Weather, Evil, and Chaos in Macbeth

Weather, Evil, and Chaos in Macbeth “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1. 3. 38) proclaims Macbeth as he unwittingly echoes the Weird Sisters’ incantation from the opening scene of Macbeth. The imagery of foul weather permeates the play, setting the tone and underscoring the unnaturalness of Macbeth’s treacherous behavior. Foul weather symbolizes both evil and the chaos it creates, and the most important function of weather imagery is to link Macbeth with evil and chaos. The connection between foul weather and evil is emphasized from the opening of the play. The stage directions for scene I reads, “Thunder and lightning. As the witches enter and begin speaking, the connection between evil and weather is established: “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain? ” (1. 1. 1-2). This is an interesting question, since the audience later learns (during the witches’ second appearance) that the witches themselves can control winds and create storms. Before Macbeth appears on stage, foul weather is firmly associated with the forces of evil. Thus Macbeth’s opening line (quoted above) foreshadows his descent into evil. The evil that takes root in Macbeth’s soul ultimately leads to chaos.
To early modern audiences, murdering a king represented perhaps the greatest evil that man might commit, for the monarch was the highest human link in the great chain of being linking man to God. When Macbeth murders Duncan, he severs the great chain, throwing everything into chaos. According to Tillyard, To us chaos means hardly more than confusion on a large scale; to an Elizabethan it meant the cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the laws of nature to cease functioning. 16) That such chaos exists within the world of the play is emphasized when Lennox and Ross discuss the unnatural weather during the night of Duncan’s murder. Lennox’s remarks imply a connection between foul weather and chaos: “The night has been unruly…. Our chimneys were blown down…. Some say the earth was feverous and did shake” (2. 3. 50-57). Ross’s response suggests that nature has died, an idea anticipated by Macbeth’s earlier observation, “nature seems dead” (2. 1. 50). In a sense, nature has died with Duncan, and the destructive weather reveals that evil and chaos rule in his place.
The references to foul and unnatural weather underscore Macbeth’s relationship to chaos and evil. The murder of Duncan creates chaos that undoes many characters, until nature is revived by the death of Macbeth. Foul weather imagery is thus an important aspect of the play, serving not only to provide a sinister atmosphere but also to symbolize the chaos that follows the murder of a king. Such imagery powerfully contributes to making Macbeth one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most powerful tragedies.

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