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The exploration and portrayal of power in Macbeth


In Macbeth, power is explored and portrayed through the characters' ambitions and moral corruption. Macbeth's lust for power leads him to commit regicide, resulting in a tyrannical rule and his eventual downfall. Lady Macbeth's manipulation and desire for authority also highlight the destructive nature of power. Ultimately, the play illustrates how the quest for power can lead to one's moral decay and demise.

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What are the power politics in Macbeth?

The politics in Macbeth are Machiavellian.  In The Prince (1532), Machiavelli said that "the ends justify the means."  He advocated a very modern political philosophy:

"the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct"

Likewise, Macbeth is very modern, light years ahead of its time.  Traditionally, a thane like Macbeth is supposed to honor, protect, and defend the King to his death.  But, with an idea from the witches and a plan from Lady Macbeth, he sees an opportunity to become King, which would not have been possible without murder.  He and Lady Macbeth play the gracious hosts who have daggers in their minds ("look like the flower, but be the serpent under't"), which reflects the theme of "appearance versus reality."

So, Macbeth focuses only on King, not on the murder he commits to obtain the crown.  Shakespeare shows the flaws in this power-play: it leads to guilt, madness, and losing one's head.

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How is power subverted in Macbeth?

On the whole, I think it's fair to say that power is generally subverted in Macbeth by two means: violence and popular rebellion.

It goes without saying that Macbeth subverts King Duncan's royal power by violently murdering him. However, Macbeth then suffers a similar fate at the end of the play when Macduff kills him in single combat. Thus, it would seem that royal authority is often subverted in the play by violent means. Indeed, even the king isn't safe, as his nobles can easily remove him with violence if they choose to do so.

Along the same lines, popular rebellion effectively subverts Macbeth's tyrannical reign. For example, though Macbeth is theoretically the most powerful man in Scotland, he's no match for the combined forces of Malcolm and Macduff when they rise against him. As such, it seems that the power of kings can also be subverted if the masses rise up against it.

All in all, in Macbeth Shakespeare illustrates the fragility of power and the ways in which it can be subverted. More specifically, he focuses on the ways in which violence and popular rebellion defy and dismantle power structures.

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How effectively does Shakespeare's play Macbeth explore the concept of power?

Macbeth is very incisive in the ways it discusses power, the acquisition of power, and the costs of power. At its heart, it is a play about Kingship, built around the distinction between legitimate rule (as is represented by Duncan and Malcolm) and illegitimate rule (as is represented by Macbeth). This entire chain of events is launched out of Macbeth's ambition to seize the throne, with Macbeth murdering his rightful liege, Duncan.

Macbeth is a usurper, and the play is quite clear that his reign is tyrannical in nature. He utilizes murder as a political tool, with neither friends nor innocents safe. He orders the murder of his friend and ally, Banquo, so as to remove potential threats to his dynastic ambitions (it was prophesied that Banquo's descendents would become kings) and later, the family of Macduff. As we see, that initial crime was only the first in a series of crimes across his brutal reign.

At the same time, Macbeth also charts the costs of such crimes on the psyches of its perpetrators. Lady Macbeth is ultimately driven insane out of guilt. As for Macbeth himself, his famous "life's but a walking shadow" speech, entails a recognition of life's ephemeral quality, which renders the acquisition and wielding of power a hollow and unfulfilling pursuit. By the end of the play, Macbeth's illegitimate reign is falling apart, as the same forces of prophesy that heralded his brutal rise to power are now dictating his downfall.

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How is power obtained and maintained in Macbeth?

In Macbeth, power is obtained and maintained in a couple of ways. These means are mostly tied to violence and persuasion.

Violence is a crucial component of obtaining and maintaining power, because, without war, Macbeth might never have come to King Duncan’s attention. It’s Macbeth’s performance in battle that earns him Duncan’s esteem and puts him in a position to eventually take out Duncan and become king himself.

In the first scene, a sergeant raves about Macbeth’s actions against the insurrectionists. The sergeant calls Macbeth “brave.” He gloriously claims that Macbeth’s weapon “smoked with bloody execution.” Again, if Macbeth was not so skilled at carrying out violence, he likely wouldn’t have obtained the power that would require him to engender further violence.

Although, truth be told, Macbeth was not inclined to use violence to acquire further power. He appeared quite content with the “Thane of Cawdor” title that Duncan bestowed on him.

Now persuasion comes into play. It’s Lady Macbeth who persuades Macbeth that he should aim higher, grab more power, and kill Duncan. When Macbeth expresses qualms about this power grab, Lady Macbeth challenges his masculinity. Macbeth steps up to the challenge, and Duncan is killed. Then, to hold on to the power that he’s acquired in the wake of Duncan’s death, some guards are killed, Banquo is killed, and Banquo’s son is almost killed.

Taking into account these events, it’s not too difficult to make the case that power is obtained and maintained through violence (i.e., the various murders) and persuasion (i.e., Lady Macbeth’s manipulation). Of course, if the witches are taken into account, it’s reasonable to make the case that power is obtained and maintained via ghoulish prophecies.

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What are the different types of power demonstrated in Macbeth?

I agree that there are different types of power at play.  There is potential for power, for one thing.  Macbeth has potential for power.  The witches have potential for power.  Banquo has potential power.  Malcolm has potential power.  In a way, it is really more a story of potential power and its effects than anything else.

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What are the different types of power demonstrated in Macbeth?

Remember that there's no set way of categorising these things, and calling something a certain sort of a power is actually to interpret the play rather than to analyse it. But I do think there's lots of scope for the sort of project you're trying to do.

