Shakespeare writes Macbeth for a Jacobean audience in Jacobean times under the rule of James I. The play Macbeth is a tragedy about the consequences of regicide (the killing of a king) and how it affects the country (in this case Scotland) and those whom committed the murder. So, for this reason, the play deals with the murder itself. We see the murder’s consequences immediately after, but, the murder itself happens offstage. Hence, the way that the characters react towards “the deed” is of up-most importance to the way that the play enfolds hereafter.
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Act II scene 2 involves Macbeth (the murderer) and Lady Macbeth (his wife and co-conspirator) conversing amongst themselves with no other characters onstage. The scene takes place straight after regicide is committed, which is between scenes 1 and 2 of Act II. Shakespeare develops the emotions of fear and guilt in the characters Lady Macbeth and Macbeth to great poetical and plot developing use. For example the poetic effect in, “Shall it be cried ‘Sleep no more!’”.
This language opens up the characters and their personalities to be malleable throughout the remainder of the play.
The people in the audience who were first to see Macbeth were Jacobean, and so, the implications in the scene relate to the events of the period. The famous Gunpowder Plot had just passed and so, James I would have encouraged Shakespeare’s ability to include the moral that regicide does not pay and that by committing such a deadly act one would tear themselves apart with guilt. This is a direct reference to the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare uses subtle influences of the time. He writes about the afterlife, which would have been a common worry of the time as churches were continually preaching of judgement in purgatory. For example, “But they did say their prayers”.
The atmosphere of Act II scene 2 has colossal impact on the delivery towards the Jacobeans. The murder takes place at night in Macbeth’s castle. “Which gives stern’st good night”. Lady Macbeth informs us that the scene is set for the deed to take place. The relevance that the “deed” takes place in the nocturnal hours coincides with the views of the Jacobeans who would have believed that something so bad as regicide had to have taken place at the ungodly hours of the night. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are made silent so as not to wake anyone else up in the castle, this adds the eerie feel of the scene, so that these characters are portrayed as the height of evil. They become aware that Donalbain has awakened. “I am afraid they have awaked”. When Lady Macbeth says this, the tension in the scene violently increases as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are now forced to be perfectly silent as to cover their tracks.
This is cleverly written by Shakespeare as this perfectly put the audience on edge. This causes paranoia in the couple. “I hear a knocking at the south gate”. Anxious at the prospect of being caught, Macbeth is wary of the knocking and could be under the illusion that it is the fabrication of his own mind and thus his conscience. The idea of regicide towards the Jacobeans would have been horrific: to kill a man who is appointed by god is the same as directly disobeying god himself.
This would most certainly have earned someone a one-way ticket to hell after death. As the thought of eternal punishment in hell is horrific to anyone, the act of regicide has suddenly turned into a much more afflicting crime upon the soul. Thus the conscious of Macbeth makes the scene’s depth increase with the issue of punishment. The scene is post-murder. “I have done the deed.” Because what the audience can imagine would be so much worse than that which Shakespeare could have staged, the murder happens off stage. For this reason and also because the play is about the consequences of murder and not the murder itself and so as not to distract the audience, the murder is offstage.