A person’s conscience is affected by their surroundings, what they experience, what people tell them and their environment in which they live. Macbeth is set in a time where war is going on and things of a gothic nature happen often throughout the country. In the 1600s, as James I was king, the rate at which witches were persecuted increased dramatically. James I was a man who was obsessed with witchcraft, so when he became king his ideas spread and an atmosphere of fear of witches spread throughout Britain. James I even appointed a witch finder general, Sir Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins’ job was to go to towns and villages and find and persecute witches.
Witches were feared and hated across Britain. A person living in 15th century Britain must have had some dark and gothic thoughts in their conscience.
We know from the start that this play is going to be of a dark, violent nature because the start of the play consists of three witches talking in thunder and lightning. In the 1600s, thunder and lightning were seen as signs of bad things happening. Act1 Scene1 ends with the witches saying together:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
Act1 Scene1 sets a dark gothic atmosphere at the start of the play. Act1 Scene2 also contains many gothic and bloody things:
“he unseamed him from the nave to th’chaps”
“memorise another Golgotha”.
When the captain talks about Golgotha, he is talking about religious Christian history and this may contrast with the witchcraft in the play because Christianity opposes witchcraft. The first time Macbeth is described, he is referred to as:
If Macbeth was often praised and described in a good way it must of affected his conscience and made him feel good about himself, it could of even made him cocky and arrogant making him think he is better than other people.
Macbeth’s first words are:
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”
Having said this, it may mean that conflict and insecurity exist in Macbeth’s mind and therefore there is something affecting his conscience. These words are also very similar to the witches’ last lines in Act1 Scene1 and therefore we can predict that the witches can supernaturally have an affect on Macbeth. Banquo asks Macbeth why he is scared of the witches’ sayings and this is the first possible hint that Macbeth isn’t noble and good, maybe he has had these thought already:
“Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?”
Instead of dismissing the witches’ words as rubbish, Macbeth wants to know more:
“Stay, you imperfect speakers. Tell me more.”
These can be the first signs that Macbeth may have a crisis of conscience because before he asked the witches to speak more, he feared what they said. He doesn’t know whether he likes what he is hearing or he doesn’t. Macbeth’s conscience begins to have thoughts of murder in Act1 Scene3:
“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical”.
At this point in the play, Macbeth’s words, facial expressions and reactions to other characters may be the way he is expressing his current only slight crisis of conscience as he is only yet having small thoughts of murder and becoming king.
There are signs that Banquo has some suspicion of Macbeth and warns him:
“The instrument of darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence.”
Macbeth uses dramatic irony in Act1 Scene4. Duncan says:
“He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.”
It is ironic because as Duncan is talking about Macbeth being a gentleman on whom he has built absolute trust, Macbeth walks in and we know Macbeth has been having thoughts of betrayal. Macbeth’s conscience may be making Macbeth say things without thinking and double meaning:
“Let not light see in my black and deep desires”.
Some seductive malicious women are known to influence gullible men who are not clever enough to know that the women they love are making them do bad things. Some men will do anything for the woman they love. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to betray the King, teases him calling him a coward and also uses emotional blackmail. Lady Macbeth criticises Macbeth implying he is too kind to do what is needed to do and what a real great man would do:
“I fear thy nature, it is too full o’th’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.”
Macbeth’s conscience may be affected by certain peoples comments, even if they are not directly aimed at Macbeth. What Duncan says may affect Macbeth’s conscience because it is a dramatically ironic comment about a seat in Macbeth’s castle:
“This castle hath a pleasant seat”
If Duncan is praising Macbeth’s seat it can imply that the seat is fit for a king.
In Act1 Scene7 we see Macbeth having 2nd thoughts:
“First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed”
He has 2nd thoughts when he says he might also be killed if vengeance is taken because what goes around comes around:
“But in these cases…”
In the 1600s it was tradition to be extremely kind and generous and helpful to whoever you were hosting, and killing your host is the complete opposite. With many for and against arguments going around in Macbeth’s mind he must have had a crisis of conscience and moral confusion in his mind. Lady Macbeth uses emotional blackmail to push Macbeth to kill Duncan:
“From this time such I account thy love.”
