Shakespeare's "Macbeth" - Analysis of the influence of evil on the mainprotagonist Macbeth

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2002 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Information
2.1 Elizabethan World Picture…
2.2 Shakespeare’s biography.…
2.3 Introduction to Shakespeare’s Macbeth…

3. Characterisation of Evil with regard to special aspects
3.1 How does the play portray evil as a perversion of human nature?…
3.2 How is Macbeth finally destroyed by evil?…




1. Introduction

In this paper I am going to analyse the influence of evil on the mainprotagonist of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth”. In order to do this it is necessary to point out the way of analysis I prefer. First I will present some needed background information about the author himself and the Elizabethan World Picture. The next part introduces the reader to the play “Macbeth” and its actions. This is in order to lead over to the proper analysis where I will try to identify the play’s spirit of evil with its personifications in nature and other protagonists and special regard to its influence on Macbeth until he is finally destroyed by it. This analysis will be supported by further focus on the imagery and the language which Shakespeare has used.

2. Background Information

2.1 Elizabethan World Picture

To understand and to be able to interpret Shakespeare it is necessary to know some important facts about the way of life and thoughts at Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Elizabethan Era was characterised by hierarchy and thoughts of extreme order. People thought that everything in the universe had got its own specific position in their strict order. You can find this world of ideas in the assemblage of the universe as well. This cosmological constellation hasn’t told only about the order and the position of the human being in this cosmos but also about the relations of the interconnected creation and the relation between cosmos and God (cf. picture 1 on p. 15)

The ideas of this world picture can already be found in the antiquity but it was improved in all its details by the scholastic philosophy.

In this chapter of my paper I am going to introduce you to one of the three main forms of the Elizabethan World Pictures: the chain of being.

The whole universe is divided into a ladder. At its ground there are the non-living elements and at its top there is God. At first you can find the elements, liquids, metals, then vegetation and the animals. The human beings stand over the animals because of their reason. The angels follow the human beings as non-materialistic and spiritual creatures. God is at the top as the creator of this chain. This originates from Platon and Aristoteles. Within these steps there are more separations which mirror and allow the already mentioned hierarchy because of its God-sanctions. For example, within the step of the metals there is gold at the top and brass at the ground. Within the human beings the father reigns his children, the husband reigns his wife and the king reigns his people. You can see, there is not just a vertical order but a horizontal order, as well.

If one of these elements leaves its place the whole order will become a chaos and everything will turn around. You can see already this consequence in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”. The chaos within the state because of the murder of King Duncan is mirrored in nature as well. But you can read more about it in the further analysis.

2.2 Shakespeare’s biography

At the beginning of this work I thought that this would be the most easiest part. But that is not true. Because of just 150 existing documents about Shakespeare’s lifetime there are a lot of different versions referring his life. To my mind it will be the best if I just sum up the most significant facts that can be proved by the mentioned documents and that are the most pointed out ones by some dictionaries.

- 26.04.1564 William’s Baptism in Stratford-upon-Avon
- He attended the King’s New School in Stratford
- On the 27th of November in 1582 the bishop of Worcester allows the marriage between William Shakespeare (18 years old) and his fiancée Ann Hathaway (26 years old).
- 26.05.1583 Baptism of their first daughter Susanna
- 02.02.1585 Baptism of their twins Hamnet and Judith
- The time between the twins’ birth and the first document of William’s stay in London in 1592 is totally unknown and makes some people invent a lot of legends.
- 1592 In London Shakespeare is known as an actor and a dramatist.
- 1593 Publication of “Venus and Adonis”
- 1594 Publication of “The Rape of Lucreece”
- 1597 William buys the house “New Place” in Stratford
- 1609/1610 He goes back to Stratford
- 1609 Publication of his “Sonnets” which refers to the “dark lady”
- 1615/1616 Shakespeare makes his testament
- 23.04.1616 Shakespeare’s death

2.3 Introduction to Shakespeare’s Macbeth

William Shakespeare wrote the Tragedy of Macbeth in approximately 1606 AD in order to please King James, the 1st who was very interested in supernatural things. He also wrote a book called “Demonology” which tells about witches and witchcraft. Shakespeare insecurely based this play on a historical event occurring around 1050 AD. Macbeth is the story of a nobleman, who, while trying to fulfil a prophecy told to him by three witches, murders his king to cause his ascensions to the throne of Scotland. After the King’s murder, Macbeth reigns as a cruel and ruthless tyrant, who is forced to kill more people in order to keep control of the throne. Finally, Scottish rebels combined with English forces attack Macbeth’s castle, and Macbeth is killed by a Scottish Thane named Macduff who has sacrificed everything to bring peace return to Scotland.

