Discuss Shakespeare’s dramatic technique in Act one scenes 1 to 7 Essay
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The chief character of the play is Macbeth. He is first of all Thane of Glamis and then inherits the title thane of Cawdor from an executed traitor. Instigated by a prophecy from the Witches that he will become king, and urged on by his wife, he murders King Duncan, and has himself proclaimed king. To secure his position, he is driven to commit further criminal acts, and plunges his country into civil war. After he is killed in battle by Macduff he is described as a ‘dead butcher’.
The first scene is set on the ‘moor’ that is bleak and desolate. This scene is one of desolation and devastation. The desolate countryside metaphorically separates the humans from the Witches who are used to open the play to introduce the idea of fate and destiny. From the stage directions, the ‘battlefield’ creates a scene of death, carnage and destruction in line 4, ‘when the battle’s lost and won’ and line 12 and 13, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ a paradox is offered.
How can fair be foul? How a battle be lost and won?
The Witches’ chant in rhyming couplets and their speech is deliberately equivocal to create confusion in the mortals, as it is open t interpretation. He rhyming couplets give the effect of an incantation, while the thunder and lightning echo the noise of the battle. Similarly strange is thepaaradox that closes the scene: contained within it is the oxymoron, ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’, a paradoxical idea that the Witches are able to transform what is good into evil, and make what is evil appear virtuous. These are also the first words spoken in the play by Macbeth, the echo establishes an unconscious contact with the Witches and is dramatically effective.
We discover that the Witches are on the ‘moor’ ‘to meet with Macbeth’. They seem to know where Macbeth will be. Once again they show that they can foretell the future. What can Macbeth the play’s eponymous hero have to do with these abnormal, ‘weird woman’ who ‘look not like th’inhabitants of earth’? How does he fit into their plans? The opening scene heightens the audience’s expectations, as Macbeth will soon appear on stage, the audience will try and establish exactly why the Witches hope t meet him.
Witches held great significance for a Jacobean audience who believed in witchcraft. Witches were the objects of morbid and fevered fascination during this era. The Jacobeans were afraid and superstitious. They suspected that the Witches were credited with powers and could predict the future, fly, cause fogs and tempests, bring on night in daytime, kill animals and curse people, with fatal diseases as well as induce nightmares. By the use of this technique, Shakespeare knew that he would get his audience’s attention with the opening scene. Although brief, this scene sets the supernatural atmosphere of the play, which is central to its dramatic action.
In scene two, Shakespeare cleverly moves the scene to establish a different mood when introducing the humans. The seething battlefield replaces the moor, foul thunder is replaced by the sound of the military alarum and the humans replace the Witches. In this scene we meet Duncan, the King of Scotland, and his sons, Donalbain and Malcolm. Duncan’s supremacy is instantly established for he is the first to speak. They receive a report of the battle fought against the King of Norway and Macdonwald, the thane of Cawdor who has proved disloyal to Duncan. From the report he audience learns about the heroism and bravery of one of the King Duncan’s generals, Macbeth. Shakespeare continues to build suspense as he introduces the humans.
The audience are also introduced to evil in man and the evil in warfare. The playwright’s use of language helps to bring the battle to life and emphasises Macbeth’s importance. Dynamic verbs like, ‘smok’d’, ‘brandish’d’ and ‘unseam’d’ suggest Macbeth’s skills and courage as his sword ‘smok’d with bloody execution’.
Once again we hear about Macbeth before we see him. Hw=e is spoken of in glowing terms and he becomes a hero in the eyes of the audience. Though he is referred to as a ‘worthy gentlemen’, there is still the memory that his name is connected with the Witches.
‘Brave Macbeth’ kills Macdonwald by carving ‘out his passage’ ’till he unseem’d him from the nave to the chops’ ‘with his brandish’d steel’ that ‘smok’d with bloody execution’. Part of this description highlights Macbeth’s bravery and valour, but the captain’s description of Macbeth’s ‘unseeming’ of Macdonwald can be interpreted in different ways. Shakespeare intentionally paints an ambiguous picture of Macbeth. Macbeth, however, is still not satisfied until he had ‘fix’d [Macdonwald’s] head’ upon the ‘battlements’. The decapitation of Macdonwald would support a more negative reading of Macbeth as oppose to his courageous behaviour.
Scene two concludes with an ironic note as Macbeth is rewarded with the title of ‘Thane of Cawdor’ which has been taken from ‘that most disloyal traitor’ and given to Macbeth, who will prove to be more treacherous:
‘No more than Thane of Cawdor shall deceive,
Our bosom interest. Go pronounce his death,
And with his former title greet Macbeth’.
