In Shakespearean times, theatre and plays were extremely popular forms of entertainment as they were, for many, the only real social events visited. In fact, they were one of the only forms of entertainment available to the masses. ‘Macbeth’ was particularly entertaining to a Shakespearean audience because of the historical and social context of the play.
It is apparently about the Scottish ancestor of King James, who was called Banquo, Macbeth’s closest friend and fellow soldier. It was a sincere form of political flattery to the king as Banquo is portrayed as the hero, the one who does not give in to evil. Also, the inclusion of witches would fascinate audiences of the time, as they were extremely interested in witchcraft. Even today, their incorporation provides sustainable excitement for the audience, as they are so unusual. Combined, the performance about witches, battle, murderous plots and political flattery leads to an explosively stimulating and enticing play, of which act one provides an effective opening.
The opening scene is immediately engaging. It is set in a ‘Desolate Place’ and there is thunder and lightening. This gives a sense of danger and unease and the audience wonder what is going to happen. Having a scene about witches to open the play gains the audience’s interest, as it seems eerie and mysterious. They talk in rhymes and riddles instead of the usual blank verse and iambic pentameter.
‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
This makes the way the witches speak sound different to all of the other characters and reinforces the fact that they are strange and supernatural. It almost sound as if they are chanting and casting spells. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ summarises the witches’ philosophy and proves to the audience that they are evil. It also proves to be a keynote throughout the play and is echoed many times. In scene one, the witches are finishing a meeting and are planning when they will meet again.
They talk about meeting with Macbeth, and this is the first mention of the play’s title role. We wonder what the witches want with Macbeth and begin to question Macbeth’s character – is he good or evil? At this point we know nothing about him and are eager to learn what relationship he has with the witches. Scene one provides an exciting visual beginning to the play and this continues in scene two. We have been introduced to only three characters who have told us about a battle that will be ‘lost and won’ by the end of the day.
Scene two takes us straight to the bloody battlefield. This dramatic change of setting maintains the audiences’ interest. King Duncan is meeting with a captain to find out about the battle. When the captain enters, he is covered in blood and gives a graphic account of the battle. He talks about Macbeth killing ‘The merciless Macdonald’ and says:
‘…he unseamed him from the nave to th’chaps
And fixed his head upon our battlements.’
He also declares that Macbeth’s sword of ‘brandished steel’ ‘smoked with bloody execution’. This is exciting as battles are always interesting and entertain audiences with blood and gore. The great detail of the captain’s story helps us to begin to build up a picture of Macbeth’s character. The captain says he is ‘brave’ and King Duncan refers to him as ‘O valiant cousin’. The audience believes at this point that Macbeth is a courageous soldier and an honourable citizen.
Therefore when the Thane of Cawdor is going to be executed and Duncan says ‘with his former title greet Macbeth’, the audience agree with this decision. The ending of scene two provides a dramatic build up to the audience’s first meeting with Macbeth. Until now they have only heard what a ‘worthy gentleman’ he is, but also they will be wondering what Macbeth has to do with the witches.
The suspense ends when we begin scene three, where once again we meet with the three witches. These quick scene changes keep the audience on edge, wondering what will happen next. At the start of the scene, we learn more about the depth of the witches’ evil identities. They prove to us that they are completely evil and this adds to the suspense about their meeting with Macbeth. As Macbeth and Banquo enter, there is the sounding of a drum. This heightens tension for the audiences’ first encounter with the main character. Macbeth’s first words in the play are
‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’.
This echo’s what the witches say in scene one and the audience will recognise the link. The witches proceed to give Macbeth some prophecies:
‘All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis
All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor
All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter’.
Macbeth is surprised and intrigued by their greeting. The audience knows that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor, but he does not. This gives a sense of dramatic irony. The witches also tell Banquo something about his future:
‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.’
These riddles will keep the audience interested to find out what is meant by them. Banquo is not taken in by the witches and knows that they are evil, but Macbeth says ‘would they have stayed.’ This is a sign that he is interested in what they have to say and shocks the audience as they know that witches are evil and nothing good can come of associating with them. When Ross and Angus tell Macbeth that he has been given the title Thane of Cawdor, Banquo says ‘…can the devil speak true?’ Macbeth has now fallen victim to the witches and has been taken in by their prophecies.
‘Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:
The greatest is behind…’
They have put the thought into his head that he will be king. He also begins to think of Murdering Duncan in order to achieve this. He says that the
‘…horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs…
My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man…’
He is shocked even at his own thoughts and the audience can see that the witches have already affected him. The audience is interested to see what Macbeth will do. At this point, no one knows Macbeth’s true thoughts, and when Banquo asks what he is thinking about, he tells his first lie.
