Use of structure in Macbeth

The structure of a text refers to the way in which events are organised inside the play as a whole. In the case of Macbeth, the structure is strictly chronological. This is where events are revealed to the audience/reader in the order in which they have happened. Sometimes events are described rather than shown (eg Macbeth becoming king). Others happen offstage (out of sight of the audience) for example, Duncan's murder.

The events of this play are organised into five acts, each containing a number of scenes. However, it is important to note that Shakespeare himself almost certainly did not organise the play in this way and that this structure would have been added later during the editing process when the plays were turned into published text after being performed that way.

The idea of the five-act structure is a useful one, though, as it follows the model designed by Gustav Freytag, a German author from the 19th-century. Having carefully studied classical drama, he suggested there were five stages in a tragic dramatic structure.

He named these stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and catastrophe.

Freytag's pyramid, showing the five-act structure of Macbeth, with labels indicating exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and catastropheFreytag's pyramid shows how a drama is divided into five acts

How this applies to Macbeth is shown in the table:

StagesWhat?When?
ExpositionIntroduces the characters, setting, events and key ideas.Act 1: Main characters are introduced; the Witches make their predictions; thoughts of murder start to form.
Rising actionA series of related events occur leading up to the key moment in the plot.Act 2: Macbeth keeps changing his mind; Lady Macbeth takes control; King Duncan’s murder (key moment).
ClimaxMarks the turning point of the play. Up to this point things have gone well for the main character – now things will go rapidly downhill.Act 3: Macbeth becomes King; Banquo is murdered and Fleance escapes; Macduff joins Malcolm in England.
Falling actionThe main conflict between the protagonist (the central character – Macbeth) and the antagonist (his opposite – Macduff) is established.Act 4: Macbeth returns to the Witches; Macduff’s family is slaughtered; Malcolm and Macduff plan their invasion.
CatastropheThe protagonist is defeated by the antagonist and events return to a state of normality.Act 5: The invasion is carried out and Malcolm becomes King; the Witches' predictions come true in unexpected ways; both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth die.

Examining poetic structure

In a play such as Macbeth, examining structure might also refer to the poetic structure which is used. As you will have observed, the majority of the writing in Macbeth is in poetic form, though sometimes prose is used. There are three areas to look out for:

  • lines with a five-beat rhythm
  • lines with a four-beat rhythm
  • lines written in prose

Lines with a five-beat rhythm

This is how the majority of the play is written. It is often called blank verse or iambic pentameter. Each line has five beats with an unstressed (x) syllable followed by a stressed (/) syllable:

eg

x / x / x / x / x /

So fair - and foul - a day - I have - not seen

Try saying this aloud while tapping out the rhythm of the five beats to see how it works. The ends of lines are not generally rhymed which helps to maintain the flow of the speech and carry through the meaning of what the character is saying.

Sometimes a character is given an unfinished line to say. This is called a half line (even if it is less or more than half the five beats). It makes us think about why the line is incomplete – for instance, is it a hesitation or an interruption? Two (or more) characters may have a shared line where the five beats are divided up between them. This tends to quicken the pace of the speeches as characters overlap their words.

eg

x / x /

LADY MACBETH: Did not you speak?

x

MACBETH: When?

/

LADY MACBETH: Now?

x / x /

As I descended?

Lines with a four-beat rhythm

To separate the Witches from other characters, they often speak with a different rhythmic pattern which only has four beats with (this time) a stressed (/) syllable followed by an unstressed (x) syllable:

eg

/ x / x / x /

Fair - is foul - and foul - is fair

Again, try saying this aloud while tapping out the rhythm of the four beats to see how it works. Generally this structure tends to speed up the rhythm in which the words are spoken and gives the whole thing a more "sing-song" quality – this is, of course, very appropriate for the Witches' chanting.

Prose

This type of speech is generally reserved for the more common characters (such as the Porter) or to indicate an extreme emotional state. When Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and she is starting to lose her mind, Shakespeare does not use blank verse as he would normally do for a noble character but uses straightforward prose instead:

eg

Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O.