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Themes

Learn about themes in William Shakespeare's play Macbeth with Course Hero's video study guide.

Macbeth | Themes

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Ambition

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven to kill in the name of satisfying their ambitions. Lady Macbeth is particularly susceptible to the lure of power. Once the witches introduce the idea that Macbeth could be king, it is Lady Macbeth whose thoughts immediately turn to murder, and she plots accordingly. She is the one who pushes Macbeth to take part in killing Duncan. Once he has the throne, Macbeth works on his own to keep it, killing Banquo because he is a perceived threat. This second murder is the one that really arouses the suspicions of the other thanes and lords, which demonstrates how Macbeth's ambition becomes his undoing.

Gender Roles

Much of the action in the play is driven by women who do not act in conventionally feminine ways. Lady Macbeth defies the expectations of her gender with her ruthless actions. She asks the spirits to "unsex" her so she can carry out her part in Duncan's killing, and when Macbeth expresses any sign of doubt or guilt, she consistently attacks him for being unmanly. At the same time, she uses the expectations the other thanes and lords have for women—delicacy and sensitivity—when Macbeth is in trouble, feigning a fainting spell to create a distraction. Lady Macbeth's ultimate descent into madness serves as the punishment for her actions.

Destiny versus Free Will

After the three witches introduce their prophecy that he is to become king, Macbeth takes to the suggestion with alarming speed. Until this point, he is loyal to King Duncan and has just fought in battle to stop a rebellion against the king and bring one of the perpetrators, the Thane of Cawdor, to justice. When Macbeth is awarded Cawdor's former title, he chooses to believe the rest of the prophecy; from then on, a lust for power and revenge appears to drive his actions. In this sense, he exerts his will in service of the prophecy. The same can be said of Macbeth's belief in the other visions that "predict" his invincibility. His belief in destiny causes him to act rashly and directly leads to his destruction.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare demonstrates that exercising free will has its consequences. Although the prophesies serve as a powerful catalyst for their actions, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth show that their minds are divided in their pursuit of power. Lady Macbeth, initially firm in her resolve to act and to influence her husband's actions, eventually becomes racked with guilt, which manifests in hysteria and bizarre actions (her incessant handwashing and sleepwalking). Macbeth, initially goaded by his wife, freely chooses to follow her directives and then begins acting on his own, as when he orders killers to dispatch Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff's family. Macbeth's acts deliver the rewards he seeks (the kingship and power), but guilt gnaws at him, as seen in his fight with Macduff, when he reveals, "My soul is too much charged / with blood of thine already" (Act 5, Scene 8).

Loyalty

In the end, the thanes and lords who remained loyal to Duncan and his bloodline are rewarded. Malcolm is able to retake the throne and call his brother and Fleance back from exile. Macduff does lose his family, but he is allowed to avenge them when he kills Macbeth. Macduff also keeps his own life and title. Even Banquo will have a line of kings descended from him as his legacy. Macbeth's treachery, however, is punished by his death, but even before that, he loses the trust and faith of his people. Lady Macbeth—whose repressed guilt pushes her into insanity—precedes her husband in death.

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