What dramatic effect does Shakespeare aim for in Act 2 Scene 2, and how does he achieve it

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First performed in front of a Royal audience, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s plays in which a nobleman, namely Macbeth, might have led a normal life, but the tragedy is that he killed the rightful king, and in the end was punished for doing so. A pivotal moment in the play is the murder of the king, Duncan, as it was written at a time when in real life the king, James I, had just survived the Gunpowder Plot, so this would have been at the forefront of the audience’s minds, and it is the scene in which the murder has just happened which I shall examine in this essay.

This scene is Act 2 Scene 2 and it arguably becomes the most prominent in the play. Thus, the way in which this scene is staged is vital for the play to make sense to an audience and it also needs to provide a link between the surrounding scenes, before and after Duncan’s murder. It is sandwiched between Act 2 Scene 1, in which Macbeth’s wife goads him to murder the king and Act 2 Scene 3, in which the death is discovered. There is a sandwich where the blood of Act 2 Scene 2 is the filling.

A link between these scenes is that in Act 2 Scene 1 Lady Macbeth is what might be described as an “accessory before the fact”, because of her exhortations to her husband and after discovering the bloody daggers in his possession, it is she who places them by the guards to suggest their guilt, thereby becoming an “accessory after the fact” by assisting the concealment of the murderer. It increases her evil role and therefore it creates tension as to what will happen. This is Shakespeare’s main aim of the scene: to create a tense atmosphere which captures the audience and gives a link between two scenes with great apprehension over Duncan’s death.

The scene is introduced by Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy which describes the setting for the night of the murder and her preparations for it which she recounts vividly. Lady Macbeth begins the scene with a strong statement,

“That what hath made them drunk hath made me bold”.

She has taken Dutch courage and appears very confident with great strength of purpose. From here, if tension is to be maintained, there has to be an erosion from this position of strength. She continues:

“I have drugg’d their possets,

That death and nature do contend about them,

Whether they live or die.”

She appears to have no conscience about this but regards their fate as a struggle between death and nature. This makes her seem unfeeling, redeemed only to a small degree by a statement that she could have murdered Duncan, “had he not resembled my father as he slept”. Her character appears equally unfeeling when Macbeth refers to his hands as “a sorry sight”. She can only add: “A foolish thought to say a sorry sight”. As her husband reflects on what he has done and complains of his “hangman’s hands”, Lady Macbeth tries to gloss over it by saying, “Consider it not so deeply”. His continuing anxiety is countered with her saying:

“These deeds must not be thought

After these ways”.

When Macbeth refers to hearing voices, his wife taunts him:

“You do unbend your noble strength, to think

So brainsickly of things.”

She mixes flattery and humiliation in this sentence. She orders him to get water and asks him why he has brought the blood-stained daggers from the murder scene. She taunts him further by calling him “Infirm of purpose!” and asserts herself to do what he feels unable to do in placing the daggers by the sleeping guards:

“Give me the daggers…”.

Lady Macbeth seems to have almost no conscience whatsoever in this scene, saying,

“My hands of your colour; but I shame to wear a heart so white”

and despite the knocking which causes alarm in Macbeth, she herself is able to continue:

“A little water clears us of this deed.

How easy is it then!”

Macbeth on the other hand is jittery and remorseful throughout the scene. He recounts the events of the night and is haunted by the events in the King’s bedchamber earlier, by referring to what others are doing but not to the deed itself, possibly out of fear of facing up to reality. He was unable to say, “Amen” when the grooms said their prayers in their sleep. He is then haunted by voices saying, “Macbeth does murder sleep”, describing metaphorically his uneasy conscience. He is clearly frightened, by the addition of: “Macbeth shall sleep no more”. He is unable to respond to his wife’s taunts and attempts at concealment of the crime:

“Go get some water,

And wash this filthy witness from your hand.”

He replies meekly:

“I’ll go no more.

I am afraid to think what I have done.”

He cannot come to terms with his wife’s view that:

“the sleeping and the dead

Are but as pictures.”

Macbeth is troubled by noises throughout the scene:

“How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?”

Sounds appal him, not only in reality, but also in his memory of the guards asleep, as well as sights, both mental and physical images causing him distress. He fails to come to terms with his misdeeds:

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?”

He finally rebukes himself by saying to his wife,

“To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself”.

The knocking occurs four times before Macbeth declares:

“Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst”.

He is now overwrought with the audience seeing him completely tortured and they can only wonder how events will unfold in the next scene with him in this state of mind. The appearance of Macbeth leads to much shorter, jerkier phrases, with Macbeth himself asking questions of a short, jumpy variety and even replying to Lady Macbeth’s questions with questions of his own. This creates much tension and uncertainty on stage as to the exact circumstances of the murder and the likelihood of detection.

