Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

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Modern definitions of the word tragedy don’t help when trying to explain the niceties of Shakespearean tragedy.  Our sensationalist news channels such as Sky and CNN are very quick to bring us the latest tragedy; a passenger jet crashes with the loss of all on board; a bridge collapses causing mayhem for home-bound commuters; a school is in lock-down after a young student kills his teacher and many of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself.   Our modern definition of ‘tragedy’, therefore, is usually synonymous with the word ‘disaster’;  or an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.

These modern definitions do not help us greatly when trying to describe the action in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  The good news is that Shakespeare is clearly following a template, one laid down centuries earlier by Aristotle and others – in fact, it can be said that he invented the sequel!  So, therefore, if you have studied one tragedy well,  you have a huge advantage when you come to study the next one!  However, the sad news for all you aspiring young actors is that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men and secondly, if you happen to be playing the title role in one of these tragedies, then universally you will meet a rather gruesome end.

Shakespeare, the consummate businessman, tended to rotate his dramas, so he knew the audience could only take so much comedy, or history or tragedy in any one season.  As opposed to his Comedies or Histories, his Tragedies always dealt with tragic events and always had an unhappy ending i.e. the tragic hero dies.

Spoiler Alert!  Sometimes, however, Shakespeare’s genius is evident as in Macbeth when the tragic hero suffers a gruesome beheading at the end (sad ending!) but the audience leave the theatre with the knowledge that order has been restored in the kingdom and so Scotland has been rescued from a murderous tyrant (happy ending!).

So, to summarise, no one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic hero sets out on a course of action but because of a flaw in his character evil enters and is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

The notion of the tragic hero is also problematic.  It seems, at face value, to be a paradoxical term, an oxymoron like Groucho Marx’s famous ‘military intelligence’.  Our dramas today, in our cinemas, in particular, give us loads of suited heroes from Spiderman, to Superman, to Batman and these modern heroes always win.  Tragic heroes, on the other hand, always die!

Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics and hopefully, the extreme sexism of the following statements will be understood by members of my female audience!  After all, we have to realise that Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s so, inevitably, his tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man such as a King or a great General or a Prince, with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than mere ordinary mortals.  He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias.  He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle.  However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some fatal flaw that contributes to his downfall.  Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy.  Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition.  He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death.  Macbeth attempts the impossible, to usurp the lawful king, and because the means he employs are evil and against the natural law, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.

Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero.  The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, and the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Therefore, Shakespeare, in Macbeth, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for Macbeth while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.

 

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Macbeth: From Centrality to Isolation

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When we first encounter Macbeth he is portrayed as the mighty general, the king’s enforcer-in-chief, while the play ends with his inevitable, lonely, solitary death following his doomed, albeit brave, defense of the indefensible. So, it can be said, that the major pattern of the play is Macbeth’s progressive movement from centrality to isolation.  This pattern encompasses the whole play and expresses an essential process in every tragedy: the hero must confront his destiny alone.  Macbeth’s role is that of a man who begins as the central and most admired figure of his society and ends by being totally isolated from it in his lonely fortress in Dunsinane.  His ultimate fate suggests that of a sacrificial victim.  Having caused havoc in society and broken the bonds of nature, he must be isolated and destroyed so that natural and social order can be restored again – for the time being at least!

The opening of the play focuses attention on Macbeth as the heroic object of everyone’s admiration, well earned since he is the saviour of his country.  The captain’s account of his exploits in Act I, ii and the King’s lavish praise in Act I, iv serve to establish his heroic stature and his unique status in society before his fall.  But the images used in these scenes to convey Macbeth’s prowess as a warrior have another, more disturbing, effect.  There is a frightening savagery in some of the more memorable ones: the sword ‘which smoked with bloody execution’; the bloody hero who ‘carved out his passage’ and ‘unseamed’ his enemy as if anxious to ‘bathe in reeking wounds/ Or memorise another Golgotha’ (I, ii 18-22).  These reiterated images suggest Macbeth’s natural capacity – perhaps even his relish – for destruction.  Our first picture of him as provided by the bleeding sergeant is a faithful anticipation of our last one.  The early image of the warrior carving up his enemy with a smoking sword is mirrored in the last one of the ‘dead butcher’ (V, vii, 98) whose severed head is carried on to the stage by Macduff.  Echoes and anticipations of this kind are found everywhere in Macbeth.

