NCEA Formal writing 1.5, Literary Essay: Macbeth

Annika Gibson

Essay on Macbeth

How does Shakespeare exploit the conventions of language and theater to fill his play from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty – and moreover, why is this so essential to the universal meaning of the play? (Explain how Shakespeare used language features and play conventions to convey his ideas) 

In his play Macbeth, Shakespeare weaves a tragic tale using many different threads of language techniques. The natural world stains this story green as Shakespeare captures specific features of nature and hooks them into his tale using literary devices such as pathetic fallacy and symbolism. Shakespeare enhances aspects of nature to illustrate important events or features in the play. I will be exploring the dark and twisted world of Macbeth and uproot and decipher the meaning behind the clever use of pathetic fallacy and consequential use of symbolism.

Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy throughout his play Macbeth to illustrate the important relevance of an event or a strong mood of a character that will influence the play.  Shakespeare frequently applies pathetic fallacy to nature and the weather in this play. An example of which is when Lennox describes the strange activity of the night of King Duncan’s death in Act 2, Scene 3. “The night has been unruly…our chimneys were blown down…the earth was feverous, and did shake”. He speaks of the night being “unruly” and saying “our chimneys were blown down” which indicates that there was a wild storm. Shakespeare uses a storm to reflect the evil doings of that night and show how the murder of the king abruptly disrupted the natural order of the kingdom. This idea is strengthened by noticing that the day before the murder, when Duncan arrived at Macbeth’s castle in Act 1, Scene 6 he says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.” . At this point in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have just discussed Duncan’s murder and are starting to plan his death. This is unknown to Duncan as he ironically describes the castle as having a pleasant setting and air that is sweet and alluring to his senses. This quote allows us to see the contrast between the stormy night of Duncan’s death and the pleasant setting of the day before when he is still very much alive. This quote is also another example of pathetic fallacy applying to nature and is used to show how the natural world around Macbeth’s estate responds to Lady Macbeth’s earlier comment in Act 1, Scene 5, “Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t”. Lady Macbeth says this to her husband upon hearing of Duncan’s plan to visit. She knows they plan to kill the King and tells Macbeth to act welcoming and gracious and use that deception to hide his wicked intents. This deceit is then adopted by the air and setting surrounding Macbeth’s castle to hide the oncoming storm.

Not only does Shakespeare appoint pathetic fallacy to nature but he also applies it to animals as well. After the ordeal of Duncan’s death, Rosse appears in a scene with an old man and they discuss what they observed since that fateful night. Rosse says, “Duncan’s horses…/ beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,/ turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out/ contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make/ war with mankind.” To which the old man adds, “‘T is said, they ate each other.” This evidently shows that something unusual happened the night of Duncan’s murder. Lennox describes Duncan’s horses as beautiful and swift animals that are the best of their breed. However on that particular night they became wild and broke out of their stalls. He said they were “contending ‘gainst obedience” which indicates that they were originally very disciplined and well-trained but when the King was killed they went against all of their regal training. Lennox further described their strange behavior as “as they would make war with mankind.” and the old man says “T is said, they ate each other.” . Everyone knows this is highly unusual horse behavior and Shakespeare uses this to convey the idea that the animals also reacted to the death of the king. Since the horses originally belonged to Duncan, they reflect his cruel murder with a lot more depth.  Shakespeare makes Duncan’s well-behaved steeds betray their master’s training and their regal reputation to represent the betrayal of Macbeth. The horses were said to have eaten each other which is a reflection of the inhuman act of Macbeth preying on his own cousin and killing him. Duncan is the “master” of his people which includes Macbeth, just as he is the master of his horses. On the night of his death he was betrayed by both. 

In many cultures throughout history, lots of animals or features of the natural world have been used to symbolize important aspects of humanity such as luck, death or life. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, he uses birds to symbolize the atmosphere around a certain scene of a play or a critical event that is or has taken place. In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth says, “Hark!/ – Peace!/ It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman/ which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it.”. “Hark” in Shakespearean times meant “listen”. It is obvious when Lady Macbeth says this she is hearing something. She then continues and says that it was an owl that cried good-night like a bell before an execution. Since owls are nocturnal and only seen and heard during the night, in the old times the bird of darkness was associated with evil and as a bad omen. When Lady Macbeth describes the obscure bird’s call as like an execution bell, it is clear to understand that in this context the owl is used by Shakespeare to symbolize the evil that is befalling on that world that night. Lady Macbeth recognizes this too and then says “He is about it.” meaning that her husband, Macbeth, must be acting on their agreement to kill the king. At this point in the play however we do not yet know if Macbeth succeeds but the call of the owl has foreshadowed the fact this murder is inevitable on that fateful night.

