Macbeth is a favorite choice by teachers introducing teenagers to the Bard, often with a focus on examining the Macbeth themes. The play is a great theatrical triumph, offering audiences of all ages everything we could ask for in a drama. It has a strong supernatural element, something that is very much in fashion today, sex, revenge, lots of violence, and – the cream on top – it’s a thriller, a gripping murder story. It grips us in exactly the same way as it did our ancestors four centuries ago. And on top of all that it’s a great work of literature.
So let us get down to looking at the main themes in Macbeth. Macbeth explores several ideas or key themes throughout the play. Here are four of the key themes in Macbeth:
1. Theme of Appearance and Reality in Macbeth
Something that preoccupies Shakespeare, and which he brings into every one of his plays, is the way that so many things in life are not what they seem. That is a very strong thematic strain in Macbeth.
In the first moments of the play we see the witches chanting “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” That’s the statement of this theme. Things that seem good will be bad and things that seem bad will be good. When Duncan arrives at Glamys he comments on how lovely it is. Banquo, who is traveling with him says, “the heaven’s breath smells wooingly here,” but it is far from a heaven. Lady Macbeth has just finished describing it as a hell, and indeed, that’s what it turns out to be, with conspiracy and murder. And those things from people who are regarded as good, faithful, loyal, trustworthy. As Lady Macbeth puts it, one should “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it.” It’s one of Shakespeare’s most striking images of this theme.
Macbeth is confused by the witches – they seem to be women but they have beards. They are not what they seem. Then they set out something that seems quite simple, clear, and attractive – that he will be king. But it’s not simple and clear, and in fact, it’s chaotic, and he will have to be disloyal and commit several crimes to achieve it. Confusion is the tone throughout – confusion about what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is foul. Those things hover chaotically through the fog of understanding.
On his way to kill Duncan Macbeth sees a dagger, but it’s not real. The dagger is the thing that’s been in his mind since encountering the witches, even when he’s smiling at Duncan. As Donalbain puts it “there’s daggers in men’s smiles,” another striking image o the theme. Macbeth also sees Banquo’s ghost, which is not real.
This theme pervades the play and is evident in every scene – for example, Malcolm presenting himself as evil, a dangerous tyrant, who would terrorise his subjects if he became king. He is concealing his goodness and pretending to be bad to test Macduff. At the end of the play, we find that the witches have deceived Macbeth in a series of lies. Macbeth believes himself to be invincible – that no man of woman born can harm him – but he discovers that it’s a trick: his sense of invulnerability has been an illusion and the reality is that he is vulnerable, and he’s killed by Macduff.
2. Theme of Ambition in Macbeth
Macbeth is very much about ambition. It’s introduced at the beginning as part of the political setting. As the play opens we learn about some Scottish rebels who have been trying to wrest power away from the rightful king, Duncan, and elevate themselves into powerful positions. Their ambition backfires and they are defeated.
In the modern world, we rather admire ambition but Shakespeare saw it more as a corrupting force and his ambitious characters like Julius Caesar and Macbeth come to sticky ends while pursuing it. And in Macbeth’s case, once he gives way to ambition he is transformed from a good to an evil man. He recognises his ambition as being overwhelming – ‘vaulting ambition’ he calls it – but he knows that he doesn’t have the strength to resist it.
In Macbeth ambition is not straightforward. Who is the ambitious character? It is not only Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is just as ambitious as he is, and arguably more so. Macbeth seems to be an Aristotelian tragic hero but that is complicated by Lady Macbeth’s role in the play. In terms of classical tragedy, Macbeth seems to fit into the pattern. He’s a hero, highly regarded by the other feudal lords of Scotland. When the idea strikes him that he can become king he believes that all he has to do is kill Duncan, he will be elected king, and he will live happily ever after as king. The rest of the play works that idea through and throws up its various complications. In the end, the hero, by now regarded as a villain, is brought down by his fatal flaw – ambition. That is the Aristotelian tragic idea.
