Act 1 of ”Macbeth” by Shakespeare
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William Shakespeare, an English playwright, often started his plays with powerful scenes and mood-setting action. Act 1 of ‘Macbeth’ is no exception to the traditional important and exciting Shakespearean introductions.
Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’ as a tribute to King James, the new monarch of England at the time. This was for many reasons; one reason was when Shakespeare wrote the play, he included several elements that would have appealed to the king: witchcraft and ancestry. King James was particularly interested in witchcraft and this may have inspired Shakespeare to include witchcraft as such a major part to evil in the play. The character of Banquo was the ancestor of King James; this appears in Act IV when the witches show the apparitions of the 8 kings descending from Banquo.
The play as a whole would be described as a tragedy because it contains death, murder, immorality and the consistent battle against good and evil; which are main elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. Act 1 of Macbeth presents and demonstrates a world full of deception. The uncertainty and inconsistency in the characters keep interest level up and the audience on the edge of their seats. The audience is forced to think about the concept of good and evil. This mental involvement in the play draws a lot of interest to the play and thoroughly prepares them for the evil that is about to follow. However, there are also other genres like horror, suspense and drama that come later on during the play.
Act 1 displays the deceptive environment in which Macbeth lives (which is a major theme in the play), depicting the characters’ personalities and motives, and finally portraying the constant struggle between good and evil. Act 1 prepares the audience for the evil that will follow through the setting of the scenes, the characters, language and many other techniques. It is true to a great extent that the audience is unaware of exactly what events are to follow after Act 1, but they are definitely prepared for something evil to occur, thus keeping them on tenterhooks.
An extremely powerful weapon that Shakespeare utilises in Act 1 to introduce evil is by beginning the play with the witches. As soon as the witches enter the act, the audience is made aware of the play’s theme as witches were associated with evil and cast as being wicked during the Elizabethan times. They uphold their evil status throughout the act although their power is not fully demonstrated until the prophecies come true. The witches symbolise all that is evil, playing a significant role in Macbeth’s downfall, as it is them who trigger his ambition to become King. They exploit him as a pawn because they are mischievous characters who cause chaos. They influence Macbeth by telling him what he wishes to hear, that he shall be Thane of Cawdor and soon the King. Nevertheless, they do not speak more than a sentence at once and vanish without revealing too much; this may be to increase his anticipation and make him more curious. The audience is in a similar situation to Macbeth at this point, as they are unsure as to what the witches mean, thus building suspense and curiosity.
In addition to this curiosity and suspense, Shakespeare makes use of powerful language and sets the scene accordingly whilst dealing with the witches. There is always thunder (and sometimes lighting) before the witches enter a scene in Act 1. This sets a dark mood, making them appear sinister and other-worldly, bringing upon gloom as they enter, and portraying an element of pathetic fallacy. What the witches say is also portrayed to be evil. For example, they seem to take pleasure in “Killing swine” and say “I’ll drain him dry as hay” to show that they are immoral.
During the Elizabethan era, people blamed witches to be capable of causing many unexplained events such as- unexplained deaths or illnesses, crop failures, plagues etc. They had many ideas of witches that said they would carry familiars, brew potions in a cauldron and travel in broomsticks. Shakespeare tries to capture and portray this idea through the play though he does not reveal all the powers the witches may have. However we see them performing spells and conversing with apparitions, Banquo states that they “look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth”. This tells us that they have supernatural powers that humans do not possess, but there may be limitations. Instead of carrying out the deeds themselves they lure Macbeth into doing their will; This may either mean that they do not want to get their ‘hands dirty’, i.e. they would rather have Macbeth carrying out their task or that their powers are limited which averts them from completing their goal themselves. Nevertheless, the witches are highly influential characters that change the course of the play, symbolising strong forces of evil.
Lady Macbeth is a very interesting and influential character that we cannot ignore, as she plays a vital role in altering the course of the play. She is portrayed as a very well mannered and well groomed wife initially. Macbeth and his wife have a very loving relationship in which they have great influence on one and other. In the earlier acts of the play we can see that Lady Macbeth’s words mean a lot to her husband, giving the impression that she is definitely the dominant figure in the relationship. Macbeth shows great compassion and respect towards, addressing her as “dearest partner of greatness” (Act 1 scene 5) in his letter. Lady Macbeth is an influence on her husband in many different ways, for many different reasons, as explained below.
We realise that Lady Macbeth’s characteristics are similar to the witches in many ways. Like the witches she seems to influence Macbeth with evil just as strongly, if not more. She is not hesitant to openly refer to being selfless and cruel “And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull/ Of direst cruelty” (lines 40-41, scene 5) almost like the witches. Also, she and the witches use the metaphoric powers of language to call upon spirits that in turn will influence Macbeth in different ways. Lady Macbeth states: “come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts,” (lines 38-39 scenes 5). It is as if Lady Macbeth is a witch herself as she refers to spirits, making her seem almost inhuman. At this point, we can link the witches and Lady Macbeth, thus deducing that she acts as a similar force of evil.
