Macbeth is a play written for James I after the death of Queen Elizabeth. James was intrigued with witchcraft and the love of Scotland. In order to understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth you have to understand the time and historical period which it is set. This is the Elizabethan period which is the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century when there was an authoritarian government. In this era the monarchy ruled the governments, they needed to raise strong and loyal armies to protect and rule their counties. Shakespeare chose legends and events in Scottish history to dramatise Macbeth, which he uses from the “Holinshed’s chronicles around 1050 AD”, that he alters and manipulates these freely to portray Macbeth’s loyalty and then his destruction from his unchecked ambition. This leads him from being a people’s hero to a tyrant. We also have to understand that during this era the people believed in prophesies, Witches and dark magic which we come to see throughout the play. Shakespeare portrays symbolic events that happen in London with the gun powder plot, interprets the characters and uses them in Macbeth to depict between kingship and tyranny.
We, the audience, learn what a big part the witches play in the events that unfold in (Act One Scene Three) of the play Macbeth. The witches who supply the prophecy that leads to Macbeth’s ambitions becoming true. I believe that this comes at a very high cost, his sanity and his life! On meeting the witches, Macbeth says
“Speak if you can: what are you?” (p.29)
At this point in the play Macbeth is strong, fearless and a real people’s hero. At this stage the witches are well established in being both powerful and mystical, but they were also feared for their prophecies. Macbeth is fresh from battle fighting for his King and country; he has just one thing on his mind that is his loyalty to his King and the fight to save his beloved country from the two separate invading armies. The witches speak
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”
“All hail, Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter” (p.29)
Upon hearing this Macbeth still strong and confident becomes demanding, curious and suspicious at what the witches had predicted, but was also wondering how this could be as the Thane of Cawdor and the King are still alive. The witches had planted the seeds of greed and heightened Macbeth’s already ambitious personality. In his mind, Macbeth seems quite amused about the prospects of the prophecy, laughing as he goes. At this stage I think that Macbeth doesn’t believe in the witches prophecies and dismisses them without a second thought.
Macbeth is also highly respected and honoured both by his King and kinsmen. The kinsmen praise Macbeth for his strength and stamina on the battlefield. The bloody captain compares Macbeth to “like valor’s minion carved out his passage, till he faced the slave” which is strange as at this stage as his daring and bravery in battle puts him in a good position with the king. However later in the play Macbeth sees it as a curse, as he becomes relentless and murders innocent people.
When the Thane of Cawdor is deemed a traitor, the King bestows the title on Macbeth for his loyalty, devotion and bravery in battle. When Angus and Ross arrived with the news of the title The Thane of Cawdor is to be given to Macbeth, his reply to this was the Thane still lives
“Why dress me in borrowed robes” (p.32)
Macbeth starts to wonder if the prophecies may come true, but Banquo warns that no good will come from dark evil, at this point Macbeth starts to think of murder and how he would become King. I think that Macbeth could have chose to let the prophecies take the natural course, but instead acted on his and Lady Macbeth greed and ambitions.
At the beginning of this scene (Act One Scene Seven) we find Macbeth is in turmoil about killing Duncan, as he knows the witches’ second prophecy had come true. So should he take the third or should he wait his time?
“If this deed were done when ’tis done” (p.40)
Macbeth starts to show anguish at this stage, at the thought of killing Duncan. Shakespeare uses the metaphor “his virtues will plead like angles trumpet-tongued” which implies that King Duncan has heavenly virtues comparing them to angles and also implies that Macbeth has no virtues at all. Macbeth knows in his heart is a kind and well-loved King, who thinks highly of him. He had just honoured him for his bravery and loyalty in battle, with the Thane of Cawdor title. Macbeth also refers to the “poisoned chalice”; we know in churches that the chalice is used to celebrate life, love and goodness. However, Macbeth considers his chalice to be poisoned. This leads us to believe that the opposite applies death, darkness and evil. Macbeth shows that he still has honourable moral principles, through the anguish he shows through his soliloquy. Shakespeare also shows us about pity by comparing it to the helplessness of a new born baby. Having decided that he will not carry out the murder, he says
“We will proceed no further in this business” (p.41)
Macbeth loves Lady Macbeth dearly at this stage of the play, and would do anything for her. He was worried what would happen if he fails but at the end of the scene after Lady Macbeth has belittled and undermined Macbeth’s manhood, she tells him to keep hold of his manhood and he’ll be alright. Macbeth, battered and down trodden agrees to carry out the deadly deed. Lowering himself to that of an animal, a wolf, this in this era was the symbol of evil. We see at the end of the scene, the mental decline of Macbeth, and him starting on the path of no return.
In this scene, (Act Two Scene One) Macbeth waits in the dark shadows, nervously wondering whether he was doing the right thing, waiting to murder King Duncan. He stands waiting and with just his over powerful imagination. When he sees the image of a dagger appears before his eyes, floating in the air.
“Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my hand?
