In this essay, I aim to effectively analyse how Shakespeare manages to create a sense of evil and disorder in Act 1 of Macbeth. Macbeth is a play set in Scotland, and the whole play is about a regicide and its aftermath.
The play begins with a sinister scene featuring the infamous three witches. This immediately creates a sense of unease and disorder about the scene, as the audience is captivated by the unnaturalness, and the uncanniness. It is interesting to notice how the play seems to start with the end of a conversation, which adds to the sense of mystery and evil. Also, in the second line of the play there is the mention of thunder and lightning, giving this idea of conflict in the natural world and in the sky. A factor that also contributes to the sense of evil is the setting, as it is set on a heath, which is away from society.
At the time it was written, in the Jacobean period, witches were seen as evil and demonic. It was believed that they were given powers by the Devil, and in return, they allowed him to drink their blood. IF you were thought to be a witch, you were examined for the “Devil’s mark”, which was a red mark which would suggest that Satan had sucked their blood. In 1604, King James declared that anyone found guilty of witchcraft should be executed. They were often referred to as ‘agents of the devil’, ‘enemies of God’, and ‘Satan’s allies’ therefore this would cast an even darker shadow over the scene. Not only this, but it would also draw the audience even further in, as they would be keen to find out more about witches, and their minds would encourage them to be more attentive. It is also clever how Shakespeare designates the three main evil characters as witches, as it will be easier for the audience to identify, because witches are known to be evil.
The witches then immediately show their malevolence, and abnormality by reciting the lines “fair is foul and foul is fair” in unison. This means “good is bad, and bad is good” which is a statement that completely blurs all moral boundaries, as it is saying that everything good in the world is bad and everything bad in the world is good. Moreover, it creates a sense of ambiguity, as the ideas are contradictory and morally wrong. The lines “fair is foul and foul is fair” are very clever lines, as they show very strong alliteration. The repetition of the letter ‘f’ in the words fair and foul also contribute to the idea that it sounds like the witches are chanting.
Their eeriness is also shown through the language they use. For instance, instead of speaking in iambic pentameter, or blank verse, they always speak in rhyme, which makes the audience think they are doing a spell, or some kind of witchcraft. In addition, they sometimes share lines, such as in Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 2 and 3, where it says “Killing swine. Sister, where thou?” This creates a sense of unease among the audience as it is as if the witches can read each other’s minds. Shakespeare also links the idea of bad weather in with the idea of evil, as during the scene there is a huge thunderstorm going on in the background. This is effective as a thunderstorm is considered a disturbance in nature, so it shows how evil the witches are.
Shakespeare is also careful to include little details about the witches, like their delight in evil. This is shown in Scene 3, when the witches are talking about how they have been attacking farmers’ livelihoods by killing swine for fun, and how they have been attacking an innocent sailor, by means of deprivation of sleep. Although these details aren’t directly important to the plot, they are effective and useful, as it means the audience can build up an image of just how evil and malevolent these witches really are. Also, throughout the play, there a frequent references to things such as sleep, milk and motherhood, and the attack on them in the play. For example, in Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 17 and 18, the witches are talking about how they are going to deprive a sailor of sleep, and they say “I’ll drain him dry as hay; Sleep shall neither night nor day.” The fact that they call themselves ‘the weird sisters’ is disturbing, as it suggests that they are aware of how weird they are, and they embrace it. The stereotypical witch would be a haggard old lady, who wears tattered clothes. I think this is exactly how Shakespeare wanted to portray these witches, and this idea is backed up in Scene 3 when they are describes as ‘so withered and so wild in their attire.’ They are portrayed as old and wrinkled, and perhaps even sexually ambiguous.
