Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, is a play that transcends time due to its timeless and universal themes. The themes presented in this play are just as relevant to modern audiences as they would have been to contemporary Elizabethan audiences. The play has been able to maintain its textual integrity, withstanding the fact that it is now performed out of its original context to remain a successful play for modern audiences. The issues of heroism, abuse of power and the deceptiveness of appearances are all key within the play, conveyed through the use of dramatic and literary techniques, are issues which still resonate with contemporary audiences. Shakespeare has tested the parameters of the conventional tragedy that was extremely popular during his lifetime and in doing so has created text, which is still relevant today.
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Shakespeare bases his eponymous protagonist on the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero and through his realistic characterisation of Macbeth portrays the issue of heroism. Macbeth’s status in society as Thane of Glamis and according to King Duncan ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’, all expressions of praise, positions Macbeth on the brink of possible downfall. Macbeth is a person of higher social standing and in essence superior to ordinary people, however, he possesses human frailties and personality limitations. Furthermore, strongly influenced by his wife, Macbeth succumbs to her persuasion to murder the King. Lady Macbeth challenges her husband’s hubris and this ultimately leads to his demise. ‘Wouldst thou have that/ Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life and live a coward in thine own esteem,/ Letting I dare not wait upon I would,/ Like the poor cat i’th’adage?’ Lady Macbeth uses metaphor and rhetorical question, comparing Macbeth with a cat that wants fish but is afraid of water, to cleverly manipulate her husband. Macbeth’s lack of temperance and ability to be easily influenced are weaknesses that haunt him, instigating his potential to let his overvaulting ambition expedite his fate and hasten his calamity. Ultimately, Macbeth is neither entirely good nor altogether evil. We have sympathy for Macbeth erratically, as he is enticed and overpowered by certain influences for which the audience is unable to blame him. At the commencement of the text, the audience is positioned to be partial towards Macbeth as he leads his country to triumph and ‘Like Valour’s minion carved out his passage…’ The use of personification emphasises his heroism and devotion to Scotland and initiates the audience’s inclination towards the protagonist. However, throughout the course of the play, the audience witnesses Macbeth transform into a tragic but villainous individual. During the modification of his state of mind, his harmatia is revealed as his highly ambitious nature and excessively vivid imagination. Upon murdering King Duncan, Macbeth perceives ‘A dagger of the mind, a false creation…’, a symbolic metaphor for the torment and anguish he suffers. Macbeth proceeds to exclaim that ‘Full of scorpions is my mind…’ and these dark bestial images and * reflect his agony. Aristotle states that for a play to be a tragedy and for the protagonist to exist as a tragic hero, order must be restored at the end. When Malcolm rightfully becomes king and proclaims ‘What’s more to do… We will perform in measure, time and place.’ The use of a plural personal pronoun denotes harmony. The last condition, as stated by Aristotle, refers to the act of catharsis, by which the tragic hero evokes feelings of pity, juxtaposed with the position of terror experienced by the audience. Macbeth fights as a valiant soldier until his eventual demise and he demonstrates passion and honour as he cries out that ‘damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”‘. The Jacobean audience would have perceived Macbeth as a tragic figure whose fatal mistake led to his fall from a powerful position to his destruction. A contemporary audience would be additionally interested in the analysis of Macbeth’s psychology and his motivations for committing such heinous crimes. They would see him as an over-ambitious person whose weakness allows him to be dominated by his wife to perform treasonous acts, which he initially resists. As his pride and manhood are threatened, he allows his impulsiveness to dictate his actions, leading to the audiences’ identification of him as the tragic hero. CUT DOWN!
A common theme in Elizabethan drama is the blurring of boundaries between appearance and reality. Shakespeare utilizes this notion, assumed by various characters, to express the duality under which they live. From the beginning of the play, Shakespeare uses the idea of what is real, juxtaposed with what is deceiving to create an air of uncertainty and bewilderment. The paradox spoken by the witches, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair,’ highlights the confusion present and serves as an admonition (caution?) for Macbeth. Shakespeare delves into the idea that deceit and duplicity indicates that appearances ought not to be relied on. Macbeth’s over-ambitious, tyrannical character is intentionally contrasted with his initial appearance, as the play progresses.
It is apparent that the issues present within Shakespeare’s Macbeth are universal and timeless issues that are able to transcend time and remain as pertinent to contemporary responders as they were to audiences in the Elizabethan era. These universal themes have permitted Shakespeare’s text to retain its textual integrity as it is inevitably examined among diverse contexts and shifting audiences. The ability of Macbeth to remain universal and pervade time has allowed it to be persistently enjoyed.
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