What are some motifs that help convey external conflict in Macbeth?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, there are several motifs, or recurring structures, literary devices, and contrasts, that serve in the development of conflict.  Here are some that contribute more to internal conflicts and external ones:


Throughout the play, the question of what it means to be a man is repeatedly raised.  With the captain's description of the "brave Macbeth" in Act I, manhood seems rather brutal as he "unseamed" his enemy.  Then in Scene 7, Lady Macbeth questions his manhood and Macbeth replies that he has done all that he can. In Act II when Macbeth has twinges of conscience about killing King Duncan, Lady Macbeth again challenges his manhood.  Later in this act in his regret, Macbeth wonders what type of man he is. Towards the end of the play, Macbeth tells his wife,

Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are. (3.2.35-38) 

In addition to Macbeth's conflict with what it is to be a man, Malcolm ponders the question in Act II, as well as he says,

To show an unfelt sorrow is an office

Which the false man does easy.  I'll to England (2.3.157-158)


Although most of the murder take place off stage, Macbeth is a very violent play with graphic descriptions of the carnage throughout. 


Hallucinations and visions are prevalent from beginning to end.  Macbeth imagines the daggers, the ghost of Banquo, the moving of the forest, Birnam Wood.  Lady Macbeth, of course, sleepwalks and imagines that her hands and the steps are covered in blood.

Nature and the unnatural

The conflicts in the play result from the unnaturalness of Macbeth, who kills his king, friends, and a woman and child.  Ironically, it is the unnaturalness of the moving Birnam Wood which kills Macbeth.

Heaven and Hell

Macbeth speaks often of heaven and hell; in his soliloquies he often mentions "the life to come"; he tells Duncan that the bell is a knell beckoning him to heaven or to hell; he often ponders that he will end in hell.