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A Brief Look at 'Macbeth'

Here is a glimpse of Macbeth which may serve as an introduction to the play and to Shakespeare, to be used as a basis for discussion or in conjunction with a lesson.

An Outline of Shakespeare’s Life

We know extremely little about Shakespeare’s life. We know that he was born to general merchant John and Mary Shakespeare in April 1564 in Stratford on Avon, and that they had enough wealth to send him to the Grammar School there in about 1571, where he learned Latin and grammar, but he had to leave school early as his father’s fortunes were on the decline. Only a few years later, Shakespeare’s father had to mortgage his wife’s estate for a few hundred pounds, but the young Shakespeare probably saw the visit of Queen Elizabeth to nearby Kenilworth Castle when he was eleven, and also had access to some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain as a boy.

At nineteen, having possibly served as an apprentice butcher in one of his father’s businesses, he was married to Anne Hathaway, who was six years older than him. They had several children, and whether because of his need to make more money to support their upbringing or for some other reason, when he was twenty-two he appears to have gone to London.

We know almost nothing about him for six years. One of his first plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost, appears in 1591, and over the next twenty years he produced the long series of plays that we have today. He seems to have returned to Stratford on many occasions, making sure that his father had enough money to make his last few years comfortable. He also seems to have been a shrewd businessman -in 1599 he bought shares in the newly built Globe Theatre, and entered upon a period of great prosperity, becoming a chief member of the acting company known as the King’s Players.

However, despite the optimism and brightness of his earlier comedies, after about 1601 a gloom descends over his work. This is when he appears to have lost faith in human life, and this is the period of the great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, along with Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. His final plays, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, on the other hand, show something of a return to a brighter view of the world.

In 1611 he retired to Stratford as a country gentleman, and his body lies buried in Stratford Church where he died in 1616.

Background and Structure of Macbeth

Fourteen out of twenty-eight scenes take place at night or in late evening, in the gloom of a cavern or in a thunderstorm; there are often, particularly at dramatic moments, storms. There are descriptions at points of various unnatural events, including horses eating each other (Act Two, Scene 4). All of these factors serve to set the scene of the play as a whole, in a troubled world of darkness and sinister forces.

During Shakespeare’s time, the remote Highland setting of all but one of the scenes of the play would have been even more inaccessible, adding to the sense of mystery and gloom.

In general, this sense of darkness is produced by the use in the text of a large number of words with dark and awful associations (e.g. raven, croaks, fatal, blood, murdering, night, pall, dunnest, smoke, hell, knife, wound, dark -all selected from one speech).

There is a clear structure in the plot: there is a sequence of uninterrupted successes for Macbeth, culminating in the murder of Banquo, while his failures begin with the escape of Fleance. This turning point occurs in the exact middle of the play, the fourteenth scene in twenty-eight scenes, the middle of the middle act. The murder of Duncan, on the way to this point, is counterbalanced on the way down by the sleepwalking of Lady Macbeth; the saintly character of Duncan in the first part of the play is balanced by his virgin son Malcolm in the last part; Banquo as heroic secondary character is replaced by Macduff. As Macbeth grows more and more evil, so do the forces of retribution grow stronger and stronger.

Each scene of tension and drama is alternated by a scene of relative calmness, firstly to give the audience some relief, and secondly to heighten the drama.

Poetic Structure

Scenes written in prose reflect either contrast with highly charged poetic scenes, or show, as in the case of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking speech, a deranged mind.

Most of the play, though, is in blank (i.e. unrhymed) verse. The regular line consists of five metrical ‘feet’, each of two syllables, the first ‘foot’ of which is unaccented (that is, pronounced more weakly), the second accented (pronounced more strongly).

The Prince / of Cum / berland! / that is / a step /

On which / I must / fall down, / or else / o’erleap,

Too much repetition of this rhythm, though, and the listener falls asleep or becomes slightly hypnotised, so Shakespeare breaks this regularity up, and the strength of the accented syllable is varied too, as it is in normal speech, to ensure that the lines do not become boring or flat. For example, in this line from Act Two, Macbeth is discussing sleep -if you speak this out loud, you will find that the words in bold are about equally stressed:

Balm of / hurt minds, / great na / ture’s se / cond course.

As in music, listening to these subtle variations helps you to understand the mood or tone that the author is creating with his art.

There are, for the same reason of variety, sometimes extra syllables, as in:

The mul / titu / dinous seas / incar / nadine

Or in the middle of a line:

Give me / the dag / gers: / the sleep / ing and / the dead

Sometimes we can imagine a gesture taking the place of a missing foot:

I see / thee yet, / in form / as pal / pa ble

As this / which now / I draw / __ __ / __ __

Basically, Shakespeare uses all these techniques (and more) to convey his mood and message, and is not a prisoner of his tools but a master of them.

Language and Imagery

Shakespeare uses similes and metaphors often and richly. They frequently occur in very rapid succession, as in Macbeth’s speech on sleep:

Macbeth does murder sleep’ -the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave 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,--

Or the sergeant’s description of the undecided battle:

Doubtful it stood;

As two spent swimmers, that do cling together

And choke their art.

Natural images are often used, as in Lady Macbeth’s:

look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t.

There are often also references to images of the theatre:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

But the number of images and their kind are so numerous as to be almost uncountable. Each one has a poetic effect on the listener; by linking together a strand of images, the author intends to create in our mind concepts and meanings that resonate on a level beyond the merely analytical -we have a gradual understanding of Macbeth from the images of darkness, beasts and various other things that no amount of explanations could convey, and so the effect of the work is far greater than it might otherwise be.


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