Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Corrupting Power of Unchecked Ambition
The main theme of Macbeth—the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints—finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her conscience. In each case, ambition—helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witches—is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne—Banquo, Fleance, Macduff—and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them.
The Relationship Between Cruelty and Masculinity
Characters in Macbeth frequently dwell on issues of gender. Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishes that she herself could be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the murderers he hires to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression, and whenever they converse about manhood, violence soon follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos.
At the same time, however, the audience cannot help noticing that women are also sources of violence and evil. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior; Lady Macbeth provides the brains and the will behind her husband’s plotting; and the only divine being to appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Arguably, Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women, which has led some critics to argue that this is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. While the male characters are just as violent and prone to evil as the women, the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave. Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be as ambitious and cruel as men. Whether because of the constraints of her society or because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on deception and manipulation rather than violence to achieve her ends.
Ultimately, the play does put forth a revised and less destructive definition of manhood. In the scene where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles him by encouraging him to take the news in “manly” fashion, by seeking revenge upon Macbeth. Macduff shows the young heir apparent that he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolm’s suggestion, “Dispute it like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.221–223). At the end of the play, Siward receives news of his son’s death rather complacently. Malcolm responds: “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him” (5.11.16–17). Malcolm’s comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the sentient nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolm’s coronation, order will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Difference Between Kingship and Tyranny
In the play, Duncan is always referred to as a “king,” while Macbeth soon becomes known as the “tyrant.” The difference between the two types of rulers seems to be expressed in a conversation that occurs in Act 4, scene 3, when Macduff meets Malcolm in England. In order to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth. He tells Macduff of his reproachable qualities—among them a thirst for personal power and a violent temperament, both of which seem to characterize Macbeth perfectly. On the other hand, Malcolm says, “The king-becoming graces / [are] justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, [and] lowliness” (4.3.92–93). The model king, then, offers the kingdom an embodiment of order and justice, but also comfort and affection. Under him, subjects are rewarded according to their merits, as when Duncan makes Macbeth thane of Cawdor after Macbeth’s victory over the invaders. Most important, the king must be loyal to Scotland above his own interests. Macbeth, by contrast, brings only chaos to Scotland—symbolized in the bad weather and bizarre supernatural events—and offers no real justice, only a habit of capriciously murdering those he sees as a threat. As the embodiment of tyranny, he must be overcome by Malcolm so that Scotland can have a true king once more.
More main ideas from Macbeth
Act 1, Scene 1
On a heath in Scotland, three witches, the Weird Sisters, wait to meet Macbeth amidst thunder and lightning. Their conversation is filled with paradox and equivocation: they say that they will meet Macbeth "when the battle's lost and won" and when "fair is foul and foul is fair" (10).
Act 1, Scene 2
The Scottish army is at war with the Norwegian army. Duncan, king of Scotland, meets a captain returning from battle. The captain informs them of Macbeth and Banquo's bravery in battle. He also describes Macbeth's attack on the castle of the treacherous Macdonald, in which Macbeth triumphed and planted Macdonald’s head on the battlements of the castle. The Thanes of Ross and Angus enter with the news that the Thane of Cawdor has sided with Norway. Duncan decides to execute the disloyal thane and give the title of Cawdor to Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 3
The Weird Sisters meet on the heath and wait for Macbeth. He arrives with Banquo, repeating the witches' paradoxical phrase by stating "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (36). The witches hail him as "Thane of Glamis" (his present title), "Thane of Cawdor" (the title he will soon receive officially), and "king hereafter" (46-48). Their greeting startles and seems to frighten Macbeth. When Banquo questions the witches as to who they are, they greet him with the phrases "Lesser than Macbeth and greater," "Not so happy, yet much happier," and a man who "shall get kings, though [he] be none" (63-65).
When Macbeth questions them further, the witches vanish into thin air. Almost as soon as they disappear, Ross and Angus appear with the news that the king has granted Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo step aside to discuss this news; Banquo is of the opinion that the title of Thane of Cawdor might "enkindle" Macbeth to seek the crown as well (119). Macbeth questions why such happy news causes his "seated heart [to] knock at [his] ribs / Against the use of nature," and his thoughts turn immediately and with terror to murdering the king in order to fulfill the witches' second prophesy (135-36). When Ross and Angus notice Macbeth's distraught state, Banquo dismisses it as Macbeth's unfamiliarity with his new title.
Act 1, Scene 4
Duncan demands to know whether the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed. His son Malcolm assures him that he has witnessed the former Thane’s becoming death. While Duncan muses about the fact that he placed "absolute trust" in the treacherous Thane, Macbeth enters. Duncan thanks Macbeth and Banquo for their loyalty and bravery. He consequently announces his decision to make his son Malcolm the heir to the throne of Scotland (something that would not have happened automatically, since his position was elected and not inherited). Duncan then states that he plans to visit Macbeth at his home in Inverness. Macbeth leaves to prepare his home for the royal visit, pondering the stumbling block of Malcolm that now hinders his ascension to the throne. The king follows with Banquo.