The use of knocking on four occasions in the scene as well as at the beginning of the next scene adds to the tension, giving play to Macbeth’s jumpiness and nervousness and highlighting his insecurity from the moment of the murder and his realisation of its impact on him and those around him. The mention of ringing bells gives a link between this scene and the previous one, which like the knocking in the next scene creates tension, and a real sense of suspense. A further link between Scenes 1 and 2 and the next scene is the reference to the daggers and blood. In Act 2 Scene 1 there is a vision of the dagger and blood, and in scene 2, there is real blood with real daggers, and Macbeth cannot bear to place the daggers by the sleeping guards.

Lady Macbeth does not notice for some time that Macbeth is carrying the bloodstained daggers. The director of a production of the play can direct this scene in one of two ways. First, he or she can portray Macbeth to be concealing the daggers from his wife, as though he had done something wrong like a child and he had come in front of his mother trying to hide the truth. The other way, which the director of the latest production at the Albery theatre in London chose, is to have Macbeth holding the daggers in front of him, but for neither of the couple to notice for a long time because they are too worried about how and if they can keep their actions secret. The former technique was used by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version a few years ago, with Anthony Sher as Macbeth hiding the daggers behind his back, and his posture reiterated the fact that he was childlike, with his head stooped forward when his wife, like a mother, was telling him off.

Shortly after the beginning of Act 2 Scene 2 it becomes clear to the audience that the king is dead, when Macbeth says, “I have done the deed”. The simple language shows he cannot think straight and can only deliver simple sentences because of his state of mind. The murder occurs offstage, and so it creates further suspense as, although they were aware in the previous scene that the murder was being planned, the audience does not know if the deed has been committed or not until Macbeth says so. This course of events evokes excitement as to when the deed and the murderer will be discovered, especially with the evidence of the weapons so clearly visible Macbeth’s hands. There is the fear that he will be caught with the murder weapons and the repeated knockings at the door heighten the tension and the prospect of discovery.

Thus the audience is caught between the sensory experiences of sound and vision. The interruption of the knocking at intervals enhances the atmosphere of suspense and the use of sudden noises, short and jerky sentences, questions and exclamations, all add to the environment in which the plot unfolds, keeping the audience on tenterhooks whilst showing the mounting hysteria of Macbeth and the callousness of his wife. When Macbeth refers to his hands as a “sorry sight”, Lady Macbeth repeats these words when she says: “A foolish thought to say a sorry sight.” This use of repetition coupled with alliteration by Shakespeare gives emphasis to her words which endeavour to portray him as weak and pathetic by way of contrast with his wife.

With regard to theme, there is also much reference to nature and the natural order. This use of pathetic fallacy, the way nature reflects the ongoing events, in Act 2 Scene 2 is very important as it mirrors not only the actions of the characters but also the tension in the scene. To begin with, Lady Macbeth is afraid as she hears a scream in the night. However, this turns out to be just an owl shrieking which at first she thinks is the Duncan’s fatal scream when he is being murdered by her husband, but she is it evidently mistaken. Later on in the scene when Macbeth has returned to his wife, they both think they hear a shout and their tension is portrayed and passed on to the audience as they use short, uneasy questions, such as:

“Did you not speak?”. So, using this device of pathetic fallacy Shakespeare conveys tension to the audience. Sleep is important in the natural world as a necessary concomitant of life. In her soliloquy,

Lady Macbeth refers to the fact that,

“The surfeited grooms

Do mock their charge with snores”.

Lady Macbeth refers to the likeness of the King to her father, “as he slept”. The next reference to sleep is when Macbeth refers to the guards:

” There’s one did laugh in’s sleep and one cried ‘Murder!’ “.

The reference to the “fatal bellman” is in apposition to the owl, but in fact has a secondary meaning, similar to that of the “grim reaper”, the personification of death. Macbeth soon hears a voice cry:

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep.”

The interesting play on words here is whether “murder” is a noun, meaning that he is experiencing a living hell, or a verb, meaning that he has put an end to the comfort of sleep. The clever use of language leaves the audience guessing which it is, but both uses are uncomfortable for Macbeth. The comforting side of sleep as part of the natural order is betrayed in the reference to it as the:

“Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course.”

The further reference to it as the “Chief nourisher in life’s feast”, merely adds to Macbeth’s trauma since he is unable to sleep and there is no respite for his soul or body. This is exacerbated by the echoes of the voice Macbeth hears, saying,

“Macbeth shall sleep no more.”

