The main themes in Macbeth are ambition, trust and deceit, supernatural intervention, and dynastic succession.
- The corrupting effects of ambition: Macbeth’s ambition leads him to the throne, but his paranoid obsession with keeping power ultimately leads to his downfall.
- Trust and deceit: The deceitful Macbeths deviously exploit the good and trusting natures of others to rise to power.
- Supernatural intervention: The presence of supernatural forces, specifically the mysterious witches, introduce complex questions about the nature of free will and man's capacity for evil.
- Dynastic succession: The royal lines referenced in Macbeth are connected to King James I, who ruled when Shakespeare wrote the play.
The Corrupting Effects of Ambition
In his soliloquy at the beginning of act 1, scene 7, Macbeth admits to himself that he has no good reason to murder Duncan. If the king had been oppressive or incompetent, there might have been a patriotic argument for killing and replacing him to benefit Scotland, but Macbeth has no reason to think that he will be a better king than Duncan; indeed, he quickly proves to be much worse.
It is clear from his first entrance that Macbeth is ambitious in a way that his fellow thanes are not. Banquo, for instance, is similar to Macbeth in situation, yet his straightforward honesty in the way he treats those around him—from the witches to King Duncan to his son—renders him a foil for Macbeth’s more duplicitous and corruptible nature. Similarly, Macduff, essentially the hero of the play, has no thoughts of claiming the crown of Scotland for himself after killing Macbeth. Instead, he leaves the throne to Malcolm, who, unlike Macbeth, assumes power out of a sense of duty rather than out of personal ambition. Macbeth’s hunger for glory is personal from the very beginning, and once he overcomes his reservations about killing Duncan, he degenerates into abject tyranny very quickly. He no longer even needs Lady Macbeth to goad him on, and there is no evidence that she is complicit in his later crimes.
Macbeth’s ambition is never satisfied. As soon as he is crowned king of Scotland, he becomes aggrieved that he will not be the founder of a great dynasty, like Banquo. This is something that he clearly knew all along, but once he has achieved his crown, he immediately starts wanting more, even if what he wants is impossible. It quickly becomes clear that Macbeth will never be the type of ruler who, however violently he acts to achieve his ambition, is happy once it is attained. Macbeth is never satisfied, and getting what he wants only ever corrupts him further.
Trust and Deceit
The dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff in act 4, scene 3 is rather long and is often cut in performance. Read in full, however, the conversation is a masterly study in the initial manoeuvers between two men, each of whom has every reason not to trust the other. Malcolm tells a plethora of outrageous lies to see how Macduff will react and only begins to trust his fellow countryman after observing Macduff’s genuine horror and despair at the appalling picture the prince paints of his own character.
Malcolm has had to learn deceit quickly. When their father Duncan is murdered, Malcolm and Donalbain both realize that one of the thanes around them is likely guilty of the murder, and that they are both in grave danger. They will either be accused of the crime (which is what, in fact, happens) or they will be killed next. There is no one around them whom they can trust, and their only option is to flee. Lady Macduff, abandoned by her husband, is in a similar predicament, except that she has nowhere to go.
The straightforward, trusting nature of such characters as Duncan, Lady Macduff, and Banquo marks them out as victims in a play filled with duplicity. Lady Macbeth is continually urging her husband to be more deceitful, a lesson he seems to have learned quite thoroughly by the end of the play. Even in the midst of his own deceit and treachery, however, Macbeth continues to believe in the witches—despite all obvious clues that they are malicious figures—because he wants to believe what they have told him....
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It is only immediately before his death that he realizes how they have deceived him. Theirony here is that the witches are one of the few characters in the play that are exactly what they seem: hideous and evil. The noble Banquo recognizes this and immediately treats them with contempt. It is only because Macbeth is already somewhat corrupt, even upon his first appearance in the play, that he is willing to place his trust in such obviously malign figures.
Supernatural Intervention in Human Affairs
The references to Christianity in Macbeth are few and superficial. Almost as an afterthought, Macbeth mentions that by killing the king he has forfeited his soul “to the common enemy of man.” Other supernatural influences abound, however, and their origin is always mysterious. Whereas Old King Hamlet’s ghost from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is very precise about how and why he has returned to earth, Banquo’s ghost does not even speak. The source of the spirits that Lady Macbeth summons to unsex her and fill her with cruelty is similarly vague. Even the witches seem to come out of nowhere, and the revelation in act 3 scene 5 that they are in the service of Hecate, Greek goddess of sorcery and necromancy, does not do much to explain their mysterious motives or origin.
Macbeth is a play in which God appears to be largely absent. It’s not clear that the spiritual “assistance” of the witches comes from Satan, but the supernatural in Macbeth is always untrustworthy—its origins suspicious and murky and its objectives equally obscure. Macduff and Malcolm eventually triumph by purely physical, explicable means, and the supernatural allies who assisted Macbeth and then deserted him seem to have had no motive beyond that of causing trouble and sowing chaos. Of interest to many readers of Macbeth is the question of free will, and to what extent Macbeth’s crimes are the result of his own ambition versus the witches’ manipulations. In this regard, the play is open to multiple interpretations. Macbeth can be characterized as a victim of supernatural intervention if it is assumed that seizing the throne would not have occurred to him without the witches’ prophecy. It can also be argued, however, that the witches’ prophecies aren’t evil in and of themselves. The witches merely state what will come to pass; they offer no insight or instruction on how this future might be achieved. Thus, Macbeth can also be held responsible for interpreting and acting on the prophecy in the way that he does.
In act 1, scene 4, Duncan makes the succession clear when he names Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland. Primogeniture, the system by which the eldest son of the king becomes the next king, is not automatic in this society, and if Malcolm had been unsuited to rule, Duncan could have chosen another successor, such as Macbeth.
Macbeth has no children and neither has Malcolm. The witches make it clear more than once that the eventual heir to the throne will come from Banquo’s line, likely starting with his son, Fleance. As soon as he has achieved his ambition to be king, Macbeth becomes incensed that he has committed treason and regicide in order to “make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!” Although he knew perfectly well that this was what he doing when he did it, Macbeth’s periodic rage that his reign will be “fruitless” and “barren” shows the importance of the dynastic line. James VI of Scotland, who had recently become James I of England when Macbeth was written, believed that he could trace his ancestry back to Fleance and Banquo, making this particular line of succession highly consequential for the play’s original audience, who would have seen it as further confirmation of their king’s right to the throne.