Shakespeare's Macbeth is a tragedy that deals with themes such as deception, betrayal and even the supernatural. Women at the time were often treated as inferior to men and married women were legally the property of their husband. Macbeth, however, works against the tradition image of Elizabethan women, because he makes Lady Macbeth in numerous ways challenge it. This essay explores how Shakespeare's ingenious use of language, contrasts, audience expectations, stage directions and punctuation, aid in creating a horrific and fearful atmosphere.
Shakespeare is renowned for his genius in his use of language, an ability that allows him to create a whole multitude of effects. In this scene, Shakespeare uses language effectively to establish a sense of fear and horror. The scene starts with a soliloquy from Lady Macbeth: 'that which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; /Wha D t hath quench'd them hath given me fire'. Here, Lady Macbeth emphasises her strength, showing that the alcohol that made the guards drunk has made her bold. The mere concept of a woman being 'bold' during the early17th century would, in itself, provoke a shocked reaction from the audience. This is then amplified by Lady Macbeth's choice of wording. She stresses that she has been given 'fire', which relates to a semantic field of hell. This would have horrified the Shakespearean audience, as hell was seen as reality. Therefore, Lady Macbeth's comment nearer to the end of the scene 'that fears a painted devil', is noticeably adding insult to injury. The devil was a taboo subject in Elizabethan society; the religious culture clearly illustrates that the devil is not something to joke about. It was seen as something extremely powerful and dangerous, and thus making such a throw away comment on something so significant would have absolutely horrified and appalled the audience. What's more, Lady Macbeth here uses the idea of an image of the devil as a comparison with the king's dead body, whilst also showing that neither thing frightens her. This in itself would markedly increase fear and horror. Additionally, fear and tension rises back near the opening of Act 2 Scene 2, as we read, 'It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman'. The metaphor 'the fatal bellman' is for the noise made by the owl and is significant as executions are always dramatic and horrific. The metaphor is a fitting prelude of what is to come, as it indicates that the scene will be horrible, before anything drastic has even happened. Marhedly Tension rises in the language used after Macbeth has killed the king. When Macbeth says 'Balm of hurt minds', we can infer that he feels psychologically damaged. In Jacobean society, regicide (or even conceiving regicide) indicated one's serious instability. Kings were seen as being chosen from the Gods; therefore the crime was seen as one of the worst possible. Consequently, this would have horror-struck the audience; the severity of the crime was colossal, punishable by God, making the scene tense with the audience on edge.
Shakespeare distorts the traditional Elizabethan behaviour expectations; contrasting the roles of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, through countless passages manipulates and confronts her husband. She subverts the Elizabethan norm, that women were to be chaste, silent and obedient, implying that she desires to be more like a man. Macbeth soon becomes immersed in guilt, wittering that he will no longer be able to sleep; he no longer seems in control of the situation. Whilst he rambles and cannot stop feeling guilt for the murder, Lady Macbeth remains level headed, brushing the whole deed aside, and to some extent, even seems confused that Macbeth is feeling so shameful. An example of this is shown in her comment that follows Macbeth's passage on not being able to sleep, when she brusquely replies 'What do you mean?' This statement is somewhat shocking; at least Macbeth is shown to have the decency to feel turmoil, stating that he can no longer sleep. The fact that she cannot even comprehend why he is upset, and feels no remorse for the deed that she influenced would be seen as a rather horrible perversion at the time. Whereas Macbeth seems to be worried, dazed and even scared; Lady Macbeth stays blasé about the murder. This point is accentuated when Macbeth says 'I am afraid to think what I have done', followed by Lady Macbeth shrieking (using an exclamation mark to highlight her anger): 'infirm of purpose!/ Give me the daggers', labelling him as a coward and thus wanting to take matters into her own hands. Here a clear role reversal is shown which would have horrified the audience. Macbeth, seen as an honourable warrior suffers from sleeplessness and is shown to feel 'afraid', whilst Lady Macbeth, a woman, suffers no such ailments and instead criticises this behaviour as cowardice. What's more, the fact that she demands him to 'Give [her] the daggers' not only shows her to be in control of the situation, but would also appal the audience to see a Lady acting in such a forceful way with no contemplation for the seriousness of the crime, regicide.
