‘Macbeth’ is a play of witchcraft, deceit, and murder. Written for King James I in 1606 by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), the play lives on to capture the imaginations of audiences almost 400 years later. It talks of a King, made so through treason, and impassioned by his greed and ambition, and his wife – a woman who asked darkness to “unsex” her. The pair are eventually overthrown by a mixture of guilt, over-confidence, and Malcolm’s forces. This ending of ‘good’ triumphing over ‘evil’ was important in that period; especially when witchcraft was a great crime and witches were burnt at the stake. The public wanted to see plays where truth would triumph, especially a reigning King.
Lady Macbeth is, arguably, the essence of the play. Macbeth sees her as his equal, saying:
“My dearest partner in greatness.” – 1:5:9
Such a relationship would have been unnatural in Shakespeare’s time, where women were dainty figures taking a backseat.
Lady Macbeth puts the wheels in motion without ever touching them, her strong and powerful character is shown through the way she manipulates her husband. She begins by taunting him, almost ridiculing him:
“And live a coward in thine own esteem…
Like the poor cat in’th’adage?” – 1:7:43/4
This is startling. Lady Macbeth is likening her husband to wanting fish yet being afraid of water. The relationship is tipped in favour of Lady Macbeth from the very beginning, in Shakespeare’s time this was almost unheard of. She goes on to tactfully say:
“He that’s coming
Must be provided for, and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch.” – 1:6:64-6
Lady Macbeth plays with words here to beguile Macbeth into her snare; he seems almost innocent. Phrases like ‘provided for’, ‘business’ and ‘dispatch’, are all indirect references to killed, murder and killing. Shakespeare uses double meanings to illustrate Lady Macbeth’s sly character. It seems that Lady Macbeth understands Macbeth more than he does her. She goes on to say:
“When you durst do it, then you were a man.” – 1:7:49
Questioning the masculinity of any man is bound to provoke a reaction, in this case Macbeth immediately does what is needed to be seen as ‘a man’ through the eyes of Lady Macbeth. Being a man could mean being mature, defensive, strong and valiant. Yet Lady Macbeth asks for none of that. The murder of King Duncan will suffice. His reluctance, however, is evident. He feels guilty before having done anything:
“First, as I am his kingsman, and his subject… who should against his murderer shut the door.” – 1:7:13-5
This shows that Macbeth isn’t a character with a complete disregard for human life, after the murder of Duncan the regret is immediate:
“Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst.” – 2:2:78
Shakespeare using contrast in his language to show how Lady Macbeth steers her husband,
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?” – 2:2:60
There is a strong contrast with the above line, Lady Macbeth handles the situation with tact and skill by downplaying the murder:
“A little water will clear us of this deed.
How easy it is then!” – 2:2:70-1
The entire scene (Act 2, scene 2) is a tense one, Shakespeare portrays the tension through their rigid speech and monosyllabic question and response. Shakespeare also uses the confrontation of two rivals later on in the play to create an edge, Macduff and Macbeth in Act 5, scene 7, and uses the humour in the porter scene in Act 2, scene 3 to break the tension created in the last scene.
After the death of their father Duncan’s sons flee, fearing for their lives. Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor, Glamis and he has his sights set on King. The whole idea I see here is of wanting more. Macbeth, like many, was never satisfied. As Lady Macbeth said:
“Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.” – 1:5:17-8
This illness, this evil, which is needed to satisfy their “black and deep desires” is what Lady Macbeth instilled in him. Without her boldness of character, her influence over him, Macbeth would never have overcome the “milk of human kindness” within himself to commit treason. Macbeth was not satisfied with what he had because his mind was opened to a dream – that he would one day be king – by the three witches:
“All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.” – 1:3:47
And Lady Macbeth:
“We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.” – 1:7:59-61
This desire lead him to kill a friend, Banquo, through such manipulative devices that the influence and importance of Lady Macbeth over him is clearly seen. Macbeth, like his wife, does not outwardly demand the murderers to kill Banquo. He creates an invisible wound upon them, and then pushes them to avenge it:
“Do you find your patience so predominant in your nature, that you can let this go?” -3:2:86-7
He goes on to question their manhood, saying how certain types of dogs – spaniels, curs and mongrels – are part of a species where they do not entirely belong:
“Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men.” – 3:1:91
Again, there seems to be a reflex reaction from every male in the play to prove his manliness. And yet, qualities we recognise today – consideration, respect, dignity – do not enter Shakespeare’s diction. The only way these men are to prove they belong is through killing another, mirroring the violent nature of ‘Macbeth’ . The violence is predominant throughout; to show this directors could use various devices.