The image of life as a “feast” is in sharp contrast to the mental torture Macbeth is suffering. The use of contrasts is a particularly effective device for demonstrating the life which Macbeth has foresworn and its superiority over that which befalls him. Macbeth refers to sleep as:

“ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath”.

The antithesis of these ideas exaggerates the feelings of guilt in Macbeth: he cannot come to terms with what has happened and he is repeating his expression of his feelings using different comparisons.

Shakespeare also creates the effect of heightening intensity in the audience by describing the same object in different ways, according to the perspective of the character who is speaking. When Macbeth describes the effect water will have on the blood on his hands, he says, personifying the ocean using classical imagery:

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?”

He furthers this reference by answering this prayer-like question by saying:

“No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

The audience now have a vision of a bloody hand being steeped in water and the whole sea of water becoming redder and redder, because the blood cannot be washed off Macbeth’s hands, akin to the stain on his conscience. This guilt becomes greater and more unbearable as the scene progresses, while the blood is the symbol of the crime from which he cannot escape. The vivid description of the water using long words such as, “multitudinous” and “incarnadine” suggests that Macbeth’s guilt is making him weary. In marked contrast, Lady Macbeth tries to reassure him, unaware of Macbeth’s thoughts, by using a short, brisk sentence:

“A little water clears us of this deed.”

Words with few syllables suggest that the matter has had very little impact on her at all. In the passage where Macbeth describes the blood on his hands as “making the green one red”, Shakespeare’s use of colour presents a vivid mental picture and the marked colour change is clearly meant to instil a reaction of shock in the audience. Again, Lady Macbeth’s reaction is morally as feeble as the colour of which she speaks,

“My hands are of your colour; but I shame

To wear a heart so white.”

The reference to white would seem to make her appear lacking in feelings and conscience, because she thinks that the guilt of the murder can be washed away by a brief dip in water, in the manner of baptism washing away original sin. This would have had significance for Church-going Jacobeans. However, there is an interesting contrast between “white” in the traditional sense, as the Jacobeans would have seen it as a symbol of purity, and “white” as used by Lady Macbeth to refer to cowardice. Blood and the visual impact of its colour indeed link this scene to neighbouring scenes. Act 2 Scene 1 has a reference to “dudgeon gouts of blood” and Act 2 Scene 3 refers to the guards thus:

“Their hands and faces were all badged with blood.”

The central theme of the play is, of course, Macbeth’s overwhelming ambition which leads him to murder Duncan, the rightful king, in the hope of succession. It is his greatest weakness. He allows his wife’s ambition for him to undermine his integrity: it is she who ensures his temptation is complete and plans the murder and the attempted “cover-up”. The theme of ambition is balanced by the theme of guilt on Macbeth’s part, though not on that of his wife. Her only direct reference to guilt leads to her a pun:

“I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal

For it must seem their guilt”.

The conflict between ambition and morality is highlighted fully in this scene and tension is created in the audience as to which will win.

Prayer was important in Jacobean times. The concepts of heaven and hell were at this time those interpreted from the Bible and a copy of it would have been available in the vernacular in every church. Act 2 Scene 2, in its exploration of Macbeth’s guilt, begins to give an insight into the fears which would have affected the minds of the audience. After Macbeth returns to his wife following the murder of Duncan, he seems haunted by what has happened as he hears a voice which says: “Sleep no more!”. The audience would be able to picture Macbeth’s soul floating around in purgatory in a state of unrest, unable to settle and enjoy the

“…sore labour’s bath,

…nature’s second course”.

The notion of the lost soul in purgatory is then extended to other members of Macbeth’s family by the voice which cries, “… and therefore

Cawdor shall sleep no more”.

It was important for Macbeth to be able to bless himself and say “Amen” when the guards said their prayers:

“I had most need of blessing and ‘Amen’

Stuck in my throat”.

This was in keeping with religious practice of churchgoers in Jacobean times who also would have said “Amen” and blessed themselves with the sign of the cross after receiving absolution from a priest in a standard weekly church service. They would also have blessed themselves at mealtimes after saying grace. Thus Macbeth was unable to perform a simple action and say a few words which for a Jacobean audience would have been a regular part of daily life. The fact that the words stuck in his throat adds to the sense of guilt and creates suspense in the audience as to the likelihood of discovery of the true culprit.

At the time when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 as well as the time when Macbeth would have been living, around 1050 A.D., murder was a crime which carried the death penalty and executions were carried out in public, turning them into something of a spectator sport. An execution was therefore quite an event and something to be relished by those who went to observe a hanging or beheading, the most common forms of execution. Thus when Macbeth refers to “these hangman’s hands”, he is not only referring to himself as a murderer, but he is also alluding to the punishment which will follow from the hangman if he is uncovered as the murderer of Duncan. This increases the audience’s awareness of impending punishment and heightens the tension in the scene.