Lady Macbeth calls Macbeth a coward if he does not go through with it:
“And live a coward in thine own esteem”
Lady Macbeth shows her desire for Macbeth to become king by using strong words and telling Macbeth she would kill her own baby if Macbeth does it:
“I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done this.”
Comments like these from the woman he loves are sure to have an effect on Macbeth’s conscience. After Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth of her great desire and determination for Macbeth to go through with it, we find out Macbeth’s conscience still isn’t telling him it is ok to go through with it because he is still worrying and having 2nd thoughts:
“If we should fail?”
In Act1 Shakespeare makes Macbeth’s crisis of conscience dramatically effective because we know he is hiding something because of the vocabulary he uses and the way he reacts towards other characters.
The faces Macbeth puts on when he talks to Banquo in the courtyard may show that Macbeth’s aims are corrupted and he is hiding something. When Macbeth is on his own and a dagger appears before him we know there is a crisis of conscience because he not thinking straight. Shakespeare makes a dagger appear before Macbeth because that tells us that Macbeth’s mind is playing tricks on him:
“Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”
When somebody’s mind is playing tricks on them, one of the reasons is they have too much things on their mind and are morally confused, Shakespeare uses the fake dagger to tell us this. Shakespeare also uses music to represent Macbeth’s crisis of conscience. Depending on the beat, the instrument and the type of music, we can predict how a person is feeling. Macbeth is being plagued by his conscience and is nervous about what he is about to do. We find examples of this because of the face that he makes and he also tells us himself:
“from the heat-oppressed brain”
We can tell at this point, by the way in which he speaks that he is maybe going mad and he’s got a crisis of conscience. Macbeth also describes the environment he thinks he is in:
“Nature seems dead”
Describing the environment in a bad way also tells us of Macbeth’s deteriorating mental state. When Macbeth compares the act he is going to do with Tarquin, a rapist, we know Macbeth’s conscience is filled with many different thoughts and confused, that’s why Macbeth is not thinking straight. Macbeth’s conscience is still nagging him after he has done the murder and he will never have piece of mind because he won’t be able to sleep properly:
“Sleep no more: Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleep of care, the death of each day’s life”
We find Macbeth has become mentally unstable:
“Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more’ to all the house”
“Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
Even though he has gone through with what he was scared of, his conscience is still not clear:
“I am afraid to think what I have done”
Even after Macbeth has done what Lady Macbeth wanted him too, she still patronises him and this is sure to have an effect on him psychologically:
“Infirm of purpose!”
Macbeth is constantly be plagued by the thought of the hugeness of the act he has done:
“No: this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”
When the porter knocks on the door we can clearly see the expression of fear on Macbeth’s face and he quickly washes his hands.
When the porter jokes about being the porter to hell, it is very ironic because this could be a sign of dead Duncan going to hell or even a sign that Macbeth is going to go to hell. During Act2 Scene3 when Macbeth is talking to Lennox and Macduff, Macbeth cannot speak confidently and talks in very short sentences as if he is a shy person.
This tells us that he is hiding something or is very nervous and tense. It is again another example of Shakespeare using vocabulary and the way in which Macbeth speaks to express Macbeth’s mental and psychological crisis. The expressions on Macbeth’s face when talking to other characters are different before and after the murder. When Macduff asks Macbeth why he killed the guards, Macbeth strongly and vigorously defends his actions, speaking loudly and displaying both aggressive and worried expressions on his face.
Shakespeare uses many different ways to make Macbeth’s crisis of conscience seem dramatically effective to us in Acts1 and 2. We see this come out in the setting, the music played in the background, Macbeth’s actions, Macbeth’s facial expressions, Macbeth’s use of vocabulary and the way he speaks and Macbeth’s reactions to other characters.