How does Shakespeare present the theme of power in Macbeth?

Quick answer:

The theme of power in Macbeth is mostly presented through the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Spurred on by the witches' prophecy, the two scheme to kill King Duncan so that Macbeth can assume his throne and Lady Macbeth can be queen. However, this choice leads Macbeth down a path of paranoia, murder, and tyranny from which he cannot return. So, in this play, power is depicted as something extremely tantalizing but also volatile and corrupting.

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When considering such a broad topic, first begin by asking yourself some questions to explore it in more depth. For this topic, you may want to consider questions such as the following:

  • Who has power and who doesn't?
  • Is power depicted as only causing strife?
  • Why does Macbeth rise to...

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  • power? What is his reasoning?
  • Why does Lady Macbeth so desperately seek power for her husband?
  • Who in the play uses power in positive ways?
  • If Macbeth seeks power for self-serving reasons, who is his foil, seeking power for more noble causes?

Once you think about the topic this way, you should be able to consider developing a thesis that will guide an argumentative position about power in Macbeth.

Your thesis will then guide your paper. For the questions above, you may have a thesis that looks something like this:

  • Because of the historical context, Lady Macbeth seeks power for her husband because it is her only means to increase her own societal position.
  • While Macbeth seeks power for self-serving reasons, Macduff is his character foil and has more noble intentions for the modest forms of power he seeks.
  • Macbeth rises to power because of the intense pressure he receives from his wife.
  • While many characters are destroyed because of the power they hold and seek to claim, Malcolm shows that power can be used to rectify unjust situations.

After you develop a thesis, you can begin to really craft the body paragraphs of your paper. Find multiple specific examples of how the theme of power is crafted through various characters and scenes. In the end, be sure to explain some greater significance of the topic—such as how the power struggles in Macbeth are similar to other pieces of literature you have studied or how there is a universal message in Macbeth about power that transcends time and cultures.

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Events, characters and language are all closely related. So I'll explain how an event contributes to characterization and then explain how language furthers those ideas. There are a number of characters in the play, but here I'll focus on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

If you need more than what I've provided here, think of what it means to "characterize" someone. We do it with our friends and peers all the time. For example, if the kid in class who brags about getting a good score on a test because he's naturally really smart. However, you saw him using a cheat sheet under his desk. Therefore, how he acts during a tough moment gives us significant insight into his character. In addition, the fact that he brags and lies further supplements our assessment of his character.

Macbeth

In act one (I) scene two (ii), King Duncan gets a report on the recent war. The focus of the report is on Macbeth and how brave and ferocious a warrior he is. Specifically, the servant tells Duncan that Macbeth was slaughtering others and "he unseam'd [one of them] from the nave to the chaps." In other words, Macbeth impaling opponents with a sword and then running the sword all the way up the chin. Based on this event and the language used in describing it, the reader understands that Macbeth is capable of extreme brutality given the appropriate situation; he has the ability to be physically powerful.

Once Macbeth becomes king, he then abuses his state power by murdering any person he deemed a threat, including women and children. Because Macbeth will kill anyone simply for the sake of maintaining his power, the reader can draw inferences into the composition of his character (characterization).  

Lady Macbeth

Once Macbeth is King, Lady Macbeth is the queen. The potential power she has is obvious; she is emotionally and physically close to Macbeth, thus able to influence his decisions.

Before Macbeth became king, he had to assassinate King Duncan. Duncan was a close friend, perhaps even a father-figure, to Macbeth and Macbeth has doubts about killing him. Lady Macbeth then takes on a more masculine role and challenges Macbeth. In I vii, "when you durst do it, then you are a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man." In other words, she challenges his masculinity by saying that he is not a man until he has killed the king. When these words come from a person who is so close (especially during the Elizabethan period when genders dictated specific behaviors) they wield great power.

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Before beginning your essay, your best bet is to create a thesis statement; thus you may want to focus power and describe its affect in Macbeth.

Let's go with the example that "Power leads to corruption" in Macbeth. Some of the points you would want to include to prove this point are as follows.

When Macbeth first learns about his ascension to kingdom from the Three Weird Sisters as a prophecy, he starts to become unilaterally obsessed with climbing to the top of the top of the monarchical hierarchy. He informs his wife of the news, and together they plot to murder the good King Duncan so that Macbeth would take his place. Had power not been a proverbial carrot in front of Macbeth's face, one may argue that he would not have gone through such grotesque means as killing the king to usurp Duncan's throne. Along with the vile act of murder, the medieval people believed that kings were in place by God, thus, in a way, Macbeth is going against the very laws of nature to obtain power.

This ascension does not prove enough for Macbeth; as he obtains more power he becomes even more power hungry. To assure his place on the throne, he mentally returns to the prophecies of the Weird Sisters where they inform Banquo that Banquo's "sons will be kings." Macbeth, currently childless, but on the throne, is not satisfied with being king in his current time, he wants his own progeny to continue the rule, thus he has Banquo murdered, and Banquo's son Fleance chased. In his quest to obtain more and more power, Macbeth becomes further corrupt, murdering many others include the entirety of Macduff's family. His corruption runs deep into his core as he has dynamically changed from a man who once questioned his conscious, to a man who shrugs at the though of his wife's suicide by stating "life is but a walking shadow." His power ultimately led to his complete, and utter, corruption

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