The first stage direction that we read is 'Macbeth's castle; enter Lady Macbeth'. The fact that Lady Macbeth enters before Macbeth shows her to be the antithesis of the traditional woman, who would be expected to submit to her Husband, in Jacobean society. The stage direction clearly shows her independence and dominance, as she can command her husband's domain. It represents just how powerful she is as a character, instilling fear within the audience, who consider what possible devastating consequences could emerge as a result of a female holding such power. Correspondingly, after Macbeth has committed the murder, Lady Macbeth begins to take control, 'Go get some water,/And wash this filthy witness[...]/go carry them; and smear'. Her speech to Macbeth is peppered with imperative verbs: 'Go', 'get', 'wash', 'carry', 'smear'. The language used in this passage would have unquestionably shocked the viewers; a woman commanding her Husband would have been a horrifying, unheard-of perversion. The tone used is also similar to the way that one would speak to a social inferior, such as a servant or even a woman during that era. Therefore, a woman speaking in this manner would be rather controversial, horrifying the audience with the knowledge that a woman is allowed so much independence and parity.
Stage directions are highly significant throughout the scene; not only do they direct the scene, but they also help intensify the atmosphere of intense fear. Near the beginning of the scene, we read 'Enter Macbeth with two bloody daggers,' - before Macbeth even says a word the sight of the two daggers confirms that he has carried out the murder. Primarily, the visual presentations of bloody props (the actual blood was collected from animals and thus looked as real and shocking as human blood), coupled with their understanding that this is not just any blood but the king's blood, would have horrified and nauseated the audience, thus effectively creating a tense environment. Shakespeare also uses sound-effects ingeniously to create a feeling of fear. For instance, the stage direction: 'An owl shrieks' would have evoked a sense of fright and tension in the Shakespearean audience, as an owl (in that era) was seen as a bird of ill omen; the sound in itself is likely to make the audience jump. Using an owl for the sound-effect establishes an eerie atmosphere of foreboding. Similarly, the use of a knocking sound-effect from within the stage is possibly the stage direction that makes us most apprehensive in the scene. We read, 'Whence is that knocking? [...] Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand? / No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / making the green one red.', the mysterious knocking is heard by Macbeth, a noise which seems to undoubtedly promise doom. Macbeth's crime is repaying him with a pungent sense of guilt that seems determined to hound him, possibly throughout the entire play. Duncan's blood symbolically represents that guilt, and Macbeth's statement that 'all great Neptune's ocean' cannot wash him suggests that there is enough blood on his hands to turn the entire 'seas incarnadine' (red).What's more, it is a horrifying thought that not all the oceans could cleanse him of his crime and rehabilitate his conscience. This would all make the audience feel extremely tense, visualising the level of guilt and suffering that the main character has to endure. There is also a significant contrast here in Macbeth and his lady's attitude to the crime. Whereas Macbeth uses exaggeration, through comparisons to the oceans and seas, to stress how irrevocable his guilt is; Lady Macbeth states that 'little water clears us of this deed', demonstrating her stark opposing attitude, that a 'little' amount of water (highly contrasting to a sea of water) can cleanse them from the crime and their consciences. The contrast in their reactions here is heavy in amplifying the horror of this scene.
Shakespeare effectively uses significant contrasts to shock the audience throughout the play. This is first shown by the rapid change in Macbeth's status and personality. Prior to the prophesies made by the witches, Macbeth is portrayed as a valiant and heroic character, being titled as 'brave Macbeth' and 'noble Macbeth'. Nevertheless, in Act 4 Scene 2 we see a key change in Macbeth's mentality, which seems to severely break down. This is shown as we read 'I hear a voice cry 'Sleep no more!/Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep'. Earlier in the play, the king was congratulating Macbeth on his battlefield valour, and his killings were something to be celebrated, yet now his murders are seen in a negative way. Saying 'the innocent sleep', stresses that he has murdered someone innocent, and thus his guilt is reflected in this comment. The continuous decline in Macbeth's fearlessness would have shocked the audience whilst also horrifying them in seeing such a courageous person decline.
