How does Shakespeare create mood and atmosphere in the opening scenes of Macbeth? Act 1 Scene 1 is set in ‘an open place’, immediately indicating to the reader that something secretive is happening, the very setting of the first scene indicates tension to come. The stage direction reads ‘Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches. ’ The weather creates a tense atmosphere, when the scene is performed the weather acts as pathetic fallacy, further creating tension in the atmosphere; also the weather suggests a supernatural element, a common component of the Gothic genre.
The witches talk in rhyming couplets, as though a chant; Witch 1 says ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? ’. This indicates the witches can see into the future, developing further on the supernatural element; Shakespeare mentions this power of the witches in the first scene to shock the audience, and to develop the sinister atmosphere. The witches agree to meet on ‘the heath’, an isolated and secretive location suggesting their intentions are evil.
During this scene Macbeth is mentioned for the first time, the witches say they are to meet him, Shakespeare does this to foreshadow Macbeth’s link to evil, by suggesting Macbeth knows the witches the audience automatically associates Macbeth with the witches. The ending of the scene has great impact, all witches recite ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air. ’ Again the witches are ‘chanting’ and talking in rhyming couplets, suggesting they have telepathic powers, securing the idea that they have supernatural powers.
At the era in which Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, James I was King, he was extremely interested in Witches, so many suggest Shakespeare wrote the play to please the King, and his followers. Act 1 scene 1 is a short impact scene for dramatic effect, Shakespeare introduces the witches as the first characters in the play, and this is to foreshadow the evil to come and to engage the audience of the era. Act 1 scene 2 is set in ‘a camp’, King Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain, Lenox and their attendants meet a bleeding Captain.
The characters are talking in Iambic pentameter, which mimics human speech; Shakespeare does this so the audience subconsciously trust the King. Shakespeare also does this to draw attention to the contrast between the Witches speaking in an eerie manner with rhyming couplets (unnatural) and these characters speaking normally. When the Captain speaks, he mentions ‘two spent swimmers’ and speaks with great respect of how these soldiers fought against ‘merciless Macdonwald’.
He then mentions Macbeth is one of these ‘brave’ men, which highly contrasts from the impression we get of Macbeth in the first scene. The audience get the impression Macbeth is highly respected by the Captain and the King. However Shakespeare uses brutally violent language in the Captains description of Macbeth in action such as ‘bloody execution’, ‘carv’d’ and ‘till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’chops, And fix’d his head upon our battlements. ’ Shakespeare uses the violent language to reinforce Macbeth’s strength and brutality and to further exaggerate the tense atmosphere.
Later in the scene the Captain mocks the idea that Macbeth may have been scared ‘As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion’ showing Macbeths determination and ruthlessness; he also compares Macbeth fighting to ‘Golgotha’ the scene of Christ’s death, creating this immortal imagery of Macbeth before the audience have seen him. Shakespeare introduces Macbeth through word of mouth in both Act 1 scene 1 and scene 2 to show his strength and hint at his evil streak, this creates a tense mood awaiting the introduction of Macbeth’s character.
Throughout the scene Shakespeare introduces people that witnessed Macbeth’s bravery in the battle one at a time to show their appreciation and to emphasize his strength, structurally this builds tension and gradually the atmosphere becomes more and more tense. During this scene Shakespeare also introduces the theme of deception; the Thane of Cawdor has betrayed King Duncan by assisting his opponents in the battle. This theme heightens the tension and when the Thane of Cawdor is executed, Macbeth receives his title, moving him up further in the hierarchy.
In Act 1 scene 3 we return to the witches located on the heath, an isolated and secretive area, with further pathetic fallacy of thunder. Shakespeare does this to heighten the tension back up for the audience wondering what the witches are going to do; after the slight relax of tension in the previous scene the pathetic fallacy quickly returns the extremely tense atmosphere. By switching from scene 1 with the witches then scene 2 without the witches back to scene 3 with the witches Shakespeare creates the idea that the witches are significant, implying that a significant event is to come in the following scene.
Everything is drawing the audience’s attention to this scene. Within the scene the witches begin to discuss their evil actions, another element of the Gothic genre. Later the witches use parts of corpses to conjure up a spell, Shakespeare does this to elaborate further on the witches supernatural powers and to entice the audience with a common interest of the era. Macbeth enters directly after the spell takes place, therefore the mood is tense on his entry, Shakespeare does this to give greater dramatic effect to his entrance.
Macbeth first line of speech is ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ opening with the very same paradox the witches ended the first scene on; Shakespeare uses language to create a subconscious link between the evil witches and Macbeth, creating tension and foreshadowing further that Macbeth is evil. Macbeth’s loyal friend Banquo says ‘you should be women’ indicating the witches look supernatural and revolting, further heightening tensions within the audience.
Later stage directions state the ‘Witches vanish’, elaborating further that the witches are in fact supernatural beings. Banquo has hallucinations, a common element of the Gothic theme, the sense of uncertainty in this soldier earlier described as a ‘spent swimmer’ creates the contrast and worry within the audience about the extent of the witches powers, the mood becomes more and more negative and curious as to what the witches are capable of. Later in the scene Macbeth, in an aside he says ‘As happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme.
Meaning he is happy that the witches may be right and that he may be on his way to becoming King, which for an audience during this era would be shocking. Shakespeare does this for dramatic effect. This is soon followed by the implication that Macbeth has considered killing the King ‘whose horrid image doth unfix my hair’. This is outrageous to the Jacobean audience, the mood becomes angry and tense as Macbeth starts to become justifiably disliked. He seems the anti-hero with the fatal floor of ambition.
The final hint is that a later aside Macbeth mimics the evil witches in using rhyming couplets, strengthening his link with them. Throughout these scenes Shakespeare uses violent and supernatural language, as well as contrast between iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets to strengthen the ongoing development of a tense atmosphere. The atmosphere revolves closely around Macbeth and foreshadows well for the events to follow. Shakespeare does this to highlight Macbeth’s introduction at the antagonist.
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