Mullaney, Steven. The Place of the Stage:
License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Thesis: Mullaney is interested in English Renaissance culture, and he regards drama--along with leprosariums, collections of curiosities, and public executions, to name a few--as "cultural performance." He is particularly interested in unearthing the hidden currents of culture, as is clear in his description of his approach to literature: "In The Place of the Stage, literary analysis is conceived not as an end in itself but as a vehicle, a means of gaining access to tensions and contradictions less clearly articulated in other cultural forums but all the more powerful for their partial occlusion" (x).

Mullaney opens his chapter on Macbeth --"Lying like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason" (116-134)--with a consideration of the punishments of treason. In those punishments, he says, "treason has been effaced," but "on stage, it is something closer to treason itself that is enacted, and that speaks" (118).

Treason speaks, Mullaney asserts, through strange prophecies and ambiguous statements. To support this assertion Mullaney quotes various sixteenth century writers, such as George Puttenham, who wrote that amphibologies (statements with more than one possible meaning) "'carryeth generally such force in the heades of fonde [i.e., foolish] people, that by the comfort of those blind prophecies many insurrections and rebellions have beene stirred up in this Realme'"(120). Such commentaries, Mullaney says, show that "if we find in the Renaissance an increasing awareness and deployment of the power of language . . . we also find in it a charting of he boundaries of rule, beyond which authority can only watch and listen to treason's amphibolic spectacle" (121).

Mullaney goes on to point out examples of the "amphibolic spectacle" in Macbeth; he finds it in the witches' riddling prophecies, in the coupling of "fair" and "foul," in the Porter's ramblings about "equivocation," and elsewhere. Mullaney's conclusion is as follows:

With the amphibolic riddle, taking one course through it does not eliminate the other; in his own moving and self-persuading language, Macbeth relies and rides upon gliding significations of words, often with a powerful effect. Authority can either watch and listen to such motions, or it can engage them. In Macbeth, Shakespeare develops an unsettling affiliation between treason's spectacle and its audience. To engage treason's motions is to participate in them, threatening the otherwise clear antithesis that would seem to hold between rule and misrule and revealing the latter to be less the antithesis of rule than its alternating current, its overextension and in a sense its consequence.  (125).

Evaluation: Mullaney's quotations from sixteenth-century writers show that Shakespeare's depiction of Macbeth's treason is very much in tune with common opinion of the time, which was that riddles and prophecies are used by bad men and the powers of evil. However, that is not Mullaney's point at all. He wants to show that there's a mystical power in verbal ambiguities, a power which can lead people into treason, or which is the very voice of treason.

This assertion is mere assertion. For example, look at the following passage:

Yet if the traitor abuses words, he is also abused by them. Among the causes of the Yorkshire uprising of 1549, amid a discussion of the rebels' grievances and evil dispositions, Holinshed notes that "an other cause was for trusting to a blind and fantasticall prophecie, where with they were seduced, thinking the same prophecie should come to passe, by the rebellions of Norffolke, of Devonshire, and other places." The Yorkshire rebels were as much the victims of this "fantasticall prophecie" as they were its agents, and they were undone by the riddle that led them on with the hope of success. Here we encounter a recurrent topos in accounts of treason. As an explanation of cause the prophecy doesn't explain--it displaces the source of seduction from the rebels to an oracular utterance . . . . . (119).
Holinshed says quite clearly that the rebels believed in the prophecy because they knew of other rebellions, and Holinshed also says that the rebels were bad men with grievances, but Mullaney sees nothing but the "oracular utterance."

Also, Mullaney's assertions are often vague. He says, "to engage treason's motions is to participate in them," but he never explains what he means either by "engage" or "motions." "Engage" might mean simply watching the play, but you can't be sure.

Finally, in order to follow (or imagine that you are following) Mullaney's arguments, you need to deal with such deconstructionist jargon as "topos" and "gliding significations."

Bottom Line: Not persuasive.