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William Shakespeare's use of dramatic techniques in the play Macbeth

Categories: MacbethShakespeare

William Shakespeare was a seventeenth century playwright who wrote many interesting and entertaining plays. Some of his work included ‘ Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’. Shakespeare wrote his plays for the everyday person in the seventeenth century so they had to capture the audience’s attention. He caught their attention by the elements of surprise, special effects and exciting story lines. He was familiar with all the tricks of the trade, when he wrote the plays as he intended them to be watched.

He wrote the play so that people would want to continue to watch and as a result the plays were successful with his audiences. Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’ and included many special techniques throughout the duration of the play. He included three witches in the play.

Witches in those days and still today represent evil so people were made to feel afraid. In my opinion Macbeth is a tragedy as it is a story of a good man turned evil.

This is a questionable comment, as many people disagree. Shakespeare knew this and used this to play his audience. Macbeth undoubtedly wishes to become king. However, when he achieves this it has the boomerang effect. This means that his plans have a totally different effect to those that he originally had expected. Macbeth had expected to be happy through his achievement in being king but this brought misery and then disaster at the end for him. However, at the conclusion Macbeth realises that he has done many things wrong along the path to becoming king and he may feel remorse for his actions.

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William Shakespeare builds up reader expectation in Act one scene one by the way he opens the scene. The scene opens with thunder and lightning. This grabs the attention of the audience as something usually happens after the thunder and lightning. Shakespeare cleverly uses this old trick to introduce the witches. This shocks the audience because there was no indication of them being introduced this increases the element of shock. In those days many people, through religious beliefs thought that witches represented evil and they thought that they were agents of the devil. If you were involved in witchcraft the maximum penalty was death and judgement was passed quickly. During the reign of king James God’s natural order was upheld at high cost to those who transgressed.

When the witches mention a meeting with Macbeth this has a number of effects upon the audience. It arouses their interest in the play because they hear the name ‘Macbeth’, the person after whom the play is named. So their interest is naturally aroused. It would also suggest to them that Macbeth and the witches are friends, as they appear to have arranged a rendezvous on the Heath later. Shakespeare deliberately did this because the mere suggestion of Macbeth being a friend of the weird sisters suggests he too is evil. The first scene concludes with the witches’ chanting-

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”

This would suggest that for them Good is bad and bad is good. This may mean that there are two perspectives to everything. Things may not always be what they seem. This is a key aspect of the play in that appearance and reality may be clouded. We can see this when Macbeth is presented as a noble person, then turns to evil.

Shakespeare also uses various other ways to create reader expectation by not introducing the major character until later on thus encouraging the audience to continue to watch developments. At this point people can only make assumptions about Macbeth’s’ character. By introducing the witches Shakespeare also introduced the idea of evil in the world at this early stage of the play. This also grabbed the attention of his audience and this set the tone for much of what was to happen in the later stages of the play. The audience would not have doubted the credentials of the witches because they hear the witches foretelling the future in predicting the end of the battle. They also knew they were certainly witches because they were all accompanied with either a cat or a toad, known symbol of evil.

The witches also speak in one voice and this would indicate that they can communicate telepathically. This suggests how unnatural they are. The witches must be viewed against the time. In the times of Queen Elizabeth people believed that witches could direct people towards evil but they could not damn a person. They could only appeal to the evil within a persons mind or body and this made the person damn themselves. The word ‘Hurlyburly’ (war) strengthens or increases the tension and atmosphere within the audience also. Now they are presented with three manifestations of evil, on a heath, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning, accompanied by familiars speaking about war.

William Shakespeare builds up reader expectation also in Act one scene two by the way in which he presents to us Macbeth as the natural world sees him. King Duncan and his son Malcolm are introduced as two agents or symbols of good. This counterbalances the evil which the witches represented in scene one. In the days in which the play was written and viewed by Shakespeare’s audience the notion of Kingship was very important because people believed that the Monarch was appointed by God and therefore was very well respected by his people. By introducing Duncan Shakespeare would have engaged the audience and substained interest.

