The Theme Of Macbeth
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The play Macbeth written by William Shakespeare in the beginning of the 17th century, deals with a man's turn from the king's most glorious, brave and courageous general into a traitor and murderer influenced by evil forces.
In the following I am going to describe the play briefly and explain the theme of it. Furthermore I will discuss Macbeth's character and his internal conflict.
While the general Macbeth and his friend Banquo are returning from a victorious battle, King Duncan hears of their courage and bestows the title of Cawdor on the still absent Macbeth. The two warriors encounter three witches who greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and „(…) King hereafter'. They prophesize that Banquo will become king though he will not himself be one. Macbeth, who is already Thane of Glamis, is startled when two messengers from the king greet him as the new Thane of Cawdor, thus fulfilling the witches' prophecy in part. When Macbeth learns that Duncan's son Malcolm has been appointed Prince of Cumberland, automatic successor to the throne, he momentarily entertains the idea of killing the king and so begins the ultimate prediction of the witches.
Banquo resists any thoughts that might hasten the witches' prophecy that his children will be kings. Lady Macbeth, however, strengthens her husband to kill the king and they accomplish it. When the murder is discovered, the king's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, seeing a similar fate for themselves, flee Scotland. Macbeth proceeds to Scone, where he is crowned as Duncan's successor to the throne.
Banquo half-suspects Macbeth of Duncan's murder but accepts an invitation at the new king's fiest and attends it with his son Fleance. Macbeth employs two murderers to kill both in an attempt to avoid the second part of the witches' prophecies. They kill Banquo but Fleance escapes.
Macbeth decides to find the witches to demand further assurances. They answer him with a procession of ghostly appearances: an armed head which warns him against Macduff; a child covered in blood which says that „(…) none of a woman born shall harm Macbeth'; a child holding a tree, who says Macbeth will be safe until „(…) Birnam Wood (…)' comes to Dunsinane; and eight kings followed by Banquo's ghost, which, with a smile, points to them as his descendants. Leaving, Macbeth encounters the nobleman Lennox, who tells him that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth vows to kill Macduff's wife and children.
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A messenger arrives at Macduff's castle to warn her, but it is too late and Macbeth's assassins kill Lady Macduff and her children. When Macduff hears the terrible news, he swears to kill Macbeth with his own sword.
At Macbeth's castle, Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth has begun to go insane. She walks in her sleep and while her doctor and a waiting lady watch in horror, she relieves her guilt and, unconscious of the others, speaks about the crimes she and her husband have committed. Macbeth is deeply alarmed about her disorder, but, nevertheless, is preparing for the attack by the English invaders under Malcolm, who has joined with rebellious Scottish forces. Malcolm has his soldiers cut branches from Birnam Wood to carry as camouflage in the assault. Thus the prophecy „(…) till Birnam Wood to high to Dunsinane hill (…)' begins to be fulfilled. Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has died, possibly by suicide. In despair, he goes forth to battle and encounters Macduff, who destroys his last confidence by admitting that he was „(…) from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd (…)' – he „(…) was not of woman born (…)'. With this part of the prophecy no longer the protection it seemed, Macbeth dies at Macduff's hands. Macduff brings the head of Macbeth to Malcolm and hails the son of the murdered Duncan as the new King of Scotland.
By „the theme' of Macbeth one means the principal idea of the play, an idea that is seen in dramatic setting probably in every act of the play. Abstracting a theme from a play is not identical to establishing a point as fact. In Macbeth, as in other Shakespearean plays, we find that appearances are one thing, reality another. A more specific configuration of the main theme (there are also minor themes) is that only a deluded person thinks that playing with evil can leave him or her unchanged and that humanity, yielding to evil, is led to destruction.
