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Macbeth - Themes: A Closer Look

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Mary Miller

on 23 April 2013

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Transcript of Macbeth - Themes: A Closer Look

What is it, exactly? Theme What exactly is this elusive thing called theme?

The theme of a fable is its moral. The theme of a parable is its teaching. The theme of a piece of fiction is its view about life and how people behave.

In fiction, the theme is not intended to teach or preach. In fact, it is not presented directly at all. You extract it from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story. In other words, you must figure out the theme yourself.

The writer's task is to communicate on a common ground with the reader. Although the particulars of your experience may be different from the details of the story, the general underlying truths behind the story may be just the connection that both you and the writer are seeking. How do you find one? Theme Here are some ways to uncover the theme in a story: Check out the title. Sometimes it tells you a lot about the theme.

Notice repeating patterns and symbols. Sometimes these lead you to the theme.

What allusions are made throughout the story?

What are the details and particulars in the story? What greater meaning may they have?

Remember that theme, plot, and structure are inseparable, all helping to inform and reflect back on each other. Also, be aware that a theme we determine from a story never completely explains the story. It is simply one of the elements that make up the whole. Key themes found in Macbeth Themes Ambition Macbeth is a play about ambition run amok. The weird sisters’ prophecies spur both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to try to fulfill their ambitions, but the witches never make Macbeth or his wife do anything. Macbeth and his wife act on their own to fulfill their deepest desires. Macbeth, a good general and, by all accounts before the action of the play, a good man, allows his ambition to overwhelm him and becomes a murdering, paranoid maniac. Lady Macbeth, once she begins to put into actions the once-hidden thoughts of her mind, is crushed by guilt.

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth want to be great and powerful, and sacrifice their morals to achieve that goal. By contrasting these two characters with others in the play, such as Banquo, Duncan, and Macduff, who also want to be great leaders but refuse to allow ambition to come before honor, Macbeth shows how naked ambition, freed from any sort of moral or social conscience, ultimately takes over every other characteristic of a person. Unchecked ambition, Macbeth suggests, can never be fulfilled, and therefore quickly grows into a monster that will destroy anyone who gives into it. Guilt One of Shakespeare's reasons for writing the play was to illustrate the terrible consequences of murdering a king. The play was first performed in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, and this theme would be very politically acceptable to an audience composed of members of James I's court. Shakespeare shows the murderers of a king tormented by their own guilt and driven to their doom. The idea of guilt first appears in Act 1 Scene 3, when Banquo shows his surprise at Macbeth's reaction to the witches' promises: "Why do you start and seem to fear, /Things that do sound so fair?" The word 'start', meaning to jump with shock, is always associated with a guilty reaction. Later, Macbeth's guilt takes visual form when he hallucinates that a blood-covered dagger is leading him to murder Duncan. In the murder scene, we again see Macbeth tormented by guilt. Shakespeare has the murder happen offstage so that he can focus on Macbeth's tormented mental state. Macbeth is terrified by his own sense of sin, as he could not say 'Amen' when he heard someone praying. He imagines his guilty conscience will never let him sleep peacefully again: "Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more”". References to sleeplessness recur later in the play, as when Lady Macbeth says, "You lack the season of all natures, sleep". Even when he does sleep he will be tormented by his guilt in the "terrible dreams that shake us nightly".
One of most striking images in the play equates guilt with the idea of blood-stained hands. Macbeth refers to his own hands as "hangman's hands", which would be covered in blood from disembowelling victims of execution. When Lady Macbeth urges him to wash the blood off, he realises the impossibility of washing away his guilt. His crime is so wicked that the blood will "the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red". During the murder scene, Lady Macbeth reassures him: "A little water clears us of the deed". The audience will realise the irony of this during her sleepwalking scene later in the play, when she obsessively washes imaginary blood from her hands.

After arranging Banquo's murder, Macbeth is tortured by guilt even more. Again this takes visual form, as he imagines the ghost of Banquo returned to accuse him: "Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me"! In Act 5, we see Lady Macbeth destroyed by the strain as her guilt becomes revealed for all to see. The metaphor of a guilty conscience being represented by the image of sleeplessness is shown in her sleepwalking. She is also seen constantly washing her hands, as her guilt has made the stains seem indelible to her: "Out damned spot!…'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand". Her rambling words reveal her complicity in Macbeth's crimes: "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? … The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?" Her reassurance to Macbeth in Act 3"What's done is done" is twisted into a despairing admission of guilt: "What's done cannot be undone". When he meets his nemesis, Macduff, Macbeth finally faces his guilt. Believing in the witches' prophecy that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth", he warns Macduff to stay away from him, admitting "My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already", a reference to the brutal killing of Macduff's wife and children. When Macduff reveals he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped", Macbeth knows he is about to pay for his crimes. Fate & Destiny From the moment the weird sisters tell Macbeth and Banquo their prophecies, both the characters and the audience are forced to wonder about fate. Is it real? Is action necessary to make it come to pass, or will the prophecy come true no matter what one does? Different characters answer these questions in different ways at different times, and the final answers are ambiguous—as fate always is.

