Macbeth Themes

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.

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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,...

(The entire section is 1,240 words.)