below is a mock essay for Macbeth, based on a turning point question.
In William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ there is a key scene which has a drastic impact on the rest of the play. The play focuses around the character of Macbeth, a rich and noble Scottish thane, who meets 3 witches who prophesise he will be king. Tempted by the witches’ prophecies and spurred on by his wife, he decided to commit regicide. Shakespeare, through the use of numerous techniques, skilfully illustrates how Macbeth’s fatal decision in a particular scene impacts on the rest of the play. The theme that Shakespeare explores is ambition and how ambition, if left unchecked, can have drastic consequences.
The fatal decision takes place in Act 1 scene 7. In this scene Macbeth has a crisis of conscience as to whether or not he should kill Duncan. Throughout the scene he is adamant he will not do so, until his wife begins to manipulate him into the murder. From the moment he decides to commit this murder the entire play, his life and his relationships change.
However before we reach Act 1, scene 7 it is evident that Macbeth is considered noble and brave by those around him. During a battle, he is a topic of discussion for other soldiers;
“Brave Macbeth! Well he deserves that name.”
This dialogue illustrates quite clearly the other character’s opinions of Macbeth. The word choice of ‘brave’ makes it evident to us that he is considered heroic by those who know him. This very much establishes for the audience the attitude that others have towards Macbeth and makes it evident to use that before the key scene he is considered to be heroic . In contrast to this, though, is another worrying description of the character and helps us better understands this character’s development. When discussing his actions on the battlefield another soldier says;
“Unseamead him from the knave to the chaps.”
This brutal description of Macbeth’s actions highlights for us a more sinister side to his character. This dialogue makes it evident that Macbeth has a potential to be brutal, thus foreshadowing for us the actions that will later allow him to be labelled as a ‘tyrant’. Thus, it is clear to us that even before we meet Macbeth, and before we reach the key incident where he chooses to murder Duncan, he has the potential to be incredibly barbaric. However, his ambition is not yet so strong that he feels he has to act on it.
While he is evidently well thought of, Shakespeare makes it clear that his manipulative wife with whom he does, until Act 1 scene 7, have a good relationship, does not necessarily believe he is capable of killing the king. After hearing of the prophecies, she considers how best to convince him;
“Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”
Shakespeare’s use of imagery here very much implies that Lady Macbeth does not feel her husband is capable. This transgressive character feels that, just as milk is placid and natural, so too is Macbeth’s character, making it clear she does not feel he has it in him to commit regicide. She also illustrates her willingness, before Act 1, scene 7, to commit any act she has to in order to help her husband achieve their ambition;
“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse…”
This is a key monologue in the text, as it illustrates to the audience just how far Lady Macbeth is willing to go in order to achieve her ambition. She is literally engaging with evil spirits, asking them to take away her femininity. This clearly links to the theme of ambition as she is willing to forgo what is natural for a woman, and instead lack remorse and be full of ‘direst cruelty’. ‘Direst’ has connotations of extreme, making it evident to the audience that Lady Macbeth is a character who is willing to do anything to feed her own ambition. This leads us to Act 1, Scene 7 with an understanding of the different characters and how ambition affects their lives.
When we reach the key scene there is evident conflict between the couple. Macbeth is refusing, even with his wife’s coercion, to murder Duncan. He discusses the opinions others have of him;
“I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people…”
The use of metaphor here cleverly highlights how Macbeth feels about the opinions of others. Just as gold is valuable, so too is it evident that Macbeth feels other’s opinions of him are worthwhile. He is clearly concerned on what others will think, and thus decides not to act upon his ambition. However, his wife launches a scathing attack on him and quickly changes his mind. She, first of all, attacks his masculinity;
“When you dirst do it, then you were a man”
In doing this, Shakespeare gives us an insight into both characters. He makes it evident that Lady Macbeth knows how to upset her husband. She attacks him by saying that a man would do this, thus implying that he is not masculine. This dialogue also helps us understand the character of Macbeth and makes evident that he is an insecure person who will be easily manipulated into following through on his ambition. In this key scene, this is the first example of Lady Macbeth attacking her husband and weakening his resolve. However, she is relentless in her attack. She them goes on to remind him of their dead child and in doing so, illustrates just how pragmatic she is as she describes what she would have done;
“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 graphic monologue is key to Macbeth’s decision to act on his ambition, and serves as the point in the key scene where his resolve is shattered. His wife’s detailed description of what she would have willingly done not only illustrates her transgressive nature but serves to make evident just now willing she is to manipulate her husband, and how low she is willing to stoop. The word ‘dashed’ is cruel and brutal, suggesting it would have been an easy task. This key monologue conveys her desperation for Macbeth to act on his ambition, and brings about his decision to end Duncan’s life.
