Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is a tragedy that deals with the bloody rise and fall of Macbeth. It is set in 1606. It also focuses on the themes of appearance versus reality, the supernatural, ambition, honour, loyalty and duplicity, fate and destiny and blood. In Act 1 Shakespeare introduces us to the main characters and their strengths and weaknesses. We see Macbeth as an admired and trusted nobleman and warrior, yet perhaps he is over ambitious and too open to suggestion from the witches and manipulation by his wife. Lady Macbeth has a cold, calculating and powerful ambition to make Macbeth King. King Duncan is naï¿½ve and trusting of Macbeth; this will be his downfall. Banquo is a close friend to Macbeth and Duncan. By the end of Act 1 the first of the witches’ prophecies has come true, but Macbeth is anxious because Macduff has been chosen as Duncan’s successor. Macbeth is struggling with his conscience to decide whether to kill Duncan and the scene is set for murder.
Right from the start of the opening scene Shakespeare creates a dramatic atmosphere through powerful visual effects with a thunderstorm and the supernatural appearance of the witches. This ominous and foreboding atmosphere continues throughout the first act and is reinforced by dramatic irony. Nothing is quite what it seems but soliloquies reveal Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s true thoughts.
As well as providing us with a dramatic opening, the opening scene in “Macbeth” introduces some of the Main themes of the play. For example; the theme of the supernatural. This is done by using audio and visual effects. Some of the visual effects are the thunder and the appearance of the witches. This seems like a clich now but in the time of Shakespeare the supernatural was still a huge aspect of peoples’ lives and was and still is a very dramatic and powerful start to the play. The witches twist their chants talking in riddles such as the oxymoron “fair is foul and foul is fair” emphasising that appearances are deceptive. This scene also associates Macbeth with the witches and it tells us that he is going to meet with them “upon the heath”. We are left wondering what strange business these supernatural hags can have with Macbeth. Their reference to “the battles lost and won” informs us of the physical battle that is commencing but also suggests Macbeth’s future battle with his conscience, particularly in Act 1:7.
In scene 2 we are introduced in a different way to Macbeth as King Duncan is told of the success of the battle and of the bravery shown by Banquo and Macbeth. Using the captain as a narrator, we are given an idea of the strength and courage of “brave Macbeth”, described as a “valiant cousin” and like an “eagle” and a “lion”. But we also see his thirst for blood which seems beyond what is normal, almost superhuman, as he cuts his foe from “the nave to the chaps” in a scene as memorable as Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha. Duncan’s appreciation of Macbeth is clear as he decides to reward Macbeth with the title of “Thane of Cawdor”, rewarding loyalty. This scene introduces other themes such as the theme of blood and duplicity. In contrast to Macbeth and Banquo’s loyalty the previous thane of Cawdor shows his duplicity as he betrays his country by joining forces with the Norwegian army. The theme of blood is introduced various times in scene 2. “Bloody execution…bathe in reeking wounds…my gashes cry for help”.
Act 1 Scene 3 is dramatically important for this is the scene in which we first encounter Macbeth although we already know a few things about him. This scene also introduces Dramatic irony when we as an audience find out that the witches predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor but we already know he is going to be dressed with this title. This scene also emphasises the theme of the supernatural for example Banquo’s description of the witches “what are these so wither’d and wild in their attire”. Shakespeare makes us associate the witches with evil by Banquo saying, “what can the devil speak true” when he hears that Macbeth will become thane of Cawdor. Also in this scene there is the idea that things are not what they seem. Banquo fears that Macbeth might take these prophecies and let them betray him. He reveals this when he says ” The instrument of darkness tell us truths win us with honest trifles to betray’s deepest consequence”. Macbeth’s “horrible imaginings” leave him in a state of turmoil, where ” function is smothered in surmise and nothing is but what is not”.
