Macbeth: Plot Construction in a Shakespearean Tragedy

Plot Construction of Shakespearean Tragedy 'Macbeth'

Macbeth is the shortest of the four great tragedies of Shakespeare but the impression which it leaves on the mind is not one of shortness but of speed. It has classical simplicity and symmetry but it is also the most vehement and concentrated of the tragedies.  In its construction, Shakespeare has almost achieved perfection.


One of the distinctive features of Macbeth is the extreme simplicity of its plot. There is no subplot, no episode, and no degradation to retard the action or divert the attention. There is no extraneous matter with the possible exception of the witch-scene in Act III which is generally regarded as an interpolation. Macbeth is Classical in its simplicity and this simplicity makes it concentrate on the main theme, to the entire exclusion of everything superfluous, and this creates the impression of speed.

The key-note of the play is struck with the very first scene. Dr Bradley finds no parallel to it, where at once, "the senses and the imagination are assaulted by a storm of thunder and Supernatural alarm." The sinister influence of the witches on Macbeth is thus at once suggested. A Shakespearean tragedy is the result of the interaction of character and circumstances. In Act I, the character element is seen in the germ of ambition in Macbeth's soul, and the circumstances which drive Macbeth to evil are (1) his meeting with the witches and their Prophecy (2) his having Lady Macbeth (who has been called the fourth witch) as his wife (3) the visit of Duncan to his Castle and (4) the declaration that Malcolm will be the heir to the throne. Thus, all the factors that contribute to producing the tragedy in the play have been suggested in the expository Act I.

The simplicity of the situation out of which the tragedy arises results in the swiftness of action. The action is so swift that the conflict begins in the very first Act. Various influences which operate on Macbeth transform him from a noble Warrior, and loyal subject and kinsman into a treacherous murderer. The crisis in the play comes quite early, as early as the first scene of Act II. From now onwards Macbeth is set on a carrier of crime; one crime leads to another, each more brutal and barbarous than the preceding one. To make himself secure on the throne Macbeth has Banquo murdered but his son Fleance escapes. The fortunes of Macbeth now decline and the action moves towards the denouement. Suspicion against him grows, the forces of opposition gather head. Malcolm and Macduff with English help defeat Macbeth and he meets his doom on the battlefield.

Attention has been concentrated on the two leading characters of the play-- Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and after the murder Mac grows more and more and more the centre of interest. Prof. Chambers rightly says, "the whole interest is concentrated on the rise and fall of Macbeth and his wife." In Macbeth as in the Greek tragedies, we have the unity of idea. The plot is concerned with the illustration of a single idea, the working out of Nemesis or Retribution. Crime does not pay, but it is followed by punishment with logical inevitability. The idea, that "wages of sin is death" is developed with the "remorseless fatality" of a Greek tragedy. To quote Prof.  Chambers again "temptation begets sin and this again begets punishment, sure and inexorable", this is the theme of the tragedy, and attention has been concentrated on its illustration to the entire exclusion of all other interests. There is the unity of another kind also. The dark in the soul of the chief protagonists is in complete harmony with the dark, even black, atmosphere which envelops the play. It is an atmosphere suggestive of evil and wickedness, symbolic of guilt in the soul of the principal personages. It is, "dark without as it is in the soul of the characters."

Macbeth has also the almost architectural symmetry of construction of a Greek tragedy.  The parallelism and correspondence between the different parts are remarkable. Three accidents help Macbeth in the first half of the play; the visit of Duncan to his castle, the impulsive murder of the grooms; the fight of Malcolm and Donalbain; in the second three accidents help to bring about his ruin--the escape of Fleance, the false prophecy of the witches and the escape of Macduff. Malcolm and Macduff in the latter part of the play correspond to Duncan and Banquo in the first. A meeting with the witches begins both the rise and fall of Macbeth. Finally, each of the crimes is represented in his final punishment, "Malcolm, the son of Duncan, and Macduff, whose wife and child he slew, conquer Macbeth; Fleance begets a race that shall reign in his stead."

The impression of simplicity, this feeling of grandeur, is further strengthened by the swiftness with which its action develops. From the time of Macbeth's first meeting with the witches till the final catastrophe, the action moves forward with rapidity without any diversionary episodes and pauses. Events follow each other in quick succession, without any break. The prophecy of the witches to Macbeth and Banquo, the plotting of the murder of Duncan, and its actual commission, Macbeth's design to get rid of Banquo and his son, the murder of Banquo, the appearance of the ghost, and its impact on the minds of the guests at the banquet, the second meeting of Macbeth with the witches, the cruel murder of Macduff's wife and son, the gathering of forces against Macbeth and his ultimate fall, all follow each other with breathless haste. Macbeth is the shortest tragedy and yet its canvas is crowded with events, not even a single one superfluous, each contributing to the final catastrophe.

It is as if the entire tragedy were written breathlessly. To quote Arthur Symons: "After the witches prelude, the first scene at once brings us into the centre of stormy interest and in Macbeth's first words, an ambiguous note prepare us for the strange things to come. Thence to the end, there is no respite in the increasing speed of events. Thought jumps into action and action is overtaken by consequence." The other three tragedies all open with conversation and action comes by and by. But in Macbeth, the keynote of the tragedy is struck in the prophecy of the witches in the first scene and the action at once, "bursts into wildlife amidst the sounds of a thunder-storm and the echoes of a distant battle. It hurries through seven brief scenes of mounting suspense to a terrible crisis which is reached in the murder of Duncan, at the beginning of Act II. Pausing a moment and changing its shape, it hastes again with scarcely diminished speed to fresh horrors."

Macbeth is very much shorter than the other tragedies of Shakespeare but the final impression which it leaves is not one of shortness but of speed. The action is so crowded with events and is so intense. According to Bradley, "It is the most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps, we may say, the most tremendous of the tragedies.

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