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For this English assignment I am going to write about William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”. Through this essay I am hoping that I will be able to comment upon many things about the story of Macbeth, for example the actions of the characters.
I will only be monitoring two of the scenes, these are Act 1 scene 3 and Act 4 Scene 1 as I see these as the most influential scenes in the play and they each show how the play is progressing and the changes in the characters as the story is unfolding.
They are also the scenes which feature the witches.
Macbeth was first performed in 1606, early in the reign of king James I, who had succeeded queen Elizabeth, and during the time the theatre was becoming more popular between all the different ‘classes’. The play would be performed in front of a crowd who, if they did not like the play, would walk out and leave. The play was performed by men only because of the Elizabethan beliefs of women’s roles in society.
The Elizabethans believed that witches were evil and they were seen as being the devil on earth, all Elizabethans that would see this play thought this and would, when they saw the witches, automatically dislike the witches. In the play Shakespeare presents the witches as evil, unpleasant characters throughout the whole play. It is ultimately they who are responsible for the killing spree that Macbeth embarks upon, as it was they who planted the idea that he may one day become king.
This raging ambition led the once noble Macbeth to murder king Duncan, and then to brutally kill many other innocent people in a bid to secure the crown, and when the play was first performed, the audience would already have strong convictions about witches and their powers and believed that they could:
* Speak with the devil, and with his help communicate with the dead. It was also believed that witches worked for the devil.
* See into the future, meaning that they would be able to give people ideas about what will happen to them in the future and inevitably shape peoples lives in a way that they would see as entertaining.
* Make people fall ill by using spells and potions, as well as causing droughts amongst other things to make peoples food supply grow stale and decrease making people suffer from hunger and a lot of the time die from the hunger that they were feeling.
* Fly through the air on a household broomstick and become invisible to the human eye so they could do whatever evil things they wanted to.
* Cause bad weather like storms to affect ships, and make them become lost at sea and never return home, and kill crops so that there would be less food for the people who grew the crops and also less money for those who decided to sell their crops.
* Use animals such as cats as disguises for the evil spirits, who serve them, these were called ‘witches familiars’, a witch was normally associated with a black cat because of its dark fur and because black cats were seen more at night or in a alleyway.
* It was believed that the number three was evil also because witches were seen in groups of three.
* Another belief of the Elizabethans was that if people spoke in rhyming couplets then they were witches because it was seen as an incantation by the Elizabethan people and was therefore disliked.
* It was believed that witches could use a simple cauldron to make spells and potions that consisted of the most foul and poisonous substances and/or things that the Elizabethan people knew at the time.
* And finally it was believed that the witches could manipulate people’s minds and force them to do evil deeds for the witches while the witches watched from afar.
These things both scared and enraged the Elizabethan people into killing all they thought were witches.
When the play begins Macbeth is portrayed as a loyal, noble soldier of the king who feared no-one on the battle field. Because of this the audience would originally like the character of Macbeth (if they did not already know the rest of the story); some people would even want to be like Macbeth is at the start of the story.
Act 1 Scene 3
The play opens with three witches seemingly casting a spell on a heath while there is thunder, already showing their evil ways to the audience so that the audience do not like the characters of the witches at all throughout the play.
With the weather being thunderous the audience would automatically believe that the witches were controlling the weather and that there was thunder because of the great evil that was in that place at the time.
Right from the start of Act 1 Scene 3 the witches demonstrate the extent of their evil. They are discussing the cruel acts that they have been participating in. The second witch has evidently been ‘killing swine’, demonstrating the enjoyment that she takes in causing nature to suffer, and trying to deprive farmers of their livestock. The Elizabethan people also believed that the witches would do this for fun and this comment confirms any doubts that the audience would have about the witches being false.
The third witch then proceeds to ask the first witch what she had been doing. The first witch explains her encounter with the sailor’s wife who had refused to give the witch any chestnuts, because of this act the first witch vows to exact revenge on her husband while he is away at sea. The witch proclaims that “in a sieve I’ll thither sail”, completely defying all logic because a sieve has holes in it and would therefore obviously sink. Another belief of the Elizabethan people was that the witches knew all, and this is confirmed when the first witch tells the others that “her husband to Aleppo gone; master of the tiger”.
Following on from this the other witches announce that they will help the first witch, the second witch plans to ‘give thee wind” and is thanked while the third witch vows to “give thee more”. After this planning the first witch explains to the others what she is going to do to the man. The first witch is planning to deprive the sailor of all sleep and make him become lost at sea, inevitably killing the sailor, but the witch does not kill the sailor himself because it was thought that although witches were very powerful they could not physically kill somebody, so instead they torture the person until they want to die and actually die or commit suicide.
A visual reminder of the witches cruelty is the first witches trophy of another sailors thumb, “wreck’d as homeward he did come”. She proudly displays this gruesome sight to the other witches, showing just how satisfied she is with her achievement.
A drum then sounds and the witches know that Macbeth is about to arrive, upon hearing this drum the witches say what seems to be an incantation.
When Macbeth and Banquo enter they see the witches and Macbeth asks “what are these” asking who and/or what “that look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth” are. Macbeth continues to describe the creatures whose first speeches are those that shape the rest of the play:
First Witch-“all hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of glamis”
The first of the proclamations is one that is already true and the one that Macbeth is least surprised about.
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Second Witch- “All hail, Macbeth, hail to the, thane of cawdor!”
The second proclamation stuns Macbeth because he does not know that the thane of cawdor had betrayed King Duncan during the war.
Macbeth also states that the thane of cawdor is “a prosperous gentleman and does not believe the witches claims at first.