Having made his decision, Macbeth’s final dialogue in the key scene perfectly illustrates that he has decided to act upon his ambition. He considers the deed and says;
”I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”
He is echoing Lady Macbeth’s requests to the spirits, highlight to us the fact that he is now engaging with evil. He refer to Duncan’s murder as a ‘terrible feat’ which has connotations of the task being awful and difficult, suggesting that he will finds acting on his ambition hard but he is also clear that he is ‘settled’. Shakespeare also cleverly addresses the theme of reality versus appearance here as he conveys how aware Macbeth is of appearing to be welcoming to Duncan, while hiding his ‘heart’; that is, his intentions. The end of this key scene makes it quite clear that Macbeth’s ambition will now be his driving force and ultimately will lead to his downfall.
After committing the ‘feat’ he decided upon in Act 1, scene 7 he immediately struggles with the aftermath of what he has done. He discusses with Lady Macbeth how he could not pray;
Wherefore could I not pronounce ‘Amen’?
I had most need of blessing, and
‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.”
Shakespeare powerfully draw on the association that would have been made between royalty and God. Macbeth has literally killed God, thus breaking any union he has with him, as the king is God’s representative on earth. This key incident highlights cleverly for us the path Macbeth has chosen and perhaps implies he has no hope left as he cannot pray, suggesting that his ambition has damaged him irreparably. However, his wife is far more pragmatic in her approach to their guilt. She is much better at handling what they have done than her husband, and while he is shocked by the literal blood on his hands, she says;
“A little water clears us of this deed.”
Her dialogue here effectively dismisses his concerns and she fails to understand that while blood can literally be washed off, the blood on his hands is metaphorical of his guilt and a direct results of his ambition thus introducing the motif of blood to the play. The difference in the reaction of the characters serves to highlight the immediate impact of the decision Macbeth made in the key scene. While Lady Macbeth is practical in her approach to their crime he is already frightened of what he has done, thus bringing about a rift in their relationship as a direct cause of Act 1, scene 7.
With a rift in their relationship appearing it is evident that Macbeth’s choice to kill Duncan as resulted in a clear shift in the dynamic. When Lady Macbeth asks about his plans to murder another character he says;
“Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck
Till though applaud the deed.”
The evidently dismissive tone of this dialogue, and the use of a pet name to appease her, shows that he is moving away from her and beginning to exclude her from his dealings. This highlights very clearly the impact of his choice in the key scene on their relationship and shows that while he is still ambitious, he now has no concerns for her ambitions and is choosing to exclude her from his life. As well as breaking his relationship it is evident that Macbeth’s choice has had a detrimental impact on his mental health as he become paranoid and unstable. He hallucinates regularly and these can be viewed as a manifestation of his guilt. After killing Banquo he sees his friend’s ghost at the banqueting table;
“Don’t shake thy gory locks at me.”
Shakespeare’s extensive use of hallucinations and the supernatural in the play further extends the idea that Macbeth has suffered greatly as a result of his ambition and his decision to commit regicide. Not only has his relationship suffered as a result of what he chose in Act 1, scene 7 but his cruel behaviour has now caused those who once called him ‘brave’ to refer to him as a ‘tyrant’. This direct contrast is deliberately used to show how awful his life has become and exemplifies that his decision in the key scene of the play has ruined his life.
The play ends on a drastic note and after Lady Macbeth kills herself, Macbeth realises he has little to live for. He contemplates his choices and his wife’s death and says;
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Shakespeare’s powerful use of imagery signifies to us that Macbeth has realised his life is worthless. Just as a shadow is empty and lifeless, so too is his life and he is obviously very aware of this. He also compares it to an actor, conveying the idea that it is false and does not last the test of time. This moving monologue explores this idea even further when he says that life is a ‘tale…signifying nothing.’ The bleak, final word-choice here makes it quite evident how this character feels about life as ‘nothing’ conveys it is entirely empty. This monologue acts as a thought-provoking reminder of the choice he made in the key scene and the disastrous effect that this choice has had on his life. It also reminds us of the theme of ambition, helping us fully understand that his ambition has left him with ‘nothing’.
In conclusion, William Shakespeare’s tragic ‘Macbeth’ is a play in which a key scene highlights to us the theme of ambition and the dangers of being ambitious. Shakespeare cleverly employs a number of techniques to explore the theme and helps us recognise the dangers of having ambitions that are beyond us and what they can do.