The mention of sleep is metaphorically important; sleep symbolises peace and tranquillity, and thus the constant reiteration of no longer being able to sleep: 'Sleep no more!' demonstrates Macbeth's turmoil. The prophecy creates a sense of fear, that he will no longer be able to sleep and regain sanity, as all the prophecies have come true so far. Macbeth says 'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor/Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.' This almost directly correlates back to Macbeth's encounter with the Witches, as he practically recites their predictions. Nevertheless, for this to truly correspond with the parallel, we expect the third statement to say the 'King shall sleep no more'; therefore the fact that he has substituted the king's name for his own is shocking and horrific. It reiterates that he has now done the deed and emphasises his guilty conscience. The four words 'shall sleep no more' are also monosyllabic, to accentuate how heavy the words are and make them sound more forceful and thus more fearful.
Elsewhere, a sense of anxiety and paranoia is built up through the use of emphatic monosyllabic words and sentences. The conversation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is somewhat fragmented, creating a sense of apprehension and anxiety in the audience: 'Did you not speak?' / 'When?' / 'Now.' / 'As I descended?' / 'Ay' / 'Hark'. The sentences are all very short and sharp, showing their immense nervousness - this heightens the drama as well as adding a sense of fear and tension to the scene. Likewise, having many emphatic words effectively portrays a sense of their stress and anxiety, which seeps out into the audience, thus creating a horrifically tense atmosphere. The words 'Did you not speak?', give the impression that they are not actually thinking straight, and are to some extent beginning to panic. We can infer that they are feeling a sense of paranoia and unease through the many questions that are exchanged by the two characters: 'When?' 'As I descended?' 'Who lies..?'. The use of question marks not only shows their insecurity and uncertainty, but also creates a feeling of fear and horror.
Shakespeare uses many forms of punctuation in Act 2 Scene 2 to make the audience gain a feeling of anxiety. Near the beginning of the scene, Lady Macbeth's soliloquy uses a multitude of semi colons, colons and commas. 'He is about it:/ the door are open; and the surfeited grooms/ Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg'd their possets.' One effect that this gives is elongating the sentence, showing her tension and anxiety as she cannot stop nervously talking. Additionally, having many pauses fractures the dialogue; this, to some extent, delays the full stop, inevitably showing her fear and anxiety which in turn causes the audience to feel anxious. Shakespeare also generates shock through his use of exclamation marks: 'Hark! Peace!' 'What, ho!' 'My husband!'. The exclamation mark indicates that the words have been said forcefully and thus are likely to startle the audience, creating both fear and horror. The word 'Hark!' is said directly after 'An owl Shrieks', which illustrates that the slightest noise alarms Lady Macbeth, despite her being depicted as the dominant, bold character; this leaves us with a sense of confusion, as she appears to be acting like the typical female of that era. Similarly, when she says 'had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done't', we are once again pulled in two different directions. On the one hand we see a softer side of Lady Macbeth as she seems, to some extent, remorseful, yet at the same time she ends the sentence with the harsh and bitter emphatic words ' I had done't', leaving the audience with a sense of confusion regarding her personality. This fickle temperament makes her character even harder to grasp and thus would horrify the Shakespearean audience to an even greater extent.
To conclude, our depictions on Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are somewhat varied by the end of the scene. Lady Macbeth truly shines her colours, demonstrating her power, influence and 'manliness'. Although Lady Macbeth's personality wasn't drastically different in this scene to prior encounters, Act 2 Scene 2 marks the point where her feisty aura is truly accentuated. Contrary to his previous status of being highly courageous and noble, Macbeth begins to break down mentally throughout the scene, evoking a sense of inner weakness and fragility, both of which replace previous impressions we had of him. The mood at the end of the scene is tense as the knocking continues to repeat (four times in total), leading Macbeth closer to insanity. Throughout this scene, shakespeare effectively uses language, stage directions, punctuation, contrasts and Elizabethan expectations to create a sense of fear and horror for the audience.