The various literary forms whose subject-matter is fictitious incident, differ from one another in the manner of presentation.
The epic poem was originally a piece to be recited; it implied a rhapsodist and an audience. The novel is addressed to the silent
reader. In the drama, a story is unfolded before our eyes: events,
though really of the past, are represented as taking place now,
and the characters become the actors whom we see. From these
different ways of telling a story follow certain corollaries in respect
to plot. Slight inconsistencies in structure are not easily discernible in the epic and in the novel; for when the end is reached, we
have forgotten the numerous details of the beginning. But in the
drama, which we follow scene by scene on the stage, anything
awry is detected at once, and almost as easily as a defect in the
figure or in the reasoning of a geometrical proposition, which we
grasp at a glance.
Though you have read Macbeth much as you would read any other piece of literature, — for the habit of reading has confounded
all forms, — you have probably kept in imagination the stage
and the actors coming and going. How carefully the play is put
together you cannot fail to notice, if you think of it in contrast
with some of the novels with which you are familiar. The sequence
of its incidents possesses the rigidity of logic. 1
Moreover, the plot of a drama is simpler than that of other literary kinds. The dramatist, in the two or three hours granted
him, must select the most important incidents — called dramatic
moments — in the career of his hero and bring them to the front,
leaving to his audience to fill in by his suggestions what takes
place in the intervals. Thus the reign of Macbeth, according to
the chronology followed by Shakespeare, covered seventeen years.
Shakespeare, in making a drama out of it, brushed aside many
events, confining himself to those which bore some relation to the
assassination of Duncan; and even of these, he could not present
all. The main dramatic moments of the play are Macbeth's temptation by the witches, his subsequent meeting with his wife, the
murder of Duncan, the murder of Ban quo, the appearance of the ghost, the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son, and the death
grapple between Macbeth and Macduff. What comes between them is in the way of explaining how these events happen.
The simpler the plot, the more effective it is on the stage. It was Shakespeare's custom, as in The Merchant of Venice, to weave
together deftly two or more stories, and to carry along with them scenes of low comedy to please the rabble in the yard. Macbeth
here differs from the rest. It has but one plot, and interest is
focused on a few characters. It contains but one comic scene —
the Porter at the gate. For introducing this scene, Shakespeare has
often been praised, on the ground that it furnishes a relief to the
horror of the assassination. This is undoubtedly its effect on
critics and philosophers; and yet it is, I think, nothing more than
the vulgar interlude demanded by the Elizabethan audience.
But for it, the drama preserves throughout perfect unity of tone.
Without it, the knocking would be equally impressive.
Because of this simplicity and unity of plot, the play is, of
all Shakespeare's tragedies, the most rapid in its movement.
Macbeth is tempted to the murder of Duncan, and with a bound
Shakespeare brings him to the deed. Banquo must be put out
of the way; the hint is followed by the plan and its execution.
Macbeth is told that the thane of Fife has fled to England; and
he at once resolves on the murder of Macduff's kin.
In the next
scene, the assassins are on the stage. The retribution is equally
swift. Macbeth has no sooner gained the throne than he is
afflicted with terrible dreams that shake him nightly. He is soon
besieged in his castle, and a few minutes later Macduff enters,
bearing the head of the usurper. The drama is the work of genius
at a white heat, and as such it should be compared with the subtle
elaboration of Hamlet.
For studying more in detail the action of a play, it is convenient
to divide it into five logical sections, which do not correspond to
the five acts; namely, the introduction, the rising action, the
climax, the falling action, and the catastrophe.
The introduction explains the situation. In Macbeth it consists of the first two scenes. The first scene brings us at once into
the mystical atmosphere which is to pervade the entire play. The second scene describes the brave deeds of Macbeth, the man who
is to yield to supernatural solicitings.
The rising action begins with the next scene and extends to the third scene of the third act. Macbeth, returning from his
victories, is tempted to try for the throne, and in the attainment of this aim he is spurred on by the witches and Lady Macbeth.
At length he accomplishes his main purpose.
The climax is the turning point in the play; that is, the place
where the reaction sets in against the hero. It is sometimes called
"the dramatic center." In this play it occurs in the third scene of the third act, where Fleance escapes. Macbeth has thus not
fully gained what he was striving for. Distracted by fears and hallucinations, he loses (III, iv) his self-control; and at this point
we know he is doomed. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.
The falling action runs with little interruption from the banquet to the end of the play. Characters that in the first scenes were
kept in the background, now come to the front, — Malcolm and Macduff, in whom is embodied the retribution.
One of the most noticeable things about the falling action in Macbeth is Shakespeare's careful preparation for it. Many a
drama and many a novel have been utterly spoiled by improbable or impossible occurrences. But says Schiller, "A dexterous use
of accident in art, as well as in life, often brings about what is
excellent." So skillfully has Shakespeare employed chance in the first half of the play, that perhaps we did not notice the incidents.
Macbeth murders Duncan. What more natural than that Malcolm should flee to England for protection and aid? Banquo is
killed. What more natural than that one of the murderers in his fright should put out the torch, and that Fleance, from whom is to
proceed a line of kings, should conceal himself in the darkness? The first accident prepares the way for the English invasion; the
second frustrates all of Macbeth's plans for holding the throne. The one works outwardly: the other inwardly and psychologically; and both together make for Macbeth's ruin.
The catastrophe is the tragic end. Macbeth, like Romeo and
Juliet, has a double catastrophe, — the death of Lady Macbeth and the fall of Macbeth. In the former case there is no violence.
The woman who planned the murder of Duncan, breaks down under the strain of remorse, walks in her sleep, and dies. Macbeth falls in mortal combat with Macduff, the man whom he has most nearly wronged. The drama has now played itself nearly out. Malcolm is proclaimed king, and Scotland is once more in
The structure thus outlined may be represented by diagram : —
Notes 1 And yet this is not true of every detail. What scenes or parts of
scenes contribute nothing to the action ? Why, then, are they introduced ?
Perhaps, too, there are real inconsistencies in the statements of different
characters. — See I, ii, 52-66; I, iii, 72-75 and 108-ll6.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Wilbur Lucius Cross. New York: Globe School Book Co., 1900. Shakespeare Online. 30 Sept. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/stagesplotmacbeth.html >.