The files listed here are a a small haphazard selection of the prefaces, introductions, pamphlets and articles which have been written over the years, by editors, commentators and critics, 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.
Two versions of a long article by an essayist named George Fletcher (occ. 1836–47). The first is the version printed in the Westminster Review for March 1844, prompted by a recent instalment of Knight’s Cabinet Edition. The second is the version printed in his book, Studies of Shakespeare, which came out towards the end of 1847. Fletcher was eloquent in his admiration for Helen Faucit, who had played Lady Macbeth for the first time in London in April 1843. According to Theodore Martin (Helen Faucit’s husband), ‘he surpassed all the Shakespearian students of the day in thorough knowledge of his author, and in subtle analytic power’ but ‘died a very few years after the publication of his book’ (Martin 1900:92–3). Beyond that, I know almost nothing about him. (A man of this name – ‘George Fletcher, esq. of Croydon, eldest son of the late Rev. George Fletcher, of Beckenham, Kent’ – died at Cheltenham on 21 Oct. 1849, aged 65 (Gentleman’s Magazine, Dec. 1849, 666). I cannot say whether that is the same man or not.)
Much later, Helen Faucit gave a copy of Fletcher’s book to Henry Irving, and he, later still, passed it on to Ellen Terry (Laurence Irving, Henry Irving: the actor and his world (London, 1951), 499).
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 warped by Libby’s eccentricity; and the distortion has now been deliberately made worse in Joel Coen’s version. I feel very sad about that.
John Matthews Manly (1865–1940), during the time when he was working at Brown University, produced an edition of Macbeth for a series called ‘Longmans’ English Classics’. This is the introduction that he wrote for that edition. It says some interesting things.
When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the facts on which his imagination went to work all came from just one source – the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1587. The relevant passages have been frequently reprinted (but not always from the right edition): one convenient place to find them is this book of Boswell-Stone’s: Shakspere’s Holinshed: the chronicle and the historical plays compared (London, 1896). Of course this is just a guide to the original, not a substitute for it. (I have relegated the marginal notes – some of them copied from Holinshed, some supplied – to the back of the file.)
A juvenile piece of work, first published as a 70-page pamphlet (which I have not seen) in 1933, and reprinted ‘substantially as written’ in 1946, with some distancing remarks in the preface (xi). It seems pretty vacuous to me, more appreciative of its own cleverness than of Shakespeare or Macbeth. It certainly says some rather silly things. (It suggests, for example, that the audience is not expected to see any difference between the doctor encountered in England in scene 22 and the doctor encountered in Scotland in scenes 23 and 25. ‘We are not meant to think of two Doctors in the play (Dr. A of Harley Street and Dr. B of Edinburgh) but simply, in each case, of “a Doctor”’ (32n1). How is it helpful to say that? Does it make any sort of sense?)