‘Macbeth’, first performed in 1606, is an Elizabethan tragedy written by William Shakespeare. He details the anarchy that greed brings rise to, having Macbeth being driven by both himself and extrinsic figures to murder Scotland’s king, ultimately leading to his own anguished death. Shakespeare utilizes a myriad of literary devices to communicate the ideas of fate, natural and unnatural, and guilt and conscience, though how these ideas are construed relies significantly on the societal context of the audience – particularly within the Elizabethan and modern era – which further influences how the overall purpose of the text is achieved. However, the ways in which Shakespeare communicates these ideas retain their timeless power in spite of differing audiences.
The idea of fate is cardinal in conveying Macbeth’s purpose of communicating the consequences of fantastical ambition. In an Elizabethan context, Macbeth was considered to be the paradigm of a ‘tragic hero’, having him be characterized as a lawful individual led to corruption by the witches who reveal his fateful prophecy, “that [he shall] be king”. Comparatively, modern-day audiences view his maliciousness as unwarranted hubris provoked only by himself, as he gains excessive pride upon having a childlike apparition foreshadow that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”, which he misreads as a sign of undefeatable power. However, Macbeth becomes so consumed by his inability to control fate that his thoughts become delusions, failing to see the deceit within the witches’ predictions, having Macduff end up having been “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb”, aspersing Macbeth’s false courage. Dramatic irony is utilized to illustrate the importance of fate, with Lady Macbeth paying obeisance to Duncan despite her guilefully instigating his murder, as he claims her to be “[his] honored hostess”. This demonstrates the unpredictability of fate, as Duncan is inclined to believe that Macbeth’s “great love” would engender anything but his own demise, alluded to through the imagery of Macbeth’s “brandished steel, [smoking] with bloody execution” is referenced, suggesting that Macbeth is capable of murder in the path of fate.
The symbolic polarity between the purity of nature and the wickedness of the unnatural is alluded to quite often throughout ‘Macbeth’, emphasizing the recurrent idea that “fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Elizabethan citizens believed that the wealth of their country relied on the propriety of their king, and that an equitable monarchy creates natural order. As Macbeth murders Duncan and commandeers the throne, the composure of nature is disturbed, having earth “[shake] as though it [has] a fever”. This defiance against nature encapsulates the immorality of Macbeth’s actions, and the consequent political corruption that the “instruments of darkness” bring Scotland to suffer. Symbolism is employed to emphasize the contrast between night and day, having Macbeth request the “seeling night” to “scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day” as he premeditates Banquo’s murder, exemplifying the turpitude of darkness that leads Macbeth to contradict natural order. The amorality of Lady Macbeth’s desire to rule, as she implores God to “unsex [her]’ and ‘fill [her with] direst cruelty”, as well as the symbolism within her manipulative guidance to have Macbeth “look like the innocent flower/ But be the serpent underneath it”, also builds on the fact that both she and Macbeth exploit nature to disguise their cruel ambitions, causing them to become unnatural beings.
Macbeth’s culpability for his wrongdoings is portrayed to both an Elizabethan and modern audience in such a way that the ramifications of guilt on his conscience become evident. Although Macbeth can dissimulate his remorse to the public eye, his guilt does not cease to plague him, as he speaks his thoughts aloud upon murdering Duncan, asking if “all great Neptune’s ocean [will] wash [Duncan’s] blood/ Clean from [his] hand” to merely realize that “[his] hand will rather [make] the green [ocean] red”. Situational irony is employed to express Macbeth’s gluttonous craving for supremacy, only to find that his guilt prevents him from being satisfied by his usurped position, with him asserting that “[he has] been dressed in borrowed robes”. Similarly, Lady Macbeth partakes in Duncan’s murder without displaying hesitancy or penitence, rebuking Macbeth for “[wearing] a heart so white”, though she is eventually led to end her own life to escape her ineluctable shame. Imagery and symbolism are also concomitantly utilized to convey the inevitability of regret, with Lady Macbeth vigorously washing her hands from the illusion of Duncan’s blood – symbolizing guiltiness – whilst exclaiming that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten [her hands]”, as one cannot elude the prepotency of guilt.
Although the ideas explored in ‘Macbeth’ perpetuate their unfading power, there are indeed differences regarding how audiences from separate time periods interpret these ideas and, accordingly, decipher what this tragic tale’s true purpose is. Shakespeare employs various literary devices to depict how nature is disturbed, bringing rise to unnatural chaos, how fate cannot be controlled – but rather unveils life’s dark truths – and how inescapable guilt torments the guilty. As said by Erich Fromm, “greed is a pit which exhausts people in an endless effort to satisfy needs without ever reaching satisfaction”.