A Structuralist View of "Macbeth"

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In "The Structural Study of Myth" Claude Levi-Strauss explains that we can discover a myth's meaning by identifying and isolating what he calls mythemes. Like phonemes in language studies, mythemes are the constituent units of myths and they find meaning in and through their relationships within the mythic structure. The meaning of any individual myth, then, depends on the interaction and order of the mythemes within the story. Many critics believe that the primary signifying system is best found as a series of binary oppositions that the reader organizes, values, and then uses to interpret the text.

Applying this structuralist approach to Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth", we find that the play revolves around two major binary oppositions with each binary opposition being connected to and interwoven with the others. The more obvious of the two centers on the binary nature of human beings --- in this case, the evil self driven by passions, as opposed to the noble self motivated by reason. The interior chaos, and the triumph of passions over reason can be reflected in society at large, thus leading to the second binary opposition, violence vs. peace.

The binary nature of humankind can be easily found in the case of Macbeth, the protagonist of the play. On the one hand, he is noble. As one of Duncan's most glorious generals, he is brave and courageous, trusted and respected. He is a man loved as well as admired by all. In Act I, Scene 2, for example, both the sergeant and Duncan praise Macbeth for his physical and mental bravery, stressing that he "carv'd out his passage" until he is face to face with the enemy general. To Duncan, he is his "valiant cousin" and "worthy gentleman." As a brave general, he does not lack kindness...

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...A structural approach does not necessarily aim at identifying an author's conscious intention, but rather at showing how patterns of relations and structure help reveal meaning. In "Macbeth" we can find meaning in and through the story's structure, which reveals some ideas about the nature of humankind, society and life, and also reveals some ideas about the universe.


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McAlindon, T. Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1965.
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