literature · Macbeth · Shakespeare · Uncategorized

“Something wicked this way comes” – Macbeth and the Gothic tradition

With added pupil posters!

We’re all getting a bit excited with AO3 in Macbeth. Quite rightly, we’re focussing on the presentation of women – Lady Macbeth fails at first to conform to the model of the subservient woman and like pretty much all of Shakespeare’s women exhibits a strong sense of independence which is ultimately contained within the patriarchal institution of marriage (or else he kills them off). Then there is the ‘great chain of being’ which we’re all making links (!!) to, especially when talking about the way Duncan’s murder sets in motion a series of ‘unnatural’ events which disturb order – Ross’ comment in 2.4 that ‘darkness does the face of the earth entomb’; Lennox’ observations in 2.3 on the ‘unruly’ night; the failure of dead bodies to stay in their graves etc. Others are keen to talk about the influence of James 1st: his interest in witchcraft; the fact that he is a descendant of Banquo (which explains why Banquo is such a good guy) and that many events in the play can only be read with the knowledge that he is in the audience (the final spirit in 4.1 holding up a mirror). Some of you have been good enough to link the play to tragedy – great Kings are murdered off stage, as happens in classic Greek tragedies; Macbeth as tragic hero whose hubris is his downfall…

And that brings us on to another way that we can think about AO3. This is from some AQA materials on how to address AO3 in GCSE Literature:

Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary contexts such as genres.It may also apply to the contexts in which texts are engaged with by different audiences.

So one way to think about the play is through its generic conventions. Macbeth is a fine example of the bloody violence which pervades much Jacobean tragedy which reflects the insecurities of James 1st’s reign (Macbeth was written a year after the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ and at its centre contains a stark warning to all potential regicides). Jacobean tragedy was steeped in bloody revenge, ambition and tyranny with more than a little of the supernatural and exploring Macbeth as an example of Jacobean tragedy is a secure way of exploring the genre of the play.

However, is Macbeth GOTHIC? Macbeth pre-dates what we call gothic literature, let’s get this straight. The classic period of gothic is generally accepted to be the period spanning the 18th and 19th centuries (see here for an overview – Indeed, Bertrand Evans, writing in 1947, said this about Macbeth and the Gothic:

“Though it includes more antecedent elements than perhaps any other … Jacobean tragedy … Macbeth is not a Gothic play and cannot be claimed as an antecedent of the species.”

What this means is that strictly speaking we can’t call Macbeth a gothic text because it pre-dates gothic (I suppose in the same way that, strictly speaking, some might say that Iggy Pop and the Stooges, despite their look and energy,  are not PUNK because PUNK as a movement didn’t really surface until the mid-1970s. Instead, they are seen as PROTO-PUNK). And so, Susan Gruss, writing in 2015 suggests that we can call Macbeth PROTO-GOTHIC.

And so it has become sort of okay to talk about Macbeth as a sort of proto-gothic text (indeed, it appears on AQA’s LIT B syllabus under the heading of ‘elements of the gothic). In his paper on Macbeth from 2009, Andrew Green notes these features of gothic in Macbeth:

• wild landscapes (the heath)
• ruined or grotesque buildings (the witches’ cave)
• castles (Macbeth’s castle, Dunsinane)
• sudden and violent shifts of emotion
• excess and extremity (violence, cruelty)
• the supernatural and ghostly (the witches and Banquo’s ghost – also figurative ‘ghosts’ of the past or the future which haunt the characters)
• imagery of darkness, shadow and decay
• isolation and loneliness (relating to both setting and character, including orphaning and widowing)
• blurring of distinctions between sanity and insanity
• crime, lawlessness and abuse (often linked to absolute and tyrannical power)
• the devilish and arcane. 

It is easy to see how Shakespeare’s play conforms to the gothic genre. At its dark heart the play adheres to the conventions of the gothic genre in its portrayal of the themes of horror and the supernatural but also in its depiction of decay, disease and desire, an unholy trinity which forms the core of much gothic fiction. For me, it is those three elements – death, decay and desire – which are most attractive (think about our work on Jekyll and Hyde last year, – Jekyll and Hyde and the Gothic Novel). Desire especially – the desire for power, the lust for it, is at the heart of the play and it is this desire which leads to Macbeth’s downfall.

In class, we’re going to look at Macbeth under a series of headings:

  1. Dreams, madness and disturbing psychologies/the divided self

Macbeth’s dreams, Lady Macbeth’s dreams; her madness and Macbeth’s battle with himself both before and after the murder of Duncan. Hallucinations, visions are present throughout the play. A key feature of gothic is the idea of the uncanny which comes from a psychoanalyst called Sigmund Freud. The uncanny is all about the return of the repressed, doubles, repetitive behaviour and compulsions to repeat. Think about Macbeth’s compulsion to kill, Lady Mac’s compulsion to wash her hands. Doubles? Isn’t Banquo a sort of double to Macbeth? They come on stage together and seem to be partners but it is clear that one is good, the other not so. In folklore, if one meets their double or doppelgänger, then they must destroy them if they are to stay alive. Macbeth- “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”…


2. Claustrophobia and imprisonment.

Most of the action takes place inside Macbeth’s castle; Duncan is killed there in the night. In act 5, Macbeth calls himself ‘bear-like’, tied to a stake. Macduff’s family are killed in their homes – victims of their father’s own miscalculations. Macbeth complains that his mind is ‘full of scorpions’ – he feels trapped within himself and cannot turn away from his bloody destiny. Find examples of this theme in the play.

3. Masks and disguises

This is a key theme of the play of course. Deception and equivocation – Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth to look like an innocent flower but ‘be the serpent’ under it; fair is foul and foul is fair. Try and find as  many references to masks and disguises as you can.

4. Disease, sickness and decay

The Doctor talks of an infected mind and Macbeth asks him to cure Scotland of her ills. Macbeth fails to see the irony of this- after all, it is he who is the cause of her disease.Lady Macbeth’s sick mind etc. Where else do we find images of disease, sickness and decay?

5. Evil and witchcraft

Of course…


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