What are some of the ambiguities or unanswered questions in Macbeth?
In my opinion the biggest question or ambiguity in the play has to do with King Duncan's two sons. Does Macbeth plan to murder Malcolm and Donalbain on the same night he murders their father? If not, what can he hope to gain by killing Duncan? Malcolm is obviously the heir apparent to the Scottish throne. And the younger son Donalbain would become heir apparent if anything happened to Malcolm. The two sons are frightened when they learn their father has been assassinated. Both decide to flee for their lives. But Macbeth had no idea that this would happen. It gives him the opportunity to blame Duncan's death on Malcolm and Donalbain and enables him to become king.
There is a great deal of discussion and soul-searching before Macbeth kills the king. Macbeth argues about it with his wife and agonizes over the prospect of doing it in his soliloquies. But there is virtually no hint that any thought has been given to the big problem of what to do about the two sons. It seems evident that Shakespeare did not know how to handle the matter himself but left it to deal with after he had described what happened before, during, and after the murder of the king. Shakespeare knew he was a genius and felt confident that he could figure out a way to deal with Malcolm and Donalbain after he had written all his beautiful poetry about the plotting, the soul-searching, the murder, the discovery of the body, and everything else connected with the assassination. To deal with three murders on the same night was more than he could handle effectively on the stage. He hints that Macbeth and his wife had planned to kill the sons on the same night as their father but that several unforeseen events prevented it. One was that Macbeth imagined he heard a voice crying "Sleep no more! Macbeth hath murdered sleep," etc. Macbeth tells his wife the voice was loud enough to wake the entire castle. Then there was the prolonged knocking at the gate, which was sure to wake a lot of people up. There was also Macbeth's reaction to the one murder he had committed more or less against his will and conscience. When his wife tells him to take the daggers back to Duncan's chamber and smear blood on the grooms, he tells her:
I'll go no more.
I am afraid to think what I have done.
Look on't again I dare not.
Obviously Macbeth is in no condition to sneak into Malcolm's room and kill him the same way he killed the boy's father, and then go to Donalbain's room and do the same thing all over again. Besides, the boys may be awake! Macbeth seems ready to have a nervous breakdown--and yet the knocking finally forces him to go down to see why nobody is opening the gate. He has to conduct Macduff and Lennox to the very room where he knows the king to be lying on the bed covered with blood.
Finally, it would seem that Shakespeare gave some attention to the problem presented by Duncan's two heirs. He solved it by having them decide to flee for their lives, since they had no way of knowing how many men may have been planning a violent coup. Donalbain tells his brother:
Where we are,
There's daggers in men's smiles.
So Shakespeare does the best he can, although it leaves some unanswered questions. Why doesn't Malcolm stay and claim the throne as heir apparent? How does Macbeth manage to convince all the thanes, including Banquo, that the sons must have had their father murdered? How does Macbeth manage to get himself elected king so easily, especially when at least two of the thanes, Macduff and Banquo, must be pretty sure Macbeth was behind the murder? How does Macbeth justify killing the two grooms without giving them a chance to talk? Was it Macbeth's intention all along to kill the grooms when the body was discovered? It couldn't have been, because he didn't expect to be present. He wanted to pretend to have been sound asleep when the outcry arose. When Lady Macbeth appears in response to the alarm, she asks:
What's the business,
That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley
The sleepers of the house? Speak, speak!
She is doing what they both had planned to do--to appear in their nightgowns and pretend to have been sound asleep.
Sticking with the idea of free will vs. destiny, one of my questions has always been where Shakespeare himself would have argued that issue. Did he believe that Macbeth was motivated by the stars (dear Brutus!), or was it his own blinding ambition? Certainly Shakespeare attacks this in Romeo and Juliet as well, but he seems to attribute the deaths of the star-crossed lovers more to circumstance than to fate: too many people making poor decisions too many times. The addition of the witches in Macbeth clouds the issue.
Amy, in my opinion (take it for what it's worth!), I don't think Shakespeare made an attempt at morality in this play. I think this play was mostly about stroking King James's ego a little bit. Considering the king's ancestory and the recent Gunpower Plot (and the way WS completely hacks and fictionalizes the historical truth of this time), I'd like to think that Shakespeare was just writing a plot driven story instead of an allegory. My humble two cents...
How about these for starters:
Is Macbeth a man? Literally, yes. However, Lady Macbeth raises this question, and he goes along with her...does this prove or disprove his masculinity?
Who is the third murderer? Macbeth sends him/her since he doesn't really trust the first two...or anyone...to get the dirty work done. Who is it?
Is human society basically amoral? Is the world we live in violent, full of chaos, and dog-eat-dog? Is Macbeth correct when he says that human life itself is meaningless and tiresome?
Is the message of Macbeth one of despair or one of hope? What is Shakespeare saying about Malcolm and the English King with all his symbols of goodness and Christianity? How can this be true if human society is basically amoral?
The witches have always left me with some unanswered questions. Did they control Macbeth's destiny or just tempt him in such a way that his own destructive ambition is awakened?
In other words, does Macbeth act from his own free will, or is he doomed from the beginning once the witches begin to toy with him? For instance, the witches prophesy that Banquo's heirs will rule. For this to happen, Macbeth must fall. Do the weird sisters know the future? Do they create the future? Are they just really good guessers?
There are a lot of implications in the drama that the witches just make mischief and trick Macbeth into destruction, but I always keep coming back to this question: Do they really possess supernatural power, and if so, how much?
Good questions about the hags and if the sparked the ember or merely fanned the smoldering embers. Another question I’ve pondered: had Lady Macbeth allowed Macbeth to follow his desires in his own way in his own time, what would the outcome have been?