Themes in Macbeth
The Danger of Ambition: Ambition for power is foregrounded as the key theme within Shakespeare’s play. More specifically, Shakespeare uses his narrative to demonstrate the danger of unchecked ambition. Macbeth’s ruthless ambition and pride have disastrous, bloody consequences.
Fate vs. Freewill: While some readers may see Macbeth’s fate as predetermined by the witches’ prophecy, other readers view his actions as an exercise of free will. Shakespeare provides evidence for both interpretations, which suggests the real answers lies somewhere between, in the murky middle.
The Natural and the Supenatural: Shakespeare uses supernatural elements, such as witches, ghosts, prophecy, and hallucinations throughout the play to conflate reality with the uncanny. The supernatural also represents an inversion of the natural order. Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s unnatural ambition and murderous plot turn the world of the play upside down so that “fair is foul and foul is fair.” Everything in the play becomes untrustworthy, especially characters’ appearance and claims to sanity.
Gender-Role Subversion: Shakespeare directly subverts early modern social expectations that women were supposed to be nurturing wives and mothers. Main female character Lady Macbeth is more concerned with power and tyranny than family and the domestic household. Lady Macbeth mocks Macbeth’s masculinity in order to manipulate him into murdering King Duncan. In this way, Lady Macbeth appears to embody a sense of self-assurance and strength more than her soldier husband.
Themes Examples in Macbeth:
Act I - Scene I 1
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Shakespeare establishes a mysterious, chilling tone and conveys one of the main themes of the play: Things are not what they seem, and the witches suggest that perhaps what is good will be bad, and what is bad will be good.
Act I - Scene II 1
"O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Shakespeare portrays Macbeth in the early scenes of the play at the apex of his personal power and fame. While the accolades Macbeth receives might seem excessive at times, Shakespeare uses them for a purpose with Macbeth's character arc. Notice how this portrayal of Macbeth shifts throughout the play in order to establish the overall tragedy of Macbeth and the story.
Act I - Scene III 2
"My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,(150) Shakes so my single state of man that function Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is But what is not...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Macbeth's imagination turns immediately to murderous plots after the witches reveal their prophecy. Macbeth is more frightened by his imagination than his present state because his fantasies begin to take over his reality. "Nothing is but what is not" touches on the major theme in Macbeth of inversion: that which is real becomes unreal when the lines between ambitious fantasy and reality are blurred. In usurping the King, Macbeth converts the real world into his fantasy space and gives life to these murderous thoughts; his thoughts become his state of man.
"Or have we eaten on the insane root..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
The herb Banquo refers to is possibly a hemlock or henbane, both of which are deadly. He brings this up to Macbeth as a way to justify the witches sudden disappearance, suggesting that perhaps they have accidentally lost their reason.
Act I - Scene VI 1
"This castle hath a pleasant seat..." See in text (Act I - Scene VI)
Duncan has never been to or seen Macbeth's castle before. He finds it very pleasant, which is ironic considering the fate that awaits him within. This deception of appearance is a good example of the theme the witches' established early on: Fair is foul and foul is fair. What looks so pretty and pleasant to the King is actually a death trap.
Act II - Scene I 1
"I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, Which was not so before...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
The illusory dagger becomes covered in blood as Macbeth continues to watch it. This vision adds another supernatural element to the play with symbolic meaning: It represents Macbeth's inner turmoil and feelings of horror about the murder he is about to commit.
Act II - Scene IV 2
"’Tis said they eat each other...." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Shakespeare uses these signs and warnings to foreshadow that more unpleasantness will happen. The eclipse and the story of the owl and falcon to show how nature has become unbalanced as a result of Duncan's murder.
"Hath trifled former knowings...." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
In all of his years of experience, the Old Man has never experiences anything as dreadful or strange at the night after Duncan's murder. The use of the word trifle here as a noun means that his previous knowledge or experience seems unimpressive or not noteworthy. This opening statement and the continuing dialogue help to renew the feelings of horror, dread, and unnaturalness surrounding the death of Duncan.
Act III - Scene IV 1
"they say blood will have blood...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Now that the guests have left, Macbeth relapses and begins to brood over the killing of Banquo. This line indicates that he is certain that the crime will be discoverer and that he will pay for it, that blood will be paid for with more blood. This idea is pervasive throughout the drama as Macbeth's bloody actions lead to bloodier consequences.
Act IV - Scene I 2
"Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog,(15) Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and howlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
This incantation is the most famous depiction of witchcraft in the Western canon. The three witches's spell emphasizes the play's theme of inversion. They fragment parts of the natural world in order to create an unnatural outcome; in other words, they use pieces of animals instead of whole parts in order to turn reality upside down. The rhyming couplets and lilting seven syllable lines also highlight the enchanting power of language, which can be used to create beauty, or in this case, to engender horrific deception and evil.
"Harpier..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
This word represents a non-standard spelling of "harpy." In Greek and Roman mythology, harpies are horrifying monsters that have women's faces and the bodies of birds. They are regarded as filthy and covetous, always preying on others and wanting more. While they sometimes supposedly administer divine vengeance, commonly their mention or presence contributes to a dangerous or evil atmosphere or theme, as in this case with the witches.
Act V - Scene I 3
"’tis her command...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice how Lady Macbeth's fear of darkness contrasts with her earlier invocation that night cover the bloody deeds surrounding Duncan's murder. Where once she welcomed the darkness for what it offered, now she can't be left alone in it. Considering that light and dark often coincide with good and evil, Lady Macbeth's actions further emphasize her fear and guilt of past sins.
"perturbation..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, "perturbation" refers to a systematic imbalance or disorder with nature, which the Doctor uses to describe Lady Macbeth's natural sleep cycle. However, recall that since the death of Duncan, an imbalance in the natural world has symbolically coincided with Macbeth's reign.
"Out, damned spot!..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
This phrase reveals one of the themes in Macbeth: The difficulty of washing away a sin from the soul, of redemption. After killing Duncan, Macbeth was told by his wife to simply wash away the blood (a visual metaphor for his sin). However, this line suggests that subconsciously she knows that cleansing oneself of sin is not possible by any physical means.