The Creation of Fear and Suspense in MACBETH by William Shakespeare

Bachelor Thesis, 2001

4 Pages, Grade: sehr gut

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The Creation of Suspense and Fear in

Macbethby William Shakespeare

Many scholars argue about the exact year in which Shakespeare wroteMacbeth, but, with some certainty, it can be said that it must have been around 1606. This date can be confirmed by various facts. Three years before, James I, who was already King of Scotland, was crowned King of England, and it is stated by scholars that the play was performed at court in 1606. The tragedy is supposed to have been dedicated to James I, which can be taken as an explanation why Banquo, being an ancestor of the king, is featured in the play. Scholars (like Kenneth Muir) furthermore argue that the king was not too fond of long plays, which may explain whyMacbeth,compared withHamletorOthello,is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies. In addition to that, there is a report to be found of somebody who witnessed a performance of the play in the London Globe Theatre in 1611, summarizing the contents of the play in short words, although some important passages of the play are not mentioned. This may hint at interpolations or changes in the original play and the printed folio versions of the tragedy after Shakespeare's death in 1616. Even though some historical events seem to have found their way intoMacbeth, the play is a work of fiction and therefore should not be taken as a source that discribes historical circumstances. Yet, with his choice of words and the way suspense is created, Shakespeare offers the modern reader a wide range of topics with the help of which he may find out about the things that frightened people during the Elizabethan Age and the early years of the reign of James I. A close analysis of the play may reveal the symbols which may have been experienced as frightening or upsetting and still may be perceived shocking today.

Although the first scene has been discussed controversially by scholars because it appears too un-Shakespearian to have been written by Shakespeare himself, it effectively shows one of the fears that people of the early 17th century were facing. Three witches gather to hatch a foul plot against the protagonist of the play. The audience could too quickly assume that the Weird Sisters are responsible for Macbeth's fate and the deeds he is to commit after he has encountered the witches "upon the heath" with Banquo, even though a spectator of today knows that only Macbeth, incited by his wife, is responsible for his actions. Yet, it seems indubitable that the appearance of the Weird Sisters had a strong effect on an audience at a time when most people supposed that witches were channels through which the malignity of evil spirits might be visited upon human beings. The scene must have seemed very real for a contemporary audience, and it would quickly have created an atmosphere of evil, which is the key-note of the play. Historians point out the fact that not very long afterMacbethwas written and performed, the hunt for and the burning of witches reached a dramatic climax in Europe. This may have been because people were afraid of anything alien to them, which is nicely depicted in Act I, Scene 3, ll. 80ff.:

Banquo. The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, And these are of them. - Whither are they vanish'd? Macbeth. Into the air; and what seem'd corporal, Melted as breath into the wind.

After she has been informed about that incident by a letter from her husband, Lady Macbeth herself takes on features of a witch when she tries to conjure up the evil "spirits" that are to help her commit regicide. Out of greed, she implores them to fill her up "from the crown (which implies that the deed has already been commited in her fantasies) to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty;". The entire monologue strongly reminds the spectator of an incantation that is uttered by a hag.

Witches were thought to be malign because they were commonly believed to stand in league with the ultimate evil. The devil himself offers them their magical powers, while the witches have to sell him their souls in return. This does not only explain why the devil is mentioned rather often throughout the play, but also why he furthermore can be seen as the initiator of the rise and fall of Macbeth. The drunken porter, who is on guard at the gate of Macbeth's castle in the night King Duncan is murdered, hears a knocking on the door and, hurrying to it, curses the person who wakes him from his slumber (in the scene that preceeds the so-called "Porter-Scene", Macbeth wishes that the knocking would wake the king, whom he has already murdered). As he inquires, who may be responsible for the noise, he shouts: "Who's there, i' th' name of Belzebub?" When the knocking goes on, he asks again: "Who's there i' th' other devil's name? - Faith, here's an equivocator ..." Other stylistic means describing the devil can be found in Act II, Scene 3, which deals directly with the death of the king. After MacDuff finds the king stabbed in his chamber, he rushes to Macbeth to tell him about the gruesome deed the king's servants are supposed to have done. He cries out: "Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!" It was a common belief, not only in mediaeval times, that, whenever something appears to be illogical or contradictory, it must have been the work of the devil himself, which obviously applies to this most horrible crime. That is why confusion must be seen as a personification of the devil himself. Consequently, the reader is led to believe that the apparitions the Weird Sisters conjure up later in the play truly are the "masters" of the witches, which means that they are devils in three different shapes. This shows that the devil is a confuser, a creature which is not trapped in one corporeal appearance and, thus, can easily fool the human eye.