Before Duncan’s murder we find the two Macbeths taking the first decisive step which will isolate them from the process of normal living and break the bonds which bind them to human nature and society.  With deliberate formality, Lady Macbeth dedicates herself to the power of evil: ‘Come you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts….’ (I, v, 38).  Later, Macbeth makes a similar prayer: ‘Thou sure and firm-set earth,/ Hear not my steps…’ (II, i, 56).  His separation from God is implied in his ‘Wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”?’ (II, ii, 30).

Duncan’s murder hastens the process of Macbeth’s isolation.  Malcolm and Donalbain flee him (II, iii, 119); Banquo suspects him (III, i, 3).  Even before Banquo’s murder and the social debacle of the Banquet Scene, we have a glimpse of Macbeth estranged from his natural companions: ‘How now, my Lord!  Why do you keep alone,/ Of sorriest fancies your companions making’ (III, ii, 8-9).

The Banquet Scene (III, iv) marks a decisive stage in his alienation from his subjects.  His gradual estrangement even from Lady Macbeth has already been suggested in his failure to let her share in his plan to murder Banquo.  After her supreme efforts in the Banquet Scene she dwindles from being his ‘dearest partner of greatness’ (I, v, 10) to a passive listless, weary listener.  The last time we see him alone with her, at the end of Act III, iv, the collapse of their relationship is pathetically apparent; this is further underlined in his response to the news of her death.  The final movement of Act III, iv  has compelling visual images of Macbeth’s  separation from his subjects, who leave his feast in hasty disorder.  This is not the only abandonment: in the final scene we learn that Fleance has escaped (20), that Macduff ‘denies his person at our great bidding’ (128) and that Macbeth can depend so little on the loyalty of his followers that he must ‘keep a servant fee’d’ in all their houses (131).

The final movement of the play opens with news of growing opposition to Macbeth’s rule, and of intrigue and conspiracy against him.  Macduff has fled (IV, I, 140).  In Act V, Macbeth’s isolation is made explicit in reiterated images of abandonment and loneliness.  He articulates it in some of the greatest poetry of the play: ‘that which should accompany old age,/ As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have’ (V, iii, 24).  The Doctor would desert him if he could (V, iii, 61-2).  We are twice reminded that many of his soldiers have gone over to the enemy, first by himself (‘Were they not forced with those that should be ours,/ We might have met them dareful, beard to beard’ V, v, 5) and later by Malcolm (‘We have met with foes/ That strike beside us’ V, vii, 28).

There is an altogether appropriate image of his final isolation in his defiant ‘They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,/But bear-like I must fight the course’ (V, vii, 1).  In a 1962 Stratford production Eric Porter played Macbeth and, as J.R. Brown reports, ‘his death was that of a tired, angry, disarmed fighter: to make this clear he was killed on stage after he had been encircled by the entire army and had lost all his weapons’ (Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance, 1966, p. 185).  The transformation from leader to quarry is here complete.

 The pattern of Macbeth’s isolation, therefore, involves him in more than a progressive physical and mental detachment from other human beings.  He is an exile from the world of daylight, familiar with witches and with apparitions unseen by anybody else, making discoveries about his predicament which he can never share with others who have never dared, as he has, to plunge into darkness.

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Macbeth: A Truly Aware Tragic Hero?

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A summary of what happens in Macbeth could make the play look like an exciting crime story, but it is what happens within the hero, the development of his understanding of himself and his plight, and his sharing of this with the audience, that lifts it to a higher plane.

