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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. Free Will: 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 Supernatural: 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

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"Fair is foul, and foul is fair...."   (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.

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"Enter three Witches..."   (Act I - Scene I)

It should be remembered that "witches" were not just a feature of artistic works. In Shakespeare's time, witchcraft and witches were a part of the real world, with people being accused of (and punished for) activity in the occult. Women in particular were thought to be more likely to be in touch with the metaphysical world and therefore more likely to come under suspicion.

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"O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!..."   (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.

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"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...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Macbeth's imagination turns immediately to murderous plots after the witches reveal their prophecy. Macbeth is frightened by his imagination as his ambitious 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 fantasy and reality are blurred. As he considers usurping the King, Macbeth converts the real world into his fantasy space and loses the ability to act as he should, as the Thane of Cawdor and a loyal subject to Duncan.

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"Or have we eaten on the insane root..."   (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.

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"And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so...."   (Act I - Scene III)

This quote speaks to the theme of appearance versus reality. To Macbeth and Banquo, the witches should be women, yet they see beards. This makes them question if they are women or men, based upon how they look. 

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"This castle hath a pleasant seat..."   (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.

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"I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, Which was not so before...."   (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.

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"’Tis said they eat each other...."   (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.

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"Hath trifled former knowings...."   (Act II - Scene IV)

In all of his years, the Old Man has never experienced 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.

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"they say blood will have blood...."   (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.

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"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...."   (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.

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"Harpier..."   (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.

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"’tis her command...."   (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.

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"perturbation..."   (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.

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"Out, damned spot!..."   (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.

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"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!(25) Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing..."   (Act V - Scene V)

In a play in which ambition and power were the only goals of the main characters, Macbeth realizes that all of his decisions and actions are meaningless: life is a "brief candle" set to go out. Not only does Macbeth realize that life is meaningless, he begins to see his life as ruled by others. This is a take on the Shakespearian trope of "all the world's a stage;" but rather than highlighting the performed nature of identity or love, Macbeth uses this theater metaphor to show that our ambitions and actions are part of a badly scripted performance without meaning. In other words, life, ambition, achievement are all illusions that dissolve in death. This is one of the most famous speeches from this play and it has inspired multiple literary and artistic works, including William Faulkner's 1929 The Sound and The Fury.

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"(30)..."   (Act V - Scene V)

Harold Bloom argues that Macbeth's response to his wife's death is nihilistic. In Macbeth's world, there is no life after death (541).

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998. Print.

William Faulkner borrowed the phrase "sound and fury" for the title of one of his best novels, The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner had a pessimistic view of life and human nature himself. "When [Malcolm] Cowley, for example, wrote asking if it would be fair to call his work a 'myth or legend of the South,' Faulkner testily replied that the South 'is not very important to me,' adding, in a gratuitous discharge of bile, that in his opinion human life is 'the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.'" Frederick Crews, "Faulkner Methodized."

If motion pictures had existed in Shakespeare's time he might have said that life is like a black-and-white movie, because the actors we see on the screen really are "walking shadows." Shakespeare seems to be saying that we are all like actors on the stage but each of us is carrying a candle which casts a shadow on the floor. When our candle burns out, we cease to exist. We are as insubstantial as shadows.

Notice how the words "struts," "frets," "hour," "upon," etc., are stressed in the meter of the following lines to create the impression of a gigantic shadow pacing across a stage:

...a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, 
And then is heard no more.

With the last two words, “no more,” it is as if the sounds of the shadow’s pacing fade out. This is because of the strong “O” sounds in “no” and “more” and also because the word “no” is not naturally stressed. The metrical stress, if anywhere, would be on the word “more”—almost like an echo of the departed shadow’s footsteps. A huge shadow has paced across the stage and disappeared on the other side. These wonderful words can be much better appreciated if one reads them aloud. (But, for that matter, all of Shakespeare’s words can be better appreciated if one reads them aloud, because they were intended to be spoken aloud.)

Why does Macbeth use the word "fools" to describe all those who have died before him? They were fools because all their plans and activities were canceled by death.

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