The Theme Of Macbeth
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The play Macbeth written by William Shakespeare in the beginning of the 17th century, deals with a man's turn from the king's most glorious, brave and courageous general into a traitor and murderer influenced by evil forces.
In the following I am going to describe the play briefly and explain the theme of it. Furthermore I will discuss Macbeth's character and his internal conflict.
While the general Macbeth and his friend Banquo are returning from a victorious battle, King Duncan hears of their courage and bestows the title of Cawdor on the still absent Macbeth. The two warriors encounter three witches who greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and „(…) King hereafter'. They prophesize that Banquo will become king though he will not himself be one. Macbeth, who is already Thane of Glamis, is startled when two messengers from the king greet him as the new Thane of Cawdor, thus fulfilling the witches' prophecy in part. When Macbeth learns that Duncan's son Malcolm has been appointed Prince of Cumberland, automatic successor to the throne, he momentarily entertains the idea of killing the king and so begins the ultimate prediction of the witches.
Banquo resists any thoughts that might hasten the witches' prophecy that his children will be kings. Lady Macbeth, however, strengthens her husband to kill the king and they accomplish it. When the murder is discovered, the king's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, seeing a similar fate for themselves, flee Scotland. Macbeth proceeds to Scone, where he is crowned as Duncan's successor to the throne.
Banquo half-suspects Macbeth of Duncan's murder but accepts an invitation at the new king's fiest and attends it with his son Fleance. Macbeth employs two murderers to kill both in an attempt to avoid the second part of the witches' prophecies. They kill Banquo but Fleance escapes.
Macbeth decides to find the witches to demand further assurances. They answer him with a procession of ghostly appearances: an armed head which warns him against Macduff; a child covered in blood which says that „(…) none of a woman born shall harm Macbeth'; a child holding a tree, who says Macbeth will be safe until „(…) Birnam Wood (…)' comes to Dunsinane; and eight kings followed by Banquo's ghost, which, with a smile, points to them as his descendants. Leaving, Macbeth encounters the nobleman Lennox, who tells him that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth vows to kill Macduff's wife and children.
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A messenger arrives at Macduff's castle to warn her, but it is too late and Macbeth's assassins kill Lady Macduff and her children. When Macduff hears the terrible news, he swears to kill Macbeth with his own sword.
At Macbeth's castle, Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth has begun to go insane. She walks in her sleep and while her doctor and a waiting lady watch in horror, she relieves her guilt and, unconscious of the others, speaks about the crimes she and her husband have committed. Macbeth is deeply alarmed about her disorder, but, nevertheless, is preparing for the attack by the English invaders under Malcolm, who has joined with rebellious Scottish forces. Malcolm has his soldiers cut branches from Birnam Wood to carry as camouflage in the assault. Thus the prophecy „(…) till Birnam Wood to high to Dunsinane hill (…)' begins to be fulfilled. Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has died, possibly by suicide. In despair, he goes forth to battle and encounters Macduff, who destroys his last confidence by admitting that he was „(…) from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd (…)' – he „(…) was not of woman born (…)'. With this part of the prophecy no longer the protection it seemed, Macbeth dies at Macduff's hands. Macduff brings the head of Macbeth to Malcolm and hails the son of the murdered Duncan as the new King of Scotland.
By „the theme' of Macbeth one means the principal idea of the play, an idea that is seen in dramatic setting probably in every act of the play. Abstracting a theme from a play is not identical to establishing a point as fact. In Macbeth, as in other Shakespearean plays, we find that appearances are one thing, reality another. A more specific configuration of the main theme (there are also minor themes) is that only a deluded person thinks that playing with evil can leave him or her unchanged and that humanity, yielding to evil, is led to destruction.
In Act I, this idea is embodied in Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's responses to the salutations of the witches. Macbeth and his lady regard the greetings as Thane of Cawdor and future king as prophecies. Furthermore, with respect to the throne, they contemplate murder of the incumbent Duncan, although Macbeth is not told by the witches to kill Duncan for his crown. In Act II, the Macbeths are deceived by the apparent ease and subsequent guiltlessness with which they can achieve Duncan's death. In Act III, Macbeth arranges the murder of Banquo and Fleance; but Fleance, who mainly intends to continue Banquo's line, escapes. The murder of Banquo and Fleance had seemed to be assured, but the reality is otherwise. In Act IV and Act V, Macbeth wrongly reads the sayings of the second and the third apparitions – the prophecies that „none of woman born (…) shall harm Macbeth' and that he is safe „(…) till Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill (…) shall come against him'. Significantly, he takes no particular notice of the saying of the first apparition to „Beware Macduff'. In Act V, these three prophecies come true, as Macbeth learns to his horror, when Malcolm's army, disguised by branches from Birnam Wood, comes against his castle and when Macduff, confronting Macbeth, informs him that he „(…) was from his mother's womb (…) untimely ripp'd (…)' in Caesarean birth. Macbeth learns in death that appearances pointed one way, but reality, rock-hard, lay in the opposite direction. Against these rocks he is crushed.
The question why Macbeth has done all this and why the terrifying experience with Banquo's ghost did not warn him is answered by Macbeth himself: „I am in blood (…) stepp'd in so far', he says, „that, should I wade no more, (…) returning were as tedious as go o'er'. He says that he finds it too tiresome to repent. What has happened is that in making his first decision for evil instead of good, he has confused these two values. He has confused fair and foul, which confusion has all along been the devil's aim. Macbeth cannot return, even though returning means the difference between failure and success.
Foremost, Macbeth is a brave and courageous man; he is much honored by his compatriots for his leading part in defense of his good king and native land. However, almost as soon as we meet him, we realize that he is both ambitious and murderous and fears to accept the real and also the supernatural consequences of his actions. Early in the play, Shakespeare concentrates on Macbeth's courage so that he can contrast it later on with the terror and panic of Macbeth's psychological anguish. Lady Macbeth is certainly aware of her husband's fame as a fearless soldier, and she uses dazzling psychology to tempt her husband to kill Duncan: she „dares'; him to do „(…) all that may become a man'. Macbeth accepts her challenge; no one calls him a coward.
Part of Macbeth's actions, of course, can be traced to envy. Early in the play when Macbeth hears the witches, he envies Banquo's having heirs, as much as he fears, later, those same heirs as rivals for the throne. We feel pity, ultimately, for Macbeth, not hatred and disgust. This is the key to the tragedy: Macbeth's suffering is a result of his self-destructive behavior by leaving all his good qualities behind and eliminating his potentials and possibilities in an attempt to claim a fate that is not his.
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