In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a variety of themes, motifs and symbols to explore the complexities of the human condition. These literary devices add depth to the narrative and offer valuable insights into the characters and their actions.
This theme is primarily seen in the character arcs of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Their relentless desire for power drives them to commit terrible acts, demonstrating how unchecked ambition can lead someone to make terrible decisions, eventually leading to their downfall.
Macbeth compares his ambition to a wild horse that leaps over obstacles, confessing, “I have no spur … but only vaulting ambition which overleaps itself.”
This is shown through Macbeth’s desire for and attainment of power, which ultimately corrupts him. He transforms from a heroic general into a tyrannical ruler.
This theme exposes the pitfalls of power and its ability to distort one’s moral compass. Once Macbeth becomes King, his sudden increase in power enables him to commit terrible acts without mercy. This is a sentiment he expresses when he mentions:
“And though I could
With barefaced power sweep him from my sight.”
The witches’ prophecies set the events of the play in motion. Their eerie accuracy raises questions about free will versus destiny. The exploration of fate encourages the audience to question whether Macbeth’s downfall was predetermined by fate or a consequence of his own choices.
Even Banquo is wary of the witches’ words. He warns of the deceit that might be at play, saying that, “the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.“
As the narrative progresses, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth show signs of guilt, which takes a severe psychological toll on them. Their remorse over their actions manifests as:
This theme is explored in many of the characters. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have no children, but it is suggested they may have had a baby who died. Lady Macbeth shares about the experience of nursing a child, confessing:
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.“
For Macbeth and Banquo, children signify the importance of continuing the family name. For Macduff, it is the love and then grief he feels for his children that encourages him to continue on and fight Macbeth.
Motifs are recurring elements in a literary work that enhance the themes and mood of the story. Several motifs are used in Macbeth to enhance the tragedy and tension of the narrative.
This is shown through the prophecy-spinning witches, who create an eerie atmosphere and a sense of unease. The supernatural element opens up discussions around predetermined fate and individual free will.
The supernatural appears to have a power greater than the characters. When Lady Macbeth says, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts“, she is calling upon ‘spirits that assist with human desires’ to aid her dark plans.
A recurring motif in the play that often manifests as a means to an end. From Macbeth’s murder of Duncan to the brutal slaughter of Macduff’s family, violence causes more violence and creates chaos and tragedy.
It illustrates the extreme lengths Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are willing to go to secure their power. Macbeth acknowledges the depth of his dark thoughts when he speaks of his “slaughterous thoughts“
It is illustrated through the witches. Their predictions, “All hail Macbeth, that shall be king hereafter!“ are the catalyst for Macbeth’s ambition and following descent into tyranny.
Although their prophecies come true, they are deceptive. They lead Macbeth to believe he is invincible when in reality, he is setting himself up for defeat. This motif serves to explore themes of:
They occur frequently, serving as motifs throughout the play. Hallucinations are a manifestation of guilt and paranoia.
These hallucinations represent the psychological torment they endure, further demonstrating the destructive power of unchecked ambition and guilt.
In Macbeth. the symbol of blood emerges as a representation of the overarching guilt and moral corruption that affect the main characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This symbol is linked with the acts of violence and murder that progressively take a toll on their mental states.
The symbol of blood is highlighted in Lady Macbeth’s rhetorical question, “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” as she reflects on the gravity and irreversible nature of their actions.
The continual reference to blood throughout the play not only illustrates the physical act of murder, but also the remorse and psychological scarring that descends them deeper into darkness.
There is blood on Macbeth’s hands after Duncan’s murder. Also, Lady Macbeth obsessively washes imaginary blood off her hands. However, the symbol of blood serves as a relentless reminder of their crimes, a stain that no amount of water can cleanse.
Sleep was initially depicted as a symbol of peace and innocence. However, sleep is often disturbed in the play, with troubled nights and “terrible dreams that shake us nightly”, representing the restless consciences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, unable to escape the consequences of their actions. Their once-comforting experience of sleep undergoes a dark transformation.
The transformation of sleep into a source of darkness and anxiety adds depth to their psychological unravelling. Their inability to find rest, even in sleep, mirrors their movement away from the world of morality and sanity, trapping them in a cycle of restlessness and fear. This is seen in Macbeth’s insomnia and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking.