What sort of suspense do we encounter in Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth by William Shakespeare is the story of the rise and fall of the medieval Scottish king Macbeth. In some ways, it is an unusual play in how it creates suspense. In most plays, suspense is created when a sympathetic character is in peril and we empathize with the character's fear of the unknown and share in the character's dread. By the end of the first act, after Macbeth kills Duncan, most of us no longer sympathize strongly with Macbeth or his wife, Lady Macbeth. Nonetheless, we are still involved in his story and curious about how it will turn out.

The most important device Shakespeare uses to create suspense is the supernatural, in the form of the three weird sisters and their mysterious prophecies. When you actually see them on stage, they create an atmosphere of horror and mystery, embodying pure evil, and uttering strange prophecies. Suspense develops as we wonder if and how their prophecies will be fulfilled and the ways in which Macbeth and his wife will violate their own feelings and ethics in order to obtain the glories the witches promise. 

The second element of suspense has to do with the downfall of Macbeth. As he becomes increasingly evil and ruthless, forces gather against him, and the sense of impending doom creates suspense until Macbeth is finally defeated by Macduff. In the final acts, we know that the witches' prophecies tend to be true, and so we experience suspense as we wonder if and how Birnam Wood can come to the castle and how Macbeth can be defeated when no man born of woman can defeat him.