An analysis of two settings in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
By using the heath and castles as contrasting settings in Macbeth, William Shakespeare reinforces and reflects various themes present throughout the play. Through the combined use of these settings, he contrasts notions of security and danger, fairness and foulness, and the natural and supernatural. Although the heath is a meeting place for evil and is represented as a grim location through a number of methods, the heath itself is safe. Contrarily, the castles that Macbeth inhabits, both Inverness and Dunsinane, are repeatedly described as safe, secure, and welcoming. These castles, however, are far more dangerous than the heath, acting more as traps than shelter. The notions of fairness and foulness are also reversed at the heath and the castles in the play. The witches at the heath are relatively benign and only deliver prophecies of truth to Macbeth, while conceptions of fairness are repeatedly distorted to the point of foulness at the castles he inhabits. Finally, while it is certainly true that the witches represent the supernatural world, the supernatural deeds which occur at the heath are far more subtle when compared to the unnatural events which take place in the castles. By examining the plot developments which transpire in their respective settings, one can conclude that Shakespeare intentionally contrasts the settings of the play with the deeds that happen there, creating a strong separation from appearance and reality throughout the play.
First, the concepts of security and danger are constantly in question when referring to the settings of the heath and the castle. As Hecate proclaims to the witches, “security / Is mortals’ chiefest enemy” (Mac. 3.5.32-33). This idea is repeated throughout the play, particularly in the context of the castles. Macbeth’s first castle at Inverness is described as being quite pleasant. Upon his arrival there, Duncan proclaims that, “the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” (Mac. 1.6.1-3). The castle is well lit and has servants, representing itself as a symbol of nobility, higher class, and safety. The appearance of the castle, however, acts as a trap for Duncan and his stay there results in his demise. The security of the castle is further called into question when, upon discovering their father’s death, Donalbain and Malcolm flee the castle, suspicious of the circumstances and fearing for their own safety. Additionally, Banquo notes that martlets are common at the castle at Inverness. Martlets, mythical birds said to have no feet, would never be able to land at the castle, and would therefore be unable to nest there. The fact that these birds are the only wildlife described outside the castle indicates that the castle lacks safety and security, even for animals. Later in the play, Caithness refers to Macbeth and his second castle when he states, “Great Dunsinane he strongly fortifies” (Mac. 5.2.14). This castle is regarded as a safe place by many, including Macbeth, who believes in its impenetrability. Though strongly defended, this castle is identified as a dangerous and unnatural place by Lady Macbeth’s doctor, who states, “Were I from Dunsinane away and clear, Profit / again should hardly draw me here” (Mac. 5.3.70-71). Macbeth, however, becomes so overly confident in his castle’s defenses that, in the midst of a war, he tells his servants “Bring me no more reports; let them fly all!” (Mac. 5.3.1). Dunsinane is, ultimately, attacked and Macbeth, proclaiming “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly” (Mac. 5.7.1), is eventually trapped and usurped there. In a noteworthy contrast, the heath is repeatedly represented through pathetic fallacy as a dark and turbulent place. Despite it’s dismal appearance, the witches are able to escape from the heath “Into the air, and what seem’d corporal melted / As breath into the wind” (Mac. 1.3.93-94). This is important because the castles, in their pleasing appearances, act only as traps, while the heath is easily escaped from despite its foreboding description.
Moreover, the concepts of fairness and foulness are repeatedly reversed at the heath and castle. After receiving their predictions from the witches, Banquo suggests that “The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence” (Mac. 1.3.143-145) and while this is true, the witches never betray Macbeth. This line, it would seem, relates more to Macbeth and his wife as the instruments of darkness. Lady and Lord Macbeth win Duncan’s trust with small truths, only to betray him. Everything the witches report to Macbeth and Banquo is true, and it is Macbeth’s over-ambition that ruins him. At the heath, the witches are very benign in their magic, strictly reporting the true future to Macbeth and Banquo. When Macbeth returns to his castle at Inverness, however, he openly admits that his actions against Duncan are wrong in two ways: “First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, / Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, / Who should against his murderer shut the door” (Mac. 1.7.12-15). We see in this line that, though Macbeth still has a grasp on the idea of fairness, he neglects this knowledge, and performs the foul deed anyway. Macbeth even admits that Duncan is a great man and suggests that when he kills him, since he “Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against / The deep damnation of his taking-off” (Mac. 1.7.17-20). Again, one can infer that Macbeth is still completely in tune with his sense of fairness and continues into foulness anyway. Even the witches, who are represented through their appearance and actions as foul creatures, pass judgement on Macbeth, saying upon his coming that, “Something wicked this way comes” (Mac. 4.1.45). It becomes clear that Macbeth is converted to foulness not at the heath, but in his own castle.
Finally, although the heath is the meeting place of the witches, relatively few supernatural deeds occur there when compared to the unnatural occurrences at the castles. At the heath, the witches merely gather and prophesy, accurately, to Macbeth and Duncan. Certainly, these are supernatural characters and deeds but the heath is represented more as a meeting place than a site for ritualistic witchcraft. The rituals that the witches do eventually perform in the play do not take place at the heath, but in a cavern. At Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, however, there are repeated references to the supernatural. At Inverness before Duncan’s death, Lady Macbeth summons cruelty and darkness to her, appealing to the supernatural to aid in the murder. The night that Duncan dies is also significantly unnatural. On this night, the stars do not shine, Duncan’s horses eat each other, and the night, possibly summoned by Lady Macbeth, continues into the day. Before the murder, Macbeth sees the apparition of a dagger before him, and makes references to witchcraft in his soliloquy. After the murder, Macbeth is no longer able to appeal to heaven and is unable even to say the word ‘Amen.’ Even the porter who lets Macduff and Lennox into the castle after Duncan’s death, refers to himself as a “porter of / hell-gate” (Mac. 2.3.1-2). Macbeth’s other castle at Dunsinane is similarly the locale for scenes of supernatural events. At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth orders that light be with her at all times, a striking contrast with her appeal to darkness at the beginning of the play. Lady Macbeth wanders the castle in her sleep at night, trying desperately to wash blood from her hands, eventually lamenting “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes / of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (Mac. 5.1.45-46). Finally, it is at his palace, too, that Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at his banquet. This is, perhaps, the most supernatural event in the entire play and because he is unable to control his reaction to this, Macbeth loses the faith of all the politicians he has welcomed to his table.
By examining the use of setting in Macbeth, one can infer that the castles in the play are the setting for much more horrid deeds than the heath. Although the heath is represented as a dark, scary place inhabited by creatures of the supernatural, no character is ever killed, or even injured there. The heath is safer than Macbeth’s castles, which are the scenes of multiple murders. Far more foulness evidently occurs at Macbeth’s homes, despite their pleasant appearance. This interesting contradiction resonates in the witches’ proclamation “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Mac. 1.1.11), suggesting the duality of the settings in the play. The setting which appears most foul, the heath, is actually a relatively harmless place, while the castles, despite their fair appearance and inhabitants, are the scene of the supernatural, foulness and danger.