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Macbeth Themes

Ambition

The witches agree to “meet with Macbeth” before he knows of their existence. But his first line in the play –“So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” – with its echo of the witches’ own words, suggests an unconscious understanding, which works both ways. They sense his ambition, and he already possesses it. So that their instant greeting of him in Act One Scene Three, is perfectly adjusted to work on his powerful sense of ambition. They “hail” him as Thane of Cawdor – a step up – and as “king hereafter.” When he soon after discovers he is indeed now Thane of Cawdor, his mind veers in precisely the direction the witches anticipated: that he will become king. What previously “stood not within the prospect of belief” becomes “that suggestion,/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair.” These “horrible imaginings” concern what he will need to do if he is to achieve his ultimate ambition: to murder Duncan.

When Duncan names Malcolm, his son, as successor, Macbeth sees that as a “step/ On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,/ For in my way it lies.” So Malcolm is another obstacle to his ambition. Macbeth must act quickly.

His wife has ambition enough for both of them. She has no qualms about murdering Duncan in her own house, but she fears her husband is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,” – kindness being a weakness. She says of him: “Thou wouldst be great,/ Art not without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it.” Here “illness” is something to be valued, and the lack of it is regretted! The “illness” Macbeth needs is that “quality” which will make him ruthless and monstrous enough to murder the king.

They will never have a better opportunity to do that since Duncan, unsuspecting, has invited himself to stay in their castle. Nevertheless Macbeth hesitates, fearing “The deep damnation of his taking-off,” – i.e. Duncan’s enforced departure from life. He says “I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.” The image is one of spurring a horse to leap an obstacle, only to fall on the other side. It takes the scornful intervention of his wife to provide that “spur.”

The play also tells us how such ambition is never satisfied. “To be thus is nothing,/ But to be safely thus,” Macbeth remarks as he plans the murder of Banquo. All that he has achieved is “nothing” and he seeks that elusive safety. But after Banquo there is Macduff; then no doubt Malcolm and Donalbain, had Macbeth lived to destroy them! Absolute rulers are always ambitious, and they always have endless lists of enemies.

Humanity

The play asks many questions about what it means to be human, and indeed humane – the two words were synonymous in Shakespeare’s time. Violence is not condemned when it works in your favour. Thus Macbeth’s disembowelling of the rebel Macdonald in battle prompts Duncan to refer to him as “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman.” Yet Macbeth himself is aware that murdering the king in his chamber is a different matter. He speaks of “ pity, like a naked newborn babe [which] / Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye.” It takes the extreme persuasion of his wife to get him to agree to carrying out that “ horrid deed.” She tells him that “to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man.”

For Lady Macbeth being “manly” means to be ruthless, savage, without compassion or pity. She has already asked the spirits to “unsex” her “And fill [her] from the crown to the toe topfull/ Of direst cruelty.” When Macbeth wavers, she ridicules his masculinity, claiming she would rather have “plucked my nipple from [the] boneless gums of a child”, than break her word. The most fundamental human connection, that between nursing mother and the child at her breast, becomes an image of violence, of “dash[ing] the brains out” of “the babe that milks me.”

Later in the play Macbeth has no regret about ordering the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children. As in the modern world, no one is innocent.

The witches are of course inhuman. They stand outside the world of mankind. But their monstrous spells – “Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” – feed, literally and metaphorically, off human prejudice. Into the cauldron go “Liver of blaspheming Jew...Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips.” In a play where there is no sanctity of human life, it’s especially ironic that such non-Christians are seen as poisonous components of a monstrous concoction.

The chilling power of the sleepwalking scene, where Lady Macbeth, re-enacting in her mind the crimes they have committed, cannot wash the blood from her hands, shows the psychological consequences of guilt. Anticipating psycho-therapy by 400 years or so, Macbeth asks the doctor: “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,/ Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?” And the deeper horror of the play is that Macbeth remains human, despite everything he does. Moved by his wife’s fate, he expresses a sense of the futility of all human life – “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.” Here humanity is reduced to “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”

Darkness

There are other Shakespeare plays that contain [and show] more violence but there are none with such an atmosphere of hellish darkness. The play begins with “thunder, lightning, or in rain,” – weather traditionally associated with witches – and from that point on, no light seems to penetrate “the fog and filthy air.” The witches’ element is darkness and the play moves in it. Macbeth appeals to the stars to “hide [their] fires,/ Let not light see my black and deep desires.” We are not surprised that his wife promises Duncan “never/ Shall sun that morrow see.” She appeals to “thick night” to “pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,” so that there will be no glimmer of their plans, obscuring them even from God. It is no wonder Macduff refers to Macbeth as “hell-kite” [a kite is a bird of prey] and “hell-hound” – reminding us of the darkest place of all.

Blood

Similarly terrible things occur in other plays, but there is no play so steeped in such an atmosphere of blood. “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood,” after Banquo’s ghost has returned to haunt him. And he knows “I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,/ returning were as tedious as go o’er.” This image of a river of blood into which he must further wade sets the tone of the play.

Earlier, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth returns with the bloody daggers still in his hand. His wife takes them from him saying she’ll “gild [with blood] the faces of the grooms.” While she is doing so, Macbeth asks “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?” And he answers his own question: “No: this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/ Making the green one red.” Not even all the seas of the world will cleanse his hands of Duncan’s blood.

In contrast Lady Macbeth, the dominant partner at this point, is confident that “A little water clears us of this deed.” But her last appearance in the play shows her obsessively washing her hands. “Yet here’s a spot...Out damned spot!” She can clean her hands but not her mind. “Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O.” The horror and anguish of these lines serve as a fitting testament to a play whose principal constituent is blood.