‘…My dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten…’
He says that he is trying to remember something, but we the audience know his true thoughts. Our image of the honourable Macbeth is beginning to crumble.
We start scene four with yet another change of setting. We discover that Duncan is quite a weak and gullible king, who is much too credulous. When talking about the Thane of Cawdor (Who had been plotting against him) he says
‘…There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.’
He is saying that you cannot tell what someone is thinking by looking at their face, and showing that he takes people at ‘face value’ too often. It is quite ironic then, when Macbeth enters (Who is the new Thane of Cawdor), that Duncan greets him as
‘O worthiest cousin’. Macbeth has been contemplating murdering him, and Duncan is making the same mistake again. Macbeth then goes on to talk about his ‘service’ and ‘loyalty’. Which is even more ironic. When Duncan says that he is to visit Inverness, the audience has a sense of foreboding about what will happen, and this adds tension and suspense, keeping them intrigued. After Malcolm has been named Prince of Cumberland, heir to the throne, Macbeth says that this puts yet another person in his path to the throne. He really believes that he is to become king. At the end of this scene, the audience’s interest has reached a high point as they can see that Duncan is so gullible, and that Macbeth is so cunning that anything could happen.
Scene five is the first scene in which there is a woman. It is interesting because she is Macbeth’s wife and the audience are eager to discover what she is like. At the start of the scene she is reading a letter from Macbeth all about his meeting with the witches. This is written in prose and that makes scene five seem very different from those prior to it. When Lady Macbeth hears about Macbeth’s promise to the throne she is very determined that he will get it.
‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised’.
She does not hesitate or waver like Macbeth. She seems much stronger than he is. She also knows him very well.
‘…yet I do fear thy nature,
It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness
To catch thy nearest way.’
She instinctively knows that although he may think about committing evil deeds to achieve the throne, he is not brave enough to carry them out. Lady Macbeth on the other hand appears very driven, and is obviously the strength of the two. She says that she knows how to talk him round, and from meeting her for just this short time, the audience believes that this is true. When she hears that King Duncan is to visit their home, she immediately begins to formulate a plan to kill Duncan. Macbeth is still unsure and says that they will ‘speak further’, but we know that Lady Macbeth will be able to persuade him.
When Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle in scene six, it is very visual. There are lots of people and King Duncan in his flamboyant robes. The audience would find this very entertaining. Duncan and Banquo talk about the castle being ‘pleasant’ and ‘delicate’. Extremely ironic when we think of the evil that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have in store for Duncan. Lady Macbeth increases the dramatic irony when she talks about loyalty and gratefulness for past honours. This scene is full of irony. It releases the tension of the last scene and makes what we know is going to happen in the next one even more exciting.
Scene seven shows servants preparing for a feast, Duncan’s ‘Last Supper’. The audience knows this and tension increases, especially with the entrance of Macbeth. He begins to soliloquise and shows his good side as he wrestles with his conscience about what his wife has proposed they do. He knows that Duncan is a good man, and that is why he is finding contemplating murder so difficult. It also makes the murder seem much crueller, as Duncan is so kind and gullible.
Before Lady Macbeth’s entrance, he has decided not to go through with it, but the audience wonders how Lady Macbeth will react to the news. Lady Macbeth skilfully attempts to persuade her husband, and the audience will wonder whether or not she can do it. She says that he is a ‘coward’ and knows that this will get to him. She also tries to make him feel guilty by saying that if she had told him she would do something she would go through with it. She uses a cruel and evil way to say this by saying that she would have killed her baby.
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.’
Macbeth’s response is:
‘If we should fail?’
At this point we know that she has won. She reassures her husband by telling him the details of her plan. The weak husband and strong dominant wife are very entertaining to watch. This final scene sets the audience up ready for murder and brings tension and suspense to a high point. At this point they are enthralled in the play, wanting to know what will happen next.
I find the opening act very entertaining throughout, and feel that it is extremely effective as a beginning to the play. There are a number of ways in which Shakespeare ensures that his audience is still interested. One of which is the quick setting changes. He also has the almost reversed masculine and feminine roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which is very entertaining. The theme of the play is constantly echoed. There are constant mentions of ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ right through to the end of the act. This is the most interesting factor of the play, as we see that people are not who we expect them to be. The final rhyming couplet of the act re-iterates the theme, thus proving what we suspect about Macbeth’s character and preparing us for murder.
‘Away, and mock the time with fairest show,
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.’