William Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’ between the years of 1603 and 1606. This coincides with the ascension of James the Sixth of Scotland to the English throne whereby he became known as James I. James I believed himself to have special powers because he was king and he also had an interest in witchcraft, apparitions and ghosts.
The use of witchcraft in ‘Macbeth’ relates to the topicality of these issues as Shakespeare’s audience would have been aware of these. The play also explores the issues of kingship and loyalty. These were of importance to James as his life had his life threatened by a group of witches in Scotland in 1591 and in 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up his government. During Shakespeare’s life there had been much turmoil in Britain regarding the throne and religion.
The country, therefore, knew only too well the dire implications of insurrection and anarchy. This is reflected in ‘Macbeth.”Macbeth’ opens with an overwhelming sense of unease, the atmosphere is tense and the weather reflects this with thunder and lightning. The three witches symbolise supernatural happenings which adds to the dramatic tension and foreboding.
The witches’ use of rhyming couplets throughout the play adds to the magical sense. The oxymoron at the end of scene one -‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ I.i, prepares the audience for disorder, the inversion of expectations and the suggestion that outward appearances can conceal inner deception.
The idea of contrasts lies at the heart of ‘Macbeth’. Throughout the play, there occur images of disorder and sickness; disturbances of calm are presented throughout. The bringing together of opposites is developed further with the paradox -‘When the battle’s lost, and won.’ Macbeth is initially presented as valiant, brave, noble, honourable, loyal and courageous by King Duncan, for whom Macbeth is a general. Duncan receives reports of Macbeth’s heroism which ensure victory for the king’s cause. In gratitude for the victory, Macbeth, who is Thane of Glamis, is to be presented with the title of Thane of Cawdor. The audience’s curiosity regarding Macbeth has been aroused.
Furthermore, Macbeth’s first line in the play echoes the oxymoron used by the witches -‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ I.iii, 36and therefore links Macbeth to the witches.The witches deliberately seek out the generals, Macbeth and Banquo, and make specific predictions about their future.
They greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and King to be. Banquo is told that he will produce heirs who will be kings. The witches disappear before the King’s messengers arrive to inform Macbeth of his inherited title of Thane of Cawdor.Macbeth believes this to be a fulfilment of the prophecy.
In his soliloquies it becomes apparent that Macbeth has not only thought about being King, but also believes what the witches tell him is true -‘Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:The greatest is behind”Two truths are told,As happy prologues to the swelling actOf the imperial theme.’ I.iii, 115-116, 126-128He has ambitions for himself and Macbeth’s change and ride to power has begun. Ambition is Macbeth’s weakness and is not only the driving force of Macbeth’s life but the theme and fatal weakness that leads to his downfall by allowing his ambition, through his wife and the witches, to suppress his good qualities and make him ruthless.
The title quote by one of the king’s sons, Malcolm, to Macduff, the thane of Fife, refers to Macbeth as a ‘tyrant’. Thus, the other characters in the play see Macbeth as ruthless, cruel and a traitor.The play traces the rise of Macbeth from a general to the King of Scotland, and then his downfall which leads to his death. ‘Macbeth’ is a tragedy – a tragedy has a tragic hero – someone noble who is to be admired.
However, a tragic hero has a fatal weakness in his character or makes mistakes, perhaps through external influences. These mistakes lead to the hero’s downfall and death. Macbeth is a hero, but one who is fatally undermined by his ambition and the consequences of this ambition. It is the ambition that leads him to the witches, and it is ambition which leads him to murder, treason, hypocrisy, corruption and deepest evil.
Macbeth, can be referred to as a ‘tragic’ hero as the hero believes himself to be practicing a code of behaviour. Whereas, other characters in the play view him as a tyrant, it is possible for the audience to sympathise with him as they know he is following fate and is driven by forces beyond his control.Initially, in spite of being ambitious, it is clear that he is not easily won over to evil and he throws up many objections to murdering Duncan in order to ascend to the throne. Shakespeare reveals Macbeth’s thoughts and feelings through soliloquies -‘This supernatural soliciting,Cannot be ill, cannot be good’.
However, he allows the witches’ prophecy and his wife’s ambition for him to undermine his integrity. Macbeth is judged by his wife to have a nature -‘too full o’the milk of human kindness’ Although physically strong, Macbeth is weak emotionally. The question of manhood is important to Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth uses this as a lever to persuade him to murder Duncan -‘When you durst do it,Then you were a man’.
He is taunted to such an extent that he is prepared to ‘bend up each corporal agent to this terrible deed,’ but when the deed is done he says – ‘To know my deed twere best not know myself.’ The battle for his self-esteem is lost and won.The turning point is at the banquet after Macbeth has been chosen as king. He has achieved all the power he is ever going to achieve; we have witnessed the rise of Macbeth.
All except Macduff, who discovers the body, are willing to accept him as king. However, in a soliloquy, Macbeth thinks -‘To be thus is nothing.’ He means to make his position safe and also reveals that the witches’ prediction that Banquo’s offspring should become king is entirely unacceptable to him.
He hires two murderers to perform the murder of Banquo and Fleance. Lady Macbeth, who has been his ‘dearest partner of greatness’, is not privy to his plans-‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest Chuck,’ Macbeth has detached himself from his reliance on his wife. Banquo’s murder results in disaster for Macbeth.
