Shakespeare’s opening, assiduously constructed with chiasmus and trochaic tetrameter and pathetic fallacy, immediately coerces the audience into a position of vulnerability, disempowering them with the paradoxical ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, exacerbated by the pernicious fear of witchcraft. The restorative ‘all’s too weak for brave Macbeth’ is but ephemeral, with his first words ‘So foul and fair a day I have not yet seen’ echoing the witches, and consequently destroying any hope in him leading the charge against the ‘filthy hags’.
Banquo’s need to curb Macbeth’s unrestrained fascination with the ‘imperfect speakers’ and warn him: ‘the instruments of darkness win us with honest trifles to betray’s in deepest consequence’ is telling, and suggests that already Macbeth’s power over himself is tempered, at the mercy of his ‘vaulting’ ambition. The moral frame of reference offered by Banquo, a man who will keep his ‘allegiance clear’, and not be tempted beyond mere musings, ‘But hush, no more’, provides the audience with hope, but hope rendered futile when pitted against the combined perversions of the Macbeths. The power Lady Macbeth wields over Macbeth again constricts their sensibility, as she, a contextual obfuscation, calls on the ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ and the ‘thick night’ to ‘unsex me here’, coaches Macbeth to ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’, a clever use of simile to metaphor by Shakespeare to emphasise her inexorable desire, and castigates him severely when he suggests they ‘shall proceed no further in this business’. Her sociopathic manipulations at once betray a rapacious lust for power yet a lack of power over her ability to love and concede to the natural order. ‘Noughts had, all’s spent, when desire is got without content’ alerts us to her inner battle, and her ‘out damned spot! Out, I say!’ and continuous need for light juxtaposes her ostensible hold on power and renders it transient, illusory; an exhortative Shakespeare restoring some of the audience’s faith.
Macbeth’s artificial contemplations, ‘we that teach bloody instructions… return to plague the inventor’, are easily shattered, with the ‘dagger before me’ conveniently facing toward him, a farcical attempt at justifying his powerlessness over his actions. Throughout the play, Macbeth presents as a disempowered tragic character, a man unable to curb his ambition, and mitigate the influences of those around him who share equal levels of vice. His dissent into moral absurdity however, is paralleled ironically by his partial gaining of control over his actions, with Lady Macbeth shut out of his plans to kill Banquo, and his insistence that ‘for mine own good, all causes shall give way’. It is only partial though, as he still seeks the wisdom of the witches, and is made the fool by the equivocal apparitions.
The power of the ‘mad butcher’ is finally annulled by the power of good, characterised by Macduff. Macduff, the embodiment of Banquo’s frame of reference (‘dear Duff’), refuses to succumb to Malcolm’s casuistic catechizing, and pursues the revenge not only for the slayings of his ‘pretty chickens’, but for ‘O nation miserable!’ The restoration of the natural order by the power of good at the end of the play serves as the ultimate cautionary tale, and not only redeems for the audience their loss of faith and hope and power from the first scene and throughout, but inevitably strengthens their belief in the power of what is morally right.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more resources and discussions about English and education in general.