Political power - talk about the role of the king (the power first of Duncan and then of Macbeth), about the Thane system (replaced in the very final lines by the new King, Malcolm), and about what Lady Macbeth is able to achieve through her husband's status and the "golden opinions" people hold of him.

Gender power - obviously the place to go is Lady Macbeth, and her incitements to be more like a man ("I dare do all that may become a man", Macbeth blusters), but don't overlook the witches or Lady Macduff (who, interestingly, has absolutely NO power at all mainly because of her gender).

Psychological power - you might also look at the witches and the way they seem to plant ideas (or bring to the surface already-present ideas) in Macbeth's head. You could, of course, also have a think about supernatural power in relation to this: because Shakespeare never tells us how far Banquo's ghost, the air-drawn dagger that leads him to Duncan, and the witches are real, evil presences, and how far they are figments of Macbeth's imagination.

And don't forget theatrical power: through darkness, through sound ("I heard the owl screech"), through speed - how does the play work its magic on us?

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How does Shakespeare present the theme of power in Macbeth?

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 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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How does Shakespeare present the theme of power in Macbeth?

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.


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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How does Shakespeare present the theme of power in Macbeth?

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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How is the concept of power portrayed in Macbeth?

Through sheer force of will, Lady Macbeth seems to be the most powerful character in act 1. She is anxious for her husband to return home so she can control him. She even says,

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes the from the golden round [...]. (1.5.28-31)

She wants to compel him to behave ruthlessly, remorselessly, compelling him to murder his king, cousin, and friend, so that the pair of them can ascend to the throne by the "nearest ways"—the fastest possible path—rather than waiting around for Duncan to die. In the final scene of this act, Macbeth decides that he will "proceed no further in this business" of regicide, and Lady Macbeth quickly overpowers him, insulting his manhood and pride by calling him "green and pale" and "a coward" until he gives in to her.

Lady Macbeth continues to hold the power in this relationship during act 2 as well. When Macbeth refuses to return the bloody daggers to Duncan's chamberlains, she berates him again, calling him "Infirm of purpose" and saying how easy it is to wash their crime away with a little water. She says,

My hands are of your color, but I shame
To wear a heart so white. (2.2.82-83)

Again, she insinuates that Macbeth is a coward and ought to be ashamed of his fearfulness and weakness.

In act 3, however, there is a subtle shift in power between these partners. Lady Macbeth feels only "doubtful joy" (3.2.9), and Macbeth says that his mind is "full of scorpions" (3.2.41). Neither is happy with their new state power—Macbeth, because he feels that Banquo is a threat to him, and Lady Macbeth, because a schism is developing between herself and her husband. Now, he "keep[s] alone" and makes big plans without telling her (3.2.10). He arranges for the murders of Banquo and Fleance, without her input or even her knowledge, and then he tells her how to act rather than she him (as was the case in act 1). By the end of this act, he is resigned to bloodshed while she seems a great deal more reticent. However, he informs her that they "are yet but young in deed" (3.4.176), and he begins to seem the more powerful of the two.

In act 4, as if to show that she has completely lost power in the relationship, Lady Macbeth is absent. In fact, the banquet scene of act 3 is the last time the audience actually sees the now king and queen together. In this act, Macbeth goes to the Weird Sisters for information and arranges for the murders of Macduff's wife and children, all without his wife's input.

Finally, in act 5, we see Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene. It seems that she has been overpowered by her guilt, imagining that she cannot wash Duncan's blood off her hands. She cries about how "much blood" was inside Duncan and alludes to the murders of Lady Macduff and her children (implying that their deaths, too, weigh upon her conscience). She seems utterly powerless at this point, while the state power passes to Malcolm from Macbeth. Macbeth's act of overwhelming dominance and cruelty, killing Macduff's family, compels Macduff to kill him, and thus the Scots throne passes to Malcolm. Ultimately, the only power Lady Macbeth retained was the power to take her own life, and Macbeth could only willingly fight his foe who he, himself, empowered.

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What ideas about power are developed in Macbeth?

It is said that power corrupts and sends otherwise decent individuals spiralling out of control as the power goes "to their heads." Macbeth is a recognized, respected and honored commander who is so esteemed by his king that he has been awarded Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth, an obviously influential wife and Macbeth's "Greatness" can show her support and help direct the husband she knows to be inadequate unless he has her guidance.

Unfortunately, however, even the thought of power sends these two into a frenzy - Lady Macbeth especially as she plots to kill Duncan without delay. Macbeth does hesitate deciding to "Proceed no further,"recognizing his "vaulting ambition" as the cause of his desperation to be king. Lady Macbeth is however, very persuasive. The very thought of Macbeth being "so much more the man"(I.vii.) is enough to get Macbeth to focus on thoughts of being king.

The power of the witches to transform Macbeth into a monster has long been a point of discussion. The witches do not have the power to make Macbeth commit these heinous deeds. Their main function is to plant the seed of destruction so as to ensure that "fair is foul."

The power play therefore is really between Macbeth and his conscience. lady Macbeth, although initially goading her husband, loses her prominence as he becomes more power-hungry with each murder or even planning the murders. Macbeth's power is not dependent on his killing women; yet, he does so anyway as he becomes overwhelmed with thoughts of being caught. He must also kill all possible heirs of Banquo as all reason has abandoned Macbeth and the need for power has consumed him. 

Power has had the opposite effect on Lady Macbeth. She cannot manage her feelings of guilt and is ultimately driven mad by her conscience. Either way, power has only had a destructive effect on everyone; as victims and perpetrators.     

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