Macbeth: Tragedy and Language
When a playwright such as William Shakespeare wrote a new play which was supposed to be performed on stage in a London theatre at the beginning of the seventeenth century, he had to bear in mind how the conditions on site looked like. Playwrights had to consider that performances took place only during the day; this means for example that there was no lightning but that daylight had to be sufficient as an instrument for setting the mood. Furthermore, it was rather difficult in the Elizabethan Theatre to set up a scenery. Props were hardly used for supporting a scene; a backdrop simply did not exist since there was no central perspective due to the three open sides of the stage. Instead, the audience was looking at the stage from different angles (Suerbaum 66f). These two facts are major reasons why William Shakespeare had to create a rich word scenery his plays. The playwright had to compensate for the missing instruments on stage which could normally help convey the atmosphere and setting of a play. To analyse the power of language on an example, the following essay will examine how Shakespeare’s language creates the notion of tragedy in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The playwright made Macbeth a hero who suffers merely from his own vice, not from external issues (Stauffer 228). Shakespeare allows the reader to seek an explanation for the protagonist’s disaster by making Macbeth run through “a progress, a development, a course” (David 275). During this progress, Shakespeare wants the audience to become emotionally engaged when looking closer at the image of a man in ill-fitting garments who tries to manage his life (Muir 66). To the reader, Macbeth seems to be a man who is tragically overthrown by the world and defencelessly handed over to the consequences of his failed aspirations (Long 117).
To present this tragedy of Macbeth to his readers, Shakespeare exploited language to a great extent. The concise use of words and sounds can create a strong impact on the reader; especially the production of a number of images makes a written piece of art vivid. In Shakespeare’s time, the right use of language was essential to compensate for the missing stage effects. Therefore, the atmosphere and mood had to be created by words only. Imagery served as an important tool for this. Principally, words have to be placed thoughtfully and images primarily aim on creating a certain effect.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is packed with complex symbolisms which allow the reader to feel emotions of fear, pity and horror. The imagery is subtle but at the same time definite and repeated (Spurgeon 164). For example, the image of ‘sleep’ does not become obvious at first glance, but only when working with the drama, readers can find the image occur again and again in several acts, and ‘sleep’ becomes a significant factor in understanding the characters’ true minds. Moreover, images are recurring and interwoven (Spurgeon 155). For example, when analysing the images of ‘blood’ and ‘death’, one detects a certain congruence in how they are implanted into the play to give the tragedy a fixed framework; this means that both images determine the beginning and the end of the play. Furthermore, images are rich, varied and imaginative but at the same time unapproachable to some extend. However, due to the images’ subjective effect, readers have to find out for themselves how the images operate in which particular scene (Spurgeon 155). Generally, the images in Macbeth are “made of the simplest, humblest, everyday things, drawn from the daily life” (Spurgeon 155). To give an example, every ordinary person is affected and influenced by topics such as ‘darkness’, ‘light’, ‘fear’, ‘death’, ‘time’, ‘nature’ or, again, ‘sleep’. Therefore, it is easy for the readers and the audience to track and comprehend Shakespeare’s message which he tries to convey by his imagery language. As it becomes obvious, imagery can be considered the most important tool in Shakespeare’s language. The playwright’s complex semantic structures in Macbeth can be described as vivid. In the following, some main images shall be clarified.
