4 Major Themes in Macbeth

1. Unchecked Ambition: The Tragic Flaw of Macbeth

The most important theme of the play is the corrupting power of unchecked ambition. Macbeth’s own ambition leads to his downfall. The same is true in case of Lady Macbeth as well. While having goals and ambitions is generally perceived as good attributes that drive an individual to constantly strive for betterment, the downside of unchecked ambition can be disastrous. In case of both Macbeth and his wife, their ambition is not restrained by morality; and thus leads to a trajectory of death and destruction. Their ambition can be contrasted with that of Banquo in order to understand what role morality plays in keeping a check upon ambition. While Banquo too is ambitious when he learns about the witches’ prophecy that his son will become king someday, he does not resort to immorality. Whereas, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth let their ambition get the better of them by not caring for any moral restrictions. Their individual desire for power and stature brings a cloud of fear and dread over the whole country. And eventually their ambitions, tainted by crime and guilt, take the form of self-destruction. Macbeth kills Duncan despite his better judgement, but he also realises soon after that he shall never have peaceful sleep again. Although he does achieve what he desires, but rather than enjoying the fruits of his ambition, he becomes obsessed with maintaining the power that he has wrongfully gained. The guilt and paranoia stay with him ever since he murders Duncan. He is so blinded by his ambition to retain his throne that he keeps committing one crime after another. In his paranoia, he keeps eliminating every possible threat to his throne without any hesitation. He even murders the innocent wife and children of Macduff just because he is outraged that Macduff escaped before he could kill him.

The same self-destructive consequence of ambition is displayed by Lady Macbeth as well. She starts off with greater determination to pursue her ambition to become queen and even manipulates Macbeth for it. But she is less capable of bearing the repercussions of her unchecked ambitions. While she encourages her husband to put the past behind, she herself cannot do that as the ghosts of her immoral acts refuse to let go of her mind. She slides into madness as she cannot deal with the guilt of having so much blood on her hands. Thus, through the two main characters Shakespeare shows that unchecked ambition can lead even the strongest of man and woman to commit terrible atrocities and at the same time, the burden of one’s immoral actions can drive the strongest person to madness.

2. Kingship vs Tyranny

The play also represents the theme that differentiates between kingship and tyranny. The contrast and the differences between the two are expressed well when Malcolm attempts to paint a reproachable image of himself in order to test Macduff. In his conversation with Macduff, Malcolm gives the picture of how an ideal king should be and what he should not. A king should always be loyal to his country. Macbeth’s thirst for personal power made him a tyrant, whereas an ideal king should place the interest of the country above his own. Macbeth’s rule brings a time of darkness in Scotland, represented through bad weathers and gloomy environment. The people of his country do not feel safe from their own king. Rather than provide safety and protection to his subjects, Macbeth keeps on murdering one person after another and does not even spare women and children. Macbeth’s character represents everything that an ideal king should not be. His character when contrasted with that of Duncan gives the audience the difference between tyranny and true kingship. While Macbeth only cares about his own gains and powers, Duncan used to be a king who appreciated loyalty and rewarded people for their merits. Instead of maintaining law and order like a true king, Macbeth’s rule only brings chaos in the country as he lets the country drown and suffer because of his selfish ambitions.

3. Manhood

Another theme of the play is the relationship between violence and masculinity. Lady Macbeth repeatedly questions Macbeth’s manhood when he hesitates to kill Duncan. She even wishes for herself to be “unsexed” to get the courage for the violent act. Even when Macbeth persuades the murderers to kill Banquo, he does it by questioning their manhood. Through such instances the play shows that masculinity is equated with naked aggression and violence.

While both men and women are shown to be equally ambitious and cruel, the play shows a stark difference between the means each employ to achieve their ambitions. The ideas of masculinity and femininity are linked to violence and manipulation, respectively. Moreover, the female characters are shown in a way that their behaviour goes against the prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave. This is especially evident when Lady Macbeth’s character is shown as wishing to be stripped of feminine traits. Many critics have argued Macbeth to be Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play.

Nevertheless, by the end of the play the idea of masculinity is revised to show more sensitivity. When Macduff grieves for his family, Malcolm consoles him and suggest he deals with it like a man by fighting Macbeth and taking revenge. To this, Macduff responds, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man”. It seems the young heir learns this lesson of sentient nature of masculinity from Malcolm. This is apparent in the way Malcolm responds to Young Siward’s death. When Siward responds to his son’s death rather complacently, Malcolm says “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him”. Thus, it is shown by the end that feeling grief and sorrow is only human and it is not opposed to masculinity.

4. The Burden of Guilt

Another theme that is dominant in the play is guilt. Right after killing Duncan, Macbeth wonders about his sense of guilt by talking about the literal blood on his hands. He says to his wife:

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.

The use of language is of course grand and dramatic, but it reflects gravity and depth of his feelings. He says that the blood is so much that it can turn all the oceans of the world red. He means that the implications of his action cannot be hidden. Even if they hide the evidence from the eyes of people, their own soul will never be able to hide from the consequences of his terrible crime. He knows he will forever be a changed man from that very moment. Lady Macbeth responds by asking him to simply go and wash away the blood, implying that it can be easily washed off. Ironically, however, it is Lady Macbeth who later begins to hallucinate and in her hallucinations, she desperately tries to wash the stubborn stains of blood, thus symbolising her sense of guilt.

The play shows the extent to which guilt can torment one’s mind. After killing his friend Banquo, Macbeth’s guilt makes him hallucinate as he sees Banquo’s ghost. Similarly, Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk, and, in her dream, she desperately tries to remove her guilt, represented through invisible stains of blood on her hands. Right after the moment he killed Duncan, Macbeth realises that his guilt will not let him sleep ever again. Although Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to leave the past behind as what is done cannot be undone, neither she nor her husband is able to do that. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth carry the burden of their guilt throughout the play. This shows that perhaps they are not entirely cold- blooded but just two people who are blinded by their ambitions. Although they have committed terrible crimes, they know they have done wrong and that the guilt of it will haunt them for the rest of their lives. It is her guilt that ultimately drives Lady Macbeth to insanity and eventually to her death. Macbeth, on the other hand, continues to fight and kill for his crown but every moment of his thoughts is tortured by the guilt of his past deeds.

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