At a Glance

  • Shakespeare's Macbeth dramatizes the battle between good and evil, exploring the psychological effects of King Duncan's murder in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth's conflicting feelings of guilt and ambition embody this timeless battle of good vs. evil.
  • Shakespeare uses psychological realism to develop the theme of guilt. Macbeth's remorse causes him to lose his grip on reality and lash out at those who would remind him of his evil deeds. In the end, Lady Macbeth's guilt over the murder drives her to suicide.
  • Supernatural forces are at work in Macbeth. William Shakespeare introduces this theme in Act I, Scene I, when the trio of witches predict their first meeting with Macbeth. Their presence in the play raises the question of fate vs. free will. Would Macbeth have killed King Duncan, for instance, if the witches had not told him he would become king? Shakespeare leaves this open to interpretation.

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Themes

In Macbeth, ambition conspires with unholy forces to commit evil deeds which, in their turn, generate fear, guilt and still more horrible crimes. Above all, Macbeth is a character study in which not one, but two protagonists (the title character and Lady Macbeth) respond individually and jointly to the psychological burden of their sins. In the course of the play, Macbeth repeatedly misinterprets the guilt that he suffers as being simply a matter of fear. His characteristic way of dealing with his guilt is to face it directly by committing still more misdeeds, and this, of course, only generates further madness. By contrast, Lady Macbeth is fully aware of the difference between fear and guilt, and she attempts to prevent pangs of guilt by first denying her own sense of conscience and then by focusing her attention upon the management of Macbeth's guilt. In the scene which occurs immediately after Duncan's death, Lady Macbeth orders her husband to get some water "and wash this filthy witness from your hand" (II.i.43-44). He rejects her suggestion, crying out, "What hands are here. Ha! they pluck out mine eyes! / Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?" (II.i.56-58). But she in turn insists that the tell-tale signs of his crime cannot be seen by others, that "a little water clears us of this deed" (II.i.64). But midway through the play, Lady Macbeth loses both her influence over her husband and the ability to repress her own conscience. Once her husband has departed to combat against Macduff's forces and Lady Macbeth is left alone, she assumes the very manifestations of guilt that have been associated with Macbeth, insomnia and hallucinations, in even more extreme form.

As for the motive behind the theme of guilt, it is ambition for power, and it does not require much for Macbeth to embrace the weird sisters' vision of him as the ruler of all Scotland. Macbeth is ambitious, but it is Lady Macbeth who is the driving force behind their blood-stained rise to the throne(s) of Scotland. Lady Macbeth is awesome in her ambition...

(The entire section is 2,521 words.)