The Great Chain of Being
The Great Chain of Being was an idea that mapped out God's
natural hierarchy to the world and all its living creatures.
Minerals were at the bottom of the chain, below plants, insects,
and other creatures. In the animal kingdom, mighty beasts like
lions, bears, and wolves reigned supreme.
But humans ranked above the rest of the flora and fauna. The king--who was apparently God-chosen, according to absolute
doctrines like the Divine Right of Kings---was the most
important human being.
God, obviously, was at the very top of The Great Chain of Being.
Since this holy chain was established by almighty and powerful
God, it was considered sinful to disturb it and doing so would
ultimately result in chaos.
Order and cohesion on every level breaks down: nature, weather, animals,
human relationships, political order, national order and so on until the
rightful king is restored.
The tragic Hero
The tragic hero is a stereotype found in all Shakespearean tragedy plays.
He is
Always highly placed in society – prince, king, some other noble, powerful figure.
He is highly regarded by his peers.
Has many noble, honourable qualities – full of potential.
He has a single character flaw (in Macbeth’s case, ambition)
This sigle flaw affects his choices / decisions and chaos eventually ensues.
The Tragic Hero is seen by the audience to suffer throughout the play.
Ths helps us maintain our sympathy / pity for him right till the end.
The Tragic Hero experiences a sort of ‘coming to awareness’ or ‘wisdom’ as a
result of his suffering.
Act 1 scene 1
Set in 11th century Scotland, the play opens during a thunderstorm on “a
desert place” whilst Scotland is at war with enemies – internal and external.
We meet three witches – instruments of darkness. Their first words
demonstrate their intentions: they will make “fair” seem “foul” and “foul”
seem “fair”. Ie, they will distort and invert the natural moral order.
Their evil purpose is to meet with Macbeth.
They also refer to the evil spirits they serve “Greymalkin…Paddock”…etc
They appear to have supernatural knowledge as they know when the battle will
be concluded. They “hover” rather than walk “through the fog and filthy air”
By presenting these elements right at the start Shakespeare establishes…
– A bleak, dark mood full of evil, uncertainty and confusion.
– A number of key themes: supernatural evil / violence / false appearances / moral
Act 1 scene 2
• The location is the kings camp near Forres.
• A wounded soldier gives the king a bloody and brutal
account of the battle emphasising Macbeth’s warrior-like
prowess against Macdonwald and then the king of Norway.
• Macbeth is soundly praised by the king for his savage
performance in defence of the kingdom. He is to be
rewarded with the now-disgraced Thane of Cawdor’s title.
• So, Macbeth is presented to us as brave, loyal and highly
respected by his peers and his King. However, his
savagery on the battlefield indicates a propensity for
Act 1 scene 2 contd.
• So this scene adds to the mood / themes established earlier. Darkness,
violence, deception and confusion / war and treachery.
• We get our first impresion of Macbeth – though we don’t yet meet him.
Overwhelmingly positive with some reservations about the extent of
his capacity for violence.
Act 1 scene 3
• This scene reveals the witches’ evil nature even more clearly. One has
been killing swine, another pledges to persecute a sailor because his
wife wouldn’t share her chestnuts! She will wear him down in an
attempt to destroy him.
• This is also the approach the witches will take with Macbeth. It’s
important to remember that the witches can’t actually kill this man.
They can only affect the circumstances surrounding him – in this case,
the weather. This has important implications for Macbeth who,
ultimately, retains his free will and makes his own choices despite the
pressure of external circumstances.
• Note how Macbeth’s first words echo those of the witches! “So fair
and foul a day I have not seen”. It’s no coincidence – and his
connection with them will develop later in the play.
• The witches appear, make their predictions for both men, and vanish!
And the men react very differently. Banquo is sceptical and
unimpressed – he’s much more level headed than Macbeth in his
evaluation, whereas Macbeth seems desparate to hear more and is so
overcome that Banquo describes him as “rapt withal”.
Act 1 scene 3 contd…
• When Ross arrives bestowing upon Macbeth the title Thane of Cawdor
the effect is instant and dramatic – he is stunned! His faith in the
witches is confirmed! Once more shocked into silence, he considers
whether the prophecy to become king is good or evil. He weighs up the
two possibilities. He is conflicted.
