The Shaping of the Play by Settings
Shakespeare’s two plays King Lear and Macbeth take place in two contrasting settings that, from the first scenes, influence the characters’ paths and shape the course of the plays’ events. The action of both plays alternate between the settings of the harsh barren heath and the castle, where acts of malice are carried out. The heath and other natural settings are notable for being uninhabited and exposed to the severity of the elements, which are in direct contrast to the sheltered castles and palaces of the noblemen. As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the natural exterior setting and the man-made interior architecture illuminate the inhabiting characters’ psychological states and inner motives. In addition, as the characters move in and out of each setting, they either rise to higher psychological understanding or succumb to the destructive power of their own minds. In King Lear and Macbeth, the heath serves as a ground of opportunity for the characters to gain insight into their desires and themselves as human beings, while their return to their castles always provides grim resolutions to any hope gained while out in the ruggedness.
As the site for banishment, the heath in King Lear strips the characters down to their raw selves and with the freedom they gain, they also gain insight and subsequently redemption. While they are wandering on the heath, the two characters who go through the greatest transformations, Lear and Gloucester, have had everything taken away from them and are left with nothing. They are but “uncovered [bodies at the] extremity of the skies” (3.4.100) at which “through the / sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind” (45). The desolate landscape and the old men’s desolate hearts have them at the ultimate state of nothing that pervades the play. It is in this state, however, that both characters come to see everything. Out on the heath where their previous positions of power no longer have no power, Lear and Gloucester have become “poor naked wretches” (28). Yet in this change, Lear has gained sight; he has not only realized that Regan and Goneril are where “madness lies” (21) – with Shakespeare punning on “lie” to refer both to the direction of madness as well as the sisters’ deception – and that as a king, he has taken too little care of his people (33), but he also arrives at the conclusion that “unaccommodated man is no more but […] a poor, / bare, forked animal” (105). By coming out to the heath, Lear has learned his greatest lesson of the nature of love and offers himself to the audience as a man on his way to redemption.
Similarly, Gloucester’s wanderings on the heath allow him to see what his previously existing eyes caused him to overlook. The disguised Edgar by his side opens for him many opportunities based on the barrenness of the land, such as convincing him that they are so high up on a cliff that “the murmuring surge / that on th’unnumbered idle pebble chafes, / cannot be heard” (4.6.20). The expansiveness of the heath and the freedom it gives the characters results in the little moments of appreciation for life that Edgar has instilled in Gloucester, which eventually lead up to Gloucester’s gratitude towards Edgar once he reveals himself.
In Macbeth, the heath is the setting of the first scene and continues to play an important role in the rest of the play. Although the heath and cavern are, literally, the brewing grounds for what can be considered evil, in contrast to the good that comes of it in King Lear, they nonetheless serve as grounds of opportunity. For Macbeth, opportunity comes in the form of ambition. The heath in Macbeth is foremost a natural place where the supernatural can thrive, which in turn results in the actions of the Macbeths as terrible as the heath is foul. A setting so foggy and filthy (1.1.12) is suitable for the witches “so withered and so wild in their attire, / that look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth” (1.3.41). The alliteration in Banquo’s description of them emphasizes just how unsettling they might look. As Macbeth enters the foggy heath, his mind fogs up as well. This sudden psychological change is aggravated by the witches’ repetitive speech, as they exclaim, “all hail, Macbeth […] Hail!” (48-65) continuously. The confusion and curiosity Macbeth experiences as a man of great ambition puts him in a vulnerable state, ideal for implanting the idea of regicide into his mind. By contrast to the influence of the heath on characters in King Lear, the forces of the heath In Macbeth reduce insight, yet instill ambition.
Macbeth leaves the heath and is shortly crowned Thane of Cawdor, but left with “horrible imaginings” (1.4.141) and “dull brain” (153), yet “Vaulting Ambition” (1.7.27). His overwhelming desire for the power of king and his growing guilt that manifested itself in the form of Banquo’s ghost brings him back to the heath to a cavern in demand of more insight. His speech juxtaposes violent natural phenomena, such as “yeasty waves” and blown down trees (4.1.53-55), with the destruction of the symbols of human civilization, including toppling castles and sloping palaces (57-58). Such images of tumult reflects his inner turmoil, and possibly also the discord of breaking natural laws Macbeth causes as a result of acting upon supernatural prophecies to obtain power. Macbeth’s visit to the heath only fuels his ambition, however, as it presents him with further opportunities, and he leaves with murdering Macduff on his mind.
In King Lear as well as in Macbeth, the destructiveness of power can be seen through the characters who remain in the castle throughout the entire play. The castle is a setting of direct opposition to the heath. The castle represents civilization, social structure, and order, and Shakespeare uses the castle’s connection to humanity to depict the corruptive and disintegrating nature of power among people; Regan, Goneril, Cornwall and Edmund are never seen outside the castle. It is no coincidence, then, that these four characters are all ill-fated, for they each die at each other’s hands inside the castle. In contrast, the transformed Lear who has returned from the heath is willing to accept his fate in jail by sharing love with Cordelia. His new understanding of the inherent senselessness of power is seen in his vision of “wearing out / In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones” (5.3.17), whose deceit “ebb and flow by the moon” (18), a symbol of inconstancy.
If the heath in King Lear provides vision and the illusion of hope, then the castle destroys the latter, for Gloucester, Cordelia and Lear’s return to the castle only results in their deaths. The remaining characters are left with nothing – the same nothing Lear and Gloucester had when they were banished into the heath.
The two castles in Macbeth, Iverness and Dunsinane, are similar settings that depict the corruptive nature of power. Lady Macbeth, a significant female character in Shakespeare’s plays overall, never leaves the castle. Despite Macbeth’s nature being “too full o’th’milk of human kindness” (1.5.15) in comparison to his wife’s strong personality, the “thick night” (48) of the castle deems itself far more debilitating than the fog of the heath and of Macbeth’s mind. Lady Macbeth is so consumed by the darkness of her guilt and the castle that in her last scene, she holds a candle while sleepwalking for she must have “light by her / continually” (5.1.19). Her last lines indicate that she has succumbed to the enveloping darkness of the castle, for the “gate” (57) and her “bed” (58) are objects within its walls that are grand items belonging to people of power. She dies within the castle, while Macbeth, who is frequently out pursuing ambition, is able to die back on the battlefield.
As tragedies, King Lear and Macbeth both depict characters falling in and out of madness, which the setting directly parallels. The heath, with all its bleakness, offers characters freedom for development. It is healing in King Lear yet corruptive in Macbeth, for the opportunities it provides is arise from the characters’ minds. The castle, however, in all its grandeur, stands for power in society itself, with only the capacity for destruction.
Shakespeare, William, and Robert S. Miola. Macbeth: An Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and R. A. Foakes. King Lear. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004. Print.
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