Props such as stage blood, large swords and armoury are generally used to bring out this violence. The audience is shocked by the ruthlessness of Macbeth in the betrayal, intimidated by his tunnel-vision and, through Shakespeare’s plot and good acting, hating him for the transition from “noble Macbeth” to “that tyrant.”
To bring the play to life, however, Shakespeare manipulates his characters. In the beginning Macbeth was saying:
“This even handed justice,
Commends th’ingredience of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.” – 1:7: 10-11
He not only recognised what was morally wrong by the murder but he foresaw his own demise. Macbeth went on to convince himself that his kinship, loyalty and he “as his host” should prevent the deed. That Duncan with his virtues to “plead like angels” does not deserve to be killed. Shakespeare uses this soliloquy to present Macbeth’s thoughts, indecision, in the hope that that the audience too will share his initial views. Then, when Macbeth banishes such judgement, he can bring about a backlash against Macbeth because the audience have had their ethical consciences struck. Shakespeare uses the technique to evoke strong feelings towards his characters, in doing so he involves the audience and an engaged audience enjoys a play.
With Banquo’s murder, I believe Macbeth opens a can of worms, sealing his fate and damning his existence. It is worth noticing that Lady Macbeth wasn’t aware of this act, Shakespeare does this to show the growing independence of Macbeth and develop the role reversal. He stands to lose his friendship, his trust, his wife, his sanity and his life:
“It is concluded. Banquo, thy soul’s flight,
If it find heaven, must find it tonight.” – 3:1:140-1
Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets, like the one above, to give the audience a signal that an important point is being made. The rhyming couplet in this last line is sonorous, and so it leaves a lasting impression carrying the audience through to the next scene.
The allured murderers, unnamed because they are unnecessary and to heighten the mystery, inform Macbeth that Banquo is dead. Yet his heir, Fleance, has escaped. We know Macbeth is not as sturdy and conscienceless as Lady Macbeth – though he did wear her shoes in Act 3, Scene 1 – and his conscience is immediately on stage. Macbeth hallucinates, and cries:
“Thou canst not say I did it; never shake
Thy gory locks at me!” – 3:4: 50-1
His state of mind is unstable, he’s frenzied and suffering from anxiety under the weight of murder. From here, Macbeth begins to fall. Fall from the heights of his own greed, the hallucinations progress as does his tyranny of rule. He fits into Lady Macbeth’s image of a man, something she urged him to do, something she alone was the source of.
She may have downplayed the act, but she did understand the magnitude of it. She warned him in Act 2, scene 2, lines 37-8, that dwelling over it would lead to their insanity. This is ironic as she is the first to lose her sanity in it’s entirety:
“Out, damned spot! out, I say! One; two; why, then
tis time to do’t. Hell is murky!” – 5:1:30-1
The guilt she feels leads her to committing suicide, when in actual fact she was not the perpetrator of the crime. This goes to show that Lady Macbeth herself feels some responsibility for the murders, which lead to his downfall; a woman capable of having “dashed the brains out” from a child is reduced to a frenzied broil, all through the guilt she feels over the domino-effect deaths. Macbeth, upon hearing of her demise, seems almost inconvenienced by it:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been time for such a word.” – 5:5:16-7
A potent gap has been created between the pair by the murder, the incident at the dinner party and Macbeth’s failure to inform Lady Macbeth of Banquo’s murder show this. His final speeches all stem from this crucial point: They outline the meaningless and absurdity of existence: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.’ Once lady Macbeth dies, all of his earthly ambition becomes dust. This reinforces the point that she was his driving force, she justified and supported his existence, and his love for her – despite his growing distance from her – made her death all the more intolerable.