• In his aside we see that he is troubled by thoughts of murder. These
thoughts horrify him to be sure, but they are his thoughts. This may
not be the first time the idea of murder has occurred to him. He is
ambitious indeed!
• But he is so conflicted by the struggle between his ambition and his
conscience that he almost has a panic attack. “why do I yield to that
suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated
heart knock at my ribs against the use of nature”
• At this point his conscience seems to win as he concludes “if chance
will have me king why chance may crown me without my stir”
Act 1 scene 4
• The location is Forres – the royal palace.
• Duncan warmly recieves Macbeth and Banquo. Note Macbeth’s
response is rather more formal than one might expect between
kinsmen. This may indicate Macbeth’s internal discomfort – speaking
words of loyalty and honour to the man he is thinking of murdering
will be difficult.
• Duncan then names Malcolm as heir to the throne. This is important
because Macbeth realises it is an obstacle to his ambitions.
– “that is a step on which I must fall down or else o’er leap, for in my way it
lies”/ Shakepeare presents the audience with further evidence of M’s
– Duncan will honour Macbeth with a visit to his castle – Inverness /
Macbeth rides ahead to deliver the news to his wife personally.
• Of key inportance here are the king’s comment about false
appearances and Macbeth’s false loyalty. The Thane of Cawdor was a
man in whom Duncan placed “an absolute trust”. He was, however,
completely fooled by him. He observes that in truth, it’s impossible to
really know what’s going on in a person’s mind from their outward
demeanour. “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the
face”. Ironically, it will be no better with the new thane of Cawdor.
Act 1 scene 4 contd.
• Notice too the contrast between Duncan’s celebratory tone
and Macbeth’s dark thoughts. Macbeth returns to the
thought of murdering Duncan, first suggested in scene 3,
calling on the stars to “hide their fires” so that his “deep
and dark desires” will be hidden from view.
• So, this scene further illustrates Macbeth’s ambitious
Act 1 scene 5
• We meet Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter. Sharing the
information like this indicates the trust and closeness between the
couple. Her determination for her husband is even greater at this point
than his! Although Macbeth never mentions it, she immediately
assumes murdering Duncan is the way to proceed.
• She reveals herself as ruthlessly ambitious for her husband. She also
reveals some crucial information to the audience about her husband’s
character. Essentially, he is ambitious, but moral. He is “too fullof the
milk o’ human kindness to catch the nearest way”. He is not without
ambition, but he lacks the ruthlessness that goes with it. Having read
the letter she is now determined that what the witches have said, will
come true.
• She intends to convince him to carry out the murder. But to ensure she
has the single-mindedness to do this she seeks the help of evil spirits
asking them to remove anything feminine or caring in her nature. She
wants to be completely ruthless. It’s all rather shocking!
Act 1 scene 5 contd.
• Note the imagery she uses when told of Duncan’s impending visit –
she imagines…..hoarse ravens croaking….Duncan’s fatal entrance
into the castle….all very sinister and dark. She calls on the evil spirits
to fill her with absolute cruelty in order to carry out her purpose.
• Macbeth arrives and, true to her word, Lady M begins to work on him
immediately with “the valour of (her) tongue”. He must, she tells him,
“look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.” and “put
this night’s great business into my dispatch”.
• Once again, Macbeth is reluctant – “we will speak further” he tells her.
But she persists and tells him to “leave all the rest to me”.
• Note how this scene moves the action forward and also adds to the
themes introduced earlier..
– The murder of the king moves a step closer
– Themes of supernatural evil, loyalty / betrayal, false appearances, images
of darkness and evil deeds.
– Note also that at this stage Lady M takes the lead
Act 1 scene 6
• Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain and Banquo arrive at Macbeth’s castle.
• Note that the language here contrast sharply with the previous scene.
Duncan and Banquo regard the castle as pleasantly located, the air
“sweetly and nimbly reccommends itself unto our gentle senses”. The
many housemartins nesting in the masonary are supposed to indicate
that the “air is delicate”. How different from the croaking raven and
the “fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements” from scene 5!
• Lady Macbeth, true to her word, warmly welcomes the king. She
certainly looks “like the innocent flower” whilst “being the serpent”
lurking underneath.
• The short scene is full of dramatic irony…we, the audience know that
Macbeth and his wife are contemplating murdering the king –
however, Duncan is blissfully unaware of what waits for him.
