Climax & Ending of Macbeth

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Get a glimpse into the concluding scenes of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth,' and learn what makes them climactic. You'll find out why the ending of the play can truly be called 'epic!'

Macduff and Macbeth Clash
Macduff and Macbeth

Macbeth and Macduff

In a 2010 production of Macbeth, I played the role of Macduff. Our version was staged in Steam Punk style, so the actors had a cool visual atmosphere to help sustain audience engagement and interest. I didn't want to rely on the cool factor alone though; I trained in stage combat and took up a fairly rigorous workout routine in order to do justice to the play's powerful and stunning climax.

Climactic Action Helps Cover a Mistake

Macduff bears an enormous load of grief, anger, and responsibility into his climactic encounter with Macbeth. While opposing armies clash in the background and the politics of nations intersect, all under the looming shadow of dark magic, the closing scenes of the play are tightly focused on an isolated set of human interactions. Realizing how much centered on the character, I was determined to carry my weight as Macduff.

During one performance, I lost hold of my sword, and it fell off the elevated platform on which the actor playing Macbeth and I were performing our carefully-choreographed duel. I didn't even pause to think: I plunged after it while Macbeth, also improvising, retreated to the next platform, where we were supposed to bring the fight to its conclusion--the climax within the climax.

I popped back up, sword in hand, and chased him down, at which point we picked up our choreography and finished as planned. We were both so caught up in our characters and the irresistible momentum of the script that we were able to recover without the audience being aware that anything had gone wrong and without losing the intensity of the scene. In the traditional, classical sense of that word, the ending of Shakespeare's Macbeth is truly epic.

Creating the Climax

The term climax refers to the point of highest tension in a story or plot (in fact, the root word is synonymous with staircase or ladder) as well as its culmination, when all of the story threads intersect for whatever resolution occurs.

Scenes 7 and 8 of Macbeth's final act deliver the highest point of tension and the play's culmination.

Act 5, Scene 7

In Scene 7, young Siward confronts Macbeth. Macbeth believes he has the ultimate ace-in-the-hole, the witches' prophecy: 'What's he/ That was not born of woman? Such a one/ Am I to fear, or none.' The seemingly inevitable happens as Macbeth defeats young Siward easily. This scene is climatically necessary to Scene 8, when Macbeth faces Macduff, for several reasons:

1) It establishes Macbeth's faith in the witches' prophecy.

2) Siward is the son of a standing noble, and his death represents Macbeth's threat to traditional nobility and the birthright of the next generation.

3) Macbeth is shown to draw his power from the unnatural/supernatural, upsetting rightful balance in the human sphere.

4) The audience is put into doubt about the outcome of the play, at least in terms of Macbeth himself.

Macduff enters just after Macbeth's departure, tracking him by the battlefield noise. He states his refusal to raise his sword to the peasants and mercenaries comprising Macbeth's army, and rededicates himself to avenging his wife and children, whom Macbeth had murdered. Asking for fortune to guide him, he exits hot on Macbeth's heels with an intensity that will carry directly into the concluding scene of the play. This stuff is as good as any action adventure on film.

Act 5, Scene 8

The final scene of Macbeth opens with Macduff rushing in to find Macbeth, facing away. As angry and driven as he is, Macduff still has his honor: 'Turn, hell-hound, turn!', he says, giving Macbeth the opportunity be en garde rather than cutting him down while his back is turned. Macbeth responds, unexpectedly, with what seems like a pang of conscience: 'my soul is too much charged/With blood of thine already.' He still believes himself invincible, and warns Macduff of the 'charmed life' that protects him against all those born of woman. Here is where it gets really interesting.

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