Another example of birds symbolizing bad activity in this play, is when even earlier on in the play, Lady Macbeth yet again uses another bird in association with evil tidings. After reading Macbeth’s letter that informed her of his meeting with the witches and their treacherous predictions she says, “The raven himself is hoarse/ that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/ under my battlements.”. In the time that the play was written, Ravens were said to be symbols of bad luck or messengers of death. In the context of the play Macbeth, both of these superstitions fit. At this point in the play the audience and/or readers would be thinking that this bad omen is directed towards King Duncan upon hearing Lady Macbeth connect its croak to “the fatal entrance of Duncan”. This is correct, for it symbolizes and foreshadows the king’s death later on in the play. However, it also symbolizes and foreshadows Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s death near the end of the play. The audience/readers would not realize this yet but the raven in this context represents the death/ bad luck of both the King and Macbeth and his wife. They were too caught up in their ambition to become the next rulers of Scotland that they never considered the fact that the raven could have been crying himself hoarse to signify their demise as well. Another way Shakespeare uses symbolism in his play Macbeth, is not only by using superstition associated with animals but also significant or frequent natural events that everyone in his audience would be able to relate to.  A common theme throughout the play is how good and evil is represented as light and dark. When Rosse is talking to the Old Man after the tragic death of Duncan he describes the day/s that have followed by saying, “And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp./ Is it’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,/ that darkness does the face of earth entomb,/ when living light should kiss it?”. This indicates that the days have been dark since the death of the king. Just like a king was associated with God, in Shakespeare’s time he was also connected to the sun or light (goodness). The darkness, which in this case is Macbeth’s evil act of killing the King, is predominating and conquering the sun or the light which symbolized the King and what he stood for as sovereign. I also want to draw the eye to the phrase “living light” . This is another example of symbolizing the reign of a king or the king himself as light, in the way that the light is personified as living. In the context of the quote, it makes it clear that light is not falling on the world at that point in the play. This is because what the light represented on earth is now dead and so it no longer has a connection to world the play is set in.

Shakespeare has used many different methods to convey the fact that under Macbeth’s traitorous rule, the land itself wears the scars of his evil reign. Macbeth’s ambition drove him to kill his own beloved cousin and take his throne. This treasonous betrayal defies the natural order of the kingdom and purges the land of its health and prosperity. However, the cause of Macbeth’s sickening ambition is manifestly due to the wicked seeds planted in his mind by the mysterious witches he met at the very start of the play. Without them to put the poisonous thoughts in his head the events of the play would never come to pass. Macbeth notices the deterioration of his country but does not connect its decline in health to the decline of his own mental well-being. We see throughout the play that Macbeth shows signs of madness and corruption in his own mind. This is reflected in the land using pathetic fallacy once again, by applying the degeneration of Macbeth’s mind and the corruption of his thoughts to the land itself. In Act 5, Scene 4, when the battle between Macbeth and Scottish Lords and English Army is about to commence, Macbeth says to the doctor, “If thou couldst, doctor, cast/ the water of my land, find her disease,/ and purge it to a sound and pristine health.” . He says this in irony as the disease infecting his land is himself. But Macbeth’s mind, the instrument behind the dismal affairs, does not wholly belong to him anymore. Ever since the three weird sisters filled his head with dire ambition, they have influenced his actions which are the main feeders of the dark cloud hanging over Scotland. This dark cloud is a symptom of the supernatural world interfering with the natural events of the kingdom. The natural world is not only showing a reflection of Macbeth’s mind, but it is responding to the evil power that is controlling it.

Macbeth is a tale of dangerous corruption and dire ambition. Throughout this play, Shakespeare cleverly illustrates Macbeth’s journey from war hero to a traitorous king by manipulating and shaping the innocent face of nature to reflect the effects of his poisonous intents and actions. Through the use of indicative and purposeful language features, such as pathetic fallacy and symbolism applied to aspects of the natural world, Shakespeare has grown a fateful story that shows just how treacherous ambition can be.

 

One Reply to “NCEA Formal writing 1.5, Literary Essay: Macbeth”

  1. In our conversation about this essay, I confirmed that your decision to explore the natural world and the multiplicity of ways Shakespeare uses references to it to convey his ideas was a good one. It’s an original idea. We agreed that you’ll want to include exploration of both pathetic fallacy and symbolism in order to ensure you have enough material to warrant such detailed analysis as an essay.

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