What are the main themes of William Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth focuses on three primary themes.

POWER & AMBITION.  Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become enamored with the idea of power and each respond by committing terrible crimes. Although Macbeth desires the throne, it is his wife's ambitious prodding that prompts him to kill his king. One crime begets another until Macbeth falls prey to a more powerful foe.

GUILT & FEAR.  Following each misdeed, Macbeth and his wife become overwhelmed with guilt, facing this consequence by committing even more crimes. But instead of a guilty conscience, Macbeth views his psychological reaction as fear instead. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, understands the guilt that plagues her, but she attempts to deny it.

NATURAL VS. SUPERNATURALMacbeth encompasses the supernatural world, beginning with the three witches who prophesy both "foul and fair." Reality is often confused with prophecy, and an aura of evil follows the two main characters. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fall victim to the madness that follows their many unnatural acts.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is also a suggestion that Shakespeare was illustrating the contemporary belief in the great chain of being and the divine right of kings. This belief indicated that kings were chosen by God alone, and that He decided the order of society. With Macbeth killing Duncan and taking the throne for himself, he was working against this natural order and was therefore destined for severe retribution.

Another theme requiring consideration is the simple battle between good and evil. The witches, and Macbeth's actions in response to their words, are evil. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth know they are working against the powers of good when they plot to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth requests to be filled -

from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty!

Both Macbeth and his wife know they are in league with evil. Both are punished for their deeds with suffering and death.