Unlike Banquo, Macbeth acts: he kills Duncan. Macbeth tries to master fate, to make fate conform to exactly what he wants. But, of course, fate doesn’t work that way. By trying to master fate once, Macbeth puts himself in the position of having to master fate always. At every instant, he has to struggle against those parts of the witches’ prophecies that don’t favor him. Ultimately, Macbeth becomes so obsessed with his fate that he becomes delusional: he becomes unable to see the half-truths behind the witches’ prophecies. By trying to master fate, he brings himself to ruin. Order and Disorder Only a century earlier, England had suffered under the massive disorder of the Wars of the Roses. Civil disorder was now seen as the ultimate disaster, and also as an ungodly state. In Macbeth, Shakespeare reminds his audience of this, as a further warning against treachery. The play begins with disorder as a battle is raging between the Scots and the Norwegians, assisted by some traitors. The "thunder and lightning" of the stage direction symbolises this "hurly-burly", as the witches flippantly refer to the fighting. Order is restored by the "captains, Macbeth and Banquo" who are victorious. At this stage, Macbeth could be seen as a force for good. However, his bloodthirsty brutality in the battle contradicts this impression: in killing Macdonald, he "unseamed him from the nave to the chaps and fixed his head upon our battlements." The order restored is soon seen to be an illusion. The fact that Macbeth's opening words "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" echo the chant of the witches links Macbeth with the forces of disorder, as does his eagerness to communicate with them, "Tell me more!" The fact that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth frequently invoke darkness, always linked to the forces of evil and disorder, prepares the audience for the disorder to come: "Stars, hide your fires"; "Come thick night" etc. Darkness allows evil to flourish. In seeking to make the witches' prophecies come true, Macbeth brings about disorder. The Elizabethans believed in "The Great Chain of Being". This was the idea that everyone was ordered by God into his allotted place, with the king at the head. By killing the king and taking his place, Macbeth was subverting this natural order. Disorder in nature reflects the disorder in human affairs. On the night Duncan is murdered, Lennox describes the 'unruly' storm, and even an earthquake: "chimneys were blown down…the earth was feverous and did shake." Order and disorder are clearly illustrated at Macbeth's banquet. When his guests arrive, he greets them with the words, "You know your own degrees, sit down". This is ironic, in that he has ignored his own 'degree' or station in life, and tried to take a higher place. With the appearance of the ghost and Macbeth's loss of control, the banquet breaks up in disorder, with Lady Macbeth confirming this with her words, 'Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once'. Disorder is described in the reign of terror conducted by Macbeth, culminating in the second great battle between Macbeth and the forces of Macduff and Malcolm. With Malcolm's victory, order is truly restored. Appearances important theme is introduced in the witches' cThishant of "Fair is foul and foul is fair". There are frequent verbal paradoxes in the play emphasising this duality, such as "when the battle's lost and won". This suggests that something may be good for some people, but bad for others. To Macbeth, the promises of the witches seem good, but this is deceptive: actually, they will destroy him. Duncan, too, makes errors, misjudging the appearance of his thanes. He has been betrayed by the first thane of Cawdor, noting ruefully, "there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face". This is echoed by Macbeth's resolve that "False face must hide what the false heart doth know". When Duncan visits Macbeth's castle, he is deceived by the tranquil atmosphere "This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself". Banquo too is taken in by the deceptive calm and beauty of the place, sensing the presence of "heaven's breath". Lady Macbeth and Macbeth pretend to welcome Duncan affectionately while harbouring murderous thoughts. As king and queen, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth put on a false front. At the banquet, Macbeth says he will 'play' the humble host, which is appropriate, since he is not king by right, but just performing a role. Lady Macbeth's demeanour of hard control is a pretence. When she encourages her husband to be "bright and jovial" among his guests, she had just expressed her own despair: "Nought's had, all's spent". Perhaps the clearest examples of false appearance are in the promises made by the witches' apparitions: "None of woman born shall harm Macbeth"; "Fear not, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane". These promises appear to say Macbeth is invincible, but this is an illusion.

Malcolm uses false appearance to test Macduff, first claiming he is thoroughly wicked to see if Macduff would support such a person. Malcolm reflects on the difficulty of deciding whether people are good or bad, and that this may lead good people to be misjudged: "angels are bright still, though the brightest fell." The Supernatural Witchcraft features prominently in Macbeth. The play opens, in fact, with the weird sisters conjuring on the Scottish heath. The witches are also the figures that set the play in motion when they accurately predict that Macbeth will be crowned king. Clearly, they have supernatural powers but their power over Macbeth is debatable. At times, the weird sisters seem to represent general anxieties about the unknown. They also seem to represent fears of powerful women who invert traditional gender roles. Elsewhere, the witches appear rather harmless, despite their malevolent intentions. Ultimately, the weird sisters are ambiguous figures that raise more questions than can be answered.
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