelevance of
Shakespeare to non-Western contexts, but should rather be seen as a reminder of the
importance of adapting Shakespeare in a way that suits the local sensibilities and contexts,
without which the meaning would be lost—as has been the case when it is faithfully
Maranayakana Drishanta, a production by Shiva Prakash was first staged in 1998 as part of
a rehabilitation programme for the inmates of Mysore prison. Serving a life sentence for
murder, these prisoners acted in the play which was staged in other cultural events beyond
Karnataka. Their encounter with violence was mediated with that of the play, so that the
‘play was turned into a parable against violence’ (48).
The Stage of Violence by Lokendra Arambam started as a pilot performance in the floating
islands of Loktak Lake, Manipur, 1995 and it evolved as a complete play on a floating stage
at the Ningthem Pukhri Reservoir at Imphal in the year 1997. A later version was staged on
the Thames at the Waterman’s Arts Centre, Brentford, in the same year. This adaptation
interweaves the violence caused by the insurgency movement in Manipur (48).
Ratan Thiyam’s Macbeth is the other most renowned stage production in India that adapts
the story of Macbeth using indigenous cultural forms. Thiyam built The Shrine in Imphal, a
theatrical structure that accommodates 200 people, for his group The Chorus Repertory
Theatre and it was here that he had staged his play earlier. He had remarked: ‘Macbeth, to
me, represents a disease of uncontrollable greed for wealth and power, a product of the
corrupt mind which affects not only the individual and family members but the entire
society. This is the world we live in, all infected or about to be infected by this disease,
which warps our vision and makes us believe we know the world, when we never can. The
Macbeth disease destroys our spiritual balance and leads to violence, as it does not only in
Manipur and other parts of India but all over the world’ 7.
Maqbool (2003), the film adaptation by Vishal Bhardwaj, creatively appropriates the text to
the Indian context. In ‘An Indian Reading of Macbeth’ Ragini Ramachandra observers how
the play portrays all the rasas (emotions) except sringara (love). However, it can be said
that Maqbool is an adaptation that proceeds from the sringara rasa. As was noted earlier,
Lady Macbeth was traditionally portrayed as a frigid and cold character. But here in
Sarkar, Sebanti. ‘Macbeth and Thiyam’s Vision’. Telegraph, March 23, 2014.
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Maqbool, Nimmi (Lady Macbeth) is suffused with sexuality. It has to be mentioned here that
even when adaptations try to explore the sexuality of Lady Macbeth, Polanski’s Lady
Macbeth for instance, they nevertheless project ambition as the central tenet of the play.
Maqbool, on the other hand, explores even ambition through the prism of sringara.
‘As long as there have been plays by Shakespeare, there have been adaptations of those
plays,’ 8 observe Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, and a look at the history of adaptation of
Shakespeare proves just that. The attribution of timelessness and universality to
Shakespeare is as old as Shakespeare himself and Ben Jonson famously proclaimed this by
saying that ‘Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all time’. But Jean Marsden offers a
different interpretation of Jonson’s observation when he asserts that Jonson’s saying,
instead of signifying universality, is an indication of how Shakespeare’s works lend
themselves to adaptation in a malleable way for different historical and cultural contexts.
Marsden notes, ‘Each new generation attempts to redefine Shakespeare’s genius in
contemporary terms, projecting its desires and anxieties onto his work’ 9. This is testified in
the dialogic adaptations that were discussed above. In the literary framework, especially of
the twentieth century, Shakespeare has proved to be a rich cultural repertoire to theorize
paradigms. As the world gears up to commemorate 400 years since the death of the bard,
what strikes us is how since the early modern period every artist has consciously or
unconsciously borrowed from Shakespeare, so much so that he has become an archetype in
our literary, artistic, and cultural imaginings.
Archetype: Refers to a recurrent design, original pattern, or model and are identifiable in
myths, dreams, and social rituals, as well as in works of literature.