The audience will realise that to make Macbeth Thane of Cawdor is a great mistake. We see Macbeth, the loyal subject and great hero who fought for good, change and become corrupt, and gradually deteriorate into a vicious tyrant.
At the start of scene three, we meet the Witches once again in foul weather and we begin to witness their spiteful destructive nature. One ‘sister’ has been ‘killing swine’ while another has possession of a ‘pilot’s thumb’. The other Witch punishes a sailor’s wife by conjuring up a storm, therefore getting at her husband. From this the audience learns that the powers the Witches carry are limited. They cannot kill, but are able to create a climate for evil to flourish.
‘Though his bark cannot be lost
Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d’.
The Witches’ curse on the sailor can be read as a prediction of Macbeth’s future. We are shown that the Witches are determined to make people suffer. They torment the sailor and drain him ‘dry as hay’. They deny him sleep at ‘night’ and in the ‘day’. They ensure that ‘he shall live a man forbid’.
However, Macbeth can be destroyed because the forces of veil are present within him. He alone causes chaos in the world by destroying the natural order when he deliberately choose the path of evil. The ship is a metaphor for the state of Scotland which is going to ‘tempest toss’d’ when Macbeth becomes king.
‘A drum beats and Macbeth makes an entrance. We finally meet him and it is significant that his first appearance is with the Witches on the ‘moor’. This represents his connection with evil. His paradoxical word
‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’
arrests us because it replicates those of the Witches. This once again draws inferences between Macbeth and evil. This could suggest that the Witches have control over Macbeth, or that the ‘hags’ are in some way similar to him.
The appearance of the Witches like their speeches is equivocal. It is Banquo, who is used now as a dramatic device, who first comments on the bizarre appearance of the Witches. They ‘look not like th’inhabitants o’th earth, and yet are on’t’ and they appear to be ‘women’ though they have ‘beards’. Banquo is calm and is looking for a reasonable explanation to why the Witches are on the moor, whilst Macbeth is impatient and wants an immediate answer to why the Witches have come with ‘such prophetic greetings’. The Witches prophesise that Macbeth, ‘Thane of Glamis’ will become ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘king hereafter’, and that Banquo will have kings. Part of the prophecy is immediately fulfilled when a messenger announces that Duncan, King of Scotland has promoted Macbeth Thane of Cawdor.
We the audience realise, that from the previous scene, Macbeth with his courage and bravery, and not the Witches’ powers, has won him the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’. Macbeth is ‘rapt withal’ and becomes lost in his thoughts, as the Witches have articulated his secret desire of killing the King. His mind has been corrupted and he wants glory for himself. Shakespeare shows how evil can control what is good in Macbeth. Macbeth is torn between the forces of good and evil and he believes that he cannot be king unless evil wins over good. Macbeth reveals a disturbed mind, when he speaks his own thoughts aloud in a soliloquy, as murder is in his mind. His first thought is to leave everything to chance:
‘If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me,
Without my stir’
Macbeth has asked Ross and Angus, the messengers, why they ‘dress [him] in borrow’d robes’- why they call him by the name of Cawdor, when Cawdor lives. By the end of the scene Macbeth is contemplating ‘borrowing’ the king’s ‘robes’.
The reference to clothing in this scene is symbolic. The imagery of clothing indicates status, prestige and symbolises a person’s title. By using the imagery of clothing, Shakespeare is trying to show that if you wear someone else’s clothes they may feel uncomfortable and they may ‘cleave not to their mould’ because they are ‘borrow’d’. Therefore if Macbeth wears the robes of the kingship they will ‘cleave not to [his] mould’ as he is not worthy of the kings throne.
When the Witches depart in this scene, Macbeth orders them to,
‘Stay, you imperfect speakers tell me more’.
Macbeth’s curiosity has got the better of him and his demand of the Witches indicates his obsessive interest with these ‘weird women’ and their prophecies. The Witches ‘vanish’ into the air as they do not receive orders from mortals and will not be dictated to. The source and purpose of their evil remains a mystery to the audience. Shakespeare metaphorically compares the disappearance of the Witches to ‘bubbles’. Macbeth’s life can also be represented as a bubble, as the ‘honour, love, obedience’ and ‘troops of old friends’ that he has will soon disappear under the wishes they had ‘stay’d’.
