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Shakespeare implements a number of themes into Macbeth, that enable the audience to have a better understanding of the plot and characters; and also to create an alternate set of ideas and motives to the general play itself. Shakespeare uses soliloquies, asides and a number of other dramatic techniques to add emphasis and further depth to the themes. The major themes are: the corruption of ambition, appearance versus reality, light and dark and guilt and conscience.
The ‘corruption of ambition’ serves as a significant theme in relation to the tragedy of Macbeth and the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The witches seem to be the source of ignition of Macbeth’s ambition, as they predict that he will become Thane of Cawdor and later King. This ambition builds as Macbeth is respectively appointed Thane of Cawdor, and later King Duncan’s son, Malcolm is appointed Prince of Cumberland, heir to the throne. Shakespeare implements a soliloquy through which the audience is revealed a deep insight into Macbeth’s thoughts and ambitions as he establishes that he has a ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other’.
Lady Macbeth also portrays here strong ambition for Macbeth’s kingship, as he calls on evil spirits to ‘unsex’ her so that she may persuade and manipulate her husband into murdering Duncan. Their initial ambition leads them to the murder of Duncan, the first step towards their downfall in the play. Lady Macbeth says of her husband, ‘Thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it’. It is this ‘illness’ and corruption that accompanies ambition, that leads Macbeth to change and deteriorate as a character. He develops an ambition for security, which leads to the murder of Banquo and Macduff’s wife, children and servants.
The horrid actions Macbeth and Lady Macbeth commit due to this ambition for secure power, has severe repercussions of guilt and trauma. These repercussions eventually lead Lady Macbeth into nightmares, troubles and eventually suicide. Macbeth instead, loses his conscience and develops an egotism that eventually leads him to the point that ‘he cannot buckle his distempered cause within the belt of rule’; and Macduff, the English and fellow Scotsman abolish his kingship and murder him; returning order, with Malcolm announced to the throne. The ‘corruption of ambition’ is clearly a major driving force behind the tragedy of the play, serving as the fatal flaw in Macbeth and Lady Macbeths’ character; that in turn leads to their downfall.
Guilt is a major themes within Macbeth. Although ambition is a major theme behind Macbeth and his wife’s’ downfall, guilt rises to prominence during the second half of the play, as they are faced with the repercussions of their horrid deeds. Shakespeare uses symbolism and imagery, to highlight this guilt, particularly that of blood and imagination. Immediately after murdering Duncan, Macbeth exclaims, ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?’ Within this metaphor, literally Macbeth is referring to the blood on his hands, but metaphorically he is referring to the guilt he has adopted through the murder. Later in the play, Lady Macbeth is faced with the trauma and guilt of her past crimes and involvement in Macbeth’s tyranny.
She is plagued with horrible nightmares; within which she tries to rub imaginary blood of her hands, screaming, ‘Out, damned spot!’ This is metaphorical of the guilt that still sticks with her, and that she cannot remove. Macbeth in particular, is affected by guilt in the form of imagination. After having his loyal friend, Banquo, murdered; he is haunted by his ghost, exclaiming, ‘though canst not say I did it; never shake thy gory locks at me!’ The ghost and his imagination is representative of his guilt, returning to haunt him. Guilt becomes so great that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are troubled in their sleep and meals; proving mentally weak.
They do not have the emotional strength to deal with the evil deeds which they partook and enjoy their power and glory. Macbeth states, ‘Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep in the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly.’ You can clearly see the extent that guilt has plagued them. Lady Macbeth commits suicide, unable to battle against this guilt any longer; and Macbeth sinks in pessimism; acknowledging the futility of life as he states, ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ Guilt serves as the key theme in their eventual tragedy; as the repercussions of their actions prove stronger than their reluctance and ambition to continue in their tyranny.
‘Appearance versus reality’, is another key theme in the play, and a central motive behind many events that occur throughout the plot. There is a frequent ambiguity that occurs in our understanding of the play, and also within the play itself. In the very first scene of the play, the witches state, ‘fair is foul, and foul fair’. Through this paradox, the audience can already sense the ambiguity associated with the witches and the idea that everything isn’t as it seems. Shakespeare weaves dramatic irony into his play, as only just after hearing of Macbeth’s ‘black and deep desires’ to murder Duncan to obtain kingship; King Duncan states, ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’. Immediately afterwards, Macbeth enters; whom Duncan trusts and has appointed Thane of Cawdor, without knowledge of his horrid intents.
The audience instead, are completely aware of Duncan’s deception of Macbeth’s false loyalty. Macbeth’s kingship itself relates to this theme, as he appears to be a loyal and graceful King, however is a corrupt and violent tyrant. The murder of Duncan also links in quite obliviously with the theme, ‘appearance versus reality’. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth carry out the horrid deed in hope of the power and glory associated with kingship. Lady Macbeth states, ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent where our desire is got without content’. This portrays the idea that the reality of tyranny was not as great as it appeared. One of the major examples of ‘appearance versus reality’ can be found within the three apparitions of Macbeth’s future.
These apparitions were: ‘beware Macduff’, ‘none of woman born shall harm Macbeth’ and ‘Macbeth shall never be vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill.’ Macbeth believes he is invincible; however these apparitions are ambiguous riddles. Eventually, Birnam Wood does come to Dunsinane hill, as the English army hold ‘boughs’ infront of them as they march towards Dunsinane; and later Macbeth finds out that Macduff was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’. Macbeth is slain, due to his misperceptions between appearance and reality. This theme clearly serves as a central element in many key events in the play, particularly his final downfall. Things are never as they seem throughout the play, with constant ambiguity and misperceptions.
The theme of ‘light and dark’ is associated with good and evil respectively in Macbeth. Whilst King Duncan is in power, and there is still good and order in Scotland; imagery of light is used. Duncan states, ‘signs of nobleness like stars shall shine on all deservers.’ Through this he announces that all those who deserve them shall receive good and noble rewards. The theme of light is clearly associated with this grace in Scotland. However, through use of an aside and also motif of ‘stars’, Shakespeare begins to reveal the darkness of Macbeth and his ambition. Macbeth states, ‘Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires.’ Through this, Macbeth aims to hide his evil desires from his better nature.
The theme of darkness comes to be accustomed to the horrid deeds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, prior to the murder of Duncan, states, ‘Come, thick night…Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, to cry, hold, hold.’ Through this soliloquy, Shakespeare broadens the meaning of the theme of darkness as Lady Macbeth calls upon darkness to assist her in her evil deed and abolish any occurrence of light or heaven that represents good and withdrawal from the murder. The murder of Banquo and Macduff’s wife, children and servants all occur during the night; representing the evil alongside these atrocities.
Macbeth’s commitment to darkness and evil is fortified when he kills Duncan; and with him in power, ‘the night is long that never finds the day.’ That is to say, evil will continue to reign in Scotland until Malcolm is restored to power. His commitment to darkness, is strongly associated with his growing connection with the witches, referred to as ‘instruments of darkness’ and ‘black and midnight hags’. You can clearly see that these witches are representative of evil in the play, and Macbeth’s increase in relation with them, strongly relates to the theme of ‘light and dark’. With Macbeth’s increase in commitment to darkness, ‘good things of day being to droop and drowse, while night’s black agents to their prey do rouse’. This metaphor is an excellent image, that encapsulates the decay of light and good in the play, with the rise of darkness and evil. This is essentially the key concept behind the theme of light and dark within the play.
You can clearly see that Shakespeare uses themes to express various ideas associated with the play. He also implements various dramatic techniques, such as soliloquies, asides, imagery and symbolism to highlight the themes and deepen the audiences understanding of the themes, characters and play.