When the unexpected results of his actions emerge, the tragic hero questions what has happened to him, and through this questioning learns the vital truth about himself.  This brings him around to facing his destiny and completing it by his death. It is through this recognition that he reaches his tragic vision.  His error was committed in blindness; recognition involves the intrusion of the light, the acknowledgement of the blindness.  Recognition is not simply his knowledge of what has happened to him (in Macbeth’s case that he has been duped by the witches; he recognises his folly in having trusted them), but the new awareness of the unalterably fixed pattern of the miserable life he has created for himself through his deeds, accompanied by a deep sense of loss at the thought of what he has sacrificed and forsaken.  These elements are present in Macbeth’s infinitely poignant soliloquy in Act V:

          I have liv’d long enough: my way of life

          Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;

          And that which should accompany old age,

          As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

          I must not look to have; but in their stead,

          Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath

          Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

                                 V, iii, 22

Macbeth arrives at the recognition of having irrecoverably lost, through his own blind deed, the things on which his happiness on earth depended.  He discovers that he cannot arrest the process he has set in motion, and gains an insight into the workings of evil. He realises that evil isolates: his deeds have cut him off from all he treasures.  He is alone in a hell of despair, and is aware of the futility of all he has planned.  It is the fate of the tragic hero to be finally isolated from the ways of ordinary men, but it is in his isolation that he grows in stature and self-awareness, and consequently in the estimation of the audience, that he faces up to his destiny and confronts it.  For Macbeth, this means dying valiantly in battle (V, iii, 32; V, v, 52) rather than taking his own life (V, vii, 30) or running away (V, vii, 1), or being taken prisoner (V, vii, 56).  Those who like to moralise the tragic ending will find in his fate a striking illustration of the saying that ‘all they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword’ (Matthew, Ch. 26: verse 22); it is a fate ironically anticipated by him very early in the play: ‘This even-handed justice/ Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips’ (I, vii, 10).

There are various degrees of recognition in tragedy.  In some (like Othello), recognition is minimal: Othello knows what he has done and what he has lost, but learns little or nothing about himself.  In Macbeth, at the end, the hero’s recognition is considerable, but still far from complete.  He remains puzzled and baffled to the last, failing to grasp the how and why of his fate.

In his case it is interesting to notice that partial recognition comes early in the play, that disillusion sets in long before his fortunes fail: in fact it sets in when he is at the height of his worldly success.  Even before he has murdered Banquo, he can face the unthinkable prospect of having damned his soul (‘mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man’ III, i. 67). Earlier still, his sense of what he has done to himself as well as to Duncan is expressed in the richly suggestive, ‘To know my deed twere best not to know myself’ (II, ii, 72).  But if he does sense early on what is happening to him as a result of what he has done, he does not really know what kind of future is in store for him until the point at which he realises that it is as easy for him to go forward in crime as to go back.  The recognition that he cannot control the processes he has set in motion, or alter the course he has set for himself is a tragic one: ‘I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er’ (III, iv, 136).

But the exact moment when Macbeth realises he is doomed is when Macduff relates that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ta’en (V, vii, 44).  He has expressed an earlier, partial, recognition of his fate at the news that Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane (‘I pull in resolution, and begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend’ (V, v, 42).

It is the quality of his response to his destiny and the manner in which he confronts it that determines his essential worth as a tragic hero and that gives him his ultimate tragic status.  The physical death of the tragic hero is a final symbol of his recognition: of the death of his former blind and ignorant self.  Our tragic hero has paid a chilling and costly price for self-awareness.

 

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Macbeth: A Tragedy

 

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At the outset let’s attempt to define what we mean by ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’.  No one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition of it, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean tragedy, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Therefore, the best way to begin the study of any tragedy is to do what we have summarised above: describe the main elements of tragedy itself, say what happens and how it happens, and take stock of the qualities which are usually associated with the tragic hero.  Shakespeare’s tragic hero is always a man (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) of exceptional nature, a great man with more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions, and more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being often torn by an internal struggle.    We see our hero set out on a particular course of action and because of a ‘fatal flaw’ (Aristotle’s ‘hamartia‘) in his character he suffers ‘reversals of fortune’ and brings suffering on himself and others; he brings about his own death and the deaths of many others.  Macbeth succumbs to his powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  He moves along a preordained path through questioning, to awareness of his wrongdoing and finally to perception.  He undertakes a course of action which is credible and probable and the inevitable direction of the hero’s movement is from prosperity to adversity, from centrality to isolation.  This is well expressed by Chaucer’s Monk:

 Tragedy means a certain kind of story,

As old books tell, of those who fell from glory,

People that stood in great prosperity

And were cast down out of their high degree

Into calamity and so they died.