There is also an eerie atmousphere in Scene 3, as this is the scene where the witches meet Macbeth and Banquo. The scene starts with Macbeth saying “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” which is ironic, as just the scene before the witches said “fair is foul and foul is fair.” There is also dramatic irony in this scene, as we know the witches’ intentions are evil due to Scene 1, however, Macbeth and Banquo do not. They prophesize, and they tell Macbeth he will become Thane of Cawdor, and eventually King. Unbeknown to Macbeth, he has already been proclaimed Thane of Cawdor by the King; however this is also ironic, as the previous Thane of Cawdor was a traitor. Another point to note about the witches is that they often speak about conflict and damage, for example “When the battle’s lost and won”, and “Here I have a pilot’s thumb, Wreck’d as homeward he did come” which could be seen to represent the conflict in Macbeth over whether or not to kill the King.
Questions are used to create a sense of mystery, doubt and uncertainty. This is shown in scene 3 when Macbeth says “Why do you dress me in borrow’d robes?”. This line reflects Macbeth’s lack of understanding for why he has been labelled Thane of Cawdor by the witches. It is effective for Shakespeare to use questions in this way, as it gives the audience an insight into what the characters are feeling inside. In Scene 3, we see Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches for the first time. After feebly trying to get them to stay, he begins to think about all the things they told him.
This is the first time in the play that a soliloquy is used, and it is used very effectively, as it highlights Macbeth’s unstable mind and moral conflict. When reading the soliloquy, you can notice how Shakespeare has outlinined the struggle in Macbeth’s mind between his conscience, and his exacerbated desire for power. He begins his soliloquy by running through what the witches told him. Firstly, they called him the Thane of Glamis, which he already knew to be true. Secondly, they called him Thane of Cawdor, which puzzled him, as he believed there already was a Thane of Cawdor. However, thirdly they called him “Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter.” This really puzzled Macbeth, but likewise intrigued him. We can tell he is interested, as Banquo describes him as “rapt” which is very interesting, as it encourages the reader to believe Macbeth has a connection to the supernatural world, furthermore adding to the sense of evil and disorder.
Throughout the rest of the scene, we can see how Macbeth’s thoughts about what the witches said are weighing on, and poisoning his mind. On lines 138 and 139, he says, “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes my single state of man.” He is explaining that although killing Duncan would be amazing, the thought of doing it makes him feel sick and they paralyse his body because the thoughts are so evil. The last thing he says in this soliloquy on line 141 is, “nothing is, but what is not.” This means that his becoming King is the only thing he cares about, however the way he uses complex language and negatives in conjunction makes the audience uncertain. This is very effective, as it shows how his emotional state of mind also effects how he talks, and phrases sentences. The whole soliloquy is key to the plot of the story, as it shows us how Macbeth’s mind is beginning to change into this evil ridden one, nevertheless, we can still see how he is still in two minds.
When asked to think of what is meant by evil, one of the first things we think of is darkness. Shakespeare obviously shared the same thoughts as us, as throughout the play, we can see how he has used references to darkness and hiding light. Probably the best example of this is in Scene 4, on Lines 50 and 51, where Macbeth says “stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires.” The use of language from Shakespeare here is astounding, as we can deduce so many things from these two lines. Firstly, Macbeth is addressing the universe, and asking it to prevent the light from seeing what his deepest darkest desires are. This is reinforcing the idea of darkness fashioning the sense of evil, as Shakespeare uses the idea of darkness to convey Macbeth’s evil thoughts, as darkness is the opposite of light, which refers to safety and purity. Secondly, we can see how Shakespeare has used rhyming to emphasise the importance of this small block of text. Not only that, but he also uses syllables effectively too, as in the second line, he uses only mono-syllable words apart from the last word, ‘desire’, which emphasises it even further.
In Scene 5, we see Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife. The scene begins with her reading out a letter , sent from Macbeth, detailing his meeting with the witches and the prophecies they made. At first we see her as this Lady who loves her husband dearly, and we can already tell she is clever because she is educated due to the fact that she can read. However, as the scene progresses, and Lady Macbeth reads further into the letter, we see a darker side come out of her, and she starts to say treacherous things like conspiring against the King, and killing him. It is also key to notice Lady Macbeth’s contempt for her husband’s conscience, as on line 16 she claims her husband is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness”, implying she hates the fact that he possesses a sense of guilt. Although this whole scene is quite disturbing, because it shows how such a thing could turn even a young woman into a would-be murderer, it is also interesting, as it shows how keen Lady Macbeth is to embrace the opportunity.
