The play Macbeth written by William Shakespeare is skilfully structured to engage an audience’s interest through effective techniques in the opening scenes. These are the use of setting, characterisation, language and the structure of the play. The setting is cleverly used to create the appropriate atmosphere to the scene and plays on the 17th century expectations and assumptions of weather. The characters introduced in the opening scenes are captivating, Shakespeare’s use of rhyme, rhythm, repetition and dialogue help establish this.
The play’s structure in the scenes and character’s dialogue create an engaging and inquiring effect, helping to make the opening scenes of Macbeth captivate the audience’s interest.
The setting in the opening scenes is crafted to create a dramatic effect through the place its set in and the weather used. In act one, scene one, the stage directions are given as “An open place…Thunder and lightening. Enter three witches.” This is quite significant, especially in the 17th century, as in those superstitious times it was believed that storms were representative of and released forces of evil.
The audience is already informed that it’s a spooky and eerie atmosphere and are then intrigued as to what frightening or supernatural event might follow.
A stormy setting is used prior to the witches’ entrance in both scene one and three, which acts as an effective prelude to a sinister and immoral mood. Act one, scene three’s stage description “A heath…thunder…” is not only using pathetic fallacy to set the evil and unsettled tone, but also landscape.
A heath can be described as wasteland overgrown with shrubs, uncultivated. This uncared for and abandoned environment reflects that the witches are socially unacceptable and rejected, emphasising and reminding the audience how ill-favoured and god-awful these witches are. This provokes the audience’s curiosity as they’re ‘sheltered’ or not used to seeing this kind of living, and shows the dramatic impact Shakespeare crafts through setting.
Another technique used to maintain interest and stimulate inquisitiveness is the structure of the opening scenes. Shakespeare purposely organises the order in which the characters are introduced and limits the storyline revealed to the audience to captivate them. The first scene with the witches mentions their plans involving Macbeth. “There to meet with Macbeth…” and as the character of Macbeth hasn’t yet made an entrance, the audience indecisively creates an image of doom around him, as his name is associated with the witches.
However, scene two sets up a more assuring perception of Macbeth. The Captain praises his name and noble actions to King Duncan, “For brave Macbeth…disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel”, this follow through scene leaves the audience assured, but having the preceding thought of Macbeth being doomed creates curiosity in the audience. Having been introduced to two completely contrasting personas of Macbeth, the audience wants to know whether he will turn out to continue being noble or change to being evil. In scene three Macbeth meets with the witches, as they’d predicted at the beginning of the play. They then foretell Macbeth’s destiny as becoming Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and then King, “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!…Thane of Cawdor!…that shalt be King hereafter!” In sequence, Macbeth is informed that he’s now Thane of Cawdor. “And for an earnest of a greater honour…call thee Thane of Cawdor.”
The audience is now aware that the witches’ predictions have been proven correct. Macbeth is also now aware of this, and a curious seed of greed has been planted into his mind. This is where he then starts brooding on thoughts of becoming King, and what he might have to do to achieve this, “…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…” Aside to the audience, Macbeth is explaining his thoughts of killing Duncan, in order to be King. This creates a lot of interest amongst the audience as Macbeth was described as being a noble, respectable and courageous man prior to his soliloquy, yet now after the witches’ prediction has come true, Macbeth is falling into the witches hands- favouring their other prediction of him becoming King. This order of events is effective in the way that intrigue is raised as to whether Macbeth will become King or not.
Structure is not only used in the scenes, but also in the dialogue to build up an alluring and tense effect. In scene two the Captain has been delivering victorious news about a battle Macbeth had led to triumph. In sequel he begins “…whence comfort seemed to come, discomfort swells.” The Captain raises Duncan’s expectations of defeat by using ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’ as contrasting words. Duncan now assumes an unsuccessful loss, as well as the audience, “Dismayed not this our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?” However the Captain continues to announce Macbeth’s second victory, “…As cannons overcharged…strokes upon the foe.” His order of dialogue, by preparing Duncan for loss, effectively emphasises the victorious event of Macbeth’s second triumph in battle. So Shakespeare’s use of structure in scenes and dialogue contribute to making the opening scenes of Macbeth dramatic.
