Adelman, Janet. "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth."
Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. Ed. Marjorie Garber. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 90-121.
Thesis: Adelman asserts that "the whole of the play represents in very powerful form both the fantasy of a virtually absolute and destructive maternal power and the fantasy of absolute escape from this power" (90).

According to Adelman, "the play strikingly constructs the fantasy of subjection to maternal malevolence in two parts, in the witches and in Lady Macbeth," so that "what the witches suggest about the vulnerability of men to female power on the cosmic plane, Lady Macbeth doubles on the psychological plane" (97). Macbeth, under this double influence, kills Duncan, but then attempts an escape from female power by becoming ever more manly--ruthlessly violent. Macbeth also depends on the prophecy that he cannot be killed by man "of woman born," which represents, Adelman writes, a fantasy of "a birth entirely exempt from women" (103). In other words, Macbeth imagines that he is not one of those vulnerable men "of woman born." Of course Macduff demonstrates that Macbeth, too, is vulnerable, but "the play curiously enacts the fantasy that it seems to deny: punishing Macbeth for his participation in a fantasy of escape from the maternal matrix, it nonetheless allows the audience the partial satisfaction of a dramatic equivalent to it" (103). This "dramatic equivalent" is the business about Macduff being "ripped" from his mother's womb; Adelman writes that this "sustains the sense that violent separation from the mother is the mark of the successful male" (108).

Evaluation: There is something to what Adelman says, but I can't buy the whole package.

Because he repeatedly says so, it's clear that Macbeth wants very much to be a real man. It's also clear that his wife uses that desire in order to make him do the evil that she wants him to do, and that after the deed is done she loses her grip on him (and on herself). However, Adelman sees everything as symbolic of psycho-sexual dynamics. Here, for example, is part of her commentary on King Duncan:

In Hamlet Shakespeare had reconstructed the Fall as the death of the ideal father; here, he constructs a revised version in which the Fall is the death of the ideally androgynous parent. For Duncan combines in himself the attributes of both father and mother: he is the center of authority, the source of lineage and honor, the giver of name and gift; but he is also the source of all nurturance, planting the children to his throne and making them grow. He is the father as androgynous parent from whom, singly, all good can be imagined to flow, the source of a benign and empowering nurturance the opposite of that imaged in the witches' poisonous cauldron and Lady Macbeth's gall-filled breasts. Such a father does away with any need for a mother: he is the image of both parents in one, threatening aspects of each controlled by the presence of the other. When he is gone, "The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees/Is left this vault to brag of" (2.3.93-94): nurturance itself is spoiled, as all the play's imagery of poisoned chalices and interrupted feasts implies. In his absence male and female break apart, the female becoming merely helpless or merely poisonous and the male merely bloodthirsty; the harmonious relation of the genders imaged in Duncan fails.  (93-94)
In Adelman's vision of the play, nothing is left of the man except his symbolic function. And so it goes until we have a play with just three characters -- mother, father, and child -- each symbolised in different ways.

I suppose that Adelman's response to my objections might be that truth is on her side because all of literature consists of various symbolic representations of primal psychological processes and drives. If she's right, it sure takes a lot of the interest out of reading.

Bottom Line: A report on Macbeth from the lab of a forensic psychologist.