Knights, L. C. "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? An Essay in the Theory and Practice of Shakespeare Criticism."
Explorations. New York U P, 1964. 15-54.
Thesis: First of all, please understand that there is nothing in this famous essay about Lady Macbeth's children. The title is a mockery of the approach to Shakespeare criticism that Knights wanted to destroy. In 1933, when his essay was first published, Knights saw commentary on Shakespeare as being dominated by "the assumption that Shakespeare was pre-eminently a great 'creator of characters'" (15). Because of this assumption, Knights says, commentators occupy themselves with such fruitless questions as "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?"

Knights' own position is that "the only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response" (20). To illustrate his point, Knights concludes his essay with a 20-page examination of Macbeth. Here are the first two paragraphs of his commentary:

     Macbeth is a statement of evil. I use the word "statement" (unsatisfactory as it is) in order to stress those qualities that are "non-dramatic," if drama is defined according to the canons of William Archer or Dr. Bradley [both eminent literary critics]. It also happens to be poetry, which means that the apprehension of the whole can only be obtained from a lively attention to the parts, whether they have an immediate bearing on the main action or "illustrate character," or not. Two main themes, which can only be separated for the purpose of analysis, are blended in the play—the themes of the reversal of values and of unnatural disorder. And closely related to each is a third theme, that of the deceitful appearance, and consequent doubt, uncertainty and confusion. All this is obscured by false assumptions about the category "drama"; Macbeth has greater affinity with The Waste Land than with The Doll's House.
     Each theme is stated in the first act. The first scene, every word of which will bear the closest scrutiny, strikes one dominant chord:

Faire is foule, and foule is faire,
Hover through the fogge and filthie ayre.

It is worth remarking that "Hurley-burley" implies more than the tumult of sedition or insurrection." Both it and "when the Battaile's lost, and wonne" suggest the kind of metaphysical pitch-and-toss that is about to be played with good and evil. At the same time we hear the undertone of uncertainty: the scene opens with a question, and the second line suggests a region where the elements are disintegrated as they never are in nature; thunder and lightning are disjoined, and offered as alternatives. We should notice also that the scene expresses the same movement as the play as a whole: the general crystallizes into the immediate particular ("Where the place?"—"Upon the Heath."—"There to meet with Macbeth.") and then dissolves again into the general presentment of hideous gloom. All is done with the greatest speed, economy and precision.  (32-33)

Knights then proceeds through the play, tracing the development of the themes of reversal of values, unnatural disorder, and deceitful appearance. At the end of the essay, commenting on Macbeth's speech which begins, "My way of life / Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf," Knights reasserts the superiority of his approach:
Dr. Bradley claims, on the strength of this and the "To morrow, and to morrow" speech, that Macbeth's "ruin is never complete. To the end he never totally loses our sympathy. . . . . In the very depths a gleam of his native love of goodness, and with it a tinge of tragic grandeur, rests upon him." But to concentrate attention thus on the personal implications of these lines is to obscure the fact that they have an even more important function as the keystone of the system of values that gives emotional coherence to the play.  (51-52)

Evaluation: Historically, Knights was successful. His essay helped to change the course of Shakespearean criticism, so that now commentary about themes is very common and in-depth examination of character is rare. On the other hand, his type of criticism doesn't do what he says criticism ought to do, evoke the "total complex emotional response" to the play. And that's because he leaves character, and our response to it, out of his equation. As we listen to Macbeth speaking of the bleakness of his future we may feel that he is only getting what he deserves, or we may feel that he does have some tragic grandeur, or we may feel something that I haven't the power to describe, but in any case our response to his character is a necessary part of the "total complex emotional response." It's not all about themes and a "system of values."

Bottom Line: Insightful criticism, but just as narrow as the criticism he criticizes.