Shakespeare does not create tension only by letting the characters talk about a murder or by using witches as foreboders of evil, but also by showing how dark and gloomy the night is in which the murder takes place (ll. 21-31.):

Lennox. The night has been unruly; where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say, Lamentings heard i' th'air, strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible Of dire combustion and confused events New hatched to th'woeful time.

It was a common belief among contemporaries of Shakespeare that strange upheavals both in nature and in society accompanied the violent death of important men. Modern film producers with all their technical tricks and special effects still make use of bad weather when they want to put some tension to a scene. This may be because of the fact that the weather cannot be controlled by man and must therefore stand under somebody else's power who shows his will and his favour by using the weather. During the "rough" night, several characters talk about the fact that they hear an owl hoot. This proves the superstitious thought that, when "the obscure bird" cries, somebody has to die the same night. Both young and old, Lennox as well as an old man, state that neither of them has ever experienced a comparable night before in their entire lives.

Certainly, one of the most important means by the help of which Shakespeare creates tension is the use of supernormal or supernatural occurrences, such as visions or images that appear before the characters' eyes.. The witches seem to be of flesh and blood, but they are able to vanish into the air, which shows that the audience cannot be sure of their existence. Before the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth imagines the dagger with which he is to kill his liege. He states that he is not really sure whether the dagger is a real one that he can hold in his hand or just "a dagger of the mind", which he sees owing to a "heat-oppresséd brain". During this monologue, Macbeth's plan to commit regicide takes on a clear shape because after he hears a bell ring, he states that "it's a [death-]knell" that is to summon the king "to heaven, or to hell", which makes the reader assume that the entire vision finally motivates Macbeth to commit the crime. Later, the witches conjure up apparitions with which to foretell Macbeth what is going to happen to him and who may bring him to his fall. He sees the ghost of Banquo again, whom he murdered earlier and who appears at Macbeth's banquet where the ghost sits down on Macbeth's chair, so that "the table is full." Only Macbeth is able to see the ghost. These apparitions incite Macbeth's wickedness, but apparently reaveal to him his own demise and must have had a truly shocking effect upon the audience during the reign of James I.

The examination of the means by which suspense is created in the tragedy can in some respect be taken as a source for the fears the people really had during the reign of James I. The topic of regicide, combined with the work of ill-disposed witches, who hatch a foul plot, and the use of images that appear before the characters' eyes, must have had a very disturbing effect upon the audience. By his choice of words, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of extreme tension inMacbeththat does not leave the audience even long after the performance is over.

The playwright does not only show that he is, indeed, familiar with the things that would frighten his contemporaries, but also reveals some of his own fears. Owing to the generally known pictures and topics, everybody in the early modern English society must have been shocked and frightened by a plot wich takes olace in an atmopshere so full of evil both supernatural and created by human beings.

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The Creation of Fear and Suspense in MACBETH by William Shakespeare
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The essay deals with the way in wich Shakespeare creates fear among his audience. This can in most cases be explain by supernatural beliefs and superstition.
Creation, Fear, Suspense, MACBETH, William, Shakespeare
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Stefan Knode (Author), 2001, The Creation of Fear and Suspense in MACBETH by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 12/13/2001


    ...pretty good style...

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