Third Witch-“all hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”
This is the third and final proclamation of the witches and ultimately the biggest of the three. Macbeth is shown to fear this claim because when he was told that he shall be king he began to think about killing king Duncan.
Banquo questions why Macbeth is afraid of these claims stating that he believes they “sound so fair”.
Banquo then asks the witches if they could tell him his future to be told that he shall be “lesser than Macbeth, and greater”, “not so happy, yet much happier” and that “thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”.
The things said by the witches about banquo show clearly that he shall be the father of kings but will not be one himself. Upon hearing this Macbeth seems happier for banquo than himself because of the thought that he had about murdering King Duncan.
This is a surprising reaction from Macbeth because if another person had been told that they would one day become king it is obvious that they would be happier for themselves rather than their friend who has been told that he will be the father of kings. The witches then vanish and Macbeth and Banquo are met by Angus and Ross.
The two have been sent by King Duncan to congratulate Macbeth and banquo upon their victory on the battle field and to give Macbeth the news that he has now been made the thane of cawdor. Upon hearing this Macbeth asks what has happened to the present thane of cawdor only to be told that he had betrayed the king and his country by helping the Normandy invasion.
Macbeth turns to the audience and says:
“Glamis, and thane of cawdor!”
The greatest is behind.”
Showing that he is now believing that he will become king soon but he is still confused about whether he will have to murder king Duncan or if he will become king by fate. Macbeth then tells the audience that he is afraid that he will murder Duncan saying that “murder yet is but fantastical”.
They then leave to meet the king and Macbeth still does not believe what is happening and wishes to speak to banquo at a later date about the happening of that day.
This is the end of Act 1 Scene 1. This scene has already shown the audience how evil the witches are and how easily they can control a humans mind and make them believe everything that the witches say and how they can weave their owns little plays when they are bored and need to be entertained which is what they are doing with Macbeth and Banquo.
Act 4 Scene 1
Act 4 scene 1 begins again in an isolated place, possibly a cave on a mountainside, also with thunder reflecting the first scene that I commented upon with the evil surroundings and weather but unlike on the previous occasion the witches have a cauldron with them to use for spells incantations etc.
The scene begins with the first witch chanting in rhyme confirming the belief that the witches are casting a spell. The first witch uses the words “thrice”, which is again echoed by the second witch, and “cat” adding to the audience’s belief of how evil the witches are.
The witches all speak in rhyming couplets which was again seem to be evil (especially when standing around a cauldron in a group of three).
There are a number of alliterative sentences in this piece for example “fillet of a fenny snake” which uses alliteration and aids the rhythm of the speech.
The witches know when Macbeth is approaching and announce him by saying “something wicked this ways comes” referring to the evil ways in which Macbeth used/will use to become king.
Macbeth does not seem to like the witches as his first words to them are “secret, black and midnight hags!” Macbeth also asks the witches what they are doing to which he gets the reply “a deed without a name”. Later Macbeth begins to order the witches to tell him his future and what will happen to him because he fears that somebody is going to try and kill him, but the witches tell him that they do not hold the power to tell Macbeth what he wishes to know and so they conjure up their apparitions so that Macbeth can get what he wished for.
The first apparition that appears is an armoured head of which the face cannot be seen, it is possible that this apparition is meant to be one of Macbeth in full armour. The apparition tells Macbeth that he should, “beware Macduff, beware the thane of fife”. This later in the play fuels Macbeth to kill all of Macduffs family because he cannot find Macduff because Macduff has fled to England with many others who do not believe in Macbeth being the king of Scotland, this group is the army that eventually ends Macbeths reign as king and they put a rightful king back on the throne.
The second apparition is a “bloody child”, the child tells Macbeth:
“Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth”
This apparition has told Macbeth what he wants to hear and Macbeth now believes that he is invincible and that he will die old and happy.
When the second apparition vanishes and the third and final one appears in front of Macbeth, this apparition is one of a child crowned with a tree in its hand, the third apparition tells Macbeth:
“Be lion-mattl’d, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him”
The final apparition tells Macbeth exactly how he will be killed and tells him of the only sign of his inevitable death. But because of the second apparition and that Birnam wood is around 12 miles from Dunsinane hill, Macbeth is not worried, because he still believes that he is invincible and therefore does not take any warning from what the third apparition is telling him. After hearing the apparitions Macbeth is very confident about how his reign as king will end.
The final thing that Macbeth is shown before the ‘weird sisters’ disappear are eight spirits, all Banquo’s descendants each crowned as king with banquo himself following them,” for the blood-bolter’d Banquo smiles upon me”.
Macbeth appears to become more afraid of what will happen to him in the future and finally begins to doubt that he is invincible. Lennox enters bringing the news that Macduff has fled to England, this scares Macbeth and he sends his army to kill all that remains in Scotland of Macduffs family, and again Macbeth begins to wonder about how much longer his reign as the king will last and doubt begins to settle upon his mind that he will live until he is old.
To conclude this essay I am going to say that this play is a prime example of how to use people’s foolish beliefs against them to make a successful story line. The story is an old classic play and to this day is still used often by groups of people to act out and because of the betrayal, evil witches and death I feel that this play will never become overused and un-interesting.
The beliefs of the Elizabethan people are shown immensely all through the play, all of which are now believed to be stupid folk stories used to scare the people of the time into using the church.
The play was first performed in 1606 when King James the first was crowned king and at the time there was the same belief that James had taken the thrown in the same way as Macbeth did in the play which kept the audiences interested.
So to conclude this essay, this play shows Elizabethan beliefs about witches and shows just how strongly they felt regarding witches powers amongst other things.
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