Setting and structure in the opening scenes are used effectively to engage the audience’s interest. Furthermore the characters and language Shakespeare constructs are the utmost intriguing, completing the dramatic tone in the opening scenes of Macbeth. In act one, scene one the witches’ dialogue is in rhyme and rhythm,
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightening, or in rain?”
This gives it a sense of chanting and makes it spell-like, emphasising the supernatural characterisation of them. Another example of the witches speaking in rhyming couplets is in scene 3, “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, and like a rat without a tail…” This habit is not only spell-like, but it also separates the witches from the other characters in the play, accentuating the fact that they’re evil and opposing to the natural ways of humanity. The three witches also take it in turns to speak, completing and answering each other’s speech. This pattern and unity suggests that they act together like one, almost as if they’re representing an inverse of the holy trinity. This underlying image of them is significant in the way of reversing the ‘natural order’ that God had originally set up- again opposing to the natural ways of humanity. This is also shown through a spell they chant together in scene one, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”.
They believe everything evil is good, contradicting what the society they live in believes- that everything evil is bad and sinful. Another habit of the witches’ speech is repetition of threes. In scene three witch 1 is discussing taking revenge on a woman’s husband, as she’d not given her chestnuts, “…and munched, and munched, and munched…’Aroint thee witch,’…I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” The woman tells the witch to get lost, ‘aroint’, and this angers the witch to take revenge, ‘I’ll do’. To speak words or phrases in triplets really states how powerful or magical they are as in Shakespeare’s time the number 3, and multiples of 3, were regarded as magic numbers. The witches cite triplets and magic numbers a number of times in the opening scenes, “…nine times nine…thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again, to make up nine.” So in addition to speaking in rhyming couplets and rhythm, Shakespeare uses society’s superstition to enhance the witches’ dark and forbidden characterisation.
In addition to these unusual ways of speaking, the witches are portrayed to be physically unappealing. Banquo’s first impression was dismayed and confused, “What are these, so withered, and so wild in their attire…” He describes how unattractive and degraded they appear, “…look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth…Live you, or are you aught that man may question?” Banquo is suggesting that they look nothing like humans, and is hesitant to ask if they are as he fears they’re evil spirits. This really exemplifies the witches’ characteristics to be spooky, eerie and devious. This would be more so appealing to an Elizabethan audience as they’d been sheltered and kept away from anything dark and sinful. Being able to witness these strange characters on stage would be extremely interesting. By constructing the witches to be physically unattractive enhances the intrigue, as they’re even more unfamiliar and ‘different’. This helps to capture the audience’s intrigue and make the opening scenes dramatic.
As well as the witches, Macbeth is set up to be a very interesting character successfully captivating the audience in the opening scenes. As discussed in the structure of the play, Macbeth is portrayed to be a very loyal, courageous and noble man. To depict these qualities, Shakespeare uses descriptive language which is very effective, especially when the Captain compares Macbeth to Macdonwald, “…multiplying villainies of nature do swarm upon him [Macdonwald]…like a rebel’s whore” Using a harsh and sinful tone about Macdonwald sets up a great contrast against Macbeth, “For brave Macbeth… with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution, like valour’s minion carved out his passage…”
The Captain’s description of Macbeth not only seems incredibly worthy compared to Macdonwald, but also mighty and potent due to using bold words such as ‘brandished’, ‘smoked’ and ‘carved’. The Captain also glorifies Macbeth through the use of irony. As in the discussion on the play’s structure, the Captain had prepared Duncan for bad news only to praise Macbeth’s second victory. He says the second attack dismayed Macbeth and Banquo as much “As sparrows [dismayed] eagles, or the hare [dismayed] the lion.” Macbeth is being described as an eagle or lion that prey upon the sparrows and the hare, which represent the King of Norway- the second opposition. Eagles and lions are very majestic animals in the animal kingdom, giving Macbeth a high authority and status. The dialogue is kept very enthralling through different techniques.
