What are common themes in Macbeth and The Handmaid's Tale?

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In Macbeth by Shakespeare, "Macbeth" is an ambitious soldier who is enticed to murder King Duncan by his wife Lady Macbeth. After the murder he becomes a man who values power over life. The murder also causes him fear and insecurity, as he begins to worry that someone will usurp him. In The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the story is set in a future America where women are oppressed and sexual slavery is common. Offred finds herself in this situation after she has been separated from her husband and daughter. She fears for her safety because she does not trust her masters, the Commanders.

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Themes that apply to both Macbeth by Shakespeare and to The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood include the disdain for the value of human life and the fear that both protagonists feel throughout the story. In fact, the disdain for the value of human life is the key theme that...

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drives the narrative in both stories.

In Macbeth, the title character’s disdain for the value of human life is originally sparked by his wife’s ambition. Lady Macbeth spurs her husband on to kill Duncan. She advises him to act deceptively: to act the part of the welcoming, innocent host while he plots to take the man’s life. Moreover, Duncan has always treated Macbeth well and is, in some ways, a father figure. Lady Macbeth even says that he resembled her own father so much that she could not take his life herself, so her husband does it. Taking his life as if it were nothing too difficult to do transforms Macbeth.

After the murder, he becomes inured to the value of human life. In fact, when Lady Macbeth dies, the only thing her husband has to say is, “She should have died hereafter,” meaning that it was very inconvenient that she died at that moment. In his famous soliloquy, he ponders the brevity of life, even though it is clear by this point that he no longer values it (for others). Referring to the end of Lady Macbeth’s life, he says,

Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

In other words, Macbeth is saying that life is short and ephemeral like a shadow. Once it is over, it is “heard no more” and signifies nothing. Macbeth has become a man who is indifferent to the pain of others. After he murders Duncan, Macbeth then also has Banquo murdered.

Similarly, in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the men of Gilead are completely inured to the value of life, particularly when it comes to their handmaids. They feel no guilt at treating the handmaids like caged animals intended merely to breed. They easily cause the handmaids and anyone else who is subversive to be maimed or killed. However, unlike Macbeth, it is not the protagonist who is indifferent to the value of human life in The Handmaid's Tale. In fact, she is a victim of this theme. She is trapped into sexual servitude to the commander.

Another theme similar to both stories is that the title characters have no sense of peace, and each fears for their personal safety, although the reasons are different. In Macbeth, killing Duncan does not turn out the way Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believed that it would. Macbeth becomes consumed with his lust for power and has no peace as he worries about another usurper doing to him what he did to Duncan.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred has no peace. This is easily understood. She has been captured and forced to live in the commander’s home and sleep with him. She distrusts his wife and, like Macbeth, fears for her safety. When she sees the commander’s wife working in her garden, it recalls her memory of her own garden when she was a free woman. That she longs for her garden represents her longing for peace. In fact, she thinks of the garden at the commander’s home that “from a distance it looks like peace.”

In summary, both stories show what happens when people take human life for granted and how it causes fear and lack of peace for the characters involved.

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Both Macbeth and A Handmaid's Tale show the ill-effects of excessive violence and the abuse of power.

In Macbeth, Macbeth rises to power through murder and from that point on—fearing exposure for his original murder—becomes more and more ruthless in having potential rivals killed (including his former friend, Banquo, as well as Macduff's wife and children).

In A Handmaid'sTale, Gilead, the fundamentalist Christian state that has seized power also fears being brought down by its enemies and becomes ruthless in hanging or killing anyone who opposes it. Offred is constantly subjected to the sight of dead bodies hanging from walls as she does her daily errands, which telegraph the message that anyone who does not conform to their assigned role will meet the same fate.

In both works of literature, it makes no difference whether or not the people killed are genuine threats or not: the individuals in charge strike preemptively. Both Macbeth and the masters of Gilead are perceived by many as out-of-control tyrants, and both works drive home the lesson that power corrupts, especially if seized without the consent of the governed.

A thesis statement on one of these themes should state an opinion, be arguable, and be specific enough to anchor the reader in what will come. An example might be, "Both Macbeth and A Handmaid's Tale show the ill-effects of excessive violence and the abuse of power when a state is seized without the consent of the governed" or "Both Macbeth and A Handmaid's Tale show that absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the people in charge become more and more ruthless."

Those are simply ideas to get you started. Be sure to back your opinions up with quotes from the texts.

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Several themes occur jointly in Macbeth and The Handmaid's Tale but they appear with opposing messages. For instances, while both works speak of men's versus women's roles (i.e., sex or gender roles), they demonstrate opposite aspects of the theme. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth overturns understood male-female roles by intimidating Macbeth, chiding his lack of manhood and suggesting that she would be more man than he if she could be a man. In contrast, in Handmaid's Tale, women are consigned to standard roles of female oppression as concubines, wives and handmaids (servants).

Another jointly occurring theme is that of free will. In both narratives, free will is lost yet it is taken through quite different agents. In Handmaid's Tale, free will is taken by agency of the government after global neglect has caused catastrophic consequences, such as the destruction of ocean life (a real and present concern),

The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago; the few fish they have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says the coastal areas are being "rested." (The Handmaid's Tale)

while in Macbeth, it can be argued that free will is taken by two agents. The first agent is the influence of the supernatural in the persons of the three witches. The second agent can arguably be stated as the violent manipulations of Lady Macbeth.

... Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,... (Macbeth, I.v)

Depending upon your choices of theme, of subject within the theme, and the argumentative point you wish to prove, themes in Macbeth and Handmaid's Tale might easily be brought together in a single thematic statement in a compare/contrast statement. Another way they might be brought together is within a thematic statement that reflects present reality against the thematic messages in the two works. Two examples might be (1) how the works reflect or contradict present day situations regarding men's and women's roles or (2) how the works reflect, foreshadow, or contradict present global depletion circumstances.

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