It is far less common today than it once was to speak of any of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the “human condition” or “universal truths.” This is because many thinkers today doubt the existence of a singular “humanity” and are skeptical of the idea of “universal truths.” Nevertheless, Macbeth does seem relevant to a wide variety of perennial issues and concerns that obviously interested Shakespeare and that still interest many people today. Among such issues and concerns are the following:
- The obligations of friends to one another – an issue most relevant, perhaps, to the relationship between Macbeth and Banquo. Macbeth betrays his friendship with Banquo as he betrays so much else in this play, and surely most people still agree that it is wrong to betray friends.
- The obligations of leaders to their superiors – an issue especially relevant to Macbeth’s relationship with Duncan, the king whom Macbeth betrays and kills. Surely most people still agree today that a good and worthy leader (as Duncan is) should not be betrayed, let alone murdered as he sleeps.
- The dangers of ambition – a theme relevant both to Macbeth and to his wife, both of whom allow their ambitions to lead them to commit evil deeds. Most people today would still, probably, believe that unrestrained ambition can be a very dangerous and potentially self-destructive trait.
- The evils of tyranny – a topic relevant to Macbeth, especially as he seeks to secure his hold on power. Few people today would want to live under a tyrant (a ruler with absolute power and with no real commitment to moral action).
- The evils of murder – a matter clearly relevant to the ways Macbeth becomes king. Even most moral relativists today would probably concede that murder is wrong, and the kind of murder Macbeth commits when he kills the defenseless, sleeping king seems especially heinous.
- The evils of deception – a matter obviously relevant to both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who must lie in order to hide their evil deeds and who thereby become entangled in even further evils.
- The self-destructive potential of evil – an issue relevant to both Macbeth and his wife, who lose their happiness, their power, and ultimately their lives by succumbing to the temptations of evil. It hardly seems surprising that at the end of the play Macbeth and his lady are condemned as
. . . this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen . . . (5.9.35)