Assonance keeps the pace quick and poetic to listen to, “…doubly redoubled strokes upon…” Some of the similes used are very effective “As cannons overcharged with double cracks…” The Captain is describing the power and conquest Macbeth has over the King of Norway, ‘overcharged with double cracks’ creates a very powerful image as it’s described to be immoderate- more than enough. Another technique common in the character’s dialogue is the use of metaphors. Again when the Captain is lauding Macbeth, he refers to him as “Bellona’s bridegroom”. This trope instantly gives Macbeth a high status and supremacy as it’s referring to him as Mars, the god of war, who was wedded to Bellona. All these high praises have set up the audience’s perception of Macbeth to be very valiant, and this makes his developing characterisation to be intriguing because the audience wants to see if he can be both noble and associated with the witches.
Even though Macbeth’s persona is portrayed to be noble, his righteous ways are uncertain when the audience meets him which hooks the audience. His first words in his first entrance mimic the witches’ in scene one, “So foul and fair a day…” Although Macbeth is presumably referring to the bad weather yet satisfying victories, this echo of ‘foul and fair’ suggests that Macbeth is sub-consciously crossing over to the evil ways and beliefs of the witches. It could also be suggesting that even though Macbeth isn’t aware, the witches are already in control of him. Either way, the echo of ‘foul and fair’ underlies a connection to the witches and their evil characteristics. This possibility of Macbeth being villainous only increases after the witches’ prediction of him becoming thane of Cawdor comes true. Macbeth then obsesses with the idea of becoming King and tries to evaluate this occurrence, questioning whether the witches only let this come true to gain his trust so they can betray him.
“If ill, why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.”
Macbeth questions why these predictions might be bad if it has made him successful as a Thane. “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion…” By suggestion, Macbeth means the thought of him killing Duncan to be King, “…my thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…” As he’s in this state of confusion, it intrigues the audience to think whether Macbeth will turn evil or stay true to his virtues. In the end of his deliberation, he decides to let destiny take its place without his interference, “…chance will have me King…without my stir” This lessens the tension of the audience until noble Macbeth hears that Duncan is naming his son future King. “We will establish our estate upon our eldest, Malcolm…” Despite Macbeth originally deciding to let destiny take place, he instantly sees Malcolm as an obstacle to becoming King,
“The Prince of Cumberland-that is a step,
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies.”
His obsessing ambition now makes him consciously think evil deeds.
“…Stars hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
By referring to his thoughts as ‘desires’, it’s evidently showing that Macbeth is crossing over to the witches ‘side’- believing in what they believe. The other characters are unaware of this; it’s only Macbeth and the audience who know. This makes the development of the play enthralling to the audience, as they want to know how the other characters fall into Macbeth’s other persona, his dark side. He continues his obsession, describing how awful his thoughts are.
“The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears when it is done to see.”
Macbeth’s saying ‘the eye’, any witnesses, should be blind to what he’s about to do (in thought) as, if anyone’s exposed to what he’s done they’ll be in fear. Alternatively, Macbeth could be suggesting that his eyes should be blind to what his hands are doing (his actions) as if he let’s both his personas clash (his noble side and evil side), he’ll regret what he’s done. Macbeth’s character is so episodic, changing his beliefs and qualities from scene to scene. The language in the dialogue is so varied and interesting through assonance, irony, similes and metaphors, that the audience are immediately absorbed and inquiring.
The opening scenes of Macbeth are made dramatic through a series of techniques including setting, structure, characters and language. Shakespeare effectively uses weather and landscape to create and enhance an eerie and immoral mood, mostly prior to the witches’ entrance. Intrigue is also stimulated through the play’s structure, in both Shakespeare’s order of scenes and use of dialogue. Limiting the storyline revealed and purposely organising the order in which characters are introduced develop anticipation and inquisitiveness amongst the audience. Overall the characters and language introduced in the opening scenes are the utmost captivating. Their characterisations are constructed through language compiling of techniques such as similes, assonance, metaphors, rhythm, rhyme and irony. All of these effectively help to make the opening scenes of Macbeth extremely enthralling, interesting and dramatic.