Macbeth is a drama of great tragedy. Written by William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan era, the themes of the play relate to many instances of today’s society, including: ambition, fate, deception and treachery.
The play begins with three supernatural characters, known as the ‘Witches’, who confront the tragic hero Macbeth on his victorious return from the war between Scotland and Norway, alongside him is General Banquo. In the meeting between Macbeth and the Witches, they predict that Macbeth will become King, although never actually, stating the path he must undertake and how these events will occur (Act 1, scene 3).
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As the scene has been set for the play, the plot continues towards the dramatisation of how Macbeth will achieve this great power – to Kill King Duncan of Scotland. Assisted by his wife Lady Macbeth, who plans the fine details of the murder with him, the act is carried out whilst the King is guest of the two characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare wrote the play, in order for the audience to never see the murder, but succumb to the tension that is created by the reactions of the two characters after the deed has been committed. We read that Macbeth is panicked and afraid of the consequences, while Lady Macbeth remains calm, helping Macbeth to smear blood on the daggers onto the sleeping guards, which earlier she drugged, having physical proof that the murder was conducted by them (Act 2, scene 2). Quoted from the scene “Whence is that knocking? How is’t with me, when every noise appals me? Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”(1,2, 58-61), is evidence of this behaviour by the character Macbeth.
After the murder, King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee from Scotland and Macbeth becomes King. As the play continues, it becomes more dark, sinister and psychological, with Lady Macbeth succumbing to madness, then suicide. Macbeth kills Banquo to stop his sons from becoming King, which was part of the original prophecy by the three Witches, and eventually Macbeth is killed by Macduff, who becomes King of Scotland in Macbeth’s place.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare manages to create dramatic tension from the very beginning, right up to the murder of King Duncan, and thereafter to the downfall of Macbeth. Shakespeare gradually builds up the tension in each scene and releases it at different stages, until finally the act of the murder takes place. The four main themes which are outlined in the play become apparent from the beginning, things aren’t what they seem, ambition, power and superstition. His use of dramatic irony, the supernatural and indecision by the leading characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, all combine to keep the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. Shakespeare’s talent was the ability to present a story with creative dramatisation of imagery and imagination. He knew how to entertain the audience with fast-paced plots, creative imagery and dramatic characters.
Shakespeare uses several instances of irony in Macbeth to give the play more depth, continuation of the dramatisation and to also allow the audience to foreshadow events to come, without the characters knowing the actions they’ll take and the consequences. A good example of dramatic irony is when Macbeth plans Duncan’s murder, along with Lady Macbeth, while still remaining loyal to the King. This is dramatic irony, while Duncan isn’t aware of Macbeth’s plans, while the audience does.
A further example of dramatic irony is posed in act one, scene five, Macbeth says “My dearest love, Duncan comes here tonight”, with Lady Macbeth’s reply “And, when goes hence?”, Macbeth says “To-morrow, as he purposes”, with Lady Macbeth’s final reply “O, never shall the morrow see” (1,5, 57-60). Implying in this scene, that Macbeth will soon undertake the task of committing the murder. Shakespeare uses a simile within the scene to portray Macbeth to act as an innocent flower when King Duncan arrives, but underneath act as a serpent to achieve your ambition to become King of Scotland “…look like an innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” (1,5, 64-65). “We will proceed no further in this business.” (1,7, 31) Showing doubts that Macbeth doesn’t want to go through with the act and still Macbeth continues to question the consequences later in scene 7, “If we should fail?” Lady Macbeth responds, “We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail.” (1,7, 58-59).
Throughout the play, the theme of the supernatural plays a major role. Shakespeare opens the play with a short opening , long enough to awaken the audiences curiosity, with three supernatural beings on a dark mysterious heath (Act 1, scene 1). The mood of the play is set, although the action and the introduction of the leading characters don’t start until the next scene. Introducing the supernatural power of witchcraft into the play associates the drama with the dark arts, treachery and unnatural disturbances. Shakespeare uses powerful imagery to portray the witches as ‘grossly unnatural in appearance’ (Act 1, scene 3), inflicting unnatural storms and disruption onto the world.
