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The Ways Shakespeare Creates an Atmosphere of Evil in Act 1 of the “Macbeth”

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The play I have been studying is Macbeth by William Shakespeare. It tells the story of a Scottish thane who rises to the thrown of Scotland by committing terrible murders. He follows the prophecies of three supernatural sisters (the witches) and becomes the king of Scotland, and his reign is full of tyranny and deceit. His wife Lady Macbeth plays a big role in his rise to power by constantly being prepared to be the more ruthless of the two, but she eventual goes mad from the pressure of the several murders and kills herself. Macbeth’s eventually downfall comes when he begins to completely trust the witches, which in the end has dire consequences. William Shakespeare wrote this play in 1606 for the entertainment of King James ? who at the time was the king of England, but had also been the king of Scotland. In the essay I will be looking to examine how Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of evil by analysing his use of paradoxical language, the use of settings, his use of familiars, dramatic irony, soliloquies and oxymorons to do so.

Paradoxical language is used in the play, which contradicts what the character is saying. We first come across this when the three witches first appear at the start:

When the hurly-burly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won

(Act1 scene I lines 3-4)


Fair is foul and foul is fair

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

(Act1 scene I lines 21-22)

The audience doesn’t quite understand what is being implied at this point, because a battle cannot be lost and won simultaneously, and good cannot be bad and bad cannot be good. As well as using paradoxical language, the witches speak in unison, which creates an ambivalent, and disturbing aura, as well as speaking in rhyming couplets, which gives a perception that they are casting evil spells upon unsuspecting victims. As the play progresses we also see the witches combining their use of paradoxical language with contradictions, which creates a riddle:

Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.

Not so happy, yet happier.

Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.

So all hail Macbeth, all hail.

(Act1 scene III 63-66)

Once again the reader is puzzled at what is being said, and this is what creates evil. The witches use this riddle to sow a seed of intrigue into Macbeth’s mind knowing that his ambition will lead to him taking action against anyone who stands between him becoming the king of Scotland. Paradoxical language is finally used again Act 5 when Lady Macbeth speaks to Macbeth in their castle about how they will treat Duncan

Bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t.

(Act1 scene V lines 63-65)

We see here the true intentions of the thoughts of Lady Macbeth because she says to Macbeth that they should pretend to be friendly and nice on the surface, but in reality they should be callous and cold hearted towards him. This heightens the atmosphere of evil because we are given a glimpse into the way Lady Macbeth’s mind operates, not like a frail weak woman but as a calculated masculine figurehead.

Shakespeare’s use of setting also adds to the evil in the play. When we meet the witches they are deciding when to meet again. They decide to meet upon the heath. His audience would have known the significance of this because a heath is a barren wasteland where not a lot survives, it is a very harsh environment.

Where the place?

Upon the hath

(Act1 scene I lines 6-7)

His stage directions also add to the atmosphere because they say the witches enter when it’s stormy weather. Shakespeare does this to show us that the witches have put nature into chaos. They themselves also decide to meet again in thunder lightning or in rain.

When shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

(Act1 scene I lines1-2)

The effect of the setting and weather conditions shows that Shakespeare wanted to show the audience that these three weird sisters are witches by the seem to be able to manipulate the weather conditions. His audience knew that thunder and lighting signified evil, and he wanted to portray this evil.

Shakespeare also introduces us to the familiars that accompany the witches. He refers to Graymalkin and Paddock, and his audience would have instantly known the importance of these inclusions as they are references to evil.

I come, Graymalkin.

Paddock calls.


(Act1 scene I lines9-11)

Shakespeare uses this so that we can instantly identify that they are witches, by using their familiars in this context. The witches are saying, “I am coming my cat” and “my toad calls. I am coming”. The use of this method would instantly show us that the people involved were witches, and were evil. His audience would have recognised this and so it creates a sinister mood.

His use of dramatic irony later in the play adds to the sinister and evil mood that Shakespeare portrays, because it gives us an insight into the characters and how they behave and react. We first observe it with Duncan when he talks about trust.