(The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill, 1951, p. 212)

An essential tragic requirement is that the hero must be ‘a great man’ – a man of some status in society.  The essential features here are moral stature and greatness of personality.  In Shakespearian tragedy, such qualities are invariably associated with eminent people (Chaucer’s men of ‘high degree’) engaged in great events.  The hero in any tragedy must be a man who can command our earnest good will, a man whose fortunes interest and concern us.  We identify with him in his suffering; he must be a man who reminds us strongly of our humanity, whom we can accept as standing for us  –  (‘There but for the grace of God go I’).  Unless this sympathy for the tragic hero is maintained to the end the dramatist has failed in his essential task.

The tragic hero inevitably meets with disaster due to his unrealised and unforeseen failures.  He consciously sets out to undertake a specific course of action, ‘I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat (Act I, Scene vii).  However, he now has no control over the consequences of his actions.  The notion of blindness is appropriate to his condition here, just as that of recovered sight is appropriate to his later recognition of what he has done and what he has become as a result.  The Golden Rule is that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’.  When he decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, Macbeth deprives himself of his freedom: his life now follows a determined and inescapable pattern after the fatal act.  In this regard it should be said that although Macbeth may appear to be – and is commonly described as – a play about ambition and its effects, it is not fundamentally that.  To stress ambition as the source of Macbeth’s tragic error is a case of false emphasis.  What happens is that he is tempted by forces hostile to his good into proving their predictions true.  In his efforts to fulfil a fated plan he is destroyed (just like Oedipus); these efforts lead him to forge a chain of crime from which he cannot break free.

The problem of Macbeth’s ‘motivation’ or lack of it is often given a central place in discussions of the play.  If he does not strongly covet the crown, he has no logical motive for killing Duncan.  Shakespeare does not present him as a man driven by an unquenchable ambition for power.  Indeed critics of the play have found his conduct wildly improbable, his murder of Duncan completely out of character.  When he is first tempted, he is racked by feelings of horror and guilt; the thought of murder makes his heart knock at his ribs and his hair stand on end; he has the conscience of a good man.  The problem, for some critics, is to believe in the transformation of the conscience-stricken figure of the early scenes into the ‘butcher’ and ‘hell-hound’ of the later ones.  His later murders are even more difficult to explain in terms of ‘logical’ motivation.  His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’, yet surely his real target should be Fleance, since Banquo himself can never, if the witches are to be trusted (and Macbeth trusts them), be a danger.  Still, it is Banquo’s murder, not Fleance’s, which occupies most of his attention.  This goes to show that tragedy, not unlike real life, does not always conform to neat, logical packaging – what is important is that Shakespeare is exploring here the progress of a man towards self-destruction.  We marvel at the fact that he has the capacity to commit acts, which seem to violate his essential good nature.

Central to our definition of tragedy is the process referred to earlier as ‘reversal of fortune’, which is what happens when the hero achieves the opposite effect to what he meant or expected.  In tragedy, as has been stated already, the hero undertakes a specific course of action which leads to suffering and awareness at the end.  In their blindness, both the Macbeth’s believe that if they usurp Duncan’s throne they will live happily ever after; what they actually achieve is almost total misery culminating in ruin.

