Some of the Ways in Which Shakespeare Portrays an Atmosphere of Evil In Macbeth
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Macbeth is renowned as playwright Shakespeare’s, most famous and bloodiest tragedy ever written. Within the tragedy are elements of various themes, such as love, ambition and power, combining to make Macbeth a very engaging play which is most satisfying to the audience. The play revolves around an ambitious Scottish warrior, who great ambition causes him to make decision which trigger and unwelcome chain reaction, leading ultimately to his fate in the final act.
Maintaining an atmosphere of evil is done in many ways in this play. One of the main themes is that of witchcraft. This is an effective means of maintaining the evil atmosphere, as to the intended Jacobean audience, witchcraft was an off-putting and worrying concept.
Various rudiments of witchcraft are taken and used very effectively. For example, in the witches’ second appearance in the play, Macbeth goes to them for a further set of predictions, as he is worried for his future. They appear to be making some form of potion, into which some of the ingredients that go are considered quite distasteful, to audiences of today and of the eighteenth century. Some of the more grotesque examples include “Finger of birth-strangled babe” which has very strong connotations, as images of helpless beings strangled cruelly at birth appear in one’s mind. Like this there are many examples of bloody imagery. Shakespeare has also considered the stage directions, as for the entry of the witches; “thunder” is used, immediately setting an atmosphere suited to the witches and their doing evil. Thunder was often seen as a sign of presence of great evil.
The witches are used in the introductory (with “Thunder and lightning”) scenes of the first act and in their actions and dialogue effectively creates an atmosphere of evil. They initially talk of meeting with Macbeth after a certain battle, but a little later, they make references to possibly supernatural beings. “I come Greymalkin”. A Greymalkin was considered as a grey cat with connections to the spiritual world, so to a Jacobean audience may sound suspicious.
Additionally, all three witches then say together in some form of chant “Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through fog and filthy air” as the scene end. It is possible, from the first part, that they have the opinion that good is bad and bad is good, so are essentially evil. Also, hovering is an unnatural movement, not normal to humans. The “fog and filthy air” is an environment associated with witches, as quite gloomy and in the past was seen as ill-omened, as it would cover evil. In combination with the fact that this is said as a group as a chant, gives greater rise to the suspicion these three are witches and people of wrong doing. This quite ominous opening to the play, with references to supernatural and inhuman things is effective, as it plants seeds of doubt and suspicion in the minds of the audience, hence creates an atmosphere of evil.
The witches are a very interesting feature in the film portrayals of Macbeth. They are used to the same effect, but obviously, visual and sound mediums can play a larger role. One renowned film version is that of Roman Polanski, who interpreted this first scene on the first act differently Nunn, but in my opinion was better and achieved a greater result. He uses mist and fog and a build up of eerie and ominous music. Unlike Nunn’s version, it is not shot on stage but on location, so Polanski literally shoots in the middle of nowhere, with no distinct features or any other people, adding to the affect.
As Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches for the first time, to receive the initial predictions, Banquo states the following: “what are these that look not like the inhabitants of the earth and yet are on’t”. He follows with some reference to their chapped and unpleasant “choppy fingers” and “skinny lips” and concludes they are not normal women; “…your beards forbid me to interpret that you so are”. To a Jacobean audience especially, the witches may seem purely evil, simply as they are not normal to the world. The vivid description that Banquo gives of their appearance is also effective in conveying how grotesque the trio of witches are. This is also portrayed very effectively in the Polanski and Nunn versions as they’re grotesque faces and disgusting features are made very obvious. They’re unnatural movements and habits, for example drooling and irregularly varying pitch of voice in both versions are effective in showing how unworldly they are. Nunn’s version is shot in a blacked out set which creates an eerie atmosphere. However, in Polanski’s version, the use of fog and mist, aswell as the dark atmosphere really emphasises the presence of evil.
One of the most recurrent themes in the play is that of appearance and reality. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do their best in concealing the fact that they are the ones responsible for Duncan’s Murder, and indeed the murder of many others.
An example early on in the play is where Duncan, the king is seen praising Macbeth for his great courage and valour in battle. “The sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy one me”. He explains that Macbeth deserves a lot of credit for his service to the king and country. A little later, Duncan announces that the next in line for the throne, is his own son, Malcolm. A soliloquy of Macbeth immediately follows and we immediately understand how much desire Macbeth has for the crown. In the soliloquy, he describes Malcolm as a “step” that he must “o’erleap”. This shows he sees Malcolm as an obstacle, in the way of the route to kingship.
It is clear now the Macbeth sometimes has some very evil intentions, for example to possibly kill Duncan and Malcolm, in order to become king. This is made obvious by: “Stars hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires”. This shows that though he may behave normally in the presence of others, but he has some evil desires and intentions that he want hidden, “let not light see my black and deep desires”.
Lady Macbeth has a similar soliloquy, after she has read the letter explaining the witches’ initial predictions to Macbeth. Her, immediately ambitious attitude and determination to become queen may have seemed quite sinister, especially to a Jacobean audience, mainly as she is a woman. In the soliloquy, her hugely evil desires are made very clear. “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of dirtiest cruelty”
What she says here suggests that in some way she is contacting spirits, in order to make her evil enough to commit these crimes, and interfere with the chain of being. Though she isn’t a witch, the fact that she refers to spirits and wishes to be made evil is quite disturbing. This is especially the case to a Jacobean audience, as she is a woman, and also as they were very superstitious.