Dialogic: Used in the context of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory to refer to language as being
socially situated and hence as involving a dialogue with multiple voices.
Bowdlerize: To delete those passages from a literary text that are considered to be
inappropriate and indecent. The word is derived from Reverend Thomas Bowdler who
The quotation of Fischlin and Fortier is cited from Sanders (46).
Cited in Sanders (48).
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purged from his Family Shakespeare (1818) those passages that are ‘unfit to be read by a
gentleman in a company of ladies’.
Voodoo: A form of religious witchcraft prevalent among the Blacks in the West Indies,
especially Haiti.
Epiphany: A manifestation or a revelation. Used originally in the religious context to refer
to a spiritual manifestation, in literature, it is readily associated with the Irish novelist
James Joyce.
YOUTUBE LINKS TO ADAPTATIONS OF MACBETH (Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa (Macbeth by Roman Polanski) (Macbeth starring Ian McKellen and Judi
Dench (Voodoo Macbeth by Orson Welles) (Maqboolby Vishal Bhardwaj)
See ‘The Renaissance: An Introduction’:
See also ‘Global Shakespeare’
For an introduction to ‘Shakespeare’s Life & Times’, see
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Delhi: Harcourt, 2001.
Adelman, Janet. ‘“Born of Woman”: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth’. Macbeth:
William Shakespeare. Ed. Alan Sinfield, 53−67. London: Macmillian, 1992.
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Boyce, Charles. Critical Companion to William Shakespeare: A Literary Reference to His Life
and Work. USA: Facts on File, Inc, 2005.
Callaghan, Dympna. Who Was William Shakespeare: An Introduction to His Life and Works.
UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Chamberlain, Stephanie. ‘Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother
in Early Modern England’. College Literature 32.3 (2005): 72−91.
Crowl, Samuel. ‘CHAIN REACTION: A Study of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Soundings: An
Interdisciplinary Journal 59.2 (1976): 226−233.
Deats, Sarah. M. ‘Polanski’s Macbeth: A Contemporary Tragedy’. Studies in Popular Culture
9.1 (1986): 84−93.
Dobson, Michael and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford:
OUP, 2001.
Eliot, T.S. ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H.
Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1962.
Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Shakespeare Bewitched’. Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Ed. Susan
Zimmerman, 109−139. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Malpas, Simon and Paul Wake, eds. The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory. Oxon:
Routledge, 2006.
Mcdonald, Keiko I. ‘Noh into Film: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Journal of Film and Video
39.1 (1987): 36−41.
Mullaney, Steven.
‘Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason in Renaissance
England’. Macbeth: William Shakespeare. Ed. Alan Sinfield, 108−120. London: Macmillian,
Recuperation’. Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater. Eds. Robert Henke and Eric
Nicholson, 215−224. UK: Routledge, 2008.
Ramachandra, Ragini. ‘An Indian Reading of Macbeth’. Shakespeare in Indian Languages.
Ed. D.A. Shankar, 56−69. Delhi: Replika, 1999.
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Rothwell, Kenneth S. ‘Orson Welles: Shakespeare for the Art Houses’. Cinéaste 24.1 (1998):
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. Kenneth Muir. UK: Thomas
Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1999.
Shakespeare, edited by Alan Sinfield, 121−135. London: Macmillian, 1992.
Stallybrass, Peter. ‘Macbeth and Witchcraft’. Macbeth: William Shakespeare, edited by Alan
Sinfield, 25−38. London: Macmillian, 1992.
Trivedi, Poonam. ‘It is the bloody business which informs thus …’ : Local politics and
performative praxis, Macbeth in India’. World-Wide Shakespeares: Local Appropriations in
Film and Performance. Ed. Sonia Massai. London: Routledge, 2005.
Willis, Deborah. ‘Magic and Witchcraft’. A Companion to Renaissance Drama. Ed. Arthur F.
Kinney, 135−144. UK: Blackwell, 2002.
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