Aristotle’s final criterion for good tragedy was that the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, that is, be left with a mixture of feelings, of pity and fear at the end of the performance.  This is true of Macbeth, the sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, while the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Shakespeare does a wonderful balancing act in Macbeth. The audience maintain their sympathy for Macbeth, the tragic hero, while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph.  This is achieved with Macduff’s final gory victory over Macbeth. Malcolm can now assume his rightful place on the throne.  Order has finally been restored – for the time being at least!

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Some ‘Grace Notes’ on Macbeth

 Note: The term ‘Grace Notes’ comes to us from the world of Irish Traditional music where they are used as embellishments, added extras to further personalise the tune.  Here they are used in similar fashion – maybe becoming the difference between a B1 and an A1!

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Throughout the play Macbeth there is almost a grotesque obsession with violent and unnatural images of children and babies (as well as apparitions of a bloody child and of a child crowned), for instance:

Come to my women’s breasts…….I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me….

None of woman born shall harm Macbeth..

There are also many images of barrenness, for instance:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown

And put a barren sceptre in my grip,

Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,

No son of mine succeeding.

Even though Macbeth is obsessed at the thought of the children of another man succeeding him, he himself does not have any children (Macduff states that he cannot properly avenge the murder of his own children, since Macbeth ‘has no children’).  Lady Macbeth mentions that she has ‘given suck’, but here she may be referring to children from a previous marriage – or maybe any children the Macbeths have had are now dead.  With this in mind, the voices of the witches that he hears could almost be those of his children that have died or possibly the voices of his imaginary children whom he wants to inherit the throne.  (In some productions of the play the witches have been played by children.  This is not too farfetched – after all, nowadays, when we think of witches, an image of an eccentric woman on a broomstick or a child dressed up in a pointy hat and cloak at Halloween readily comes to mind.)

  • IMAGES OF TIME AND SPEED

By Shakespeare’s standards, Macbeth is a short play.  There are no major sub-plots, and the events of the central story unfold at an alarmingly fast pace.  Macbeth returns home in Act 1 to prepare for the arrival of the king at very short notice, while Lady Macbeth summons him to ‘Hie thee hither’ and a messenger who has already travelled so quickly is ‘almost dead for breath’.  The images of travel, speed and breathlessness create a sense of unbearable urgency in the play.  Characters are obsessed by time passing – Macbeth himself seems to realise how Time ultimately is in control of his actions, when he addresses Time:

 Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits.

Later he refers to Murder as something which moves with        ‘stealthy pace’     and he acknowledges that

Come what come may,

               Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Macbeth’s reaction of distant resignation to the death of his wife begins with the famous deliberation on time,

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…….

  • IMAGES OF BLOOD

In Macbeth, the word ‘blood’ is mentioned 24 times, and ‘bloody’ is mentioned 15 times!  Once blood has been shed, there is quite a gothic obsession with it, as Macbeth and his wife are haunted by images of blood.  This horrified reaction to the blood they have shed is altered, when Macbeth realises that he cannot turn the clock back, saying –

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

This image of wading through blood which creeps up your body surely has influenced countless Hollywood directors down the years e.g. in films such as The Shining.

Lady Macbeth might have control over her husband in the early stages of the play, but she cannot control her own mind which is plagued with bloody images, washing her hands of invisible blood, and saying –

Yet who would have thought the old man

               To have had so much blood in him.

Perhaps most selflessly and poignantly, Macduff refers to the decline of Scotland with a different use of blood imagery when he says –

Bleed, bleed, poor country.

  • IMAGES OF SLEEP

In the middle of the night (with its ‘bloody and invisible hand’). The Macbeths murder Duncan, taking his sleep from him.  Ironically, sleep is also taken from them, as Macbeth hears the words

Macbeth shall sleep no more.

For not only has Duncan been murdered in h is sleep, but sleep itself has been slain

Macbeth does murder sleep – the innocent sleep,

              Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

              Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

              Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3 Scene 2, Macbeth lives in ‘restless ecstasy’ and sees life as a ‘fitful fever’, while in Act 3 Scene 4, one of the last things Lady Macbeth says to her husband before she loses her reason is  ‘you lack the season of all natures, sleep’.  In the same scene, when asked, ‘What is the night?’, she can only reply, ‘Almost at odds with morning, which is which’ – life has become one long waking nightmare for her.