Again, there are links to darkness and its power to cover evil as she says “Come thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell”This description of the darkness, which she wants to cover her desire, is quite vivid, and conveys well how passionate and ambitious she really is, on the other side of her gentle womanly nature. There are countless examples of this, but the recurring theme of appearance and reality and of darkness is effective in creating a rather evil and sinister atmosphere, around Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
There is dramatic irony in this, as she later craves for light back, as she feels to guilt to cope any longer. This guild eventually leads to her fate, even though she was the manly driving force of Macbeth’s doings.
Her manipulative character is emphasised after another Macbeth soliloquy, when she literally blackmails Macbeth into murdering Duncan. Macbeth is reconsidering murdering Duncan as Lady Macbeth enters. Her presence is felt with her immediate criticisms and accusations of Macbeth, as she calls him a coward and claims he has failed to keep a promise (that he never made in the first place).
“I would while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this”
She claims here that if she had promised to do such a cruel thing as she describes, she would be determined to do it. She wants to make the point that even to kill a baby, which has not yet started its life, she would do, for the sake of Macbeth. The consequent gruesome imagery of this statement is effective on its own, but as Macbeth agrees to murder Duncan later, it is also clear that Lady Macbeth has manipulated Macbeth and black mailed him. Especially as in reality she would never do such cruel things to a baby, the fact she has made Macbeth do them shows exactly how devious and cunning she is and makes her seem entirely evil at that point.
In Polanski’s portrayal of this scene, he effectively shows Lady Macbeth in her acting and manipulating Macbeth into murdering Duncan. However, the theme of appearance of reality is much more apparent here than in the script. There is quite an immoral and sinister feel to the scene as Lady Macbeth dances and dines happily with Duncan, even though she has plotted to murder him.
Macbeth, unlike his cool, calm and calculated wife, often considered the impact such evil actions would have on his conscience and future. However, later on in the play, Macbeth becomes accustomed to a habit of murder and regretting it later. Some effects of the continual murdering are linked closely with the witches’ prophesies, for example “Macbeth will sleep no more”. Macbeth explains to his wife that he can no longer sleep in peace. “In the affliction of these terrible dreams, that shakes us nightly…” This shows that Macbeth is beginning to suffer quite a lot in the guilt of these murders. Members of the audience that can remember the predictions of the witches may understand why he is saying this. By frequently showing truth in the witches prophesies, a Jacobean audience would find it uncanny and maybe frightening, and associate it with evil doings. Therefore, an evil atmosphere is successfully maintained.
One very effective piece of language is “O full of scorpions is my mind dear wife”. This is an effective example of imagery, as images of scorpion’s scuttling around in one’s head are brought to mind and really conveys how restless and disturbed Macbeth is. Blood imagery is also a factor in facilitating maintaining an evil atmosphere as it introduces themes of blood and often gore.
For example, in the text there are lines, which though are not bloody, having symbolism which relates to blood and its value. In Macbeth’s reaction to Banquo’s ghost, he says “…I am in blood stepped so far…” This implies that he has killed so many people, that killing more would not make any difference.
In Polanski’s portrayal of the ghost scene, he uses various methods to try and disgust and weird out the audience. The ghost appears to have all the murder wounds and covered in blood aswell as having a greyed out ‘body’. To emphasise it is a ghost, its entrance marks the beginning of some eerie high pitches sounds, which make apparent that something is not right. The more physical use of blood in this scene is quite effective because it really emphasises the extent of the evil of Macbeth’s doings. His reaction in this portrayal is also very effective; He is shown falling over and cowering away from the ghost and delivers lines expressing his fear, in front of many other people.
What is notable here and also in the text, is the massive transition from a happy dining atmosphere, to an atmosphere soaked in the fright of Macbeth and shock of his visitors. When delivered correctly, it is this line which helps this transition: “Which of you has done this?” Such a questioning and harsh tone in this line, after many lines of general conversation (ironically in tribute to Banquo), means all other conversation ceases and the stage goes silent. As everyone on stage and in the audience wonders why this is said, the awkward silence which is produced is effective in setting a tense and shocked environment, ready for Macbeths extended reaction.
Some use of language in his reaction is also quite effective. There is some reference to the devil also;
“Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that which might appal the devil”
The ghost has obviously frightened Macbeth to such an extent; he claims through this hyperbole that even the devil would be sickened by the ghost, which really emphasises how disturbed he is by what he sees.
Ironically, later on in the story, whilst Macbeth is being spoken of by others, including Malcolm and Macduff, he is often described as the same or similar to the Devil, partly for what Scotland has become under his reign. For example “Devilish Macbeth” &”untitled tyrant bloody sceptred”, shows that they feel he is not the rightful king and he became king only by bloodshed.
Other than the fact that he is a cruel person, the fact he interferes with the chain of being by treason (a hierarchy of all beings), may also have something to do with him being compared to the devil, as the devil is lowest in the chain.
They reflect upon the result of Macbeths rule and how it has affected Scotland; ‘…it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day, a gash is added to her wounds’. This is effective as they have empathized with Scotland, though the use of personification which gives greater impact due to the blood imagery and reference to “her”. It is important that the audience share these views too, as they have witnessed his evil dealings. This leaves them anxious to find out the consequence of his actions.
Creating an atmosphere of evil is done by the use of an amalgam of techniques discussed previously. The use of blood imagery in combination with some strongly crafted language means constant emphasis is made in evoking feelings in the audiences mind. The use of symbolism and reference to a supernatural side of the world through the witches is also effective and aids the sustaining of disgust in the audience, aswell as an evil and ominous ambience in the theatre.