Come let me clutch you” (p.44)
Shakespeare uses the soliloquy about the dagger as an introduction to Macbeth’s great imagination, which we continue to see throughout the play, his powerful imagination being responsible for his lack of control and the deterioration of his mental state. As Macbeth sees the dagger in his mind, he starts to contemplate the murder, and the method of the murder. Does he believe that it is a sign that it is the right thing to do, or is it his fevered emotions that are causing him to hallucinate? The play shows no straight answers to the question. The imagery of blood on the dagger shows great emotional meanings in his hallucination. Dark forces are at work by the darkness of the night this could represent the evil/ dark intentions in this act. Macbeth’s life is spiralling out of control; the image of the dagger gives the audience a clear insight into the state of Macbeth’s mind and changing character.
We see at the grand dinner at the palace, with all the Thanes, Macbeth waits for news of Banquo and Fleance deaths. Macbeth imagination and his fears show as the ghost of Banquo appears.
“Be gone! And get out my sight! Let the earth hide you! (p.69)
In this scene, (Act Three Scene Four) after killing Duncan, we see that Macbeth has been drawn further down the path to tyranny and the decline of his sanity, with no return. Macbeth realises that Banquo and Fleance have to die to stop the fulfilment of the prophecy, that the witches told Banquo. Macbeth not wanting Lady Macbeth to learn of his plans at this stage shows the distance forming between Macbeth and his wife. Macbeth sends two murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance for him. While hosting a dinner party the murderers return with news of Banquo’s death. Upon hearing the news that Banquo is dead and in a ditch, but Fleance escaped, brings back fears to Macbeth. Macbeth describes Banquo’s death to the death of a serpent and Fleance to a young snake. This metaphor suggests that Macbeth fears Fleance even though Banquo was murdered. This promotes the start of the images of Banquo’s bloody body sitting on a chair. Lady Macbeth shows concern about her husband’s state of mind and his irrational behaviour. We see at this stage in the play that Macbeth seems to be losing control of the situation. Lady Macbeth is also worried that Macbeth may reveal what they had done. Thinking that he is weaker than she is, she refers to his hallucinations as fits he’s had since childhood. I think that at this stage of the play Macbeth sinks into bouts of insanity due to the guilt and insecurity, as he hides his new deadly deeds from Lady Macbeth. We see in this scene that the use of blood on the ghost of Banquo makes the scene more dramatic with great impact this stirs the audience’s imagination.
We next meet Macbeth in a room at the palace, while the advancing armies are moving in on him, he feels untouchable and invincible after his last meeting with the witches and the new prophecies they delivered.
“I have almost forgotten the taste of fear” (p.100)
Upon hearing a noise Macbeth demanded to know what it was, learning that the Queen was dead. Macbeth didn’t seem to be concerned about the news unlike in the beginning he would have been devastated by the news but what they had been through had caused a distance in their relationship. A humble messenger enters and brings the news of the advancing armies and that he thought he saw Birnam Wood begin to move. Hearing this Macbeth starts to worry as this was one of the prophecies. Macbeth at the beginning of this scene feels as if nothing could touch him; he was unaware of the goings on around him. Hearing the news he starts to believe that he may die and doesn’t seem fazed by this, as he dresses in his armour, this gives us insight and deepens the dramatic impact of the scene with the use of clothing. This could possibly show us that Macbeth finally realises that he has a worthy adversary, Macduff. Up to this point he didn’t feel the need for armour as he felt or was lead to believe that he was invincible. We see his altered opinion in the last speech of this act.
“At least we’ll die with armour on our backs” (p.102)
Throughout the play we see Macbeth’s mental state dramatically change and evolve the persistent persuasion of those close to him and forces of evil help along this deterioration. Macbeth’s personality has two tragic flaws that allow him to be both manipulated by others and create greed from his overwhelming ambitions and confidence. These give Macbeth a blurred lack of judgement in trusting the witches and their prophecies, as they seem to be a double edged sword and tell Macbeth exactly what he wants to hear. This allows the witches to manipulate Macbeth, as he takes them at face value. Macbeth’s great ambition is fuelled by the witches and their prophecies and is also swayed by Lady Macbeth’s greed. After murdering Duncan, to become King, Macbeth realises that he has to continue murdering to keep what he stole originally. His ambition and greed keep him on this path, along with the witches’ prophecies, as his mental state deteriorates. Macbeth’s imagination as we see is very vivid and strong, this fuels the hallucinations that he has, as his mental state declines while in the pursuit of the fulfilment of the witches prophecies.
Macbeth would have made a good king, he was a brave and honourable general who was willing to fight and protect his beautiful Scotland. Instead Macbeth has his honour stripped away piece by piece as greed and ambition for power was left unchecked. This corrupted him and into the tyrant who he became; bringing chaos and destruction to Scotland. Which inevitably lead to his death?
The story of Macbeth, great ambition and the hunger for power can be applied to many situations in modern times and is not specific to the period in which it is set. This is true and evident in World Wars and recent uprisings in the Middle East. Where rulers and governments had fed their greed and ambition until out of control, had once thought them as untouchable, now face a final demise.
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