AQA · literature · Macbeth · Shakespeare

Y11: Macbeth revision posters

Hi Year 11

Here are the Macbeth plans you produced in our revision session today. We responded to these two questions:

 

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Macbeth’s ‘cannot taint with fear’ suggests fear is something that physically affects you (also perhaps “I have forgotten the taste of fear”). Fear is both intangible – cannot be grasped – (Banquo, for example – “I fear thou play’d most foully for it”; Lady Macbeth ridicules Macbeth at the banquet – ‘this is the very painting of your fear’). It is also physically visible (Macbeth ridicules his servant as “whey-face”; ‘pale-hearted fear’. At the sight of Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth’s face is ‘blanched with fear’) or has a physical effect (Banquo – ‘fears and scruples shake us’). Notice how fear is often personified: it becomes another character in the play – invisible yet always present.

Fear spreads across the whole of the play like a disease. To Macbeth, fear is a sign of weakness – ‘such a one am I to fear, or none’; ‘hang those that talk of fear’. Lady Macbeth links it to cowardice (“a soldier and afear’d?’). To Lady Macduff, fear makes us question our moral judgement – (‘our fears do make us traitors’); this is reflected by Macbeth’s ‘fears in Banquo stick deep’ which shows how he is ruled by fear.

But fear is also linked to respect and dignity: Banquo has qualities which Macbeth ‘fears'(‘in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared’). Even Hecate combines ‘wisdom, grace and fear’ as qualities which Macbeth feels he is above – to spurn fear is to also spurn the other two. Without fear, we cannot have wisdom and grace – even the Queen of witches knows this.

 

Here’s the second question on how the witches are presented:

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Some interesting ideas here. You picked up on the link between the witches and ambiguous gender or physically abject. ‘skinny fingers’, ‘withered and wild’, ‘chappy finger’, ‘skinny lips’, ‘beards’. Right away the witches are physically ambiguous, outside normal conventions. They are ‘weird’ in that they don’t conform. Of course, women that didn’t ‘conform’ in medieval/Shakespearean times were often linked to witchcraft, so there is a good AO3 point to be made here.

The final line of the witches’ speech references ‘charm’ which is echoed by Macbeth in the final scene – ‘I lead a charmed life’ and by Macduff ‘despair thy charm’, The equivocation of the witches use of the word here is clear to see: to Macbeth, he sees it as a protective shield (until he realises he has been duped by the ‘juggling fiends’). To Macduff, it merely reveals Macbeth’s folly and hubris. The ambiguous and equivocal nature of the word ‘charm’ is also reinforced by the fact that the next line spoken is by Macbeth – ‘so foul and fair a day’. So, the charm is both foul and fair… Also, ‘the charm’s wound up’ links it to a spring, coiled tight or perhaps a ball of thread which will slowly unravel over the course of the play. Perhaps, with Shakespeare, it is also a play on words – ‘wound’ as in injury. It certainly leads to much bloodshed as well as wounded pride. It is truly a great line in the play.

Of course, linking the witches and witchcraft to ambiguous gender prepares the way for Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here’. Note that she calls on the ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ to do this and so making a direct link between her own actions and those of the witches. In some productions, Lady Macbeth has indeed been one of the witches in disguise and this makes sense if we pursue these links.

However, the danger in ascribing the witches absolute power over Macbeth is that it removes any of Macbeth’s own volition. Is he completely under their influence? The big soliloquies suggest not – he balances out the ‘supernatural soliciting’ and for a brief time decides against killing Duncan in act 1 scene 7 following a long, rational speech weighing up Duncan’s qualities. He even recognises his own fatal flaw – his ‘vaulting ambition’. Only after Lady Macbeth’s intervention does he change his mind again. It’s not the supernatural that convinces him but her judgement on his masculinity, perhaps indicating that in the end it is more conventional anxieties – that of being seen to be a man – that spur him on. He ‘bend[s] up each corporal agent’ – the word ‘corporal’ relates to the human body, his physical self; the dictionary tells us that its antonym (opposite) is spiritual, once again suggesting that at this point, Macbeth is firmly grounded on earth and not in the spirit world. This, of course, changes later on in the play when he returns to the witches for a final confirmation of his fate…

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