In Act I, this idea is embodied in Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's responses to the salutations of the witches. Macbeth and his lady regard the greetings as Thane of Cawdor and future king as prophecies. Furthermore, with respect to the throne, they contemplate murder of the incumbent Duncan, although Macbeth is not told by the witches to kill Duncan for his crown. In Act II, the Macbeths are deceived by the apparent ease and subsequent guiltlessness with which they can achieve Duncan's death. In Act III, Macbeth arranges the murder of Banquo and Fleance; but Fleance, who mainly intends to continue Banquo's line, escapes. The murder of Banquo and Fleance had seemed to be assured, but the reality is otherwise. In Act IV and Act V, Macbeth wrongly reads the sayings of the second and the third apparitions – the prophecies that „none of woman born (…) shall harm Macbeth' and that he is safe „(…) till Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill (…) shall come against him'. Significantly, he takes no particular notice of the saying of the first apparition to „Beware Macduff'. In Act V, these three prophecies come true, as Macbeth learns to his horror, when Malcolm's army, disguised by branches from Birnam Wood, comes against his castle and when Macduff, confronting Macbeth, informs him that he „(…) was from his mother's womb (…) untimely ripp'd (…)' in Caesarean birth. Macbeth learns in death that appearances pointed one way, but reality, rock-hard, lay in the opposite direction. Against these rocks he is crushed.
The question why Macbeth has done all this and why the terrifying experience with Banquo's ghost did not warn him is answered by Macbeth himself: „I am in blood (…) stepp'd in so far', he says, „that, should I wade no more, (…) returning were as tedious as go o'er'. He says that he finds it too tiresome to repent. What has happened is that in making his first decision for evil instead of good, he has confused these two values. He has confused fair and foul, which confusion has all along been the devil's aim. Macbeth cannot return, even though returning means the difference between failure and success.
Foremost, Macbeth is a brave and courageous man; he is much honored by his compatriots for his leading part in defense of his good king and native land. However, almost as soon as we meet him, we realize that he is both ambitious and murderous and fears to accept the real and also the supernatural consequences of his actions. Early in the play, Shakespeare concentrates on Macbeth's courage so that he can contrast it later on with the terror and panic of Macbeth's psychological anguish. Lady Macbeth is certainly aware of her husband's fame as a fearless soldier, and she uses dazzling psychology to tempt her husband to kill Duncan: she „dares'; him to do „(…) all that may become a man'. Macbeth accepts her challenge; no one calls him a coward.
Part of Macbeth's actions, of course, can be traced to envy. Early in the play when Macbeth hears the witches, he envies Banquo's having heirs, as much as he fears, later, those same heirs as rivals for the throne. We feel pity, ultimately, for Macbeth, not hatred and disgust. This is the key to the tragedy: Macbeth's suffering is a result of his self-destructive behavior by leaving all his good qualities behind and eliminating his potentials and possibilities in an attempt to claim a fate that is not his.
The plot of Macbeth is set in motion ostensibly by the prophecy of the three witches. The prophecy fans the flames of ambition within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, serving as the primary impetus for the couple to plot the death of Duncan--and subsequently Banquo. But one also wonders: Would Macbeth have committed such heinous crimes if not for the prophecy? What if he had ignored the witches’ statements? Such speculation, however interesting, ultimately appears futile, since the prophecy itself is self-fulfilling. The witches know Macbeth’s tragic flaw: given the irresistible temptation to become King, he will choose to commit murder even though he could simply discard their words. As it turns out, the prophecies are not only fated but fatal, as Macbeth's confidence in the witches leads him to fight a rash battle in the final act.
Some of the most famous and poetic lines from Macbeth are expressions of remorse. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” exclaims Macbeth after he stabs Duncan (II ii 58-59). Similarly, Lady Macbeth is plagued by a “spot” that she cannot remove from her hand: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say. . . What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (V I 30-37). At first physical remainders of a regrettable crime, the royal blood leaves permanent marks on the psyche of the couple, forever staining them with guilt and remorse. The different ways in which the Macbeths cope with their crimes show how their characters develop: whereas Lady Macbeth is initially the one without scruples, urging Macbeth to take action, it is an overpowering sense of guilt and remorse that drives the Lady to her untimely death. Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to overcome the guilt that plagues him early on in the play.
