In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom says, “The violence of Macbeth doubtless impresses us more than it did the drama’s contemporary audiences. Many if not most of those who attended Macbeth also joined the large crowds who thronged public executions in London, including drawings-and-quarterings as well as more civilized beheadings.”

Bloom goes on to discuss the violence in Titus Andronicus as well, but it’s important to note that the violence in the two plays is of a very different nature. Titus Andronicus is full of blood and guts and gore. Macbeth, though a play about violence, isn’t actually all that gruesome.

Which is why I disagree with Bloom. Indeed, Shakespeare’s original audience was more desensitized to gore. They were used to seeing acts of violence, such as public beheadings. For this reason, it seems clear to me that modern audiences are more disturbed by Titus Andronicus than was its first audience.

But Macbeth is different. It’s a play about mass slaughter, not horrible violence against individuals. And our history, unlike Shakespeare’s, is full of such things. Of course, Shakespeare’s audience was aware of some great dictators, but our history books include Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Francois Duvalier and more. We live in a world where mass murder is not a shock. It’s disturbingly common. Macbeth’s ability to kill in the thousands, disturbing though it is, probably doesn’t shock those of us who are familiar with murder in the millions.

When visiting Malcolm in England, Macduff says, “Not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d / In evils to top Macbeth” (IV.iii.55-57). When I hear these lines, I say, “I can name a few.” Shakespeare’s first audience might have believed it.

Your thoughts?