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Essay: An overview of Macbeth

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William Shakespeare was one of the greatest English playwrights to have ever lived. Having written over 38 plays and 154 sonnets and 2 long narrative poems there is no argument that Shakespeare was and still is one of the greatest English playwrights to have ever graced the English language. His has written plays in a variety of genres, but he was most famous for his comedies and his tragedies. Some of his comedies include “As you like it”, “ A midsummer night’s dream” and “ The Merry wives of Windsor”. His best known tragedies are “ Romeo and Juliet”, “Titus Andronicus” and “Macbeth”.

Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare which highlights the dangers of greed and how it can corrupt even the most valiant souls. It also dabbles on the psychological effect of greed and how it can break even the strongest of mental psyches. Shakespeare wrote and performed Macbeth in 1606, the play was met with an enthusiastic audience and was also backed by the then King James who claimed he was the direct descendant of the character Banquo. Historians suggest that the play was tailored in such a way to please the monarch who became a patron for Shakespeare’s Royal theatre company..

We are introduced to Macbeth at Act 1 scene 2, during this scene Duncan, the current king of Scotland is currently in the middle of the battle with the traitorous Macdownald and his army of Irish invaders. Duncan soon meets a wounded general who was injured helping the prince Malcolm escape from enemy clutches. The general explains that he escaped due to valor and courage of 2 generals namely Macbeth and Banquo. The wounded soldier then goes on to tell how Macbeth killed the traitor and captures another conspirator, The thane of Cawdor. Pleased with Macbeth’s honesty and courage. Duncan decides to bestow Macbeth the title of the Thane of Cawdor. He immediately orders the Thane of Ross to deliver this news to Macbeth.

In the beginning of the play, we can picture Macbeth as an excellent fighter, amazing soldier and a loyal servant of the king. We can also infer that Macbeth is pretty violent in his method of fighting as described by the general. He seems to be determined and shows all qualities present in a seasoned fighter.

Prior to being introduced to Macbeth, three witches meet in an old Scottish battlefield to discuss their future plans. They decide to meet Macbeth together after he has returned from the war. Shakespeare might have decided to introduce the witches in the 1st scene as they may be considered as the catalyst of the play. They are directly responsible for many major event which occur in this play and in Macbeth’s life. Therefore they are the catalysts and they are introduced in the 1st scene.

These witches meet Macbeth in act 1 scene 3 when Macbeth is returning from the battle along with his fellow comrade Banquo. Macbeth comments “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” He says this to comment on the juxtaposition of the day. It is foul as there are thunderstorms and rain and due to the grim aftereffects of the war. But it is also good and wonderful as Macbeth has just won the war and helped to finish off the Irish invaders.

Soon they are met by the witches, Banquo is visibly appalled by the dirty and unappealing condition of the witches. He calls them “withered” ( indicating old age) and “crazily dressed”

These features make them seem somewhat otherworldly and not of earthly beings.

Both the soldiers seem to be scared and confused about the whole affair. Macbeth urges the witches to “ speak if they can” and inquires as to what creatures they are. To his surprise they address Macbeth and his position in the court of King Duncan. Macbeth is now convinced that they are supernatural as they seem to know his position even though has not met them in his life. The second witch then hails him as the Thane of Cawdor and the 3rd witch hails him as the future king. At this point Macbeth is startled and scared of the witches. Banquo noticing this pleads Macbeth not to be scared and starts interrogating the witches. The witches then proclaim that even the Banquo will be of lesser distinction than Macbeth he will definitely be happier. And soon tells that Banquo’s descendants will be crowned king. Both of the generals are startled and Macbeth soon becomes curious as to how he will become king and Thane of Cawdor. But before his queries are met, the witches disappear.

This scene is important in the play s this is the scene where Macbeth’s ambition, hope and doubt awakens, and soon part of his prophecy is fulfilled when Ross and Angus appear to convey Macbeth his coronation as the Thane of Cawdor.

Why did Shakespeare make witches predict Macbeth’s future? This may be attributed to the fact that prophecy was associated with the goddess Hecate and her 3 companions. Hecate, appears in mortal form to predict futures and also to observe the damaging effects it has on a human’s mind. Hecate has been considered both a hero and a villain in many stories, but in Macbeth she could be considered as an Antihero. The witches perform many sacrifices before meeting Macbeth such as the “ sailors finger” to indicate their allegiance to Hecate.

Soon after this moment in the play we witness Macbeth’s dramatic rise and tragic yet speedy downfall.

