Based off the reading question “Macbeth hears something at 2.1.62–what is it? Note that this is the first of many sounds that Macbeth and other characters hear throughout the play. What other sounds are in the stage directions or mentioned by various characters?”, I took a moment to consider the auditory significance of the noises in the first two acts. The interplay between stagnancy and the alarming sounds adds to the psychological thriller-quality of the play, exposing the mental aguish of Macbeth and his wife.
The “delicate air” that Duncan notes as he enters the castle is a false foreshadowing of the tension filled nights to come (1.6.2). The first bell rings as Lady Macbeth’s signal that she has prepared Duncan’s murder for Macbeth, to which he replies “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.” (2.1.651). In almost trance like state, Macbeth is commanded by the instructional sound —Duncan’s murder a product of Lady Macbeths agency.
After the devious deed is done at Act 2 scene 2, the paranoia associated with sound escalates for Macbeth and his wife. “Hark! Peace! /It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern’st good-night.” (2. 2. 649-651) Referring to the bell tolls that marked executions, Lady Macbeth associates the screech of the winged predator to the terror of death. When Macbeth returns from murdering Duncan, he asks “Didst thou not hear a noise?” to which Lady Macbeth replies “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did not you speak?” (2.1.14-15). In their discrepancy, the two obsess over noise to make sure there is no evidence of their crime. The owls and crickets illustrate a naturalistic vision of the murder, the unheard cry of Duncan represented through the sounds of prey. Circadian rhythm of nature works in conjunction with the mechanical ticking of a clock, the stillness of night broken by the sound of bells and owls.
The repeated stage command of “Knock (within)” between Act 2 scene 2-3, marks the entry of others finding out about Duncan’s murder. The suspense drives Macbeth to psychosis; “Whence is that knocking?/ How is’t with me, when every noise appeals me?/What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.” (2.2.721). The self-mutilating nature of his paranoia is made explicate in the last line. In the next scene, the porter in the hallway hears the knocking and refers to the gates of hell. The knowledge of Duncan’s murder is foreshadowed by this demonic vision, as stated by the porter himself “knock; never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for hell” (2.3.772). Here we note the welcoming castle in Act 1 contrasts a castle “too cold for hell”. Duncan’s murder has transformed the setting to a hypersensitive reality, picking up on the misdeeds conducted by Macbeth even before others do. The knocking’s change from being alarming to being an ignored monotony illustrates the dynamic use of sound within the context of characters. For Macbeth it is mental torture, and for the porter, it is a moment for intuitive inquiry.
Especially within the performance of a play, sound makes the tension of Macbetha shared experience between the audience and the actors on stage. As markers of agency and precursors to exposure, ringing and knocking alarms people as fast as they can be ignored. When a sound gets repeated, it either lose its significance or it becomes a source of mania. In Macbeth we witness examples of both, as the start of consequences falls on our tragic anti-hero.