A dramatic setting at night
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in the Elizabethan era around 1506 but is set in Scotland in the 11th century in the Middle Ages (make sure you do not confuse those two historical contexts). Scotland in the Middle Ages is depicted as being a rather wild and dangerous place. The bloody battle description we get in Act 1, Scene 2 of the play suggests that war was common and that to be successful men had to be strong, brave and well-respected in order to survive.
The setting and structure of the scenes in Macbeth contribute to the narrative technique of the play. The scenes take place either outdoors, typically on desolate heaths or battlefields, or indoors, typically within claustrophobic castle walls. In the first part of the final act, Act 5, Shakespeare cuts - almost like a modern action film - between the setting of the castle of Dunsinane, where a depressed Macbeth is preparing for his final battle, and the fields surrounding the castle, where Malcolm’s army is advancing. This technique creates a fastpaced struggle (which reflects that of the battlefield outside) and the heroic English army heading for Macbeth’s castle to restore order in Scotland.
Also, many of the scenes in the play are set at night, for instance the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, and the banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost. This contributes to the gloomy atmosphere of evil which generally runs throughout the play. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth actively addresses the night, asking it to conceal the coming murder of Duncan:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the would it makes.
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, ‘Hold, hold.’ (1.5.48-52)
Thus, the night is personified as a force in itself. Macbeth does the same in Act 3, Scene 2 when he is preparing to have Banquo murdered (3.2.52-59). This suggests that the setting is crucial to understanding the play.
We sense this atmosphere of evil from the very first scene of the play where we meet the three witches. Their unappealing physical appearances, the strange way they speak, and the stormy weather which accompanies them are all indications that these are dangerous and unnatural creatures. This does not bode well for the story we are about to follow.