By way of introduction, six major themes are briefly discussed. As you read through the play consider the questions included below.
Good and evil
The conflict between good and evil is not only confined to Macbeth. We find it in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Throughout all of his plays Shakespeare uses characters and events to show us what is good and evil. Some of the values he considers good are, for example, loyalty, generosity, honesty and courage. Evil is represented by, among others, treachery, dishonesty, cowardice and a lack of moral discipline.
You will notice as you read Macbeth and get to know the text well that it is sometimes difficult to say whether characters are good or evil. At times it seems obvious that Macbeth and his wife are evil. However, if there were nothing good about them we would find nothing to admire in them and would therefore not be moved by their downfall. Macduff too, appears to be a wholly admirable and good man; but can we really approve of the way he abandons his family and leaves them defenceless when he flees to England?
Make a list of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s good qualities and see how these people are corrupted by the evil in them. Perhaps it is because of their admirable qualities that their corruption moves us to pity their tragedy.
Shakespeare portrays the nature of evil in many different ways. Consider how evil is shown in the following three ways: (a) evil as a perversion of human nature; (b) that it is evil to disrupt the natural order of the world; (c) evil is like a disease.
Appearances often hide reality
In the notes of the text this theme is often referred to as the theme of equivocation. The word “equivocation” can be defined as follows: “the use of words in one sense while meaning the opposite in order deliberately to mislead or confuse”.
For example, the witches deliberately try to mislead Macbeth into believing that “no man that’s born of woman” will ever have power over him. But they do so in order to “draw him on to his confusion”.
In order to disguise their real motives so that those about them will not know the evil in their hearts, Lady Macbeth advises her husband to “look like the innocent flower But be the serpent under it”.
Appearances cannot always be trusted. The truth is often disguised or hidden. Can you find any other instances in the play in which characters try to hide the Truth from those around them? Why do they do so? What does this tell us about the world they live in?
Reversal of values: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”
At the beginning of the play the forces of good, are represented by Duncan, ard overthrown by those of evil, by the Macbeths and the witches. The balance is gradually restored after Macduff’s escape to England, as good eventually triumphs over evil. Throughout the play good tries to re-assert itself before its final .triumph. For example, Lady Macbeth has to pray to the forces of evil to help her destroy all that is soft and feminine — so that she can be filled “from the crown to the toe of direst cruelty”. The price she must pay for denying all that is good within her is madness and suicide.
As a resu1t of the reversal of values, what appears to be good or innocent to some of the characters in the play is often evil and corrupt. Naturally this leads to a great deal d confusion among the characters. The moral order has been turned upside down and nothing is what it seems to be.
The overthrow of the natural order
This theme is very closely linked with the reversal of values. Unnatural acts such as murder and witchcraft are always accompanied by unnatural events in nature. For example, after Duncan’s murder we are told that darkness seemed to cover the earth and that his horses ate each other; and storms, lightning and thunder accompany the witches’ meetings. Ask yourself why Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth during the banquet. What does this tell us about Macbeth’s conscience?
The effect of ambition on people
Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” illustrates another major theme in the play. Both he and Banquo are shown to be ambitious right from the beginning, hut their reactions to the witches’ prophecies arc very different. In what ways is their ambition different? What are the different consequences of their attitudes? Where, in Act I Scene Ill, is the first indication that Macbeth’s ambition might be cause for a guilty conscience? Would you consider Macbeth’s ambition to be the flaw in his character? You should also consider Lady Macbeth’s ambition. Is she ambitious for herself or for her husband? Finally, ask yourself: What has the play got to tell us about selfish, unchecked, ambition?
The importance of loyalty and honour in a society
This theme, like the other major themes in Macbeth, is introduced earl in the play. The Thane of Cawdor has been in revolt against his king. Duncan. Cawdor is overcome largely through Macbeth’s bravery and skill as a general. Ironically, just when Macbeth’s reputation as a loyal and honourable subject is at its height, he plans to murder Duncan and usurp the throne. Thereafter, the relationships of the various characters are governed by their actual or pretended loyalty and honour.
Loyalty and honour are necessary for the health of the kingdom. Their existence is all the more necessary when there is distrust, suspicion and corruption. Consider Banquo’s sense of honour. Why is Malcolm so suspicious of an honourable character like Macduff?
Trying to understand the themes of the play is a means to understanding more of the full complexities of the play. It is important, however, to realise that a play can never be put into tidy little categories. In explaining a theme one will immediately notice how other themes interweave to create a complex pattern.
For example, Lady Macbeth’s ambition results in several “good vs. evil” conflicts within herself, with her husband and with Duncan. In order to achieve her ambitions, Lady Macbeth has often to conceal her true intentions. In achieving her ambitions, Lady Macbeth shows dishonour and disloyalty towards the monarchy and natural order. Lady Macbeth’s motives for her actions are complex, and perhaps ultimately a mystery. In what way does her love for and loyalty towards her husband?