Ross and Angus enter, they are used as dramatic devices to convey to Macbeth the Kings decision to reward Macbeth with the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’. Macbeth and Banquo are both shocked as the ‘devil’ has spoken the truth. Macbeth is already snared by the Witches’ prophecies, as he believes that,
‘The greatest is behind’
On the other hand, Banquo can see through the trickery of the Witches. He is sceptical and can see through Macbeth’s motives in asking him whether he hopes his heirs will become kings. Banquo tries to warm Macbeth against the ‘instruments of darkness’. He tries to convince Macbeth that the Witches tell simple truths that are easy to believe, so that when they want to deceive people with more important matters they will also be believed.
‘And often times, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence’.
Banquo is portrayed b by Shakespeare in a positive light, as he does not make him an accomplice in Duncan’s murder.
The stage directions show that Macbeth turns ‘aside’. This informs the audience that he is talking to himself. This symbolises Macbeth turning away from the other characters in the play as well as the path to righteousness. Shakespeare uses dramatic language to emphasise Macbeth’s horror. His ‘seated heart knock’ at his ‘ribs’ and his hair is ‘unfix’ed’. The scene concludes with Macbeth and Banquo following Ross and Angus to meet the king. The audience are filled with a sense of apprehension and anticipation. One question remains: how will Macbeth get the crown?
Scene four opens with a focus on treachery and betrayal. King Duncan hears his son, Malcolm, relate how the treacherous Cawdor has been executed. Also in this scene Duncan reveals his lack of knowledge regarding his own thanes. He exposes a very human weakness-one which lies at the heart of the play- the difficulty of working out who is loyal and who is pretyending loyalty:
‘There’s no art to find the
Mind’s construction in the face’.
It seems likely that there is an implicit criticism of Duncan here: a good King should be able to assess the loyalty of all his servants. Duncan’s failure to do so reveals his limitation as a monarch- one who is taken in by appearances. Dramatic irony is introduced where Duncan announces that Cawdor was a Kinsman in whom he had ‘absolute trust’. Macbeth’s betrayal will replicate that of Cawdor’s.
When Macbeth and Banquo enter, Duncan immediately singles out Macbth for praise, ‘o’worthiest cousin’. The superlative ‘worthiest’ subtly reveals that Macbeth is yet another thane in whom Duncan has ‘absolute trust’. Macbeth is the most dangerous of the potential traitors because he is closest to the king.
Scene four is the only time we see Macbeth and Duncan together and Shakespeare contrasts the forces of good and evil. Macbeth’s deceit and hypocrisy is shown in this scene when he praises King Duncan and promises to honour him with ‘loyalty’. He convinces Duncan that servicing ‘your highness’ will be its own reward. Macbeth is a hypocrite because in the previous scene he has contemplated the ‘murder’ of Duncan. Duncan ironically comments that he has started to metaphorically ‘plant Macbeth’, meaning that he will make sure that Macbeth grows greater and stronger as a reward for his services. This is ironic because what is growing in Macbeth is the seed of ambition to be King himself.
Shakespeare deliberately plants an obstacle in Macbeth’s path when Duncan announces that his eldest son, Malcolm, is to succeed him as king. Macbeth now sees Malcolm as an obstacle between himself and the throne ‘which he must fall down’ or ‘else o’er leap’. Shakespeare uses the euphemism that Malcolm is a ‘step’ he must ‘o’er leap’, in order to disguise the realisation that Malcolm must be eradicated. In an ‘aside’, symbolically turning his back on the King, Macbeth reveals to the audience, and articulates for the first time his ‘black and deep desires’. He invokes the powers of darkness to ‘hide [their] fires’.
At the beginning of scene five, we see that Macbeth and his ‘dearest partner of greatness’, Lady Macbeth, have a very close relationship. This is a contrast to how distant they become later on in the play when Macbeth’s ‘fiend-like queen’ is ‘innocent of the knowledge’. She is ‘innocent of the knowledge’ as Macbeth does not confide about his plans to kill Banquo, and she shows ignorance of Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s family. She asks in her rambling state ‘where’ the Thane of Fife’s wife is ‘now’. Macbeth’s lack of sorrow when he hears of his wife’s death is also indicative of how they have drifted apart. In all the public scenes in the play she acts ‘like the innocent flower’; in the private scenes we see the ‘serpent under’t’. It is suggested that she commits suicide as she has become lonely and rather isolated.
Lady Macbeth does not live up to the expectation of a typical Jacobean/Elizabethan woman. She wants the spirits the ‘spirits’ to ‘unsex’ her so that she can be tough and strong. Lady Macbeth uses strong imperatives and determined language that is brutal and violent. This is because she is delighted with her husband’s letter and shows determination that he will become king. The letter form Macbeth describes the Witches’ appearances, their prophecies-in particular that which promises the throne to Macbeth- but does not mention King Duncan’s announcement of his heir; the audience can therefore, assume that this letter was written immediately after the events which occur in the third scene.