Every so often, the imagery of clothing is used to bring out Macbeth’s character and it’s almost as if he’s hiding behind these “borrowed robes.” It’s ironic that a man so distasteful, a murderer, should be dressed in royal robes. Shakespeare used this distinction to emphasise to the audience Macbeth’s character:
“Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould.” – 1:3:143
Shakespeare calls attention to the nature of his characters by way of contradiction, the taking of two opposite characters – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, for instance – and comparing the two. “I have no spur/ to prick the sides of my intent….We shall proceed no further with this business,” from Macbeth in Act 1 in contrast to Lady Macbeth’s, “When you durst do it then you were a man,” puts ‘white’ against ‘black’; the white looking whiter, the black looking blacker. The same technique of using contrast to bring out the characteristics of Shakespeare’s creations can be found between Banquo and Macbeth, where Banquo too was given the prophecies but chose not to undertake them. This is clear proof that the witches were not to blame, is that Banquo recognises the witches for what they are: ‘The instruments of darkness’.
The character transitions between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are clear; Macbeth has become the power-hungry manipulator that Lady Macbeth once was, and her character has disintegrated before the audiences eyes. Shakespeare leaves her suicide, like so many of the murders, to the audience’s imagination. In this way, they are open to individual interpretation, it requires more thought from the audience and hence more involvement in the plot. Some may perceive her as a victim of her imagination – lead on by her ambition, stirred by the witches.
After all, the witches did indeed plant the seeds of greed and desire into Macbeth. They promised he would be king, through their misleading prophecies. Prophecies which were probably intended to create Macbeth’s downfall, and used a second session of fortune telling to push him over the edge:
“The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.” – 4:1:79-80
This assurance gave Macbeth the confidence he needed to ignore threats and put himself in jeopardy, allow himself to fall from the mountains of ambition that the witches themselves had built:
“He shall spurn fate, scorn, death and bear
His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear.
And you all know, security,
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” – 3:5:30-3
The rhyming couplets used add to the atmosphere; the stereotypical behaviour from the witches not only authenticates the typical views of an extremely superstitious audience but they engage a more contemporary audience by using typical imagery to create an intense atmosphere on stage. The audience are aware of the impending bloodshed through skilled acting and Shakespeare script, however are powerless to intervene. The lines reflect what those in Shakespeare’s time saw witches to be like. Another example would be in the first scene of Act 4, where the witches brew chaos in their cauldrons:
“Liver of a blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew.” – 4:1:26-7
The ‘Jew’ reference can also refer to the religious prejudice and anti-Semitism which was very much prevalent in the time. Similarly Hecate, in Act 3, was angry because Macbeth was using the witchcraft to his advantage. They drove him to paranoia; he puts on his armour long before it is needed, but within his impregnable fortresses his wife is killed by a foe not manifested physically so that it can be resisted – her conscience. In Shakespeare’s time, allowing witchcraft to win and be used for ill gains without retribution on the side of good, was disgraceful. As a result, Shakespeare allowed his hero to be vanquished through the “glory of their art”. It could be argued, despite the hallucinations, Macbeth was ahead of their game, infuriating Hecate, and it was this final push, from the witches, which directly lead to his downfall.
Shakespeare uses the witches to introduce his most recurrent theme: Order and chaos. He applies the contrast to highlight serious moral questions over Macbeth’s actions. The chaos lies in the destruction of trust, “He’s here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,” 1:7:11-12. Trust broken first between himself and Duncan, then Banquo.
The witches used his cravings, and his dissatisfaction with the status he had, to push him over the edge. To do so, Macbeth must have been responsible to some degree. Ultimately his desire for a legacy of kings, an ancestry which would immortalise him, is what prompted him to kill Banquo – when I believe he sealed his fate.
Shakespeare uses dramatic irony in Act 1, Scene 4, “He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust,” Duncan tells Malcolm, describing Macdonald. Macbeth, taking Macdonald’s place, enters just then and here lies the irony; in that the audience are aware of Macbeth’s treachery, while the characters act in ignorance. That the ending is a repeat of the beginning, the Thane of Cawdor being defeated, beheaded and humiliated owing to treason.