Whilst there was almost universal attendance at Church in England on Sundays in Jacobean times, there were still many relics of medieval superstition in everyday life. Not the least of these was a fear that some people practised witchcraft which was the work of the devil. Witchcraft was a capital offence and it was known that the hearing of voices in the head was a clear-cut symptom of witchcraft.

When Macbeth refers to hearing voices telling him that he will “Sleep no more”, one can envisage that the audience of the time would have considered him to be besieged by witchcraft and probably beyond redemption. This would heighten their anxiety as to what might befall him by way of punishment. Witches, after all, were either drowned or burnt alive at the stake. This involvement with witches would have enthralled James I, as it was well-known that he was fascinated by all things mystical, especially witchcraft on which he wrote a thesis, so Shakespeare is using it to its best advantage together with the other references to witches in the play with the well-known incantations by the Weird Sisters.

Central to the background of the play is the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, namely that Kings were “God’s anointed” and therefore untouchable. Their rule could not be questioned because they had been appointed by God. James I succeeded to the throne England in 1603 and within two years of that had braved the attempt of the Gunpowder Plot to unseat him. It was important to him that he was regarded as the rightful successor to Elizabeth I, despite a failed Roman Catholic plot to put his cousin, Lady Arabella Stuart, on the throne.

One of Shakespeare’s source books for the background to the play was Holinshed’s chronicles which suggested that James I was a direct descendant of the real Banquo. It was important for the audience to know that for James I to be regarded as the legitimate King of England and also Scotland at the time, Macbeth would have to be punished for his crimes and not succeed to the throne of Scotland and in this they are later vindicated. Otherwise James would not have been the legitimate ruler and the Divine Right of Kings would be thrown into question. Another important message reinforcing the fact that the perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot were executed was, aside from the fact that crime does not pay, the notion that there should be no interference with the Lord’s annointed: it would all be of no avail. In this scene, the audience does not see Macbeth receiving his just deserts but only some of them, in particular a heavy conscience.

In Act 2 Scene 2, Shakespeare aims to create suspense and tension: first, as to whether the murder of Duncan has actually been committed and secondly, as to whether and, if so, how and when the perpetrator will be discovered. The tension unfolds through the contrasting characters of Lord and Lady Macbeth and their respective reactions to the events of the play and their attitude to evil. Shakespeare’s use of language which is rich in symbolism, imagery and hidden meaning adds to the creation of a tense atmosphere for the scene.

In Act 2 Scene1 an environment of tension is created in which Macbeth prepares to murder Duncan. Following this, Act 2 Scene 2 uncovers Macbeth’s personal horror on his realisation that he has actually committed the murder, together with Lady Macbeth’s reaction to her husband’s misdeeds and the fact that the King is dead. There is a nervousness in Lady Macbeth until she knows that her husband has done the deed and this creates tension for the audience. She makes her soliloquy and this builds up the dramatic tension while the audience waits to see what has happened. The audience then witnesses Macbeth trying to come to terms with what he has done but his wife is telling him to pull himself together and not be “brainsickly”. Lady Macbeth is shown to be cold and unfeeling in many ways while her husband appears at this stage to be the only one of the two with a conscience, saying:

“I am afraid to think what I have done”.

In Act 2 Scene 3 the audience sees the revelation of Duncan’s murder to the court itself and the ensuing shock waves which rebound.

Throughout these three scenes there is a knocking at doors which creates an atmosphere of suspense as to who will appear on stage. The audience does not witness the murder itself but the preparations in Act 2 Scene1 and the aftermath in Act 2 Scene 3. Act 2 Scene 2 has an important place in the play as a private interlude where Lady Macbeth and her husband represent the two opposing forces of callousness and conscience as well as being a discussion of the effects of wrongdoing on different personalities. Since the murder of the king is the central theme of the play, this scene has an importance all of its own because it builds up the tension before the general discovery of the king’s murder.

Shakespeare uses short questions and short jerky sentences to build up this effect. It would have created, in the audience of the time, an apprehension as to whether the King of England and Scotland in 1606 could sleep safely in his bed, although the final outcome of the play, anxiously awaited by the audience during Act 2 Scene 2, is to justify James’ place on the throne and the validity of his successors’ claim to it, following a thorough examination of good and evil. There are no bright moments in the play, merely the triumph of hope when justice is done. Blood trickles through the play but in Act 2 Scene 2 without the murder actually on stage. The role of the players is to convince the audience that it has really happened without their seeing it until such a time when the body is found and to maintain their apprehension as to how and when it will be discovered. Shakespeare achieves this in the many ways referred to with great success.

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