How does Shakespeare invoke a sense of evil in Macbeth?

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Sam Heard

How does Shakespeare invoke a sense of evil in “Macbeth”?

Narrating the climactic downfall and eventual death of a Scottish thane, “Macbeth” is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, alongside “Hamlet”, “Othello” and “King Lear”. “Macbeth” is typical of the other three tragedies through several key factors, the first of which is the qualities of the protagonist. As with the other tragedies, Macbeth is a notable man of high status who bears many heroic qualities, including extreme valour and honour. However, much like with Othello and his jealousy, Macbeth is undone by his greed and ambition, his fatal flaw, or “harmartia” in the Greek. These flaws play a role in the hero’s fall from grace and eventual death, and these occurrences imbue the audience with a sense of loss and waste; thus the genre is deemed a ‘tragedy’. If the protagonist was solely brought down by his own flaws the piece would cease to be a tragedy, as there would be no sense of loss or waste upon the hero’s demise, as they would appear to be malevolent and deserving of their downfall. Instead, Shakespeare also incorporates external factors contributing to the downfall; in the case of “Macbeth”, Lady Macbeth and the Witches are used, coaxing Macbeth into regicide. If the protagonist were to be influenced too heavily by the separate circumstance then the hero would begin to appear as a puppet, completely corrupted and controlled.  A fine balance is found during Shakespeare’s four great tragedies between character-based flaws and external circumstances’ influencing the hero’s actions, and subsequently the feeling of tragedy is massive. This is perhaps a defining factor as to why these four tragedies have received so much acclaim, after all a tragedy is defined by the effect it has on the audience. “Macbeth” however makes one large departure from the generic formulae in that throughout the play Shakespeare conveys a sense of concentrated evil, not seen in the other tragedies. Concentrated evil is achieved through various characters in the play including the witches, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Indeed, evil is commonplace throughout “Macbeth”, with children being slaughtered and various assassinations.

Shakespeare’s acclaimed inclusion of the witches is a prominent factor in the suggestion of evil throughout the piece. Indeed, immediately in the first scene, you are instantly submerged into this dire, supernaturally influenced world, plagued by the presence of these malevolent witches. Consequently, the sense of evil is evoked right from the opening of the curtains. An aspect of the witches which grabs our attention immediately is the intermittent rhyme and riddle of their dialogue. As the second witch answers “when the hurley-burley’s done, when the battles lost and won” this unconventional rhyming speech supplements the witches’ already alien nature, as well as adding confusion as to what these riddles portend. Also, as the witches chant in unison “…hover through the fog and filthy air” it seems they share a magical link by which they may indulge in the same evil thoughts. This, for the audience of the time, would be a disturbing piece of imagery. At times what the witches say may be paradoxical, adding to the dialogue’s riddling nature, for example when they drone “fair is foul and foul is fair”. The aberrant speech style of the witches is used by them throughout the play, with the exception of ‘Act 3, Scene 5’ which will be discussed later. It is also evident from this first scene that the witches have an unholy alliance or affiliation with the future and time. The third witch proclaims “that will be ‘ere the set of sun” displaying her knowledge of future events, and so augmenting the witches already supernatural, malevolent image. With this development the sisters seem all the more potent as with their knowledge of the future comes also the ability to meddle and pervert it. Displayed also is the witches’ association with the elements as the first witch questions “in thunder, lightning or in rain?”, as though they have a slight mastery over the elements. The thunder and lightning of the scene is more evidence of their power over the elements.  We see the witches’ use of familiars when the first witch says “I come, Graymalkin”, a tool with which the sisters may communicate to the devil. Again, the application of this familiar, in this case a cat, adds further to the witches’ malevolent aura, and the sense of concentrated evil. Over the years, different directors have added various features in order to maintain the scene’s originality. For example, Polanski’s version saw the witches on a beach burying a severed arm, whilst, in contrast Frain’s version depicted the witches as children on a council estate.

As the play progresses, the witches’ spiteful, vindictive nature becomes ever more apparent, as they display their malevolence during various scenes. Notable for exhibition of evil is Act 1, Scene 3 in which the sisters describe how they deprived the hapless sailor of sleep, stating “sleep shall neither night nor day, hang upon his penthouse lid”. This shocking image is made doubly repulsive by how the witches seem to be thoroughly enjoying the whole scenario. Moreover, in the same scene, the witches brandish a severed “pilot’s thumb”, another revolting image, which is indeed evident of their malicious nature. An example of them dabbling in the dark arts is seen in Act 4, Scene 1 where they brew the vile potion, chanting the theatrically legendary lines “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble”. With repulsive detail, they describe the ingredients of the potion, one such being a “liver of blaspheming Jew” and a “finger of birth-strangled babe”. This horrific concoction is indicative of their very nature: vile and against society and nature. Due to these malevolent acts, the witches are often referred to as and associated with, agents of evil, for example in Act 4, Scene 1 Macbeth refers to them as “you secret, black, and midnight hags!”. Another example can be found in Act 1, Scene 3 where Banquo calls the witches “the instruments of darkness”. They influence the characters to such an extent that they refer to them with such titles; this is further evidence of the witches’ concentrated malevolence. It must not be forgotten also that the witches were the ones who originally ensnared Macbeth with promises of greatness, which were partially accountable for him committing regicide. This can be seen in Act 1, Scene 3 as the third witch greets Macbeth, saying “All hail Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter”. Had the witches not tainted the noble Macbeth, he may have never fallen and so the evil of the witches can be held partially responsible. The witches can be seen meddling once more during Act 4, Scene 1 where they blind Macbeth into believing he is nigh on invincible with several prophecies. And so, Macbeth becomes complacent, fooled by the witches’ misleading prophecies. Their malevolence is clear to see through their misguiding of Macbeth, as well as the other example given.

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The witches are depicted as having a haunting physical presence, both through their actual physical appearance and through their chilling language. In terms of their physicality, the witches are only described once during the play by Banquo in Act 1, Scene 3. He describes them as being “withered and so wild in their attire”, telling directly of their abnormal manifestation. Also, Banquo tells of how the witches “look not like the inhabitants of the earth”, showing how they are supernatural to such an extent that even their appearance makes us question whether they of this world. Disturbingly, the witches’ ...

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