Later on, as she opens her husband’s letter she immediately begins to scheme and plot, showing her true evil ambition. We are immediately made aware that she wants Macbeth to become King, so they can be at a higher status, “and shalt be/ What thou art promised ;”( lines 13-14, scene 5). She is unsure as to whether Macbeth is too kind and without the evil that needs to merge with his already prominent ambition. As said in her soliloquy, ‘I fear…is too full’o the milk of human kindness, to catch the nearest way’. (Lines 15-16, scene 5). For this reason, she influences him greatly into the prospect of murdering the king, “That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (line 24, scene5) The thought of Macbeth becoming king pushes her and causes her to act outrageously, adding greatly to evil as a theme.
Nonetheless, when King Duncan comes to the Macbeth castle, she seems as though she is happy and delighted to see the king saying, “All our service/ In every point twice done and then done double/” (lines14-15 scene6). Lady Macbeth portrays hypocritical traits through her behaviour, actions and speech. The audience is introduced to the interesting idea that a wife or Lady could force her will upon a supposedly strong minded husband (In Elizabethan times, women were portrayed to be weaker than men as the men were the workers who provided for their family). Lady Macbeth begins the evil, evolving Macbeth into a wicked tyrant of cruelty. Her constantly changing character is of interest in act one, because she appears to be the central figure in determining the fate of King Duncan. Lady Macbeth has a strong hand in re-enforcing the evil that the witches initially plot into Macbeth’s mind.
However, it is Macbeth who chooses the immoral path of becoming King that can only be achieved by eliminating Duncan. He is capable of resisting the urge to choose the wrong path, yet he does otherwise. The witches have an effective influence on him which causes him to take this decision at the ending of the act. Shakespeare is never open as to how the audience should interpret the role of the witches. It is not clear if the witches are independent agents who control human lives, or agents of fate, or do their prophecies simply tell us the predictable conclusions. Furthermore, it is not clear if Shakespeare intends for the witches to even be perceived as real or as symbolically representations of the evil that already lurks within Macbeth’s heart. However, during this time people genuinely believed in witches so Shakespeare’s intention must have been to create evil and to interactively let the audience develop their own character to resemble the witches, thus preparing the audience for the evil that is to come.
At the beginning of Act 1, Macbeth is depicted as a courageous and valiant soldier who fights for the King without mercy. However, after he is influenced immensely by the witches and Lady Macbeth, he is no longer as innocent but a heartless and deceitful “serpent”. In scene two of act 1 he is portrayed as a “valour’s minion” who “carved out his passage/ Till he faced the slave” (lines 19-20). King Duncan is impressed by Macbeth’s qualities as he says “o valiant cousin, worthy gentleman”, so he positions Macbeth as a Thane of Cawdor, completely oblivious that this will lead to his disastrous death. The fact that he becomes Thane of Cawdor as the witches predicted strengthens the ambition to be King as Macbeth believes in the witches’ words.
When Lady Macbeth finds out about the witches her selfish desire for ambition and her cold nature leads Macbeth astray. Macbeth is a fairly ambitious at first, but Lady Macbeth’s by far exceeds his and she is prepared to stop at nothing to achieve that ambition. When she attempts to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan, he still has a conscience at this stage because he is very hesitant about killing the King, he debates with his inner self “First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,”, the theme of trust is especially evident in this short quotation. Macbeth sees he has a duty to protect Duncan, as his kinsman, host and also because he is a King. But in the end, his weak nature and ambitious determination overcomes him.
When Macbeth first talks to the witches in Act 1 we find out that he is not as noble as he is described, “Speak if you can: what are you?” (line 45, scene 3). Here he is demanding and very curious. However, in Act 4 scene 1 he is eager and persistent through his speech: “How know, you secret….hags! / What is’t you do?” (lines 46-47).
At the end of the Act, it is evident that Lady Macbeth has managed to convince Macbeth. The choice of language through this scene is used to show the contrasting morality of the two characters; where Lady Macbeth’s evil traits are consistently battling with Macbeth’s goodness nearing the end of the act. Lady Macbeth portrays this contrast where she states “look like th’innocent flower/ But be the serpent under’t”. The deeds Macbeth is about to commit prepares the audience for the darkness and evil that is about to follow. Shakespeare creates very strong imagery on Macbeth’s last speech before the murder. Macbeth declares “I am settled; and bend up/… false must hide what the false heart doth know.” The last two lines end with a memorable rhyming couplet. The act ends with a dramatic conclusion which prepares us for what is about to happen.
Overall, there are many themes that occur through the play. Ambition plays a key role as it drives many of the characters to their fate. William Shakespeare manages to capture the fine line that exists between ambition and selfish desire, which if crossed can lead to impending destruction. It can also be argued that one leads to the other. Deception is another trait present in the Act. Shakespeare shows the audience that in life things are not always as they appear (friends can turn out to be enemies). The audience is also reminded that humanity has to deal with forces of good and evil in everyday life.
However, the importance of evil is prominent in Act1. I believe this act is a preparation for what is to follow as it introduces the plays main theme and other genres, giving a glimpse of how ambition can lead to deception and cruelty, adding up to tragedy. In effect, I feel Act 1 does a good job of portraying the invasion of evil over good, showing how Macbeth’s inner desires are unleashed by the witches, Lady Macbeth and other influential events, thus preparing the audience for the thrilling battle of evil both mentally and physically.