Just as an overwhelming guilty conscience drives Lady Macbeth mad, so too does Macbeth’s “heat-oppressed” brain project the vision of a dagger before he murders Duncan (II i 39). In what concerns ghosts and visions, the relation of the natural to the supernatural in Macbeth is unclear. The three apparitions that the witches summon, for example, are usually taken to be “real”—even if only as supernatural occurrences. But the matter is less clear when it comes to Banquo’ ghost. Macbeth is the only one who sees the ghost in a crowded room; is this yet another projection of his feverish mind? Or is it really, so to speak, a supernatural occurrence? Such ambiguities contribute to the eerie mood and sense of uncanniness that pervade the play, from the very opening scene with the three bearded witches.
If the witches’ prophecy is understood to be imposing a supernatural order on the natural order of things, the natural order can also be understood as responding with tempestuous signs. Following Duncan’s death, Lennox describes the “unruly” night in some detail. Similarly, Ross notes that “the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, / Threatens his bloody stage” (II iv 5-6). In the same scene, the Old Man and Ross both agree that they saw horses eat each other. Even the events leading to the conclusion of the play can be understood as a negotiation of the natural and supernatural. Whereas Macbeth believes that he will live the “lease of nature”—since Birnam Wood cannot possible come to Dunsinane Hill—the forest is literally uprooted by the English army in accordance with the prophecy. The dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural forms a backdrop that suggests the epic proportions of the struggle over the Scottish crown.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (I i 10-11). The first scene of the first act ends with these words of the witches, which Macbeth echoes in his first line: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I iii 36). In a similar fashion, many scenes conclude with lines of dichotomy or equivocation: “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or hell” (II i64); “God’s benison go with you, and with those/ That would make good of bad, and friends of foes” (II iv 41-42). Such lines evoke an air of deep uncertainty: while polarities are reversed and established values are overturned, it is entirely unclear as to whether the dichotomous clarity of “heaven or hell” trumps the equivocatory fogginess of “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Thus, for Macbeth, this translates into an uncertainty as to whether the prophecies are believable. It seems that Birnam Wood will either come to Dunsinane Hill (a supernatural event) or it will not (a natural event); but the actual even turns out to be neither here nor there, as the Wood figuratively comes to Dunsinane.
Ambition and temptation both play a key factor in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s decision to kill Duncan. Macbeth possesses enough self-awareness to realize the dangers of overzealous ambition: “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other” (25-28). And yet, the temptation to carry out the witches' prophecy is ultimately too strong for Macbeth to curb his ambition. In Lady Macbeth’s lexicon, incidentally, “hope” is also another word for “ambition” and perhaps “temptation.” As Macbeth expresses his doubts about killing Duncan, she demands: “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself” (35-36)? Ironically, Lady Macbeth must herself rely on intoxicants to “make [her] bold” before executing her ambitious and murderous plans (II ii 1). Once the intoxication wears off, Lady Macbeth finds that she is unable to cope with the consequences of her own "hope." Ultimately, ambition and temptation prove fatal for both the Macbeths.
As a morality tale of sorts, Macbeth has as its near contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Like Dr. Faustus, Macbeth recognizes the damning consequences of his crime:
. . . Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off.” (I vii 16-20)
And yet Macbeth carries out the crime, thus precipitating his own descent into hell. Later in the play, appropriately, Macduff calls Macbeth by the name of “hell-hound” (V x 3). Indeed, the story of Macbeth is that of a man who acquiesces in his damnation—in part because he cannot utter words that may attenuate his crime. As Duncan’s guards pray “God bless us” on their deathbed, Macbeth cannot say one “Amen” (II ii 26-27). His fate is thus sealed entirely by his own hands.