Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, which has been performed on stage for a wide range of different audiences since its creation in the sixteenth century. It depicts the endeavours of Lord Macbeth to become king through a series of murders, egged on by his wife, Lady Macbeth. The reason Macbeth can be called a tragedy is because the elements of tragedy are present throughout. Macbeth also adheres to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy.
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That is, that a tragedy describes the fatal error of a generally good person causing their downfall and demise, and stirs fear and pity in the audience. The themes in Macbeth also contribute to the concept of tragedy. Two such themes are the supernatural and ambition. A reoccurring theme in Macbeth is the theme of the supernatural. The supernatural was something that the audience of the original performances of Macbeth, during the sixteenth century, could relate to, as this was a period of genuine belief in, and often fear of, witchcraft.
During this era, many people, often outcasts from society or oddballs, were accused of being witches and put on trial, which usually resulted in them being killed. Therefore, Shakespeare’s purpose in including the theme of the supernatural in Macbeth was to relate to his audiences. This theme is demonstrated in Macbeth through techniques such as rhyming couplets. This is demonstrated in ACT I, SCENE I, when the character known only as ‘first witch’ cries, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
” The fact that this unit of verse is a rhyming couplet adds to the surrealism and strangeness of the three witches which are introduced in this theme. These witches are almost the physical embodiment of the supernatural in Macbeth, and the technique of rhyming couplets is almost consistent throughout the rest of this short scene. The rest of the scene sees the witches predicting the time of day the battle will cease, and foretelling where they will happen across Macbeth. A second technique which expresses the theme of supernatural is foreshadowing.
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a technique which hints at future plot developments. This technique is displayed in ACT I, SCENE 3, when the third witch exclaims, “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. ” In this case, the foreshadowing is very obvious, as the witch is informing Macbeth of his future title as king of Scotland. However, there is already a king of Scotland- King Duncan. This prophecy sends Macbeth into a wild flurry of thoughts about how he is to be king when King Duncan is alive and well, and
Macbeth very quickly jumps to the conclusion that he must murder Duncan. However, it is at this moment that Macbeth realises he is involved in something dark and complex- and this connects the theme of the supernatural to the concept of tragedy, as this is links to the Aristotelian element of tragedy known as anagorisis. Anagorisis is a moment of insight or understanding on the part of the tragic hero, as they suddenly realises the web of fate surrounding him.
In this case, Macbeth hears the witches claim he will be king, and realises that he has a fate much larger and more important than he’d ever thought. The supernatural also contributes to the concept of tragedy as it links to the element of tragedy which states that a tragedy contains supernatural elements. This is clearly evident in the appearance of the witches and their disconcerting knack for prophesising. Ambition is a predominant theme in Macbeth, as Macbeth’s ambition is what drives him to commit the acts of murder which lead to his demise.
Shakespeare’s audience at the time would not have been unfamiliar with tales of ambitious men of high estate killing kings to claim the throne. Shakespeare’s purpose in highlighting the theme of ambition in Macbeth may have been to incorporate a very realistic and common element of the ways of the royalty at the time. A technique which communicates the theme of ambition in Macbeth is an aside. An aside is a means of a character communicating his thoughts aloud, through a remark or comment that no other character on stage hears or reacts to.
For example, in ACT I, SCENE 4, when Macbeth says to himself, “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. ” This is said after Macbeth notes, also to himself, that Malcolm, the newly crowned Prince of Cumberland, is an obstacle which must be dealt with. The quote is an expression of Macbeth’s horror at his own deadly thoughts, and he describes his ambition as “black and deep desires”.
And yet, the last line of this quote is an admittance, as Macbeth realises he will succumb to his ambition and desires, and will commit the evil act, despite his horror at himself. Another technique which links to the theme of ambition is soliloquy. Similar to an aside, a soliloquy is a monologue spoken by a character when he or she is alone on stage about their innermost thoughts and feelings. The technique of soliloquy communicates the theme of ambition because in his soliloquies, Macbeth unguardedly acknowledges his murderous thoughts and dangerous desires.
For example, Macbeth’s ambition manifests itself in quotes such as this from ACT I SCENE 7: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other. ” In this quote, Macbeth recognises that he has no good reasons or motivation to kill Duncan, but is fired solely by his ambition. He also has a moment of foresight, when he says that ambition “o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other”- In other words, makes people rush ahead of themselves towards trouble.
This is certainly what happens to Macbeth, when his ambition leads him to murder and cause trouble for himself, and eventually leads to his demise. The concepts presented by the above quotes relate to two of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy- Hamartia and Hubris. Hamartia is the fatal flaw of the tragic hero which leads to eventual catastrophe. In this case, ambition is Macbeth’s fatal flaw, because his ambition and his “black and deep desires” lead to thoughts of murder of Malcolm and Duncan, which in turn leads to the act of murder, which then results in Macbeth’s aforementioned demise and death.
Hubris refers to false pride on the part of the tragic hero which crosses ethical boundaries and ends in woe for the hero. Hubris ties in with the theme of ambition because Macbeth’s ambition arouses false pride which leads him to believe that he should and will be king, and that he can change fate, which then leads to the murder of Duncan, and the act of murder is the ultimate overstepping of ethical boundaries. In conclusion, Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare which features the themes of the supernatural and ambition.
These themes are communicated in Macbeth through techniques such as rhyming couplets, foreshadowing, asides and soliloquies, and contribute to the concept of tragedy through their links with elements of tragedy, both Aristotelian and not, including Hamartia, Hubris, Anagorisis and elements of the supernatural. Therefore, the themes of the supernatural and ambition contribute to the concept of tragedy in Macbeth. A second theme in Macbeth is gender politics. This theme is evident in this quote from Lady Macbeth, which appears in ACT I, SCENE 5: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.
Unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty… Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall. ” In this quote, Lady Macbeth begs spirits to make her less feminine and more masculine, so that she may be more brutal and cruel, and therefore able to commit murder and do what is necessary for Macbeth to become king. The concept of tragedy which is apparent in this is the concept of supernatural elements, which presents itself when Lady Macbeth calls on unseen spirits to take away her femininity. Lady Macbeth calls on these spirits to turn the mother’s milk of her woman’s breasts to bitter poison.
Lady Macbeth makes several other references breastfeeding and mothering when comparing femininity and gentleness to masculinity and cruelness. One such reference is in ACT I, SCENE 7, when Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s masculinity, because he does not want to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth then follows this with the quote “I have given suck and know how tender it is to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.
” This quote shows a reversal in gender politics, as Lady Macbeth reverses the very symbol of gentle femininity, by claiming that she would have bashed her own baby’s brains out if she had sworn to. This demonstrates a disturbance of moral order, which is a concept of tragedy. The notion of a mother tearing her baby from her breast to kill it by bashing its brains out shows a complete turnaround in the moral order of a mother who would ordinarily be caring and nurturing of her baby.See More on Macbeth