When the injured captain describes the battle his highly charged delivery maintains tension and in some detail he tells Duncan how Macbeth killed Mac Donald. The imagery that he uses is very evocative-

‘Doubtful it stood

As two spent swimmers, that do cling together

And choke their art’.

Here he describes the Ebb and flow of the battle. Mac Donald and his army are winning until brave Macbeth turns the tide, kills him and places his head on the battlements of the castle. When the King hears this he responds by saying

‘O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!’

Now the audience are puzzled to the true nature of the character of Macbeth. The captains description portrays Macbeth as a hero while in scene one he appears to be a friend of the witches and therefore evil. Shakespeare did this deliberately because he knew that this would create confusion among the audience. People therefore had to keep watching to find out whether or not Macbeth was good or evil. After the captain enters the nobleman Ross whose look ‘Seems to speak things strange’ speaks. This maintains a tense atmosphere in the audience, which was created by the captain previously. By the presentation of an odd facial expression the audience would be curious and wish to hear his account of the battle. Ross also describes Macbeth as the captain did previous to his entry.

After Ross and the captain have given their accounts of the battle and indeed their accounts of how the battle was won, Macbeth is described as having scaled victory for the king by defeating the Thane of Cawdor and the Norwegian King in battle. Duncan then despatches Ross to confer the title of Thane of Cawdor upon Macbeth. By holding Macbeth back until scene three Shakespeare has once again heightened tension. This means that the audience have to continue to watch to see if their opinion of Macbeth was correct. Macbeth has been presented in two conflicting manners evil and good and the truth will not unfold until the next scene when we finally see Macbeth in person.

William Shakespeare builds up reader expectation in Act one scene three by the entrance of the witches and once again thunder is heard. This maintains tension and expectation. The witches kill swine and according to popular belief this was normal for the witches so there dark side is reinforced. The witches plan revenge upon a woman who refused to share her chestnuts with them. They involve her husband, who is a sailor, in storms, which they control but it is interesting that they cannot destroy the ship itself because they cannot directly inflict harm on a person.

‘Though his bark cannot be lost’

This is very important in that it follows closely their relationship with Macbeth.

The witches can only circumstances by which Macbeth can damn himself but the witches cannot damn him themselves. The witches clearly know that Macbeth is on his way and will arrive any time and in knowing this establish their unnatural abilities. They can foretell any events in the future and this would indicate that they are clearly evil. At this point the tension mounts as they recite a charm. Macbeth and Banquo enter and Macbeths first remark links him to the witches in the minds of the audience.

‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen’

This resembles the witches’ final chant at the end of Act one scene one. Banquo remarks about the appearance of the witches and in doing so reminds us of the vagueness of reality and appearance.

For Banquo the witches don’t look like inhabitants of the earth yet they are on it. The witches should be women yet they have beards. This reinforces the notion of nothing being as it first seems. Then the witches deliver their prophecies. Macbeth ‘starts’ when he hears them and Banquo notices this. He remarks upon the fact that Macbeth is ‘Rapt’. This means he is in a deep trance. Macbeth may be in a trance of sorts for many reasons. When the witches deliver the prophecies, they may have presented Macbeth with a vision. This vision is of the future which is immensely attractive to Macbeth and therefore fascinates him. The prophecies are therefore descriptions of desires, which might have already been considered by Macbeth. Macbeth is clearly interested in the prophecies to the point of as he says-

‘Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more-‘

At this point the witches vanish. Banquo doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the encounter with the witches and returns to normality. He considers Macbeth’s reaction unusual. He does however ask the witches for a prophecy about himself. Banquo isn’t certain if the witches are real or maybe even a hallucination and says-

‘Are ye fantastical…?’

Macbeth clearly regrets the departure of the witches-

‘Would they had stay’d’

He also appears to be highly interested in their prophecies and would have liked to have heard more. On the other hand Banquo is unsure of what just happened, and is puzzled by its veracity. Macbeth seems to be more willing at this point to accept what has just happened as a fact.

‘Went it not so?’

Ross and Angus enter in order to confer the title of Thane of Cawdor upon Macbeth. Banquo shows again that he appreciates the darkness of the witches by saying-

‘What, can the devil speak true?’