Act 1, Scene 5
At Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth that describes his meeting with the witches. She fears that his nature is not ruthless enough-- he's "too full o' th' milk of human kindness” (15)—to murder Duncan and assure the completion of the witches' prophesy. He has ambition enough, she claims, but lacks the gumption to act on it. She then implores him to hurry home so that she can "pour [her] spirits in [his] ear" (24)—in other words, goad him on to the murder he must commit. When a messenger arrives with the news that Duncan is coming, Lady Macbeth calls on the heavenly powers to "unsex me here" and fill her with cruelty, taking from her all natural womanly compassion (39). When Macbeth arrives, she greets him as Glamis and Cawdor and urges him to "look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t" (63-64). She then says that she will make all the preparations for the king's visit and subsequent murder.
Act 1, Scene 6
Duncan arrives at Inverness with Banquo and exchanges pleasantries with Lady Macbeth. The king inquires after Macbeth's whereabouts and she offers to bring him to where Macbeth awaits.
Act 1, Scene 7
Alone on stage, Macbeth agonizes over whether to kill Duncan, recognizing the act of murdering the king as a terrible sin. He struggles in particular with the idea of murdering a man—a relative, no less—who trusts and loves him. He would like the king's murder to be over and regrets the fact that he possesses “vaulting ambition" without the ruthlessness to ensure the attainment of his goals (27).
As Lady Macbeth enters, Macbeth tells her that he "will proceed no further in this business" (31). But Lady Macbeth taunts him for his fears and ambivalence, telling him he will only be a man when he carries out the murder. She states that she herself would go so far as to take her own nursing baby and dash its brains if necessary. She counsels him to "screw [his] courage to the sticking place" and details the way they will murder the king (60). They will wait until he falls asleep, she says, and thereafter intoxicate his bodyguards with drink. This will allow them to murder Duncan and lay the blame on the two drunken bodyguards. Macbeth is astonished by her cruelty but resigns to follow through with her plans.
Fate, Prophecy, and Equivocation
Just as the Porter in Act 2 extemporizes about the sin of equivocation, the play figures equivocation as one of its most important themes. Starting from the Weird Sisters' first words that open the play, audiences quickly ascertain that things are not what they seem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "equivocation" has two different meanings—both of which are applicable to this play. The first is:
“The using (a word) in more than one sense; ambiguity or uncertainty of meaning in words; also . . . misapprehension arising from the ambiguity of terms.”
This definition as simple verbal ambiguity is the one that audiences are most familiar with—and one that plays an important role in the play. The Porter’s speech on equivocation in Act 2, however, refers to a more active type of equivocation. The second definition in the OED: reads:
The use of words or expressions that are susceptible of a double signification, with a view to mislead; esp. the expression of a virtual falsehood in the form of a proposition which (in order to satisfy the speaker's conscience) is verbally true.
This kind of equivocation is similar to lying; it is intentionally designed to mislead and confuse.
The intentional ambiguity of terms is what we see in the prophesies of the Weird Sisters. Their speech is full of paradox and confusion, starting with their first assertion that "fair is foul and foul is fair" (I i 10). The witches' prophesies are intentionally ambiguous. The alliteration and rhymed couplets in which they speak also contributes to the effect of instability and confusion in their words. For many readers, more than one reading is required to grasp a sense of what the witches mean. It is not surprising, therefore, that these "imperfect speakers" can easily bedazzle and confuse Macbeth throughout the course of the play (I iii 68).
Just as their words are confusing, it is unclear as to whether the witches merely predict or actually effect the future. Banquo fears, for example, that the witches' words will "enkindle [Macbeth] unto the crown"—in other words, that they will awaken in Macbeth an ambition that is already latent in him (I iii 119). His fears seem well-founded: as soon as the witches mention the crown, Macbeth's thoughts turn to murder. The witches’ power is thus one of prophecy, but prophecy through suggestion. For Macbeth, the witches can be understood as representing the final impetus that drive him to his pre-determined end. The prophecy is in this sense self-fulfilling.
The oracular sisters are in fact connected etymologically to the Fates of Greek mythology. The word "weird" derives from the Old English word "wyrd," meaning "fate." And not all fate is self-fulfilling. In Banquo's case, in contrast to Macbeth’s, the witches seem only to predict the future. For unlike Macbeth, Banquo does not act on the witches' prediction that he will father kings—and yet the witches' prophesy still comes true. The role of the weird sisters in the story, therefore, is difficult to define or determine. Are they agents of fate or a motivating force? And why do they suddenly disappear from the play in the third act?
The ambiguity of the Weird Sisters reflects a greater theme of doubling, mirrors, and schism between inner and outer worlds that permeates the work as a whole. Throughout the play, characters, scenes, and ideas are doubled. As Duncan muses about the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor at the beginning of the play, for example, Macbeth enters the scene:
KING DUNCAN: There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
Enter MACBETH, BANQUP, ROSS, and ANGUS.
To MACBETH: O worthiest cousin,
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me! (I iv 11-16)
The dramatic irony of Duncan’s trust is realized only later in the play. Similarly, the captain in Scene 2 makes a battle report that becomes in effect a prophecy:
For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name!—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion
Carved out his passage till he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (I i16-23)
The passage can be interpreted as follows: Macbeth “disdains fortune” by disregarding the natural course of action and becomes king through a “bloody execution” of Duncan; Macduff, who was born from a Caesarian section (his mother being “unseamed. . . from the nave to th’chops”) and who “ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell” decapitates Macbeth and hangs his head up in public.