3. Characterisation of Evil with regard to special aspects

3.1 How does the play portray evil as a perversion of human nature?

In this part I am going to analyse in which ways evil influences Macbeth’s behaviour. Besides visions and disorder, evil works with a lot of different forms of appearances In this play, for example with the three witches and Lady Macbeth. This means that it is necessary to mention these forms of evil in passing as well for ensuring an objective characterisation of the mainprotagonist Macbeth.

In order to study the influence of evil on Macbeth it would be helpful first to identify evil itself. Shakespeare used a lot of forms in this play like visions, disorder in nature, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. But these signs are just metaphors in order to support the theatrical mood of the tragedy and to please the audience, inclusively King James I, who was much amused by those effects.

To my mind these signs are manifestations of Macbeth’s secret wishes rising out of his psyche.

The play begins with one of the main-symbols of evil. Instead of the expected appearance of Macbeth three witches are presented which discuss about the right moment to meet him. This short and unexpected opening scene of just thirteen lines introduces the audience into the play’s mood of evil, blood and chaos. Especially the antithesis “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”[1] makes us know that nothing in the play seems to be as it appears, that nothing will be as expected. This leading thought is embodied all the way through the play.

The next scene of the exposition tells us a little bit about Macbeth’s reputation as the king’s soldier. The captain, coming back from the battle, tells King Duncan enthusiastically about “brave Macbeth [ ’s]”[2] heroic actions on the field. First it seems to be really heroic and brave but at further reading you realise him as a brutal and cruel warrior “with his brandished steel/ Which smoked with bloody execution”[3] and who fights “till he unseamed [the slave] from the nave to th’chaps/ And fixed his head upon our battlements”[4]. The captain also expects that Macbeth wants to “memorise another Golgotha”[5]. These aspects do not show a person full of honour or bravery but full of cruelty and hate. In my opinion they show Macbeth’s predisposed character to evil, as well. This means he is already able to be evil or to execute evil deeds. Macbeth’s tendency to this is also presented by his first appearance on stage: he is going to meet the witches who are also called the weird sisters. His first sentence “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”[6] at all echoes the already mentioned antithesis spoken from the witches (look above). Perhaps Shakespeare suggests that Macbeth himself is not what he seems to be, either: a loyal and brave thane. In my opinion this is one of the most obvious signs of Macbeth’s affinity to evil.

When Macbeth gains the knowledge of the witches’ prophecies he seems to be uncertain. Banquo asks him why he is afraid of “things that do sound so fair”[7] but we already learned from the witches that “fair is foul […]”[8] and so nothing is what it seems to be. Perhaps it doesn’t sound so fair to Macbeth because he has already plotted to become king and feels the witches have read his mind. To my mind his reaction is one of a man who has to hide something bad.

Referring to the witches we get the impression that their deeds done of sheer boredom cause the bad things occurring to people and those are called ‘bad luck’. For example, they are “killing swine”[9] or are plotting revenge on a sailor’s wife because she refuses giving them chestnuts. This shows their nastiness towards mankind.


[1] Act 1, scene 1, l. 12

[2] Act 1, scene 2, l. 16

[3] Act 1, scene 2, ll. 17-18

[4] Act 1, scene 2, ll. 22-23

[5] Act 1, scene 2, l. 40

[6] Act 1, scene 3, l. 36

[7] Act 1, scene 3, l. 50

[8] cf. to 1

[9] Act 1, scene 3, l. 2


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Shakespeare Macbeth Analysis



Title: Shakespeare's "Macbeth" - Analysis of the influence of evil on the mainprotagonist Macbeth