Macbeth’s reaction to receiving the news of his new title is at first glance gallant and modest-

‘Why do you dress me in borrow’d robes?’

This may indicate that he does not wish to accept the title because he doesn’t rightfully merit it. Yet he may be trying to disguise his amazement that the first prophecy has come true.

Macbeth’s soliloquy, which follows, is vital in revealing to the audience certain aspects of Macbeth’s character and manner of thinking. Firstly, he reveals his acceptance of the witches prophecies when he says-

‘Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor,

The greatest is behind’

For Macbeth the best is yet to come in his becoming king. The lines following suggest that Macbeth has fully accepted the prophecies and believes in them. He asks Banquo if he believes and hopes that his sons shall become kings. And also interestingly states that the witches ‘gave’ the title Thane of Cawdor to him. His willingness to accept that the weird sisters were responsible and not the king says much here.

‘Do you not hope your children shall be kings,

When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me promis’d no less to them.’

These lines suggest either that Macbeth is only being facetious with Banquo about the prophecy coming true or indicate that he is serious and he is accepting the prophecies from the witches. Macbeth at first seems to be happily accepting the prophecies and views them as lucky omens. He says that the first prophecy has come true and cant be bad because he know has the chance to become king. However this means that he has to kill Duncan to become king and the mere thought of it makes his ‘Seated heart knock at my ribs!’. He believes the prophecy to be bad in this respect. The notion of Kingship with his manner of thinking and causes him ecstasy and fear. He can’t stop thinking about having to kill to become King and his imagination grips his mind and cancels out rational thought.

‘Nothing is

But what is not’

He is thinking of and to a great extent living in the future. This is another example of the idea of things not being as they appear in the play. At this point we cans see the formation of Macbeths inner struggle, which is later to completely overpower him i.e. his desire to become king and an obvious distaste at the prospect of killing Duncan to achieve it. There may be some evidence from earlier to suggest that the prospect of becoming king has already crossed Macbeths mind. This would further confuse and puzzle the audience as to Macbeth’s true character. He appeared ‘Rapt’ when he met the witches and this may be because in fact they read his mind and therefore shocked him. In a later conversation too, he refers to his brain being ‘wrought with things forgotten’. This may suggest that the thought of becoming king was in his mind previously and was simply made relieve by the witches prophecies.

Banquo for the second time remarks about the appearance of Macbeth-

‘Look, how our partners ‘Rapt”.

Again in an aside, Macbeth shows us the working of his mind-

‘If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without stir.’

He may think that if it is his fate to become king so he may not in fact have to kill Duncan. In his final aside he basically says whatever happens will happen. The scene closes with Macbeth asking Banquo to think about everything that has happened here and wishes to speak about it at a later time with him.

At this point the audience have no idea about what is going on inside the mind of Banquo. He, too was also promised something by the witches but there are clear indications that Banquo appreciates the evil and danger that accompany the witches in his remark-

‘What, can the devil speak true? .’

And later the remark-

‘And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths.’

Banquos apparent normality in relation to the witches highlights and accentuates Macbeths seeming fixation with their predictions. By the fact that Banquo was present during the prophecies and he too was promised a line of kings placed him in the role of rival in Macbeths mind. The fact that Macbeth wishes to speak with Banquo about developments seems to indicate that Macbeth at this point has not resolved his inner mental turmoil as to confer with his friend about the events foretold by the witches.

The play, Macbeth, then shows Shakespeare at his dramatic peak. He uses a range of devices and techniques to arouse and sustain the interest of his audience, an audience with whom he has more than familiar. In the first three scenes he displays this intimate knowledge of how his public thought in many ways. He manipulated his audience and to an extent teased them though the plot and the way that the main characters were presented. His depiction of Macbeth’s thought processes are particularly striking as by the end of the third scene we do not know what Macbeth is going to do in terms of future action. We are curious and therefore wish to view developments.

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William Shakespeare's use of dramatic techniques in the play Macbeth. (2017, Oct 20). Retrieved from

William Shakespeare's use of dramatic techniques in the play Macbeth
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