Act 1 scene 7
• This first major soliloquoy presents us with Macbeth’s internal
struggle. He begins by considering the reasons why he should not kill
Duncan, there are 5
– He risks punishment in this life and the next.
– His methods – treachery and foul play will serve as an example to others
and will eventually end up being used against him.
– He is Duncan’s cousin! And his subject! “strong both against the deed.”
– He is Duncan’s host! “who should against his murderer shut the door not
bear the knife itself.”
– Duncan has conducted himself virtuously and fairly.
– He concludes that he has no motive to kill the king apart from “vaulting
ambition”. This soliloquoy is so important because it reveals Macbeth as
supremely self-aware. We see his internal struggle – a struggle between
ambition and conscience – a struggle we want him to win. And he appears
to……until Lady M begins once more to “chastise (him) with the valour
of (her) tongue”.
Act 1 scene 7
• We feel for Macbeth as his wife undermines his shaky resolve. She
accuses him of cowardice – as a warrior this would be hard to take.
• She tells him that when he dared to do it he was a man…..attacking his
• She questions his love for her. His resolve to murder Duncan has
become “green and pale”. She tells him that she considers his love to
be just the same. Again, given the closeness of their relationship this
would be very hard to take. It’s as though she’s accusing him of a
personal betrayal…as though she’s questioning his commitment to her.
• Finally, she demonstrates her commitment to him by telling how she
would murder her own child had she sworn as he had done.
• The overall effect of all this is to convince him to change his mind – to
commit to the murder of the king….and he does.
• She has a plan all worked out – showing once more how she has taken
the lead in “this bloody business”.
Act 1 scene 7
• What is most important is that Macbeth, despite his clear
understanding of the immorality of the act, changes his
• Initially he tells his wife that they “will proceed no further
in this business”. But she taunts and manipulates him until
he changes his mind.
• He knows it’s wrong – evil – treacherous, he knows he
risks terrible consequensces – yet he agrees. Through
Macbeth, Shakespeare is revealing to his audience the
heart of human weakness – knowing something is wrong
but doing it anyway. We sympathise with Macbeth because
in a way his struggle is ours.
• Of particular note are Macbeth’s final words in this scene.
– “False face must hide what false heart doth know”.
– He is aware and acknowledges that his heart has now become
– It is a terrible admission for a man with such honourable qualities.
Key quotations
• Scene 1
– Fair is foul and foul is fair / hover through the fog and filty air
• Scene 2
– Brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name (s)
– His brandished steel which smoked with bloody execution.(s)
– Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chops and fixed his head upon
our battlements.(s)
– Valiant cousin, worthy gentleman.(D)
• Scene 3
So fair and foul a day I have not seen (M)
All hail Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter (w)
Thou shalt get kings though thou be none….(w)
What, can the devil speak true? (b)
To win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths / win us
with honest trifles to betray us in deepest consequence. (b)
– My thought whose murder is yet but fantastical shakes so my single state
of man that function is smothered in surmise and nothing is but what is
not. (M)
– If chance will have me king why, chance may crown me without my stir.
Key quotations contd…
• Scene 4
– There’s no art to find the minds construction in the face. (D)
– The prince of cumberland. That is a step on which I must fall down or else
o’er leap for in my way it lies (M)
– Stars hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires. (m)
• Scene 5
– I fear your nature. It is too full o the milk of human kindness to catch the
neares way. (LM)
– What thou woulds’t highly, that wouldst thou holily (LM)
– Hie thee hither that I my pour my spirits in thine ear and chastise thee
with the valour of my tongue / all that impedes thee from the golden
round. (LM)
– 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. (LM)
– Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t (LM)
– Leave all the rest to me. (LM)
• Scene 6
– This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air nimbly and sweetly recommends
itself unto our gentle senses. (D)
Key quotations contd…
• Scene 7
– I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent but only vaulting
ambition which o’re leaps itself and falls on the other. (M)
– We will proceed no further in this business. (M)
– Art thou afeared to be the same in thine own act and valour as
thou art in desire. (LM)
– I dare do all that may become a man, who dares do more is none.
– When in swinish sleep, their drenched natures lie as in a death,
what cannot you and I perform upon the unguarded Duncan? (LM)
– Bring forth men children only, for thy undaunted mettle should
compose nothing but males. (M)
– Away and mock the time with fairest show / false face must hide
what false heart doth know. (M)