Although Lady Macbeth knows that her husband is ambitious, she is aware that he ‘is too full o’the milk of human kindness’. She says that ruthlessness is an ‘illness’ that Macbeth does not have. This is not a true portrayal of Macbeth, because from the previous scenes and throughout the play we see that Macbeth is not ‘too full o’the milk of human kindness’ but lacks it. Perhaps she is comparing Macbeth to herself and is saying that Macbeth is not as ambitious as she is. Lady Macbeth under estimates the powers of her conscience. She see her conscience as her weakness, not realising until after Duncans ‘murder’ how she will pour[her] spirits in his ear’. She has also decided that nothing will stand between him (or her?) and the ‘golden crown’ ( a metonym for the throne).
Lady Macbeth greets her husband like the Witches, which subconsciously links her to evil and believes that her call to the ‘murdering ministers’ has been answered. She feels ‘now the future in the instant’ and that she is ‘beyond this ignorant present’. This is ironic as Lady Macbeth is still being ‘ignorant’. Lady Macbeth’s confidence is a contrast to Macbeth’s uncertainty. She advises him to ‘look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t’ and to ‘only look up clear’. She is in control of their relationship and tries to help Macbeth find the necessary determination to do the ‘deed’. Though Lady Macbeth appears to be confident, she uses euphemisms when talking to Macbeth about the ‘nights great business’.
At this point in the play, Macbeth has been tempted to commit regicide, however he has tried to resist temptation. Macbeth’s resistance, however, is not vigorous enough to stand up to his wife’s ability to manipulate him.
The scene closes dramatically with Lady Macbeth’ emphatic affirmation that Duncan’s fate rests in her hands- ‘leave all the rest to me’.
Scene six sees King Duncan arriving at Macbeth’s castle, he and Banquo talk about how ‘pleasant’ a place it is to visit. They comment that the air ‘recommends itself’ and ‘is delicate’. This is ironic in view of Lady Macbeth’s words in the previous scene, and even more so when compared with that of the Witches say about the ‘fog and filthy air’ surrounding their evil deeds. Duncan also says that he is grateful for the ‘love’ which is shown to him. Here again, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony. The idea that Duncan feels safe and loved in the surroundings is ironic as this will be the scene of his murder. This creates a sense of anticipation for the audience. It shows Duncan’s naivety, as he keeps full trust in Macbeth and his ‘fair and noble hostess’. We are presented in this scene with images of tranquillity and the words ‘host’ and ‘guest’ are repeated.
At the beginning of scene seven, we once again see the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Macbeth cannot make up his mind whether to kill Duncan and he wrestles with his conscience in his soliloquy. He knows that the murder would be wrong and would he would end up paying the price for his crime, but he has ‘vaulting ambition’ that is very persuasive to his conscience. Though Macbeth is driven by ‘his vaulting ambition’ he redeems himself and ‘will proceed no further in this business’, as Duncan’s murder will be ‘like angels, trumpet-tongu’d’ and heaven would be outraged. The verb ‘will’ shows Macbeth’s determination to keep his soul. Toward the end of his soliloquy Macbeth compares his excessive ambition to a horse that tries to jump too high and fall on the other side of the fence. Within the soliloquy Macbeth’s thoughts seem to be fragmented, this is shown by the use of many full stops.
Lady Macbeth verbally assaults her husband using violent language that becomes heightened. She accuses him of being a ‘coward’ and questions his manhood: ‘when you durst do it’, she says, ‘ then you were a man’. She is forceful in her language and she conjures up images of horror. She knows,
‘How tender’tis love the babe that milks me: I would,
While it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out…’
Lady Macbeth seems to have been granted her earlier wish to the evil spirits to
‘Fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty’.
Macbeth’s earlier decision not to kill Duncan crumbles under the scornful attack of his wife, especially when his bravery is questioned. However, he is still worried bout what will happen to then if they ‘should fail’.
Shakespeare cleverly ends the scene with rhyming couplets.
‘Away, and mock the time with fairest show,
False face must hide what the false heart doth know’.
The rhyming couplets symbolise their connection with the Witches and evil as they complete their preparations for murder. The audience waits in anticipation.
Throughout Act one Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of tension by exploring the theme of evil against good. Symbolism is used to emphasise this theme. Dramatic irony, dramatic language and strong descriptive scenes also help to build up an atmosphere of tension.