Created by Caroline Allen about 6 years ago
The play, ‘Macbeth’, has a powerful range of ingredients that make for a compelling and horrific drama. The psychological complexity of the ‘tyrant’ and his ‘fiend-like queen’, the palpable atmosphere of evil, the presence of the supernatural, and the timeless battle between good and evil are only some of the ingredients thrown into Shakespeare’s cauldron of darkness and horror. Compelling drama requires compelling characters and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are truly compelling. Macbeth does evil and unspeakable things. When he kills Duncan, he cannot bring himself to say what he has done, ‘I have done the deed’, yet he is not the play’s villain; he is our tragic hero, a noble man with potential for greatness. Duncan has assured him of this greatness, ‘I have begun to plant thee and will make thee full of growing’. Macbeth knows that he has won ‘golden opinions’ that should not be cast aside carelessly, yet still he commits the ultimate crime, an act of sacrilege, killing God’s representative on earth. As an audience, we should hate and condemn him, yet Shakespeare does not make it that simple for us. Macbeth is an intriguing character, who is difficult to pin down. Even his wife does not really know him. Lady Macbeth thinks that her husband is ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’, yet we already know this man is ferocious in battle, having faced the merciless Macdonwald and ‘unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps/And fix’d his head upon our battlements’. Macbeth is no stranger to bloody slaughter. By giving us insights into Macbeth’s conscience through imagery, dialogue and soliloquy, Shakespeare involves us in Macbeth’s plight of conscience before and after ‘the deed’. In soliloquy, we see Macbeth contemplating the assassination and the consequences, which will ensue. He knows that Duncan is ‘here in double trust’ and that Duncan’s murder will be mourned by all of Scotland: ‘And pity, like a naked new-born babe......Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,That tears shall drown the wind.’Is he already remorseful for what he is about to do? It certainly appears that he does not have the stomach for it when he states ‘We will proceed no further in this business.’ Yet it would be wrong to imagine that Lady Macbeth forces him to kill Duncan. The tragic hero makes his own choices and his ‘vaulting ambition’ is clearly present with or without the encouragement of his wife. In one short scene, Macbeth is quickly persuaded to get on with it; by the end of this scene, he is admiring Lady Macbeth for her ‘undaunted mettle’ and he ‘is settled’ on what he is about to do. Macbeth’s relationship with his own conscience and with his wife makes for compelling drama. When Macbeth hallucinates and sees the ‘air-drawn dagger’, we see that his mind is still deeply troubled by the enormity of what he is about to do. This is not a man without conscience. He is about to cross a threshold into the darkness, and his language usage suggests that mentally and morally he is already there:‘Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuseThe curtain’d sleep, witchcraft celebratesPale Hecate’s offerings....’Images of witchcraft, murder, blood and horror are compelling and they prepare us for the horror that is about to ensue. Lady Macbeth is also a compelling character, not least because she calls to mind the theme of appearance versus reality. In her first soliloquy, when she reads Macbeth’s letter, we think we have identified a true villain who will manipulate a great man and lead him to darkness: ‘Hie thee hitherThat I may pour my spirits in thine ear.’ When she calls on the dark forces to ‘Unsex me hereAnd fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-fullOf direst cruelty’, we think we see a woman hell-bent on acts of evil and destruction. Her depiction of her own sexuality is disturbing and unnatural:‘Come to my woman’s breastsAnd take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers.’Yet Lady Macbeth’s ‘undaunted mettle’ is merely an illusion, rather like the air-drawn dagger of Macbeth’s imagination. The phrase ‘all talk and no action’ comes to mind. She can say terrible things but she cannot do them. She never actually kills anyone, yet the horrors that plague her imagination destroy her. When we see her transformed into a cowering wreck who is afraid of the dark in the sleep-walking scene, we suspect that the ‘milk of human kindness’ belonged to her alone. Just as she did not truly know Macbeth, she did not truly know herself; Lady Macbeth over-estimated her own potential for evil while she under-estimated her husband’s. The complexities and apparent inconsistencies of these two characters make for compelling, psychological drama. Atmosphere is a vital ingredient in drama and the imagery of darkness, evil and unnatural doings are essential to the atmosphere of this play. The presence of the witches and the supernatural enhance this atmosphere and make the play even more compelling for the audience. Imagine the impact of the witches and apparitions on a Jacobean audience that was still prone to belief in witchcraft. Today, we can easily dismiss the idea of witches but we cannot dismiss evil as a real presence in our society, nor can we dismiss the unknown or the very primal fear of the dark. Shakespeare’s work is compelling in the modern age because we continue to fear the unknown and the potential for evil that is within us. One of the most powerful conflicts or oppositions at work in this play is the conflict between nature and the unnatural. All that is natural is good in this play - the natural order, family bonds, succession, the maternal in women and the healing power of sleep. The notion of kingship, whereby the king is God’s representative on earth, was also perceived as part of the natural order. When Macbeth commits the ultimate sin - regicide - he is guilty of destroying the natural order and unleashing chaos on the universe. Nature’s response to Duncan’s murder is turbulent and immediate. Within minutes of the murder, Lennox states that‘The night has been unruly..Our chimneys were blown down....Lamentings heard in the air; strange screams of deathAnd prophesying.....some say the earth/Was feverous and did shake.’These images of a powerful storm show the cosmic significance of what Macbeth has done; it is as though nature is in revolt. Through compelling imagery, Shakespeare conveys a shroud of darkness, which envelops Scotland: ‘by the clock ‘tis day/And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp’ (Ross). We are constantly reminded that Macbeth has released terrifying and unnatural forces on society:‘A falcon, towering in her pride of placeWas by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’dAnd Duncan’s horses...Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out.’ To our horror, the Old Man puts it bluntly:‘Tis said they eat each other.’These images are repulsive, yet they cannot compete with the horror of the witches’ cauldron and the apparitions that confound Macbeth when he relies most on the help of the Weird Sisters. Shakespeare’s imagery provides all the horror of modern-day special effects:‘Liver of blaspheming Jew...Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lipsFinger of birth-strangled babeDitch-delivered by a drab...’Like any good horror movie, these images repulse and compel an audience who may feel they can take no more. They too have ‘supp’d full of horrors’ and are ready for an avenging super-hero to bring the horror to an end and save Scotland from ‘the tyrant’.This super-hero comes in the form of Macduff. His depiction of Scotland under Macbeth is based, not on illusion, but on a sobering reality:‘Each new mornNew widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrowsStrike heaven on the face..’In a moment of dramatic irony, Macduff mourns for his country, not realising that soon he will mourn for his family. When he learns of the brutal slaughter of his loved ones, Macduff takes on the role of the revenge hero. This is very compelling drama because the anticipated showdown between Macduff and Macbeth will represent the ultimate battle of good versus evil. This is a universal conflict, relevant to all generations and cultures, and it intensifies a compelling drama. The fact that Macduff is everything that Macbeth is not - a loyal servant to the monarchy, a patriot, a family man - contributes to the dramatic impact and affirms him as the saviour of Scotland. The audience is firmly on his side and can breathe a collective sigh of relief when Macduff makes his triumphant entrance with the ultimate war trophy - the head of the vanquished Macbeth. Shakespeare’s psychological insights into his characters, his dramatic and linguistic skill, and his ability to thrill and terrify his audience ensure that the play ‘Macbeth’ is rich in the ingredients of a thrilling and compelling drama.