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How is your understanding of the banqueting scene (Act III Scene 4)

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How is your understanding of the banqueting scene (Act III Scene 4) enhanced by the knowledge about the play’s Jacobean context?

Macbeth is very much a play of its time but it is still relevant today. It was written in the very early years of King James I. Macbeth is not difficult to watch even out of context but there are many scenes (For example the Banquet scene: Act III Scene 4) which are written within the context of Jacobean, in which a contemporary audience would have been able to pick up subtle hints and details. However, in the 21st Century, we live in a much-changed world but we can still enjoy the play today without knowledge of the Jacobean context. However, to fully understand the play, we need a basic knowledge of the Jacobean context it was written in.

Within the whole play, there is a contrast of order against chaos. The medieval hierarchy is one such example of order. At the beginning of the banquet scene, Macbeth makes this explicit:

You know your own degrees, sit down.

This shows the formality of this, a state occasion because people are seated according to their ‘degree’ (position in society). At the time that the play was written, the hierarchy in Britain was changing. The ‘feudal’ system had virtually ended and there were the beginnings of a ‘middle class’ of merchants and other businessmen. In c.1505, Nicol� Machiavelli, an Italian prince, had written a book about authority and power, which detailed how to preserve power. Shakespeare, and almost certainly James I, would have read or been aware of this text which says that political power can be kept by ‘maintaining spectacle and display’. The banquet scene is an example of this. This reference shows Shakespeare’s awareness of ‘contemporary’ works.

Women play a major role in the play which was quite unusual at the time. In banqueting scene, Lady Macbeth is see to take control as Macbeth loses his self-control:

I pray you speak not, he grows worse and worse.

Question enrages him. At once, good night.

Stand not upon the order of your going,

But go at once.

The WOmen in the play are portrayed as strong or (in some cases) controlling. On several occasions during the play, Lady Macbeth challenges his ‘manhood’ and bravery. Two noticeable instances of this occur in the banqueting scene when she says:

Are you a man?/What, quite unmanned in folly?

These references may have been because Shakespeare was writing shortly after the reign of Elizabeth I, a strong woman; however strong, confident women were rare and their place was seen to be bringing up a family. In the following scene (Act III Scene 5), old women (the witches) are shown to be discussing and control the fate of Macbeth. This seems to turn the archetypal hierarchy upside-down because witches (evil) are controlling the king (who was, in many protestant eyes) seen as God’s representative on earth.

Throughout the play, there is an ongoing conflict between ‘order and chaos’ and ‘good and evil’. Macbeth represents evil and, with the intervention of the witches, creates a state of chaos when he kills Duncan. A Jacobean audience would have had a strong sense of the need for order in the world. The king would be near the top of the hierarchy as they strongly believed in divine right and he was God’s representative on earth. The witches, on the other hand, are seen as figures of evil and chaos. The Banquet (Act III Scene 4) is supposed to be a time of great order and ceremony to celebrate Macbeth becoming king and is the first formal confirmation of his status as king because the audience does not see his coronation. When the first murderer enters the banquet hall, Macbeth’s attention immediately turns to him. He becomes less concerned with his country’s nobles but is more interested in the murderer, a lowlife- whom he employed to carry out his evil deeds. His tone quickly changes from hospitable to his guests:

Be large in mirth. Anon, we’ll drink a measure

The table round

To confrontational and urgent:

There’s blood upon thy face.

Later when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and panics, he disrupts things further. Control is restored to a certain extent when Lady Macbeth says, in line 118:

I pray you speak not, he grows worse and worse.

Question enrages him. At once, good night.

But this is only possible by breaking up the order and ceremony of this important occasion and damages the ‘spectacle’ and permanently damages Macbeth’s reputation and standing as in future, the Thanes will have less respect for a ‘weak king’. The staging of this important moment in Trevor Nunn’s production of Macbeth gave focus to the change: Lay Macbeth was cradling her broken husband, while the departing guests tried to observe a ceremonial ritual of kissing the kings, now-drooping hand. It was the prospect of a long succession of these unfelt and now meaningless gestures that made her shriek:

Stand not upon the order of your going,

But go at once.

However, in other productions, such as Polanski’s film version, less emphasis is given to this scene and parts are cut out. The contrast between what a formal occasion the banquet should have been and what it degenerates to also lends an almost comic value to the scene. Also in the scene, Macbeth never sits down on his throne and a Jacobean audience would have been very aware of this and they would have found it significant as it signifies Scotland not having a legitimate king.

Throughout the play, there is a central theme of darkness and evil which links together with the evil deeds of Macbeth and his ‘dearest partner of greatness’. The play shows the apparent powers of darkness and evil and shows how even noble men may succumb to the temptation to perform evil deeds for personal gain. Macbeth is seen to use the darkness to cloak his evil deeds as both the murders of Duncan and Banquo occur at night.

The murder of Banquo also shows that even as king, Macbeth’s deeds must still be done under cover of darkness. It is unusual, with Jacobean plays for so many scenes to be set at night. This is because at the time, plays were performed, in theatres open to the elements, during the day because there were no lighting systems as there are today and so, the actors had to covey a sense of darkness by using props such as torches for scenes occurring at night. In Act III Scene 2, Macbeth wants the night to come quickly so he can continue his dark deeds:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day…

God things of day begin to droop and drowse,

While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

This emphasizes and makes explicit the use of darkness and the night for the deeds of Macbeth to be carried out.

Throughout the play, there are many references to supernatural creatures and this links in with the sense of disorder and unnatural deeds of the play. The witches are seen as evil and are unnaturally controlling Macbeth, the king, who is seen as God’s representative on earth. They are unnatural and ‘we�rd’ and when they are first met by Banquo and Macbeth, Banquo says:

you should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.

The witches are seen to be abnormal and control Macbeth, using their powers to cause moral confusion:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Shakespeare uses soliloquy to show that the witches have made Macbeth morally confused and hints that he may be considering regicide:

That is a step

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

For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,

Let not light see my black and deep desires;

This shows Macbeth privately plotting to realise his ‘deep desires’. Even though it doesn’t speak, Banquo’s ghost has a profound effect on Macbeth and leaves him ‘quite unmanned’. The witches are used by Shakespeare to imply and foreshadow what will occur in the future. A Jacobean audience would have firmly believed in ghosts, witches and other supernatural beings and there were regular witch trials. James I was a great believer in witches and wrote a book on demonology references to witches may have been to please King James but this would not seem to be a major reason as James’ life had been threatened by a group of witches in 1591. In a production of the play for King James, it is reported that in the apparition which showed a line of seven kings all resembling Banquo, the one at the end who was carrying a mirror, pointed the mirror at James I so that he could see himself because, according to Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland, James I was a direct descendant of Banquo.

In conclusion, I believe that although the Banquet scene (Act III Scene 4) can be enjoyed out of context and with no knowledge of Jacobean culture and tradition, it is best understood with a basic knowledge of the Jacobean context which it was written in because of many references to things that we would be virtually unaware of nowadays.

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