One central image in Macbeth is ‘blood’. The tragedy begins with blood and accordingly ends with blood. First, blood stands for valour and victory over the enemies in the battlefield. Blood had to be sacrificed to defend the country. However, in the course of the tragedy blood stands for the evil which destroyed the natural order when the King of Scotland, Duncan, was killed. However, Shakespeare described this bloody scene only by words; the reader is not able to ‘see’ the actual murder. In act II, scene 1, the audience learns that the king left the actual scene, when Banquo says: “The King’s a-bed: He hath been in unusual pleasure, and Sent forth great largess to your offices” (Act II, Scene 1, lines 12ff). In the following, Macbeth waits for the sound of a bell which is the sign for him that the time has come to kill King Duncan. When he finally hears the ringing, Macbeth only explains: “I go, and it is done: the bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell That summons thee to Heaven, or to Hell” (Act II, Scene 2, lines 62ff). In the subsequent scene, the king is already dead. The audience has to use their imagination to fill the missing information. This technique is called elision and had already been used by the Greek tragedians Sophocles and Aeschylus. In this scene, Shakespeare wants to use the power of suggestion to emphasize the violence. Furthermore, the reader’s attention is drawn to the reaction and not the murder itself. The regicide becomes a key moment in the tragedy, after which a series of murders begins. In this way, blood becomes an image for Macbeth’s guilt which he cannot escape. The imagery increases the feeling of fear, horror and pain (Spurgeon 163). Suddenly, the world has become a bloody stage and the image seems to be omnipresent (Muir 71). Macbeth cannot wash the guilt, represented by the blood, off his hands: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand?” (Act II, Scene 2, lines 59f). The image of ‘blood’ finishes the tragedy, as well. In the end, it is Macbeth’s own blood which restores the order in Scotland. After Macduff has killed Macbeth, he re-enters the castle with his enemy’s head in his hands. This is considered a relief by his men. Siwald, the Earl of Northumberland, for example celebrates Macduff’s victory with the words: “Here comes newer comfort” (Act V, Scene 9, line 19). At the very end of the play, the order is restored by Malcom being hailed new king of Scotland.
A similar standing as ‘blood’ has the image of ‘death’ in The Tragedy of Macbeth. In the beginning, death on the battlefields helps to save Scotland from enemies. However, the murder of Duncan affects the natural order of things. The king was the soul of the political structure and the result of his death is confusion in the country (Stauffer 229). The audience inevitably learns that death was used by Macbeth as an instrument to better his position when Rosse, a nobleman of Scotland, explains what is going to happen after King Duncan’s death: “Then ‘tis most like The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth” (Act II, Scene 4, lines 29f). In the end, nevertheless, it is Macbeth’s own death which brings along the restoration of stability in Scotland.
An image that pervades throughout the whole tragedy is the ‘evil’. Called “hurlyburly” by the witches right in the beginning, it is the evil which disrupts the natural order and brings along chaos in the world (Muir 72). The reader can find powerful notions of evil in every scene. In particular, act II, scene 5 establishes the image of a chaotic world vigorously. Shakespeare exploits the character of an Old Man to draw a picture of confusion and disorder:
Threescore and ten I can remember well;
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful, and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at, and kill’d.
(Act II, Scene 4, lines 1-4 and 10-13)
As if these lines do not emphasize strongly enough that chaos broke out in Scotland, Shakespeare completes this picture by making Rosse realize:
And Duncan’s horse (a thing most strange and certain)
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.
(Act II, Scene 4, lines 15-17)
By putting so much emphasis on the concept of chaos, Shakespeare really tried to establish this atmosphere into the audiences’ minds. All in all, it can be observed that the characters of the play either fight the evil or give in to the evil. Shakespeare shows through the imagery of evil that it is contrary to human nature. This can be examined on two examples very nicely. Firstly, Lady Macbeth begs evil spirits to free her from human feelings so that she can be able to commit murder:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse;
(Act I, Scene 5, lines 40-44).
Secondly, Macbeth tries to ignore his own conscience in order to manage his daily life. To make his state of mind vivid to the audience, Shakespeare uses a long soliloquy, which will be discussed in this essay later on. However, it becomes clear that evil and chaos follow when humans disrupt the world’s natural order by war or when society is disordered because Macbeth receives the crown by murder. As the root of evil seems to be in Macbeth, it is only his death which brings unnatural deeds and occurrences to an end and which can restore the natural order. Shakespeare shows with this image that evil is a disease that affects its victims and always results in death.
‘Sleep’ is an image that recurs and is repeated constantly throughout Macbeth, as well. Whereas sleep has an innocent connotation, insomnia, that means the lack of sleep, has fatal results and ends in murder and guilt which destroy the natural order. Moreover, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking reveals her true state of mind and the reader learns that she gravely suffers from murdering King Duncan. The audience becomes an observer and can see what Lady Macbeth’s true thoughts are:
What. Will these hands ne’er be clean? –
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
Perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
Oh! oh! oh!
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand.
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.
(Act V, Scene 1, lines 41, 47ff, 63f).
In the last two lines, not only the image of ‘sleep’ helps reveal the character’s true nature, but at the same time, Shakespeare exploits another stylistic device: repetition. In act II, scene 2 one more example which shows Shakespeare’s combination of the image of ‘sleep’ and repetition can be found: