How does the atmosphere throughout the play "Macbeth" change?

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literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The atmosphere of William Shakespeare's tragic play Macbeth is one of a dark and ominous nature. This theme actually exists throughout the play and does not veer from it. Instead, the atmosphere simply becomes darker and more ominous over the course of the play.

Act one opens with thunder and lightening, an ominous atmosphere to be sure. The three witches are talking about the next time that they will meet and question if it will be during another storm. Scene one ends with the witches' infamous paradox:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

The dark and ominous nature of the atmosphere is compounded when the image of the fog and filthy air is mentioned. The atmosphere itself is soiled.

As the play goes on, the dark and ominous nature of the atmosphere develops even more. The murder scene, the porter's dialogue about hell, and the dinner visit by a ghost all speak to the dark nature of the play's atmosphere.

In the end, the play concludes with both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth dying and Macduff holding up Macbeth's decapitated head.

At no time throughout the play does the atmosphere truly lighten or change. While the porter's scene is meant to introduce the typical comic relief to the tragic play, his dialogue is still dark and ominous.

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teachsuccess's profile pic

teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In literature, atmosphere describes the feelings a particular work engenders in the reader. Atmosphere can be created through the use of specific objects, settings, and moods. In Macbeth, the atmosphere alternates between supernatural dread and outright danger as the play progresses. By the end of the play, however, an atmosphere of death and destruction prevails.

In Act One, the appearance of the witches lends an otherworldly, macabre atmosphere to the play. It is obvious that the witches are the heralds of doom. They accost Macbeth and Banquo, demanding to be heard. While Macbeth fixates on the witches' prophecy that he will be thane of Cawdor and king in the foreseeable future, Banquo is more disposed towards ignoring the three supernatural apparitions. By the end of Act One, Lady Macbeth emerges as a malevolent figure who goads her husband into contemplating regicide (killing a king/monarch).

Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth and her malignant nature to inspire an atmosphere of fear and danger in the play. Her moods encompass a vehement rejection of fragile femininity and a strong predilection for masculine ferocity. She continually calls her husband's masculinity into question whenever he shrinks from violence. 

In Act Two, Shakespeare uses the floating dagger, visions of blood, and the powerful storm to inspire an atmosphere of dread, supernatural malevolence, and fear. Duncan is murdered after a previous night's powerful storm, while Macbeth experiences hallucinations before he murders the king. Meanwhile, strange occurrences in nature further cement the dark atmosphere of the play. An owl purportedly kills a falcon, and Duncan's horses resort to cannibalism. 

In Act Three, Macbeth commissions Banquo's death. However, he finds himself haunted by Banquo's ghost after the dark deed is committed. The witches make their appearance again, and this time, they are joined by Hecate herself, the goddess of witchcraft and malevolent magic. So, Banquo's ghost and Hecate's appearance signal that the atmosphere of impending doom will prevail to the end.

By the beginning of Act 5, Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking tendencies and hallucinations highlight her predominant moods of trepidation and fear. Again, Shakespeare uses her moods to highlight an atmosphere of tense foreboding in the play. Lady Macbeth's psychosis leads us to suspect that her fate is tied to that of her husband and that both will experience terrible consequences for their actions. By the end of the play, our suspicions are realized when the queen dies before Macbeth is beheaded by Macduff. So, the atmosphere in Macbeth is relentlessly dark from the beginning to the end of the play.

If the atmosphere changes at all, it can be argued that it evolves from one of impending doom to one of death and destruction.

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