The opening scene is particularly important in establishing the mood and atmosphere of the play for the audience. The weather portrays darkness, using a Pathetic fallacy, the supernatural environment of the heath, with severe weather of thunder and lighting, proclaimed by Macbeth “So foul a day I have not seen.” (1,3,38), the prophecy is presented to Macbeth and Banquo. The Witches use a rhyming technique throughout their speeches, referring to incantations of magical charms, another trait of the supernatural. Every detail of the scene opens the audiences imagination and portrays from the outset the common themes of human values, a world of darkness, sinister behaviour and treachery by the leading characters.
The Witches are introduced by Shakespeare as three women in evil apparel, using dramatic imagery, who told Macbeth and his companion Banquo, of the prophecies that would be acted out in the play. The Witches set the tone of the play and foreshadow the plot of the story at the very beginning (fair and foul) right and wrong. The opening scene foreshadows a tragedy, which the story is based upon. Within Act 1 scene 3, the witches are characterised as being unnatural and non-human looking “…and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” (1,3,45) and Banquo questions the witches “Are ye fantastical?” (1,3,53) and being of devil “What, can the devil speak true?” (1,3,108). Referring once again back to the supernatural theme and beings of darkness.
Ambition and the plays main characters
As a character Macbeth is the tragic hero of the play. Portrayed as a ‘hero’ at the beginning of the play, helping to defeat the Norwegians and given the title the ‘Thane of Cawdor’ by King Duncan, the plot of the play starts to unfold and Macbeth believes in the prophecy the witches set out (Act 1, scene 2). Macbeth is only given a new title as previously the ‘Thane of Cawdor’ was killed due to committing treason.
We discover Macbeth’s character to be strong willed, ambitious and greedy. Throughout the play the character changes and develops. In the beginning he is portrayed as a ‘loyal soldier’, willing to fight for his King, and country and as the play progresses he grows to become more ambitious to fulfil his destiny. However, Macbeth later in the play the character develops guilt for his crimes.
With King Duncan travelling to Macbeth’s castle, in a soliloquy Macbeth urges darkness to cover the deed that he plans to commit “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1,4,50). Here Shakespeare completes the scene uses a Rhyming Couplet to portray the importance at the end and signify how Macbeth will commit the murder of King Duncan.
The witches prophecy (Act 1, scene 3,line 48)
1st Witch All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
2nd Witch All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
3rd Witch All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter
The prophecy proclaims the theme of ambition for the rest of the play, which is outlined by a metaphor in Banquo’s speech “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not.” (1,3,58). Macbeth does try to question the Witches about their speech, however they fail to answer the questions and vanish from the scene, as Shakespeare uses dramatic imagery and conjures supernatural beings once more, Banquo says “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, and these are of them: whither they are vanished?” (1,3,79). Both Macbeth and Banquo doubt the prophecy and feel following it will lead to the devil and dramatic consequences in the end, things aren’t always as they seem! Ambition to achieve kingship is through murder, which the play foreshadows as the destiny and Macbeth as the tragic hero.
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Lady Macbeth is first introduced in act 1 scene 5, first appearing as a ruthless, committed woman to strive for greater glory of her husband, Macbeth. The sudden arrival of the messenger after Lady Macbeth has read the letter from Macbeth in this scene, gives an excellent dramatic stroke for the play. This allows Lady Macbeth to think that the prophecy can be fulfilled this very night and satisfy her thirst for power. Upon the King’s arrival, Duncan is treated as an honorary guest of the house, whilst Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear to be the perfect hosts, whilst all the while the audience know how the night will plan out for the characters and the foreshadow of King Duncan’s demise. Lady Macbeth’s passionate ambition and the drive of her husband, leads to the downfall of Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth herself is characterised as very ambitious, but yet fear’s her husband’s weaker nature “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature.” (1,5,14). Lady Macbeth is the driving force throughout and controls all Macbeth’s fears, to eventually commit him to the deed of murder. Shakespeare cunningly uses the image of a Raven in this scene, which in ancient times was associated with the coming of death, and with this use of symbolism the audience continue to see what will happen in the play.
