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It is thought that Shakespeare’s popular play Macbeth was written upon King James’ instructions in 1605 and was first performed in 1606. He was able to recognise the importance which history provided and this is reflected in his portrayal of a turbulent and violent Scotland in the eleventh century.
The seventeenth century theatre productions were considered to be a public affair with both the poor and rich classes in attendance. During this Jacobean time the audience concentrated on the elaborate and vivid language to appeal to their senses and capture their passion. There was little in the way of scenery or props therefore the sensuous language was a vital and unavoidable feature.
Macbeth is a play which is concerned with supernatural forces, ambition, masculinity and strength. It is the tale of a good man turned evil due to ambition and the consequences which eventually lead to his dramatic downfall. These challenged the values of the society of this period and provoked morality. There is a sequence of recurring imagery throughout Macbeth which is significant to assist with the audiences understanding of the play. This technique also reinforces the themes and events, heightening the overall atmosphere. These products of our imagination are important symbols, visually clarifying our presumptions and speculations and creating mental pictures.
Shakespeare’s intentional use of imagery reflects the tone of the play and is precise and intensifying. There is an abundance of imagery throughout the play, however, some are less obvious than others. The use of blood, clothing, the supernatural or unnatural and the contrast between light and dark are apparent from the very beginning.
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Blood is the main continual theme and is used to represent murder, treason and the guilty conscious. It is ironic that blood is first used to show how brave the King’s soldiers are considered upon their return from a violent and bloodthirsty battle, “What bloody man is that?” (I.II.1). Macbeth at this stage is regarded as the most valiant of them all and is commended for his savage like warrior techniques, “with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution.” (I.II.17-18). This enables the audience to visualise the opposition’s warm blood dripping from the cold sword perfectly.
Blood is used in several different contexts to signify the change in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s character and behaviour. Lady Macbeth uses blood to show her immense persistent guilt. Her sleepwalking episode clearly indicates this as the washing of her hands does nothing to rid her of it. This is a stark contradiction to her earlier remarks that “a little water will clear us of this deed.” (II.II.70).
“It will have blood they say: blood will have blood.” (III.IV.122). Shakespeare’s repetitive use of the word “blood” gives a clear emphasis of the horrific murders of Banquo and Duncan whilst also suggesting that evil feeds upon itself. It intensifies and reiterates the “vaulting ambition” and its dire consequences. “I am in blood stepped so far that I should wade no more.” (III.IV.136-137). This depicts Macbeth’s realisation of his point of no return and enables the audience to see Macbeth wading in a river of blood representing his victims and how he feels he has no alternative but to continue acting in this manner.
This imagery continues to the end of the play when Macduff is victorious against the evil tyrant Macbeth, however, the context in which the blood is used reverts back to the beginning of the play and is a representation of a valiant, heroic soldier who conquered the enemy. The different forms which it takes show that it is an important imagery idea and has been used successfully for the dramatic purpose.
The paradox of darkness and light is evident within this play and are metaphors used to reflect the goodness against evil. This tragedy is packed with horror and gore and therefore the majority of the play is set in darkness with only two references to light. It creates atmosphere and a special tone. The only references to light are incorporated to highlight goodness, such in the case of King Duncan and Banquo and their acknowledgment of the summer’s day upon the King’s fateful approach to Macbeth’s castle, “This guest of summer.” (I.VI.3).
All of the murders are committed under the blanket of darkness, almost suggesting that it will hide the cruel acts and relieve any conscious from the offender. It also illustrates that the darkness gives invitation to evil forces which are signalled by the wolves howling and the owls shrieking, “Night’s black agents to their prey do rouse.” (III.II.53). The night creatures are awakening creating a threatening atmosphere arousing the audience.
“The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan” (I.V.36-37) this personification of death not only supports the darkness theme of evil forces at work but also emphasizes the link to nature and creates an overwhelming sense of the supernatural influences.