There’s far more than that to it though. What about Lady Macbeth? At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is still a good man and his naturally good qualities, which his wife sees as faults, stall him. This is where Lady Macbeth’s ambition becomes evident. She uses all the tactics at her disposal – her sexuality, emotional blackmail, flattery – to ensure that he carries out the murder. Then she herself begins to resemble a classical tragic hero. So here we have two different models of ambition, and two different examples of a classical tragic hero.
Ambition, resulting in the murder of the divinely given king, entails a series of violations of the natural order, all of which return to haunt Macbeth relentlessly. These are the consequences of giving way to ambition. Killing one’s king is a violation of nature, and in violating nature Macbeth forfeits the benefits of its regenerative power. He becomes an insomniac unable to benefit from the regeneration that sleep brings. Lady Macbeth, as guilty as he is, goes mad and takes her own life.
3. Theme of Guilt in Macbeth
Macbeth could almost be seen as a dissertation on guilt. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer the most torturous guilt as a result of their regicide.
Modern English has an idiom to describe the state of someone who is guilty of great violence. We say that they have blood on their hands. Shakespeare has these two characters literally covered in blood then uses the blood on their hands to carve out his theme, equating blood with guilt. The word ‘blood’ appears 109 times in the text, and, using it, or referring to it, Shakespeare makes some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language. After the murder, Macbeth stares at his red hands in horror and says “What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes/Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red.” We see such images all the way through.
As his guilt grips him Macbeth begins to imagine things – the ghost of Banquo, the friend he murdered – those hallucinations begin even before the actual killing when he imagines a dagger hanging in the air in front of his eyes. His guilt is already evident. Lady Macbeth’s guilt expresses itself in nightmares, also featuring blood, in which she relives the killing of Duncan. The whole text is a dramatisation of guilt. The couple do not live to enjoy the fruits of their misdeed: from the moment of the murder until their deaths their lives are intolerable, made so by the anguish of guilt.
4. Theme of Sin and Retribution in Macbeth
‘Sin and Retribution’ is an Old Testament way of describing Crime and Punishment. Sin has religious associations whereas crime does not. In the same way retribution goes beyond punishment. You can be punished by being imprisoned or executed but retribution suggests something nasty that may happen to you after your death. Shakespeare’s audience would all have believed that if you behaved yourself and went to church an eternity of bliss awaited you but if you sinned then you had an eternity of torture to look forward to.
That is one of the tensions in this play. Macbeth is worried about what he is about to do because of that fear of retribution, but his yearning to be king is so powerful that he’s willing to make the exchange.
There is a crime at the centre of this play: the murder of a king. Macbeth decides to kill the king and does. But this is more than a crime. It is a grave sin: he kills the king who has been chosen by God. But it is even worse. Duncan is his cousin. So there are two crimes – one against family and one against state. And there’s another – a crime against trust. Duncan is murdered by his host. Macbeth contemplates this as he is churning it over in his mind: he should “against the murderer shut the door/Not bear the knife myself.” His responsibility as a host was to protect his guest, so murdering him is a massive betrayal.
All that amounts to a grave sin. Macbeth considers all that and concludes that it would be alright if it weren’t for the ‘life to come.’ If he could skip that… but he knows he can’t. If he murders Duncan the hereafter will be waiting for him. Retribution is certain and it will be in proportion to his sin – which is very serious. He almost gives up and, in fact, makes that decision but at that moment Lady Macbeth appears and makes him change his mind.
We are reminded of the presence of Hell all through the play, in the events and in the imagery. The evil sisters, the witches, are a constant presence, guiding Macbeth towards his destruction. Glamys, the castle of the Macbeths is a representation of Hell, its hellish atmosphere created by the language of Lady Macbeth – its “thick night,” its “murdering ministers,” its “dunnest smoke of hell,” its blanket of darkness.
At the end of the play, Macbeth receives his punishment for the crime – he is decapitated by Macduff – but the divine retribution expresses itself in guilt, insomnia, paranoia and the fear of what is to come.
What do you think of these Macbeth themes – any that you don’t agree with, or would add? Let us know in the comments section below!