In the play Lady Macbeth in her actions asks for the help of darkness and the supernatural for her and Macbeth to conduct the act of killing the King to fulfil the prophecy, she is determined throughout to push her husband to his greatest ambition and gain power for herself, “Come, thick night. And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.” (1,5,49)
Lady Macbeth has a stronger personality than her husband, having to convince Macbeth to fulfil the deed, she is very faithful towards him and wants to achieve the great honour that could be bestowed upon them, if they commit treason and kill King Duncan. Within act 2 scene 2 Lady Macbeth’s character shows a cruel and disrespectful side towards the Kings servants and again her ambition comes to life, she says, “Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead are but pictures.” (2,2,51)
The tension increases dramatically when we see Lady Macbeth pacing about in a nervous but excited state, awaiting Macbeth’s return increases the tension dramatically. We see a gentler side to Lady Macbeth. She says that she would have killed Duncan herself, but the old man looked too much like her father “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” (2,2,12). This statement relays the consequences of the actions that will take place later in the play.
With Macbeth coming forward in the play with the Witches prophecy, Lady Macbeth’s character was the most ambitious to see it through to the end. Having to deal with her husband’s weaknesses, not wanting to carry through the act of murder, the character concocting a plan in the end was successful. Although you can see how Shakespeare shows the characters in the lead up to the murder, with dramatic irony at a key point in the play when King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle to visit his ‘loyal soldier’ and celebrate victory on the battle field against the Norwegians. The irony here is pointed out that only the audience, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth know is the King will never leave and see another day of sun.
After the deed of high treason is committed, Macbeth’s character is hysterical and extreme tension is obvious. Dramatic Imagery comes true from the characters soliloquy and we see the bloody daggers in Macbeths hands and both characters fear discovery. Macbeth was misled by the witches and by Lady Macbeth’s sway of passionate arguments drawn to the events in the play, without these elements his ambition to become King could have been suppressed and only imagined by the character.
Macbeth’s Soliloquy (Act 1, scene 7 and Act 2 scene 1)
Shakespeare uses two key soliloquy’s to portray the inner thoughts of the character Macbeth, writing in a poetic theme using rhyming language. Often the passage refers to strong use of imagery towards the themes of blood, the supernatural, darkness and death. Both passages shows how the character is feeling at this point, with doubts and guilt of the consequences prior to committing the murder of King Duncan.
In Macbeth’s first soliloquy, the character questions what he is about to do and doubt is cast in his mind and questions the consequences, for Macbeth knows he will pay for the deed here on earth or in the afterlife. Macbeth’s speaks of Duncan’s kindness and generosity, but ambition is fraught within the soliloquy, realising that he will have to pay sooner or later “…but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’ other.” (1,7, 27), that high leaping ambition can often be one’s downfall.
In his second soliloquy (Act 2, scene 1) Macbeth allies himself with witchcraft, murder and secrecy, left on his own, the characters imagination runs wild. Macbeth is torn, but the soliloquy in the play is the characters final preparation for the act of murder “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, and such an instrument I was to use!” (2,1, 42).
The main source of tension is of course Macbeth’s vision of the dagger, one sense is registering a dagger and the others aren’t “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee.” (2,1, 33-34). This is not made real to the audience and we are as bewildered by this ‘dagger of the mind’ as Macbeth is. Using dramatic imagery, the dagger begins to bleed and the audience shares Macbeth’s fear and trepidation of what is to come, referring to witchcraft once more as it celebrates. Then we are disturbed by his final rhyming couplet which highlights Macbeth’s fatal decision, as he heads for Duncan’s bedroom stealthily.
Macbeth is a masterpiece by Shakespeare, showing how power, greed and ambition can change a character at a given point of opportunity, but questions what are the consequences of these actions that is analysed in the play, given that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both succumb to the guilt of the deeds committed. The play from the outset was controlled by the power of fate and the supernatural. However, we have to question what would have happened if Macbeth had followed a different path, after all he was related to the King and in line to royal succession? The main question to answer is, would Macbeth have actually committed the Murder if the prophecy was never told or if Lady Macbeth was not so hungry for power?
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