Macbeth Study Guide: Main Themes

Main Themes

By ShakespeareRelease Year: 1623

Themes and symbols in Macbeth are the basic and repeatedly common thoughts looked at in a literary work. Symbols refer to the forms, characters, and items used to stand for theoretical thoughts, concepts or ideas. There are a number of themes, motifs, and symbols that have been used in Macbeth as discussed and analyzed below:

Major themes in Macbeth

  1. Uncontrolled ambitions

 One of the major themes in Macbeth by Shakespeare is the devastating effects that can occur if ambition is allowed to overstep the boundaries of morality. When ambition goes without being checked by moral controls, it can cause more harm than good. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth best bring out the destructive effects of unchecked ambitions. Even though it is not in Macbeth’s nature to commit evil deeds, the prospect of being in power, coupled with the pressure from his wife leads him to become overambitious and plot to do whatever it takes to get into power, including murder. The ambition of Macbeth and his wife to get into the power lead them to plot the murder of King Duncan and they eventually kill him. Ambition is seen to be the driving force in the play. Macbeth and his wife kill King Duncan because of their ambition to get into power. The ambition that Lady Macbeth has for her husband further inspires ambition within Macbeth to do whatever it takes to get into power.

Uncontrolled ambition in the play has been seen to have a corrupting influence on the morals of people. They would go to the extent of killing others just to fulfill their desires and ambitions. Unchecked ambition turned Macbeth into a tyrant, dictator, and murderer because he resorted to killing people who dared oppose him. The effects of uncontrolled ambitions become too much to bear for both Macbeth and his wife. Macbeth ends up feeling guilty for every single evil act he commits. Lady Macbeth also becomes more affected by her evil deeds and those of her husband to the extent that she even commits suicide. At first, ambition appears to be driving them to do great things and advance in life but when their ambition gets to unchecked levels outside the confines of morality, they are consumed by guilt.

  1. Power

Power has manifested itself in different ways in the play. There are major differences between how King Duncan used his position in power and how Macbeth abused power. King Duncan is used to representing good, visionary and forward-thinking leadership. He does not use his power as king to oppress and violate the rights of others. He does not let power get into his head and lead him to commit evil acts. He uses his power well to lead his people to prosperity. Macbeth, on the other hand, is a great example of how a king can misuse power bestowed upon him for his own selfish gains. His greed for power, sparked by false prophesies from the three witches lead him to kill King Duncan and take over power. This does not stop there as his ambition for power makes him commit numerous more murders of people who oppose him. He does this so that he can retain power. Lady Macbeth also proves to be power hungry and would do anything to ensure his husband gets a taste of being in power. She manipulates her husband to do evil acts and kill people so that he can get into power and retain it.

She feels that she will enjoy the privileges of being in power if her husband is the king. Malcolm is also used by the playwright to show that power does not have to corrupt the mind of a leader. Malcolm clearly spells out that to be in power, a king has to be gracious, ensure justice, lowliness, mercy, perseverance, bounty, temperance, and verity. The same qualities were exemplified by King Duncan when he was in power. This is quite opposite of how Macbeth uses power. He only brings death and destruction while he is king. The relationship between tyranny and good kingship is a major theme in the play as summarized and analyzed above. Macbeth has been used as an embodiment of destruction and tyranny while in power, whereas King Duncan, as well as Malcolm, have been used to represent justice and order.

  1. Macbeth Themes and Symbols: Link between Masculinity and Cruelty

Gender issues present themselves numerous times in the play. The male gender is considered to be stronger than the female gender. As is evident, only men serve in the army because they are thought to be the only ones with the ability to fight. The army is not considered a place for women because they are thought to be weak and frail. When Macbeth’s manhood is questioned by Lady Macbeth, he is forced to commit murder and other atrocities just to look man enough. This shows that men are expected to be courageous enough to carry out anything that needs to be done. Macbeth feels less of a man when his wife manipulates him by questions his manhood. He goes ahead to commit atrocities just to prove that he is a man because he does not want to be seen as being weak. This shows that even women themselves believe that they are weaker than men.

Men, just by virtue of being men, are expected to have the ability to be cruel without feeling guilty. Macbeth also questions the manhood of the killers hired to kill Banquo. This is intended for manipulating them to do the job well because it is believed that men are aggressive and cruel. Macbeth and his wife seem to think that being a man gives one the power to be cruel and ruthless. The political wars, chaos, and assassinations also take place because Macbeth feels emasculated when people oppose him. He murders his opponents just to prove that he is a brave man. Women in the play are also used to perpetuate violence and evil. Lady Macbeth manipulates his husband to committing murder by questioning his manhood. The three witches manipulate Macbeth into thinking that he will become the king, forcing him to also commit murder in order to fulfill his manly ambitions.

  1. Appearance and Reality Themes Analysis

Throughout the play, there are people and occurrences that are not what they seem or portray themselves to be. The three witches appeared to have good intentions for Macbeth through prophecies they made. However, it later becomes apparent that they are working for Hecate. They deceive Macbeth using false prophesies to get him to fulfill their own personal agendas. Macbeth and his wife also appear to be devoted and loyal to King Duncan to such an extent that Macbeth is made the Thane of Cawdor but they have secret and evil motives that seek to get King Duncan out of power in order to fulfill their selfish ambitions.

Lady Macbeth appears to be a good and loving wife but she is the force and mastermind behind her husband’s atrocities. Although Macbeth and his wife appear to be having a loving and fulfilling relationship, the reality is that Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband into doing evil and they end up feeling guilty about it. Generally, violence and evil are expected to be perpetuated by men, especially during that time. However, women seem to be just as good in plotting evil and perpetuating violence as seen through the actions of Lady Macbeth, Hecate, and the three witches. They even seem to be better at it than men.

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