At a feast soon after his death, his chair is occupied by a ghost. This ghost can be viewed as Macbeth’s guilt, invisible to others, but a terrifying reality to Macbeth himself. When the ghost and guests have gone, Macbeth’s mind is still in turmoil, he can see no way out of his dilemma but to crush everyone around him who questions his will. He decides to revisit the witches, his reliance on them increases as reliance on his wife decreases, his decline in power begins and his depravity increases.
The decline of Macbeth’s reputation towards the middle of the play is obvious, the title ‘tyrant’ has been introduced and not a good word is uttered about him. Macduff claims -‘Not in the legions,Of horrid hell can come a devil more damnedIn evils to top Macbeth,’ The brave Macbeth at the start of the play is now frequently out of rational control. In situation after situation he is preoccupied with speculations.
He can only act when he does not allow himself to think and this results in his actions becoming more and more bizarre. Duncan’s and Banquo’s murders result in scenes where the horror forces itself into his mind to the neglect of all else.When he commands the witches to answer his questions and is told of three prophecies, his self-identification with evil seems complete. He knows what to do.
The irony is that all the prophecies are double-edged and turn against him. It is his obsessive and literal belief in the prophecies that destroys him. The witches succeed in destroying every aspect of his humanity. Caught in a web of his own making, his commands are desperate and pathetic and his confusion which was apparent at the start of the play increases towards the end -‘I pull in resolution .
. . gin to be aweary of the sunAnd wish th’ estate o’th world were now undone.
Macbeth’ is a play about the downfall of an honest and brave man through corruption and ambition. The instruments of corruption are the witches and his wife. Macbeth is vulnerable to the witches influence because he hears them articulate what he thinks and he is vulnerable to his wife because he is sensitive to her taunts regarding his manhood and determination. However, our initial expectations are inverted because Macbeth increases in ruthlessness and evil whereas Lady Macbeth degenerates into mental instability.
Macbeth’s tyranny is the practice of wickedness and his advisers are ‘instruments of darkness’. This is contrasted with Duncan who is a symbol of all things that Macbeth overthrows and destroys. Images of light are connected with Duncan, who says that the signs of nobility are ‘like stars’. In contrast Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are creatures of the dark as darkness symbolises treachery and evil.
Lady Macbeth promises Macbeth that there shall be no sun for Duncan in the morning as a result – ‘This night’s great business’ – I.v, and she then prays – ‘Come thick night’ The theme of chaos and disorder also runs throughout the play.
Shakespeare uses toads, snakes and birds of prey to suggest a chaotic and menacing atmosphere. Nature is turned upside down after Duncan’s murder, hawks are killed by their prey and Duncan’s horses eat each other. The image of blood also runs throughout the play. Shakespeare uses it as a symbol for the evil that is associated with Macbeth and it is also used as part of the imagery to create a sense of menace and destruction.
Much of this imagery and symbolism should be thought of in the religious climate in which the play was written.Contrasts can also be seen in the characters of Macbeth and Banquo. Banquo is morally superior and is promised happiness by the witches. In contrast Macbeth is a tortured character, Shakespeare informs the audience of Macbeth’s tortured mind through his soliloquies.
Shakespeare lays bare Macbeth’s thoughts through the play and his confusion is apparent. In his dialogue there is a shift from a diplomatic but hollow language to bullying language full of exclamation marks, question marks and commands.’Macbeth’ is mostly written in blank verse. The basic unit of blank verse is a line in iambic pentameter without a rhyme scheme.
Although a strict iambic pentameter has ten syllables with the stress falling on even ones, blank verse is flexible and Shakespeare uses it to reflect whatever mood he wants to capture in a character -‘Whiles night’s black agents to theirPrey do rouse.’ The stress on ‘nights’ black agents” intensifies Macbeth’s grim fascination with evil. As mentioned before the witches speak in rhyming couplets using shorter lines and different stress paths to give a sound of spells.
Macbeth uses rhyming couplets more than any other characters in the play. Shakespeare does this to link him to the witches. Prose is used in ‘Macbeth’ to denote an abnormal situation for example when Lady Macbeth is sleep-walking. It is also used to denote that a person of a low social rank is speaking, as blank verse is more ‘noble.
‘The concentration of the play is on the character of Macbeth. The audience gets a wide context to Macbeth’s character and behaviour by Shakespeare’s use of what may be referred to in cinematic terms as ‘close up’ and ‘longer range shots’. He uses minor characters to comment on the main action in order to give the audience details to Macbeth’s behaviour.The imaginative use of language and symbolism by Shakespeare gives ‘Macbeth’ a new dimension between the contrasts of good and evil.
Although it is a short and simple plot which is easily held in the mind of the reader and has few main characters, it highlights moral dilemmas. The plot is set in a specific historical period but in spite of this, the themes are of universal interest and relevance to today. It is a play about morality, using themes such as loyalty, ambition, conscience, delusion and social and psychological order to explore the human condition. These characteristics, which are resonant throughout make ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare’s most widely read, memorable and adaptable play.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine situations of political ambitions and power in settings such as Rome, Egypt, Denmark and Scotland. ‘Macbeth’ offers a penetrating analysis of personal aspiration and political ambition. It shows that even noble men – as Macbeth was at the beginning, are vulnerable to the destructive possibilities of power.