Steel or will?
The contrasts between the external and internal conflicts in Macbeth


The tangible, physical plot in Macbeth appears to play a secondary role to the internalised, metaphysical development of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Although there are of course interesting phrases in the passages dealing with the physical events, such as the report that the attack dismayed Macbeth and Banquo "as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion", the richest language is used in the soliloquies and other passages expressing aloud the thoughts and feelings of the characters.

There is a fair amount of external, physical conflict in Macbeth. Not only are there two great battles - one set just before the opening of the play and one at the very end - but there is much murder and intrigue in between. However, much of this merely mirrors or is used to fuel the internal conflicts. The battle at the start is used to weaken Macbeth's mental defences and leave him open to the influence of the witches through fatigue and self-satisfaction, the murders mark his descent into evil, and the final battle is the means to end his life when the illusions that have been supporting him crumble, so his mental collapse is mirrored shortly by his physical collapse.

The scenes containing the weird sisters are very poetic and atmospheric. The device of having the witches speak each line in turn keeps the audience slightly off-balance, as there is no one main speaker to focus on, which increases the impact of their lines, especially the few short but powerful lines in the first scene. The audience this was intended for in Shakespeare's time would have believed in the powers of witches and witchcraft of this nature, and the build-up of atmosphere would be even more effective for them due to their instinctive fear of the witches and knowledge of their powers. This begins the entire series of internal conflicts within Macbeth, planting the idea of kinship into his mind. In his speech he begins to accept the prophecy - "this supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill" - but still recognises that the idea of murder is an alien thought planted into his mind by the forces of evil - "why do I yield to that suggestion [the suggestion of murder given him by the witches]... murder yet is but fantastical [realising that it is not of his mind and not of this world]... and nothing is / But what is not [nothing is real for him because of this overriding thought except this thought which is not his own and not real]". The apparitions in the second visit of the weird sisters speak in rhyme, which adds to the rhythm and flow of the scenes and produces an absorbing, almost dreamy effect as one might expect from a train of thought, as opposed to the physical, external, realistic effect that the battle descriptions offer. This is more captivating for the audience, and allows for more richness of metaphor and language. The dancing of the witches add to an almost dreamlike quality in these sections of the performance; perhaps the actions of all the characters should be slower and somehow more graceful during these sequences, to emphasise the atmosphere.

The soliloquies of Macbeth are also rich in metaphor. In the I. vii, speech, such phrases as "here/But here, upon this bank and shoal of time" add to the atmosphere of indecision at a time where a fast decision must be made; Macbeth is washed up on this bank of time, and can either claw his way up the beach by resisting his wife or let himself be carried back to the river of evil and washed helplessly downstream by the current of sin upon sin by murdering Duncan. The many religion-orientated phrases ('chalice... angels... heaven's cherubim') emphasise that this decision is the turning point in the battle between good and evil raging in Macbeth, and show that there is more at work than mere ambition here; Shakespeare's audience would all be fairly religious, as the Church made its presence felt in all aspects of life at that time, so they would easily spot and relate to these concepts. The comparison of his intent with a horse in a race is well-thought-out; he cannot control the way the prophecy is fulfilled as one may control a horse's motion with spurs, but must either stop completely (difficult) or with "vaulting ambition" must "o'erleap" himself - do something drastic (such as murder) to keep events on course - even though he knows he'll "fall on th' other" (side of the fence, or of the decision). This heightens the dramatic tension ready for the argument with his wife, especially as the speech is suddenly cut off by Lady Macbeth's entrance just as he is beginning to consider what the fall may entail.

The final battle is a good example of how the physical plot serves the underlying mental plot. Macbeth is now at the pinnacle of his evilness, having had the second visitation from the witches and drained the evil spirits from his wife (which is why she has now found guilt and pined away to death). Macbeth is rather indifferent to her death, but it begins his downward spiral from evil to despair just as her persuasion began his spiral down from valour and goodness to evil. His short soliloquy shows that he is tiring of the manipulations of evil and feels powerless, helpless and essentially pointless in their grip - "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day". He is frustrated with the lack of control over and meaning to life, death and suffering - "Life's but a walking shadow... a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing". As soon as he has finished this speech of anger and despair, everything begins to fall apart from him. Birnam Wood, as represented by branches carried by the enemy army, begins to move towards Dunsinane, and Macbeth begins to realise that this is the end for him, lashing out at the messenger but fatalistic behind it all; he threatens to hang the messenger from a tree alive until he starves to death if his message is an untruth, but says also "If they speech be sooth, / I care not if thou dost for me as much". He no longer cares about his life if everything is to fall apart due to "th' equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth", saying "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun". During the battle, he bitterly recites the other apparition's promise, even to the original rhyme, which he now realises will also be an equivocation - "swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,/Brandished by a man that's of a woman born". Even so, Macbeth is still too proud to commit suicide - "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die/On mine own sword?" - and continues to fight, although the cause is obviously a lost one. At the last, he regains some of the courage and valour that fear and evil has caused him to shed, and becomes a brave warrior again - firstly he offers his enemy honourable ways out of a conflict - "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already... I'll not fight with thee" - and then when the compromise he is offered is too degrading for a true nobleman to take, he decides that "Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane, / And thou opposed, being of no woman born, / Yet I will try the last", which is a courageous last stand and almost makes you feel sorry for Macbeth, slain at the very moment he recovers his wits from the clutches of the evil which has destroyed him. The internal crescendo of his thoughts about Birnam wood is well met by the external regaining of sense and courage. The triumph of the 'good' side here is almost robbed of its glory by Macbeth's return to valour; maybe Macduff should show some disappointment in the acting of this, that when he comes to his victory over evil it turns out not to be as evil as he thought.

Although on the whole the internalised, audience-directed soliloquies are the most captivating and rich pieces of dialogue, the external action and plot is so mixed up in this, especially in the final battle, they cannot with any accuracy be separated. They compliment each other, and intertwine in places (such as the witches scenes) in ways which make it hard to tell what parts are internal, thought-orientated pieces and what parts are external, plot-driven action pieces. Without the physical actions, the soliloquies would lose much of their terror and drama, but without the soliloquies, the action would be devalued by the loss of atmosphere and tension, and the play would lose much of the uniquely rich language which makes Shakespeare pieces such classics. So although there are some contrasts of style and depth, the external and internal themes are so thoroughly and masterfully intertwined it would be doing the play a disservice to forcibly and artificially separate them merely to pronounce upon them a value judgement of 'interest' made meaningless by the bias of the separation process.

Written for GCSE English coursework. Subject (and hence subtitle) from a list.
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