Past exam question from the AQA Litb3 exam. This was done in timed conditions.
‘Macbeth, of course, was written long before the notion of “the Gothic” was conceived. It is pointless, therefore, to consider Macbeth as a Gothic.’
Despite being written long before what is considered the ‘first’ Gothic text, The Castle of Otranto, Shakespeare unveils a play that combines the element of fear, the Supernatural and death in a way that can fit in to no other genre than the Gothic.
Macbeth certainly adheres to a dominating aspect of the criteria in being considered ‘Gothic’ with its ability to instil fear. Whilst the modern audience may not agree, Shakespeare was certainly effective in his ability to frighten the live audience of the Jacobean era. Even in the first act, Shakespeare’s introduction of the witches becomes an exploration of Jacobean taboo, as it presents audience with a visual representation of witches in which the audience would have not previously been exposed to. Considering the witch hunts conducted by King James at the time, Shakespeare invites his contemporary audience to the powerful and dire consequence of practising witch craft. Through the opening lines “when shall we three meet again?” Shakespeare forces the audience to consider the powerful ability of witches by even suggesting that they are superior to nature and natural order through being able to choose when and where they shall collide with Macbeth. Therefore, Shakespeare is successful in his attempt to scare readers by not only facing them with three witches, but encouraging the consideration of what the Witches have the power of doing, so powerful that they defy nature. This undoubtedly adheres to the Gothic genre, as Shakespeare’s craft of terror forces viewers to gain an insight to witchcraft, and perhaps, may even terrorise the audience into the frightful thought that they may one day cross paths with a witch that will determine their entire fate. Whilst the witches promote fear within the narrative to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, it is unlikely to have the same impact on modern readers and therefore the playwright is unsuccessful in his attempts to fear the audience of the 21st century. Likewise, the English Review article “Carter- the Gothic terrorist” explores the idea of Gothic literature being ineffective in creating fear within readers post-WWII due to the sheer brutality the war had caused, due to fact readers have now been exposed to excessive violence in a way that Gothic literature is no longer an exploration of possibilities, but a mere recount of events. Thus, for the modern reader, Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be viewed as a terrifying story, yet among many others, and therefore Shakespeare is no longer impactful in the same way as meeting the key Gothic criteria of instilling fear.
In addition to creating fear, the Gothic genre is also infamous for its excessive exploration of dark and dismal settings. From abbeys to château , Gothic literature explores settings that allow both characters and readers to become engrossed in the other worldly setting. In the same way, Shakespeare utilises similar settings that contribute to the debate of Macbeth as a Gothic text such as castles and “thunder, lightning” and “rain.” The drunken porter describes himself as guarding the “gates of Hell” and therefore automatically associates Macbeth’s castle with death, darkness and evil. Rightly so, Macbeth’s castle becomes the home to Banquo’s ghost, regicide and ironically the place of both Macbeth and his “fiend-like queen’s” death. Here, Shakespeare uses setting to build upon an extended metaphor: the cruelty of the King and Queen ruling the castle, become responsible in reflecting the events that occur inside the castle. In true Gothic fashion, revenants of Banquo’s ghost are then able to haunt Macbeth in a setting that frequently relishes in evil, death and sin. However, Shakespeare’s use of setting in Macbeth does not always appear uninviting and otherworldly like most texts that are widely expressed as ‘Gothic.’ For example, the castle is once described as offering a “pleasant seat” and having a “delicate air,” – it is clear that Duncan does not fee; uncomfortable or uneasy in the setting in the same way characters often express in traditional Gothic texts. Additionally, Shakespeare’s description of the Castle does not conform to a common Gothic characteristic as being away from civilisation. Whilst the first introduction to the Witches appear in an isolated setting, the main action in the play takes place in Macbeth’s castle, that appears welcoming and homely in numerous acts. Through a number of banquets and dinners that are held in the Castle, Shakespeare rebels against the orthodox isolated setting and thus explores another realm outside of the Gothic.
Although Macbeth written long before the genre of the Gothic; the dismal setting and the use of the supernatural to create fear certainly forces readers to identify the Gothic elements within the play. Ultimately, Macbeth is not a Gothic text due to its frequent repellence against Gothic convention, but can evidently be seen to influence Gothic writing today through its exploration of death and consequence.