This is a selection – a very small sample, and likely to remain so – of the prefaces, introductions, footnotes, endnotes, pamphlets and articles which have been published by editors and commentators, with the aim of helping readers to come to grips with the play.
This is the mass of commentary which accreted around Shakespeare’s text between 1723 and 1803, as it was reproduced (with a few omissions and a few additions) by Boswell. Much of it is useful; much of it is tiresome in the extreme. Once the editors start squabbling with one another, they soon leave the rest of us behind. The name which occurs most frequently – sometimes three or four times on a single page – is Steevens. Now, George Steevens had his good points; but he also had a twisted sense of humour, and it is hard to know how many of his comments are jokes at our expense. Then again, can he seriously have thought that we are duty-bound to read 400 plus lines reprinted (with many errors) from an edition of a fifteenth-century Scots verse chronicle which Shakespeare knew nothing about? It is of no concern to us whether the play is historically accurate or not. (Of course it is not: how could it be?) Macbeth is a tragedy, not a history. I think I may have said that before, but it cannot be said too often.
An essay by Thomas De Quincey – a ‘specimen of psychological criticism’, as he himself described it – first published anonymously in the London Magazine for October 1823 and reprinted (minus the last paragraph) in successive editions of his collected works – at Boston in 1851, at Edinburgh (posthumously) in 1863, and later.
This is the preface written by W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright for their separate edition of Macbeth, published in Oxford at the Clarendon Press in 1869. To the publishers’ way of thinking, this was one of A SERIES OF ENGLISH CLASSICS ‘Designed to meet the needs of Students in English Literature’. It was their decision, I take it, to omit the Porter’s speech about the effects of drink. (‘It is especially hoped that this Series may prove useful to Ladies’ Schools and Middle Class Schools.’) The editors seem to have had a different readership in mind, one which could be expected to take a scholarly interest in the ontogeny of the text. Among other things, they seized this opportunity to develop two ideas: first, that ‘there are parts of Macbeth which Shakespeare did not write’; second, that ‘the style of these seems to us to resemble that of Middleton’ (ix). (The first statement I take to be partly true: some of the lines and passages stigmatized by Clark and Wright seem spurious to me as well. The second statement is gratuitous, and I cannot see why they would have wanted to make the suggestion, nor why anyone would want to consider it.)
This is a pamphlet written by a twenty-something Toronto high-school teacher – Melanchthon Fennessy Libby (1864–1921) – published in Toronto in 1893. Most people, I imagine, if they have taken any interest in Libby’s ideas, have thought it sufficient to look at the excerpts quoted by Furness (1903), rather than trying to track down a copy of the original pamphlet. But here I reproduce the entire text, transcribed from a copy digitized (aptly enough) by the University of Toronto. (I have marked a few anomalous readings which happened to catch my eye, but they are not of any significance. Some are sure to be the printers’ fault.) According to Libby, one minor character in Macbeth, the Thane of Ross, is not a minor character at all. He is an Iago-like figure, ‘an ambitious intriguer, ... a coward, spy, and murderer’. Starting from that point, Libby develops new interpretations of several strands in the plot. (Did you realize, for instance, that the Thane of Cawdor is an innocent man, ‘traduced and ruined‘ by Ross? You didn’t? No, nor did I.) In the opinion of competent critics (and in mine), this is all utterly insane. It would better have been forgotten. Unhappily Roman Polanski allowed his conception of the play to be distorted by Libby’s craziness; and the distortion has now been deliberately made worse in Joel Coen’s version. I feel very sad about that.