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‘Macbeth’ is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most compact tragedies, and because of this fast pace, Macbeth himself is the only character to be fully developed, the other characters existing to help the audience understand the changes in Macbeth’s personality from play start to end. This ‘centering’ on Macbeth throughout the play is fascinating, for Macbeth’s character descends from being a noble and valient general in the Scottish army, to being known as nothing more than a mercilous butcher. The play has many themes and images running through it, but they all return to the main confliction, which is good versus evil. This ‘battle’ also takes place within Macbeth’s character, and the inner turmoil he experiences is reflected in the many soliloquys he speaks throughout the play. Like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, ‘Macbeth’ was written in the Jacobean era, and the anxieties experienced by the characters in the play about the stability of their state would have related to the fears of the audience at that time, an audience that would have included King James I, who was afraid of the possibility of civil war in his kingdom, which he him felt to be the worst evil. The play opens in a scene of darkness, thunder and an evil atmosphere that represents the coming disorder of the state. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s personal downfall into evil is directly connected with the survival of Scotland.
In this first scene we are introduced to ‘The Weird Sisters,’- the witches. They are the physical embodiment of evil in the play and are responsible for igniting Macbeth’s powerful ambition. This scene has been said to be the key note of the whole play, for the destruction, and wickedness that is communicated in this scene will soon be spread around the state under Macbeth’s rule. The witches’ chant gives us more insight into their plans for Scotland; ‘In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ When weather becomes stormy and tempestuous, it is an indication that nature is in chaos, and that is the start of a misrule and disorder that will eventually spread throughout the whole kingdom. Whenever the witches appear in the play, the weather is cloudy and foreboding. In their line, ‘When the battle is lost or won’ they are referring to more than the battle at Fife, they are also referring to the conflict within Macbeth, for there are only two sides he can turn to; Good or Evil. ‘There to meet with Macbeth.’ This line immediately connects Macbeth directly with the witches. The weird sisters realise the possibilities given to them through Macbeth’s hidden, burning ambition and they will tempt him towards evil.
‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
This last line of the witches reveals to us how the witches will confuse reality and appearance until it will be impossible to distinguish good from evil. This ‘reversal of values’ is repeated throughout the play in lines spoken by characters other than the witches.
In Scene Two of the the first Act, Macbeth is described to us through hearsay. King Duncan has seen a Captain whose wounds look fresh, so he asks for the latest news of the battle against the invading Norwegians. The words Duncan first speaks are ‘What bloody man is that?’ The image of spilled blood appears a lot in the play, and it is ironic that Duncan should mention blood, for Macbeth’s ambition to become King means that soon, Duncan too will be a bloody man. The Captain uses very flowery language to describe Macbeth’s bravery in the face of the enemy. We hear how Macbeth ‘unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,’ Macbeth’s actions are more savage than heroic and yet they are praised for protecting the rightful king. Later in the play Macbeth would be denounced for his bloodthirsty savagery. Macbeth is compared to a Lion and Eagle by the Captain, both large regal predators. As the play continues the metaphoric comparisons will follow Macbeth’s downfall until he is described as something as lowly as a weed. This contrasts with the previous scene, and lets the audience see how the main protagonist was known for being brave and noble, so that the change in his character can be fully understood at the end of the play.
The first we actually see of Macbeth is in the third scene. He speaks the words ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ This reiterates the words of the witches, again connecting Macbeth with them. Up until the time when the witches make their predictions, Macbeth is known to be a noble and contented man. However, when the second of the witches’ predictions comes true, that Macbeth should become the thane of Cawdor, he can think only of their third prediction, that he would become King. Macbeth gaining the title of the thane of Cawdor is quite important, for it means that Macbeth would be putting on the treacherous Cawdor’s robes – It is likely that Macbeth will become a traitor as well. The effect of the witches’ words upon Macbeth is so noticeable that Banquo asks him if he fears the witches’ predictions. Macbeth is now in turmoil and speaks his first soliloquy, in which he mentions murder, although it is he who connects kingship and murder, and not the witches. In his soliloquy Macbeth is weighing up good and bad, truth and lies. If the prophecy is so positive, why has he got bloody images of a slaughtered king running through his mind? Banquo recognises the evil nature of the witches, and warns Macbeth not to pay too much attention to their words.
It has been said that the core of the play is the contrast between the spiritual states of Macbeth and his wife. This changes in the play, for at Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth seems strong and Macbeth weak, but later, as Lady Macbeth realises what she has involved both herself and her husband in, she cannot bear it and goes to pieces almost at once. After Duncan’s murder, Macbeth is tragically clear-sighted and sees the full horror of what he has done, becoming almost hysterical. He murdered Duncan while Duncan was asleep and now worries that he has murdered the innocence and peace represented by sleep. Lady Macbeth however, takes charge of the practical side of things and takes the daggers back to the guards, feeling no guilt at all for persuading her husband to murder the king of Scotland. Her personality seems to be extremely hard, but the key to her actions is her lack of imagination. She has no time to think about what she is really doing and never lifts her head to the horizon.
When reading ‘Macbeth’ for the first time, one might think that Macbeth would not have taken any action to fulfil his ambitions had his wife not been there to nag him into it, yet it is he who first connects the witches’ prophecies to murder. From the time after meeting with the witches to the time he rejoined his wife, his mind was full of murderous, bloody images. Although Macbeth was frightened to take the first step towards evil, after Duncan’s death each act of treachery, deceit and wickedness becomes easier and easier for Macbeth. By Act five, Scene five, Macbeth has lost nearly all his morality, and at the sound of a scream says: