Macbeth Themes


Perhaps the most obvious subject or theme in Macbeth is ambition and we see this with both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They are tempted by the idea that Macbeth will become king - Macbeth is not sure what to do but his wife is ruthless in getting what she wants - she views her husband as a coward and appears ready to do anything. Ambition leads to evil - it makes Macbeth stronger and more determined, but then destroys his wife - she goes mad. And ambition eventually kills him as well, because he becomes a tyrant and so loses the support of his friends.

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Another major theme is the supernatural - the idea that there are mysterious forces controlling what is happening in our lives. The very first characters we meet are the three witches, and their prophecies are what drives the story forward. In Shakespeare's time belief in witchcraft was very strong and many so-called witches were burnt at the stake. It is not surprising that his audience would have taken these ideas seriously and felt that Macbeth was somehow possessed. There are lots of references to this - he is unable to say 'Amen', he has visions, he is disturbed and even thinks no-one can kill him.

The final battle scene also contains many elements of the supernatural. Macbeth believes he is invincible because many of the witches' prophecies appear impossible to fulfil - and yet just as the witches predicted Birnam Wood does indeed move to Dunsinane, and Macbeth is killed by Macduff because he is not 'of woman born'.

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Reality and appearance

The contrast between what is real and the appearance of something is used by Shakespeare. The dagger scene, when Macbeth is not sure if he can trust his eyes, is only one of many references to this theme. For instance, he sees Banquo's ghost at the banquet and Lady Macbeth imagines blood on her hands.

The contrast between reality and appearance is also shown with all the references to thoughts, dreams and actions. Banquo talks about the 'cursed thoughts' he has had and his dreams of the witches. Macbeth talks of the world of thought and dreams and sometimes is stuck there. For instance, Lady Macbeth is critical of Macbeth's 'foolish thoughts' and talks of him being 'lost' because of this.

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Loyalty and guilt

Loyalty and guilt are strong themes in Macbeth. Duncan clearly values loyalty - he has the first Thane of Cawdor executed and rewards Macbeth by making him the new Thane. Shakespeare cleverly uses loyalty as a dramatic device as well - Duncan is in the middle of talking about 'absolute trust' when Macbeth walks in - we know he's already thought about killing Duncan, but for the moment he talks about 'the loyalty I owe' and his 'duties' to Duncan.

Loyalty is also very important to Banquo - he will not desert Duncan. Macbeth, however, has an odd idea of loyalty - he knows he is doing the wrong thing, but he still goes ahead. Early on in the play perhaps it is his wife who is manipulating him, but later on it is Macbeth who makes the decisions. And later on he also starts to show he hates disloyalty, threatening his messengers and servants.


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Reality and appearance (cont.)

Sleep is another theme associated with reality, because characters view it as vital to life, but like death or being in another world. Macbeth is told he has murdered sleep and will 'sleep no more' whilst Lady Macbeth thinks of sleep as death, calling it the sternest 'goodnight'.

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Loyalty and guilt (cont.)

Macbeth also shows his guilt - he is unsure before the murder and regrets it immediately after. Lady Macbeth is the opposite - she seems to show no guilt at the time and even talks about how 'a little water' cleans away the blood. Her increasing madness later on is a sign of her guilt and she imagines her hands to be stained with blood.

There may be other topics you can spot, such as violence, destruction and tyranny. It's good to include something about the basic ideas within Macbeth in your own work. This will help you understand what the play is about, how it all fits together and how Shakespeare used ideas to frighten, shock and entertain his audiences.

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