Macbeth’s feelings are conflicted as to whether he should believe the witches or to ignore them. He also seems to notice that part of the witches prophecy came true. But the chances as to him being crowned king seems to be near impossible. He writes to his wife who seems supposed by the prophecy and awaits his return. Upon reading the letter his wife implores him to kill the king and fulfill the prophecy in a lengthy monologue. His wife then tests his manhood to instigate him into taking the decision. Quotes such as “ yet I do fear thy nature it is too full o’th’ the milk human kindness” show that Macbeth is being mocked at by the his wife in her monologue. This monologue also helps us delve into both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s character. In Lady Macbeth’s monologue Macbeth is painted as an ambitious man who is too kind to fulfill his destiny through dire measure. Lady Macbeth is shown as a shrewd and cunning lady who is ambitious no doubt, but is also shameless and vile.

Soon Lady Macbeth is told by a servant that King Duncan plans to stay at their home for tonight, Lady Macbeth seems shocked as Macbeth has not informed her of this. She soon gets to know of Macbeth’s arrival and eagerly awaits her husband. Lady Macbeth describes the servant as a raven who comes to predict Duncan’s death.(“ The Raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan”) She seems to have already plotted the killing of Duncan but seems to be stopped by her gender. (as she is female it is not right of her to commit an atrocious sin.) Soon she is met by Macbeth who is suspicious of his wife’s intentions and asks her to put on a cheerful face to ease any doubts.

Soon they are joined by King Duncan and finish dinner. In this dinner we can also see the love Duncan has for Macbeth through this quotation “ Conduct me to mine host we love him dearly”. Soon after the dinner everyone retires to their respective rooms, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are left in their room alone. They both plot the assassination of the king and decide to strike when he is fast asleep. He seems to reject the idea and tries to convince his wife to let him enjoy the king’s favor and his newfound honor as the Thane of Cawdor. And also because the king is so just and fair that his death will be a curse from the gods unto his murderers.

Lady Macbeth dismisses and mocks Macbeth into committing the dire deed. They plan to frame the soldiers who were drunk and make it look like an assassination attempt. Macbeth finally resolves into committing this heinous crime and awaits nighttime.

This scene is pivotal as it shows that Macbeth has let his ambition and his greed overtake his morals and clear conscious. This could be the beginning of Macbeth’s downfall.

He soon kills the king in his chambers when the king is fast asleep and acts as though it was an assassination attempt on the king’s family. The soldiers are put to death for their negligence and the king’s sons flee to England. In the absence of a suitable heir Macbeth is crowned king.

Even though Macbeth is crowned king his guilty conscience seems to wreak havoc on his life. He also seems to have become impervious to killing other people and lacks a clear moral conscience. The witches prophecy seems to disturb him. He becomes increasingly paranoid as the witches predicted Banquo’s heir to be kings soon afterwards. Therefore as an act of paranoia, Macbeth has Banquo killed. He urges his son Fleance to escape and later avenge the death of Banquo.

During a party hosted by Macbeth, he is visited by the ghost of Banquo and is visibly disturbed by this. This may be due to the fact that he has killed someone close to him in a very personal way. Banquo’s is one of Macbeth’s closest friends during the war. Therefore this could also be an imaginary trick played by his subconscious mind due to his increasing guilt. Another point to note is that this could also be the working of the witches whose powers include mind games and manipulation of reality.

Soon after this the witches are instructed by Hecate to conjure up potions to make sure that Macbeth has a false sense of security when he comes to visit them again. True to Hecate’s word Macbeth arrives at the witches lair to express his insecurities and worries. The witches predict that no one can kill him unless they are not born of a woman or if Burnam wood moves to Dunsinane hill. The witches also tell Macbeth to beware Macduff.

Hypnotised by the witches to have a false sense of security and happy because of the prediction Macbeth soon returns to his castle.

He soon orders for the killing of Macduff and his family due t the witches prediction. Little does he know that Macduff has escaped to England. Macbeth then kills Lady Macduff and her son. He sons begins to lose all of his conscience and starts to truly become evil. His ambition has been replaced by sheer greed and his will to rule has been replaced by tyranny and misery. Macbeth now has become a cold blooded murdering tyrant whose only will is to keep the throne of Scotland all for himself.

Lady Macbeth at this point of the play thinks she is responsible for her husband’s change in nature and his cold killings of their closest friends. King Duncan, Banquo and the whole family of Macduff. She soon lets her guilt overtake her and completely break her psyche, making her mentally disturbed and livid. She soon commits suicide due to her unstable mental health.

Why did Shakespeare end Lady Macbeth’s character this way? The answer to that would be to amplify the effect it will have on Macbeth to learn that his beloved wife has committed suicide. A coward’s death ( as it was called in the 16th century) or a mad man’s death. Although her death was technically not a suicide it would be viewed by suicide by the citizens of Scotland.( since nobody knows of the madness of Lady Macbeth and her confessions)

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