Macbeth is a play seldom associated with beauty; but having recently picked it up again, I have been blown away by just how beautifully written and structured it is. Admittedly it’s a rather horrific beauty, but still…
Just as an example, let’s take the opening few scenes. Much ink has been justifiably spilt on drawing our attention to the similarities between Macbeth and the Weird Sisters through the recurring language of things that are ‘fair’ and ‘foul’, but the subtle connections between characters go well beyond this.
In addition to the fair/foul dichotomy, Macbeth and the Weird Sisters are connected innately through imagery, with both being closely associated with death and destruction. The gruesome images conveyed to King Duncan of Macbeth’s exploits on the battlefield (a favourite being ‘the merciless Macdonwald’ who was ‘unseem’d…from the nave to the chaps’ (1.2.28-41)) inherently link Macbeth with ‘strange images of death’ (1.3.201). In the very next scene we see one Weird Sister carrying around ‘a pilot’s thumb / Wreck’d as homeward he did come’ (1.3.126-7) – another strange image of death. This connection becomes even more disturbing and significant once we come to the sisters’ incantation in Act 4 Scene 1, especially when one considers the destruction needed to obtain these ingredients.
The ‘pilot’s thumb’ doesn’t receive enough consideration in my view. A pilot was someone who steered ships; given the time and the type of ships, they needed to be very skilled in their job. Without a thumb, a pilot is pretty ineffective (or arguably useless if he was dead at the time of removal!) and so this also alludes to Macbeth’s (and Scotland’s) loss of direction and navigation. This reading becomes even more interesting when one considers the use of stars in navigation alongside Macbeth’s desire for the ‘stars [to] hide [their] fires’ (1.4.333-4).
Banquo is used as a crucial juxtaposition to Macbeth: both are praised for their valour on the battlefield; both are rewarded for their actions; and both receive prophecies of greatness from the Weird Sisters. Yet whereas Macbeth’s language echoes that of the witches, Banquo’s echoes that of King Duncan. Duncan promises to ‘plant’ Macbeth and ‘labour to make [him] full of growing’ (1.4.308-9) and Banquo reflects this natural, nurturing and optimistic language in his response to Duncan: ‘There if I grow / The harvest is your own’ (1.4.13-4). The positivity of this imagery contrasts starkly with the horrific language associated with Macbeth and the Weird Sisters, creating a powerful dichotomy that remains throughout the play. It also plays quite nicely with the imagery of the ‘shipwrecking storms and dire fuel thunders’ mentioned by the Sergeant (1.2.45) which juxtaposes the promise of spring with the threat of storms.
Malcolm is very much a marginalised character early in the play, but the language that Duncan uses about him is vital in identifying him as part of the phalanx that combats Macbeth. We have already touched on the importance of the imagery of stars. During Duncan’s election of Malcolm as his heir, he states that ‘signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine’ from him (1.4.323-3). We cannot help but think of this heavenly imagery when Macbeth speaks of his celestial desire not ten lines later. Not only does this play significantly in light of Great Chain of Being1, but also emphasises the difference in natures between the two.
As with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there is much to get stuck into looking at the language alone. But exploring the more complex elements of structure helps to develop a much more detailed understanding of the play and can really help to get a perspective on the playwrite at work – crucial to maintaining that all-important critical distance.
1. see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Great-Chain-of-Being for more information.