Macbeth has murdered sleep, and the next time we see Lady Macbeth, she cannot sleep as she wanders about trying to clean her ‘bloodstained’ hands.  It seems that the murdering of sleep by Macbeth results directly in his wife’s inability to find peace or repose.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare is so fascinated by night-time and darkness, he uses the word ‘night’ 38 times and ‘sleep’ 26 times!

  • THE MACBETHS’ MARRIAGE

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is stronger initially, but cannot cope after Duncan is murdered; while this first murder is difficult for her husband, subsequent murders hardly cost him a thought.  We know from life and literature (and the tabloids!) that in the aftermath of any major tragic event, the relationships of those involved can either grow stronger or break down – Shakespeare seems to be interested in how the latter situation can come about in this play.

Their separation seems to start in Act 3 Scene 1, when Macbeth gets rid of Lady Macbeth so that he can talk to the murderers, then she returns to see why her husband is spending so much time alone and brooding.  She seems happy to have achieved her goal – the crown, while Macbeth is obsessed by trying to prevent another’s offspring from succeeding him.  Once their aims are different, they grow apart, which suggests theirs is a marriage based on shared political intrigue and desire, rather than love.  As the play progresses, there are very few terms of endearment or fond words expressed (unlike the early scenes).  In fact, Lady Macbeth only refers to Macbeth as her ‘husband’ once (just after the murder of Duncan) – perhaps since she is vulnerable and in need of support at that point.  Also, Lady Macbeth’s constant jibes at her husband’s lack of manhood and inability (as she sees it) to follow through on his desires could refer to more than just his political manoeuvres – if you catch my drift!

 

  • POLITICS

As Macbeth establishes his dictatorship, and his enemies subsequently try to destroy it, political manoeuvres and cunning manipulation abound.  A number of observations about how characters deal with each other are interesting to note:

  • Note how Macbeth persuades the murderers to kill Banquo
  • How Ross tries to find out how Macduff will respond after Duncan is murdered
  • How Malcolm (when he is approached by Macduff in England) pretends not to have any interest in the throne (or, indeed, to be at all suited to it), in order to put Macduff’s loyalty to the test (showing just how paranoid and untrusting everyone has become during Macbeth’s reign of terror).
  • How Ross does not tell Lady Macduff everything and then later seems to withhold information from Macduff about his family – possibly because he wants to enrage him so much to ensure that Macduff will fight against Macbeth? (In the Second Age Production we saw it was interesting that Ross was depicted as the third murderer who comes to help the witches’ prophesy be fulfilled, by helping Fleance to flee.)

In Macbeth, it is Duncan – the King – who seems most notably deceived by show (as, indeed, in many of his plays, Shakespeare is intrigued by appearances which hide reality).  Duncan is a bad judge of character – he had placed great faith in the previous Thane of Cawdor –

He was a gentleman on whom I built

               An absolute trust.

Then almost immediately he makes the very same mistake with Macbeth and his wife, not noticing the serpent under the ‘innocent flower’.  He is oblivious to Macbeth’s potential for evil and unable to see below the surface or to realise Macbeth’s ability to hide with a ‘false face’ what ‘the false heart doth know’.

Banquo, on the other hand, becomes suspicious of his friend, as he starts to see through the façade Macbeth has tried to create for himself, and then realises Macbeth has ‘played most foully’ for his achievements.

  • HERO OR VILLAIN?

This is the great on-going debate.  For Elizabethan audiences there was but one answer.  For modern-day audiences things are not so clear-cut.  However, in his defence, despite the fact that Macbeth does not seem to mind whom he destroys – surely the sign of a villain – he does have many (initial) crises of conscience which may just about redeem him and allow him the dignified status of ‘tragic hero’.  His sense of regret and awareness of what he has lost can be seen in Act 5 Scene 3, when he has been abandoned by all but a handful of employees, and is without ‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’.

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