In Scene 4 Shakespeare also writes,
“The eye wink at the hand. Yet let that be
Which the eye fears when it is done to see.” 1:4:53-4
It could be argued this is to say that the eye directs the hand, but in the spotlight feigns surprise at the actions of the hand. This interpretation reinforces the theme of appearance and reality, however I believe it is a premonition. Though initially the eye directs the hand, in white light it fears the deed it did commit. In this way it prophesises the fate of lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s subsequent downfall.
Furthermore, in Act 2 Scene 4:
“A falcon tow’ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.”
The old man mirrors Macbeth’s actions with regards to Duncan, paralleling what should be but what isn’t. Where there is order, in nature, there is no chaos. The dramatic irony is in that the audience are aware of the stark reality of his words, their implications, yet are powerless.
Before the murder Banquo says perceptively, “I have observed/ the air is delicate.” The word ‘delicate’ refers to something vulnerable and fragile; the statement is very much a preconception when behind closed doors Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting treason. The technique amplifies atmosphere so the audience receives the full impact of the play.
Towards the end of the play, Macduff kills Macbeth in a scene easily read as the victory of Good over Evil. However, this does not do justice to Shakespeare’s skill; Macbeth realises that Macduff was born by caesarean, Shakespeare uses this anagnorisis – Macbeth’s realisation of the witches’ antics – to change Macbeth’s entire perspective and how the audience perceives him. He realises that time is irreversible, “And wish the estate o’the world were now undone.” (5:5:50), and this makes the final battle heroic. Macbeth says, “I will not fight thee,” which allows the audience to suppose that from the ashes of his morality, a degree of his former self rises like a Phoenix. We wonder whether a tyrant can be capable of contemplating a loss: ‘…that which should accompany old age/ As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’ – , while stressing that these are no more than wasted potentialities behind the depraved actualities.
Macbeth chooses to die fighting, it’s almost a reminder of the Macbeth who defeated MacDonald in the second scene. This ‘brave Macbeth’, unheard of now, seems to rise to the surface through his unwillingness to be captured by the enemy:
“I will not yield
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.” – 5:9:27-8
Shakespeare’s structure adapts to the plot; breathers between scenes are in prose (Act 2, Scene 3), the witch’s speeches are in flowing rhyming couplets to build the environment, while here – towards the end – the sentences are short, quickening the pace, and there is a lot less speech to emphasise the importance of the action. Shakespeare’s play of words become more apparent, by naming an aide of Macbeth ‘Seyton’ he emblazons the idea of Macbeth being the ‘Evil’ one, aided by witchcraft and The Devil. It’s worthy to remember the message he was getting across to the people of his period: that evil does not pay and that disloyalty to the King is comparable to having tea with the Devil.
What made Lady Macbeth, break down in such ways was her mentality. She had never met the witches, yet her desire was inflamed; she didn’t carry out any of the murders, yet she relived them in her sleep, terrified of the darkness she once bid; she cajoled Macbeth into murdering Duncan and yet he battled on after her. Perhaps because she accepted their deeds were ‘evil’ and struggled to deal with them, while Macbeth deemed his actions just in the sense that he was pursuing something which was rightfully his.
Macbeth’s downfall is a moral lesson as was, I believe, Shakespeare’s point throughout this play. Macbeth wanted more, and through a lucky happenstance at a battle a windfall of success came his way unbidden. The first prophecies of the three witches proved him a victim of his ambition; Macbeth was willing to forsake his morality, his loyalty, his faith – remembering 17th century Britain was predominantly catholic – all for a “Vaulting ambition which o’leaps itself”. Where “the battle’s lost and won”, indecision has the only decisive victory. Evil does not become alive until it is endorsed by the will. As in Macbeth where the play begins with the witches, who we must suppose to be evil; but they only created potential evil, not actual. It is the human that takes it into his mind and makes it reality by a motion of the will. And Lady Macbeth put the wheels in motion – she drove him to be everything, and in some ways he was. He was both everything and nothing at all.