Analyse the rise and fall of Macbeth

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Nikhil Sehmi 10PJM                        Shakespeare Coursework        Page  

‘This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues,

Was once thought honest.’

‘Macbeth’ IV. Iii 12-13

Analyse the rise and fall of Macbeth

William Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’ between the years of 1603 and 1606. This coincides with the ascension of James the Sixth of Scotland to the English throne whereby he became known as James I. James I believed himself to have special powers because he was king and he also had an interest in witchcraft, apparitions and ghosts. The use of witchcraft in ‘Macbeth’ relates to the topicality of these issues as Shakespeare’s audience would have been aware of these. The play also explores the issues of kingship and loyalty. These were of importance to James as his life had his life threatened by a group of witches in Scotland in 1591 and in 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up his government. During Shakespeare’s life there had been much turmoil in Britain regarding the throne and religion. The country, therefore, knew only too well the dire implications of insurrection and anarchy. This is reflected in ‘Macbeth.’

‘Macbeth’ opens with an overwhelming sense of unease, the atmosphere is tense and the weather reflects this with thunder and lightning. The three witches symbolise supernatural happenings which adds to the dramatic tension and foreboding. The witches’ use of rhyming couplets throughout the play adds to the magical sense.  The oxymoron at the end of scene one -

        ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,

        Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ I.i, 12

prepares the audience for disorder, the inversion of expectations and the suggestion that outward appearances can conceal inner deception. The idea of contrasts lies at the heart of ‘Macbeth’. Throughout the play, there occur images of disorder and sickness; disturbances of calm are presented throughout. The bringing together of opposites is developed further with the paradox –

        ‘When the battle’s lost, and won.’ I.i, 4

Macbeth is initially presented as valiant, brave, noble, honourable, loyal and courageous by King Duncan, for whom Macbeth is a general. Duncan receives reports of Macbeth’s heroism which ensure victory for the king’s cause. In gratitude for the victory, Macbeth, who is Thane of Glamis, is to be presented with the title of Thane of Cawdor. The audience’s curiosity regarding Macbeth has been aroused. Furthermore, Macbeth’s first line in the play echoes the oxymoron used by the witches –

        ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ I.iii, 36

and therefore links Macbeth to the witches.        

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The witches deliberately seek out the generals, Macbeth and Banquo, and make specific predictions about their future. They greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and King to be. Banquo is told that he will produce heirs who will be kings. The witches disappear before the King’s messengers arrive to inform Macbeth of his inherited title of Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth believes this to be a fulfilment of the prophecy. In his soliloquies it becomes apparent that Macbeth has not only thought about being King, but also believes what the witches tell him is true –


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