As in all Shakespearean plays, mirroring among characters serves to heighten their differences. Thus Macbeth, the young, valiant, cruel traitor/king has a foil in Duncan, the old, venerable, peaceable, and trusting king. Lady Macbeth, who casts off her femininity and claims to feel no qualms about killing her own children, is doubled in Lady Macduff, who is a model of a good mother and wife. Banquo's failure to act on the witches' prophesy is mirrored in Macbeth's drive to realize all that the witches foresee.
Similarly, much of the play is also concerned with the relation between contrasting inner and outer worlds. Beginning with the equivocal prophecies of the Weird Sisters, appearances seldom align with reality. Lady Macbeth, for example, tells her husband to "look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t" (63-64). Macbeth appears to be a loyal Thane, but secretly plans revenge. Lady Macbeth appears to be a gentle woman but vows to be "unsexed" and swears on committing bloody deeds. Macbeth is also a play about the inner world of human psychology, as will be illustrated in later acts through nightmares and guilt-ridden hallucinations. Such contrast between "being" and "seeming" serves as another illustration of equivocation.
The Macbeths and The Corruption of Nature
One of the most ambiguous aspects of the play is the character of Macbeth himself. Unlike other Shakespearean villains like Iago or Richard III, Macbeth is not entirely committed to his evil actions. When he swears to commit suicide, he must overcome an enormous resistance from his conscience. At the same time, he sees as his own biggest flaw not a lack of moral values but rather a lack of motivation to carry out his diabolical schemes. In this he resembles Hamlet, who soliloquizes numerous times about his inaction. But unlike Hamlet, Macbeth does not have a good reason to kill, nor is the man he kills evil—far from it. And finally, while Macbeth becomes increasingly devoted to murderous actions, his soliloquies are so full of eloquent speech and pathos that it is not difficult to sympathize with him. Thus at the heart of the play lies a tangle of uncertainty.
If Macbeth is indecisive, Lady Macbeth is just the opposite—a character with such a single vision and drive for advancement that she brings about her own demise. And yet her very ruthlessness brings about another form of ambiguity, for in swearing to help Macbeth realize the Weird Sisters' prophecy, she must cast off her femininity. In a speech at the beginning of Scene 5, she calls on the spirits of the air to take away her womanhood:
Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th'effect and it. (I v 38-45)
Lady Macbeth sees "remorse" as one of the names for feminine compassion—of which she must rid herself. Thus she must be "unsexed." This does not mean, however, that in rejecting her femininity she becomes manly. Instead, she becomes a woman devoid of the sexual characteristics and sentimentality that make her a woman. She becomes entirely unnatural and inhuman. Like the supernatural Weird Sisters with their beards, Lady Macbeth becomes something that does not fit into the natural world.
The corruption of nature is a theme that surfaces and resurfaces in the same act. When Duncan greets Macbeth, for example, he states that he has “begun to plant thee and will labor / to make thee full of growing" (I iv 28-29). Following the metaphor of the future as lying in the “seeds of time,” Macbeth is compared to a plant that Duncan will look after (I iii 56). By murdering Duncan, then, Macbeth perverts nature by severing himself effectively from the very "root" that feeds him. For this reason, perhaps, the thought of murdering Duncan causes Macbeth's heart to "knock at [his] ribs / Against the use of nature" (I iii 135-36). Just as the Weird Sisters pervert the normal course of nature by telling their prophecy, Macbeth upsets the course of nature by his regicide.
Reflecting the disruption of nature, the dialogue between Macbeth and Lady in the scene following the murder becomes heavy, graceless, and almost syncopated. Lady Macbeth, for example, says:
What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'd'st have, great Glamis,
That which cries "Thus thou must do," if thou have it,
And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
Than wishest should be undone. (I v 28-23).
The repetition of the phrase "thou wouldst," in all its permutations, confounds the flow of speech. The speech is clotted with accents, tangling meter and scansion, and the alliteration is almost tongue-twisting, slowing the rhythm of the words. Just as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have corrupted nature, the language Shakespeare uses in these scenes disrupts the flow of his usually smoothly iambic meter.
Yet another part of the theme of corruption of nature lies in the compression of time that occurs throughout the act. When Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter, she states: Th[ese] letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant" (I v 54-56). By telling the future to Macbeth and Banquo, the Weird Sisters upset the natural course of time and bring the future to the present. Thus when Macbeth vacillates over whether or not to kill Duncan, he wants to leap into the future: "If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly" (I vii 1-2). He wants the murder to be over quickly—indeed so quickly that it is over before the audience even registers it. Just as equivocation twists the meaning of words, Macbeth's murderous desires twist the meaning of time.
Thus beginning with the Weird Sisters, equivocation in all its permutations is threaded throughout the fabric of the first act. Over the course of the play, the breach between the worlds of reality and illusion that is the core of equivocation grows ever wider.