Knowing Macbeth’s key themes isn’t only useful for scoring high marks: it can also help you structure your revision and use your time more effectively. Mentor Education’s Senior Tutor in English, Sara Di Fagandini, explains more about the key themes of Macbeth.
Most teachers will tell you that, to score 8s or 9s for Macbeth, you need to know your themes, but there’s another, more practical reason to brush up on them too, namely that the most popular exam boards nearly always set questions structured around them. Past AQA or Edexcel papers, for example, ask candidates to examine themes like ambition, guilt, violence and the supernatural.
It’s therefore vital to learn and revise Macbeth’s themes, making an Act Overview and any key scenes and quotations that relate to them. To really get to grips with them, you could ‘map’ the play thematically (so go through the different acts, making lists of which themes occur and where) or build theme-focused profiles for key characters. Make sure to keep notes on any crossovers between themes, as the strongest essays will bring in elements of different themes where necessary.
So, what is a theme? A theme is an idea, or set of underlying ideas, which are repeated in a play, film or novel. Themes help shape the plot and drive the action forward and are often key to understanding character’s behaviours and motivations.
Ambition and Power
Ambition has mostly negative consequences for Macbeth’s characters: particularly Lady Macbeth, who is sent mad with guilt over her and her husband’s actions; and Macbeth himself, who speaks in Act 1, Scene 7 of his overreaching or ‘vaulting ambition’ (l. 27-28). Other examinations of ambition, however, are positive – for example, Macduff’s ambitions to help Malcolm reclaim his rightful place on the throne – suggesting that ambition can be both good and helpful if done for the right reasons.
The Three Witches and Banquo’s ghost stand as more obvious examples of the supernatural as “things that go bump in the night”, but more sensitive explorations will examine the supernatural’s link with ambition and power, and how Shakespeare’s use of imagery, strange and unnatural events, and weather patterns (known as ‘pathetic fallacy’) indicate how the natural world responds to Duncan’s murder.
Imagery of darkness and bad weather is used to introduce the Witches (Act 1, Scene 1) and also appears in Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, when she calls for ‘thick night’ so that she might not see the consequences of her actions. It is picked up again at various points, including the conversation between Ross and the Old Man (Act 2, Scene 4), where we learn that, although it is daylight, ‘dark night strangles the travelling lamp’ (l.7). Macbeth’s own transgression of the divine right of kings (the idea that monarchs are appointed by God) in murdering Duncan seems also to undo natural order, as we learn that a falcon is killed by an owl and that Duncan’s horses ‘turned wild in nature’ before eating each other (Act 2, Scene 4, l.12-16). Here, the theme of the supernatural links closely with that of order and disorder to create a chaotic backdrop against which Malcolm’s final speech in Act 5, Scene 11, calling for peace and the establishment of a new order, takes on added significance.
Appearance Vs. Reality
When it comes to appearance and reality, there is, of course, much crossover with the supernatural, but this theme can also be observed within the play’s characters and their actions, particularly Lady Macbeth who, in Act 1, Scene 5, advises her husband to ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (l. 63-64). Further examples are the appearances to Macbeth first of the dagger (Act 2, Scene 1), sometimes considered a figment of his imagination rather than a physical object, and secondly of Banquo’s ghost, with Macbeth’s distress explained away by Lady Macbeth as her husband being unwell. See also Lady Macbeth’s own sightings of the ‘damned spot’ in Act 5, Scene 1 (l. 30), demonstrating also how this theme relates to that of guilt, and manifests accordingly in visions and madness for the murderous couple.
Macbeth is full of violence, opening in the aftermath of one bloody battle and closing with another, between Macbeth and Macduff, where we learn that Macduff was born via caesarian section and, as such, ‘from my mother’s womb / Untimely ripped’ (l. 15-16). Certain other key scenes, however, suggest that while violence is certainly present in the play, it is not its most important element: Duncan’s death and Lady Macbeth’s suicide occur off-stage, while Banquo’s murder takes place under cover of darkness. Violent language and imagery is also present in numerous speeches, for example, Lady Macbeth’s admission in Act 1, Scene 7 that she would kill her own baby (‘I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out’, l. 56-58), had she promised to do so.
The ways in which Shakespeare twists the typical male and female ‘behaviours’ of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don’t often come up as their own exam question, but any answer on Lady Macbeth should reference her soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, where she invokes the spirits to ‘unsex me here’ (l. 39), asking them to block her “feminine” propensity for compassion and swap her breast milk for ‘gall’ (poison; l.46). Particularly in its historical context, where gender roles were set and adhered to, the theatre (where women were played by male actors) provided a subtly subversive space in which to play and experiment with preconceived ideas. Lady Macbeth constantly emasculates her husband, belittling him (in Act 1, Scene 7 she tells him ‘to be so much more the man’, l. 51) and taking decisions on his behalf, for example disposing of the daggers in Act 2, Scene 2 after Macbeth kills Duncan.
All line references are taken from the Norton Shakespeare International Student Edition.