It is interesting that Lady Macbeth should occupy Scene 5, as thus far the scenes have been alternating between good and evil. It starts with the witches who are evil, and then it goes to the King, who is good. It then goes to the witches again, and then to Macbeth, who is good. It is almost as though Shakespeare is dropping us a hint, and saying she is evil, even before we have read the scene. As Act 1 progresses, we see how Lady Macbeth becomes obsessed with this idea of killing the King, for Macbeth to become King. However, at one point, she does say she would kill the King herself, had he not a close resemblance to her father. This is interesting, as it shows how she does have a small amount of emotion left in her, even if it is one such as this. On the other hand, it could be seen as a simple excuse not to do it herself.
She does disorderly and unwomanly things such as disobey her husband, and at one point she even calls upon evil spirits to ‘unsex’ her. This is basically calling on all evil spirits to take away from her everything that defines her as a woman. One can understand how disturbing this image is, of her asking to be ‘unsexed’, so this is yet another example of the evil and disorder that is omnipresent throughout the Act. We can also tell that Lady Macbeth has no real moral boundaries, as shown throughout the Act. We can also see that she is ruthless, as is shown by the violent image of killing her own baby. She says she would “have pluck’d my nipple from its boneless gums”, and “dash’d the brains out.” Obviously, this is not a very nice image to have in your mind; however it is effective, as it shows her determination and her passion, as it shows the lengths she would go to. Although it is an effective image, its suggests unnaturalness, due to her willingness to kill her own child. Also, the way she refers to her own baby as ‘the’, which suggests it is a thing, not a person, is quite disturbing. She seems to have total disregard for anyone but herself, and all her morals seem to have disappeared.
In Scene 7, Macbeth is contemplating whether or not to kill King Duncan, and he starts with the soliloquy, “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” This means that if he has to kill him, he would rather it was done quickly and quietly, than having the whole affair drawn out. Lady Macbeth then enters, and Macbeth turns to her for advice. He seems doubtful, as he is asking questions like ‘what if we fail’, however we see the darker side of Lady Macbeth once more, as she twists his thoughts, and soon enough Macbeth is back under her thumb, and she lays the plan to kill King Duncan. However, not only does Lady Macbeth plan to kill the King, but she also plans to frame the King’s guards by placing the daggers in their hands, and ‘gilding their faces’ with the blood of the King. This is quite a gruesome image, but it is effective, as it shows Lady Macbeth’s passion and desire, albeit a sadistic one.
Shakespeare also uses imagery effectively when creating a sense of evil and disorder. Throughout Act 1, we can see many examples of imagery, such as “…look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under it…” This image is said by Lady Macbeth, when advising Macbeth how to greet Duncan. It is cleverly worded, as it has echoes of the Garden of Eden, as the snake was the Devil in disguise. It also shows how Macbeth seems to be descending in terms of honour, as the once so powerful Lion is turning into the snake. Basically, Lady Macbeth is saying ‘act like an innocent man, but be a murderer underneath.’
It is an image of deceit, and it is quite a commanding statement, which shows Lady Macbeth’s power over her husband. The image is effective, as it shows the contrast between good and evil. Act 1 is full of imagery, especially images of natural things being spoilt, such as milk, light, sleep, and motherhood etc. I think Shakespeare has done this because he wants the audience to know just how evil and disorderly the characters of the Witches and Lady Macbeth are meant to be. For example, the King is associated with light and growth, and evil is associated with darkness and destruction. The fact that he includes natural things being spoilt means the audience will understand just how evil these characters are, and how far they will go to make sure they reach their goals, which sets the scene nicely for the rest of the play.