Darkness is the fitting backdrop to the very start of the play. The three menacing witches are gathered upon the heath amidst thunder and lightning, this conjures up a mental picture of the darkness and the heavens in turmoil. These elements give an insight into the chaos and disorder they are about to create on earth. “Hover through the fog and filthy air,” (I.I.13), this allows the audience to visualise the mist and how is obstructs the truth and acknowledges the eerie mood. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” (I.I.12), this paradox almost makes us sympathise with Macbeth’s character as it gives connotations of the forth coming tragedy. The witches are not just referring to the weather conditions which provoke the audience’s attentions further.
Darkness metaphorically characterises appropriately, Lady Macbeth invites the darkness to encourage the evil spirits to enter her soul and enable her to execute her murderous plans. “Come thick night.” (I.V.48). This is her way of trying to block any conscious and relieve her of any femininity which may be considered her weakness. She later perceives the darkness to be a place of torment, even in her sleep.
Macbeth also associates darkness with his cruel intentions, “Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (I.IV.50-51). This paradox confirms his ruthlessness at obtaining his aspirations and ambitions. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth use darkness as their tool to disguise their treacherous, blood stained intent.
The imagery using clothing is apparent within the play yet it is mainly referred to during the first few acts. This is to confirm status and position and is later relied upon to express the unease at the stolen royal title. “New honours come upon him like our strange garments,” (I.III.143-144), this simile assumes the uncomfortable feeling of borrowed clothes which Macbeth has stepped into yet they do not suit. At the end of the play, Macbeth is keen to revert to his comfortable armour and become the courageous soldier he once was.
Clothing also demonstrates a disguise or mask to hide his shame and guilt of his disgraceful self. He is conscious throughout of the “borrowed robes” (I.III.107) and it conveys the irony of the evil tyrant he really is and the facade he assumes. He is not worthy of his royalty and has brought sickness and suffering to Scotland, this is underlined frequently.
Natural order is disturbed and aural and visual imagery is used to imply this. In the first act the witches induce unnatural storms and bring darkness to earth. Shortly after animals are used to convey how brave Macbeth is as he the comparison is made of eagles and lions. On the evening of the King’s murder Banquo describes how “their candles are all out,” which depicts that there are no stars in the sky and the scene is set in darkness in preparation for the murderous task to be performed. Nature has been disturbed almost in protest against the death of the King. Macbeth himself comments on this, “Nature is dead, and wicked dreams abuse the curtained sleep.”
Sleep is regarded as a natural necessity which is frequently highlighted and questioned throughout the play. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth choose to take fate into their own hands, going against human nature and this is punished with sleep deprivation. It raises questions regarding their sanity and vulnerability. They have violated nature and this is shown when Duncan’s horses turn wild and eat each other. Creation is destroyed, children are being slaughtered and self destruction takes hold. The horror is established and confirmed throughout the play. “And Duncan’s horses...turned wild in nature.” (II.IV.14-16).
“Vaulting ambition” (I.VII.27) is a theme which instigates the tragedy, Macbeth fears being unsuccessful and refers to himself as a rider which misjudges a jump from being over keen only to collapse the other side. He fears losing his popularity as he is seen as “valour’s minion” (I.II.19) at this stage and he does not want to jeopardise this new found fame. He is not accustomed to failure and this sparks his concerns.
Macbeth or “The Scottish Play” as it is often referred to has been adapted and modernised throughout history. It is now an elaborate production, however, it is clear that with the vast amount of imagery Shakespeare has ensured a detailed and vivid understanding for the audience. Dramatic imagery is constant throughout and keeps focused yet it is provocative. This device evokes responses, questions morals and creates speculation and suspicion upon final conclusions. This combination captures the audience’s attention and ultimately makes this play extremely popular. Drama is often concerned with a conflict of some nature, in Macbeth’s case it studies the battle between good and evil, dark forces against nature.
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