Distortion, disruption, and reversal in Macbeth
In William Shakespeare
, ill omen
s make their eerie presence known. At each step of Macbeth's rise to power, reality is twist
ed, and reverse
d all about him. Natural process
is disrupted by his ambition. He hardly notices. As the other characters watch their world
crumble around them, he is oblivious
. It is the immorality
of Macbeth's actions, and his lack of goodness that changes his surroundings. His fractured vision compounds the error
s and disturbs the natural order
. To emphasize Macbeth's error in going against natural process, Shakespeare uses distortions, disruptions, and reversals of natural events.
A significant reversal of natural events accompanying Macbeth's actions is the transformation of day into night. When Macbeth first plans to murder the rightful king Duncan, he wishes for the world to go dark. "The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires," (I, 1, 48-51). With no light, none will be able to witness his despicable deed. Such a total darkness that he wishes for is unnatural. It is a reversal from the brightness of the day that marks the beginning of Macbeth’s fall from the place of a hero to the place of a villain.
Macbeth's internal realm, twisted and battered with strife, reflects the disorder of nature in accordance with his wish for darkness to conceal his deeds. As he is preparing to murder Duncan, strange visions occupy his thoughts. Reflectively, the world is darkened and plagued by the unnatural. Macbeth observes, "It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half-world Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse the curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates Pale Hectate’s offerings," (II, 1, 48-52). The darkness that covers half the world is a different sort from that of normal night. It is a fiendish darkness, devoid of goodness or peace. Such a setting perfectly correlates with the travesty Macbeth is about to enact.
When Macbeth commits his act of regicide, Lady Macbeth also observes a disruption in nature. While she is waiting pensively in the main hall, she worries about the success of her husband. At the moment that Macbeth murders Duncan, nature cries out through the birds. "Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it," (II, 2, 2-4). When Macbeth finally returns, he inquires about a noise. Though he is referring to the words of the guards in their sleep, Lady Macbeth is still worried about the ill omens she previously heard. "I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry," (II, 2, 14-15). As Lady Macbeth says herself, the owl disrupts the night with his harsh cry that bears ill fortune as Duncan is murdered.
The weather deeply reflects Macbeth’s incredible transgression. When the lords come to see the king in the morning, they relate to Macbeth the strange occurrences of the night before:
The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
Lamentings heard I’ th’ air, strange screams of
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (II, 3, 56-63)
The combination of storming weather and ghostly cries further emphasize the true chaos
Macbeth is causing when he murders the King Duncan.
Weather also emphasizes the other-worldliness of the weïrd sisters. Their prophecy of kingship drives Macbeth to attempt a seizure of the throne. They also goad him on when he is beginning to lose confidence in his position. Whenever these sisters make their appearance, the play makes a specific note that they should be accompanied by "thunder and lightning," (I, 1, 1). The weather effects of thunder and lightening symbolize their great power. The disturbance of calm also emphasizes the weïrd sisters' unnatural presence. The sisters provide a fitting summary of the events that accompany Macbeth's ascension to and eventual fall from the throne. Their words evoke the inner distortion and corruption of Macbeth which leads to the outer reversal of natural events, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," (1, I, 10).
Normal human activities are twisted and disrupted by Macbeth’s rise to power. The feast, which in normal circumstances is a time of celebration, reverses itself into a time of mourning. As Macbeth begins a feast with his lords, he comments on the congeniality of the situation: "Both sides are even: here I’ll sit I’ th’ midst: Be large in mirth; anon we’ll drink a measure the table round," (III, 4, 11-12). The pleasant atmosphere soon dissipates, however, when Macbeth reacts to the site of Banquo's ghost. His repeated outbursts are enough to bring the feast to a screeching halt, reversing the celebration into something undesirable. Terrified by Macbeth’s raving, Lady Macbeth exclaims, "You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting, with most admired disorder," (III, 4, 109-110). The turnaround from a time of joy to a time of sorrow as a consequence of Macbeth’s guilty conscience is startling.
The greatest reversal of the play and one of the greatest examples of the twists in natural events concerns the fortunes of Scotland. When the play begins, King Duncan has successfully warded off invaders from foreign lands, maintaining the peace and prosperity of Scotland. By the end of the play, it becomes clear that Scotland's fortunes have been thoroughly reversed by the malevolence of Macbeth. When Macduff and the exiled prince Malcom meet, Macduff says, "Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if it felt with Scotland and yelled out like syllable of dolor," (IV, 3, 4-8). The whole of Scotland goes from a land blessed by a good king and victory in battle to a squalid, suffering hell.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare indicates the strangeness and horrible nature of Macbeth's actions through disruptions and reversals of events. The witches announce this pattern when they leave the stage in the first scene. The pattern continues to hold from the moment of Macbeth's contemplation of murdering King Duncan to the traitor's final downfall from the throne. All of the realms of nature from the smallest to the largest are reversed and disrupted. Everything is distorted as Macbeth twists reality to serve is over-reaching ambition. The immensity of Macbeth’s crimes becomes readily apparent to the reader through these layers of distortion. To emphasize Macbeth’s error in going against natural process, Shakespeare skillfully uses symbolic distortions, disruptions, and reversals of natural events.