Noah Webster, author of Webster’s Dictionary, defines mood as the “temporary state of the mind in regard to passion or feeling” and “a morbid or fantastic state of mind. ” E. L. Thorndike and Clarence L. Barnhart, authors of Scott, Foresman Advanced Dictionary, define mood as “the overall atmosphere or prevailing emotional aura of a work. ” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, especially the pivotal and ominous second act, exemplifies both denotations of mood.
The act has an “overall atmosphere,” even though the mood shifts, while this mood places a sense of cliff-hanging anxiety at the beginning, an ambiance of hysterics towards the middle, a feeling of tragic realization directly following, and an unsure aura of occult extractions. Shakespeare cleverly uses six key elements to further shape and add to the mood: the characters, the imagery, the setting, the sounds, the characters’ actions, and the characters’ dialogue. In scene one, the setting is revealed. It is late, past midnight, and there are no stars, making extremely dark and a dramatically perfect opportunity to commit murder.
In any good horror movie, all the deaths occur at night, when it is dark. The location is a castle, which would have to be the eeriest, coldest, darkest piece of architecture ever constructed. Banquo’s “cursed thoughts” (II, i, 8) keep him without sleep, in exact contrast with the eternal sleep Duncan will soon begin. Then, as Banquo retreats to his quarters, Macbeth’s imagination and intensified emotional exhaustion and strain generate a looming image of a dagger pointing to Duncan. “I see thee still . . . ” (II, i, 35), he yells at the vision, creating a sense of madness.
Again, “I see thee still . . . ” (II, i, 45), but this time the hallucination is glistening with blood (and in all likely hood, that of Duncan). He casts this apparition aside and awaits his signal to make the final walk into his beloved king’s chambers. The bell rang by Lady Macbeth interrupts this thick, tense mood and startles the audience to either jump out of their seat or creep slowly to the edge of their seat. This also related to a popular sermon of the same time period, Meditation 17 by John Donne. A famous excerpt from it reads, “. . . nd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee . . . ” (Donne, 284). It tolls for thee, Duncan. In the following scene, Lady Macbeth is alone on stage. An owl shrieks, startling both her and the audience. She refers to it as “a fatal Bell-man” (II, ii, 4), which is a reference to the menacing toll at the end of the preceding scene. When Macbeth returns from his deed, he and his spouse share quick, whispering words, providing for an anxious and uncertain mood. The audience is able to hear and feel the actors’ heartbeats racing without the use of sound effects.
The mood is uncertain because Lady Macbeth is completely nonchalant about the un-human butchering of the king, while Macbeth is nervously pacing and playing a game of mental ping-pong. “Consider it not so deeply” (II, ii, 30) and ” A little water clears us of the deed” (II, ii, 67), she says. Meanwhile, he is overwhelmed with negative feelings, “I am afraid to think what I have done;/ Look on t again I dare not” (II, ii, 50-51). Macbeth also hears some one call off, “Macbeth does murder sleep . . . Macbeth shall sleep no more! ” (II, ii, 4). A direct opposite to how Duncan shall sleep forever.
Sleep is used quite often in this act, but not more than once does it refer to the nightly ritual of rest that every human being partakes in. Just as Lady Macbeth is trying to quietly slap logic into her husband’s head, there is a clamorous knocking breaking the almost silence of their speech, another sound starling both those on stage and those in the house. It also continues persistently adding a tense sense of invasion. Is the knocker(s) going to foil Macbeth’s plans? How will the knocker(s) add to the denseness of this nerve-racking plot?
The knocking carries over to the third scene, where Shakespeare adds some comic relief to such a nail-biting atmosphere. The drunken porter, annoyed by the knocking, imagines that he is keeper of the gates of Hell (an interesting word choice because he’s actually in Macbeth’s castle) and allows three sinners in (The fact that he’s drunk and urinating all over the stage only adds to hysteria of laughter that has now engulfed the audience. Finally, the porter opens the gates and Macduff and Lennox, who have come to get the king, enter.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have come to the hall, and Macduff has gone to check on the king. Macduff returns in horror, making the audience and the mood change from hilarious to a gloomy realization that they’ve just witnessed a cold-hearted murder. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, of course, overact their grievances for the king. Macbeth says, “Had I but died an hour before this chance,/I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,/There’s nothing serious in mortality:” (II, iii, 96-100), whereas Lady Macbeth faints.
It is here also that Lennox introduces a supernatural mood, which greatly adds to the next scene. The scene ends in the men meeting in the hall, and Malcolm and Donalbain off to foreign countries. In the final scene of the second act, Ross meets an old man outside of Inverness. The two talk of acts of occult nature taking place due to the occult nature in which the king died. Horses were eating each other and owls were chasing falcons, just to name a few. This helps the audience to reflect on what has just taken place and tie all loose ends.
Macduff, the king’s other very loyal thane (Banquo being the other), enters. He says he suspects something bad in the future and refuses to go to the coronation, leaving the audience questioning whether or not his feelings will hold to be true (which they will). The two bid goodbye to the old man. The man tells them to “. . . make good of bad, and friends of foes! ” (II, iv, 41), a peculiar ending to a tragic act and a parallel to the end of the first act’s first scene of “fair is foul, and foul is fair,” (I, i, 11).
In Act II of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there are four basic moods: a nerve-racking anxiety, hilarious humor, a gloomy realization, and a supernatural atmosphere. The way Shakespeare uses mood in all his plays add to the overall effect of the performance. Even if someone in the audience didn’t understand each and every line and the manner in which the lines were worded, they would understand the basic plot through acting and through the mood.