There’s no art

To find the mind’s construction in the face.

(Act1 scene IV lines 11-12)

This creates dramatic irony because of what Lady Macbeth reveals later.

Bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t.

(Act1 scene V lines 63-65)


False face must hide what the heart doth know

(Act1 scene VII line 82)

There is a sense of irony because King Duncan says you cannot tell what is in a man mind from his face, and Lady Macbeth demands that Macbeth should put up a show so that his minds true motives are not revealed. We also see this happen again later in the play when King Duncan meets Lady Macbeth in her castle.

See, see, our honour’d hostess.-The love

That follows us sometimes is our trouble,

Which still we thank as love.


We love him highly

And shall continue our graces towards him.

(Act1 scene VI lines 11-13 & 30-31)

There is a real sense of dramatic irony because the king says it can be a nuisance people always offering him kindness (referring to the Macbeths), this is a contradiction o what is actually happening because Lady Macbeth doesn’t have an ounce of love to give to Duncan. He later goes on to say that he wants to see Macbeth so he can praise him and show him affection towards him. This would show dramatic irony because the audience knows more of what is happening than the characters. King Duncan’s affection and love is being wrongly given out to Macbeth, and this adds to the evil and tension because the audience know he is going to kill Duncan, but the other characters do not.

Shakespeare uses soliloquies to add to the evil atmosphere because here we get an insight into the characters mind, and into what they are really thinking. He uses them to great affect with Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, so that we can see how their actions contradict their thoughts. When Lady Macbeth first speaks alone we see her calling on evil spirits to help her be strong.

The Raven himself is hoarse.

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse.

(Act1 scene V lines 37 & 39-43)

The reference to the raven implies that there is something bad about to happen, because it is a bird of ill-omen. She talks about being unsexed so that all the frailness that comes with femininity will be banished from her, and so she can commit her evil deeds. She asks for her blood to made thick and block the passages to remorse, so that when Duncan is dead she won’t feel melancholy’ this will also help her so she can handle the pressure of killing somebody. Shakespeare’s audience would have been shocked because Lady Macbeth is directly asking for help from the occult, and this was seen as a sign of evil in Shakespeare’s time, and so this would add to the tension and evil. She later goes on to ask fro her milk to be turned to gall. This would have signified that she is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve Macbeth’s and her ambitions , she also reveals that she will commit the murder herself and this would have made the atmosphere more evil because women weren’t meant to commit crimes in the middle ages. She also pleads for darkness to come to aide her in her task, and darkness and nightfall was seen as the domain of evil

Come to my women’s breast

And take my milk for gall.

Come thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell

That my keen knife see not wound it makes

(Act1 scene V lines 46-47 & 49-51)

We can clearly see that Shakespeare used a lot of different techniques to create and build up a sense of evil in the play Macbeth. He used paradoxical language to confuse the audience and to make them believe that the witches were perhaps casting spells with their chants , rhyming and riddles. His use of the familiars is included so that we can instantly identify that the three weird sisters are witches, and this sets the mood of the play, which surrounds witch craft. His use of setting helps us see the environment that these weird sisters inhabit and also see the places were the characters live, which are harsh hostile environments, where it is difficult to survive.

Dramatic irony makes the audience feel more involved because we seem to know what is already going to happen while most characters don’t, so this adds to the tension and drama because we feel involved. Soliloquies help us understand individual characters better, and we get to know their deepest and darkest desires, which lets us see them in their true light, warts and all. The audience feels as if they know the character intimately and so when we discover their evil plans we feel shocked.. I also believe that Shakespeare uses the theme of darkness to convey evil. Most of the play is set during nightfall, and we can see that the main characters yearn for night so they can commit their murder. In conclusion by the techniques stated above Shakespeare created a strong atmosphere of evil, and prepared the audience for the unfolding saga, and horrifying sequence of events that proceeded in the remainder of the play.

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