What are the emotional and technical climaxes of William Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is considered among his darkest and most serious works.  The story of Macbeth, a prominent Scottish general in the service of King Duncan who, after hearing prophesies from three witches that he will ascend to the throne, sets about, with much encouragement from his wife, Lady Macbeth, to make those prophesies self-fulfilling, is a parable of unbridled thirst for power and the destructive consequences of such ambitions.  There are identifiable emotional and technical climaxes in Shakespeare’s play that are definable based upon the play’s five-act structure.  The technical climax, which, unsurprisingly, occurs first, takes place in Act III.  Plays as cautionary tales invariably present the victimization of those closest to the main characters, in this case, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and, ultimately, to the main characters as well.  In Macbeth, the figure of Banquo, like Macbeth a Scottish general and close colleague and confidant of Macbeth, provides the element by which the story takes its most dramatic and consequential turn.  Concerned that Banquo poses a potential threat to now-King Macbeth – a concern born of the witches’ prophesies, which foretold of the sons of Banquo also ascending to a throne – leads Macbeth to turn against his old and trusted friend:

“Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd: 'tis much he dares;
And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear:”

It is in Act III, following Macbeth’s expressions of concern regarding Banquo, that the latter’s death is devised and carried out.  With the murder of his closest brother-in-arms, Macbeth’s fate, and Shakespeare’s play, has now taken its most dramatic turn, in effect, its technical climax.

The emotional climax is more difficult to identify, given the nature of the story and the scale of deceit and depravity courtesy of Macbeth’s growing paranoia and ruthlessness.  For purposes of discussion, however, the emotional climax could be said to occur in the fifth and final act, with Lady Macbeth’s suicide and King Macbeth’s beheading.  Lady Macbeth’s descent into insanity and her conviction that she literally cannot wash the blood of her and her husband’s victims from her hands is a powerful and deeply emotional transition.  As she laments her inability to cleanse herself of the imagined blood on her skin, she states to the doctor:

“Here's the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

Her guilt over the murder of Banquo has proven too great for her to bear:

“Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.--I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he
cannot come out on's grave.”

This passage and the king’s beheading can logically be considered the play’s emotional climax.