When Macbeth finally pulls himself together he talks more openly again “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir”. Macbeth is linked to the witches from his very first line “So Foul And fair a day I have not yet seen” this shows a foreboding evil towards him right from the start. Banquo and Macbeth react very differently to the witches Banquo tries not to let them Manipulate him “betrays in deepest consequence” but Macbeth is fascinated that he might be king and he has his own thoughts or Asides these are secret thoughts hidden from his friend. Banquo is much more open and honest about the witches he says that Macbeth’s odd behaviour is because he can’t get used to his “new honours”. This shows he’s looking for a rational explanation. So Shakespeare is using the device of the witches prophecy to explore Macbeth’s character and contrast it with Banquo’s to show how Macbeth is flawed
Scene 4 shows the theme of dramatic irony in the play when Duncan gives Macbeth the title of worthy Cawdor. We see that Duncan trusts Macbeth and shows his naivety for this is the second time that he trusts another that will betray him. Another example of dramatic irony is when Duncan is talking to Malcolm and saying, “in whom I built an absolute trust” and Macbeth enters while Duncan is finishing. Macbeth then tries so hard to compliment and to show loyalty to Duncan that this arouses suspicion in the audience, ” The service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it pays itself… safe toward your love and honour.” This shows he is struggling to say the right thing to prove his loyalty, in contrast to the loyal Banquo’s simple “there if I grow, The harvest is your own.” The image used by Banquo is in tune with Duncans “plant thee and will labour to make thee full of growing.” Banquo isn’t struggling to impress Duncan. Macbeth shows his first sign of evil plotting when he talks aside “stars hide my fires…black and deep desires”. This shows that, even before Lady Macbeth’s later persuasion he is full of evil thoughts. This aside prepares us for his regicide later on.
Scene 5 brings Lady Macbeth into the plot and shows her opinion of Macbeth “It is too full of human kindness to catch the nearest way. This means she thinks he is to kind too become king the easiest way, murder. This scene also shows us the relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and how they are loyal to each other and tell each other everything “my dearest partner of greatness”. Lady Macbeth guides Macbeth “look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t… leave the rest to me”. This shows that her resolve is clear. She knows what she wants is pure evil but she tries to justify this by blaming fate “you murdering ministers … you wait on nature’s mischief”.
Scene 6 shows us Duncan’s naivety and Lady Macbeth’s ability to cover up her evil plans. This scene starts off by using the theme of appearance versus reality. An example of dramatic irony is Duncan and Banquo’s thoughts on Macbeth’s castle “This castle hath a pleasant seat…lov’d mansionry that the heaven’s breath”. When Lady Macbeth enters she says “All our service, in every point twice done and then done double, were poor against those honours deep and broad wherewith your majesty loads our house.” These words are coming from someone that is planning his murder and creates dramatic tension. Duncan then says, ” where’s the Thane of Cawdor… and his great love” another example of appearance versus reality.
The dramatic purpose of Scene 7 is to create the final build up to the murder of Duncan. It develops the character of Macbeth & Lady Macbeth & their relationship. In the opening soliloquy it becomes clear that Macbeth knows exactly what he is doing. He is clear that what he is planning is wrong: “we’d jump the life to come”, this meaning that they could risk the damnation. Macbeth knows that “he’s here in double trust…I am his kinsman…his host”. This is saying he is trusted to look after Duncan and protect him. He also knows the goodness of Duncan saying, “his virtues plead like angels.”
The language suggests Duncan’s innocence associating him with angels and cherubim. Macbeth knows that this is the worst kind of murder because it is premeditated regicide against an innocent man and he knows that this opens him up to retribution. Macbeth’s references to “the bank & shoal of time”, “tears shall drown the wind”, and cherubin riding on the winds paints a giant and dramatic canvas for his deeds. This echoes throughout the play as Macbeth refers to “great Neptune’s ocean” unable to wash him clean in Act 2 scene 2, for example. It also helps us understand Macbeth’s sense of guilt, close to madness, later in the play such as when he imagines a dagger (Act 2 scene 1) and sees Banquo’s ghost (Act 3 scene 4). This links in with the themes of retribution, guilt and judgement.
Scene 7 also shows Lady Macbeth’s determination and her unnaturalness by using inhuman and horrifying imagery: “I have givin suck and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you done to this.” This means that she would rather kill a baby than not do what he has sworn. She manipulates Macbeth by challenging his manhood “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” This is very challenging to Macbeth because he is a great warrior and his manhood is one of the most important thing in his life. She is also the mastermind behind the plot, arguing away Macbeth’s doubts by telling him how it can be done. In contrast to him, Lady Macbeth shows no moral doubts or weakness in this scene and it is only later in the play as she goes completely mad in Act 5 scene 5 that we see her sense of guilt rise to the surface.
Act 1 is very important to the development of the play. It introduces most of the characters and sets a story that is to be developed into a tragedy full of murder. We see Macbeth as a great warrior and ambitious but also weak and easily manipulated by Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is also ambitious but she is more ruthless and almost inhuman. By contrast Banquo seems very loyal and is less influenced by the witches. Duncan appears to be good, but a naï¿½ve king. This makes us think that the planned murder and Macbeth’s treachery even worse. The atmosphere of “Macbeth” is dark, stormy and full of the supernatural, which grips the audience for an unnatural regicide. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony and soliloquies to make us more aware of the duplicity and betrayal.