Macbeth Themes – Meaning and Main Ideas

Main Theme of Macbeth – Introduction

Macbeth is set in northern Scotland in the 11th Century. This part of Scotland is known for being dark, rainy, damp, and cold. All of these features of the setting contribute to the gloomy and fearful mood of the play. The play opens as the Three Witches meet during a storm, which enhances the sense that some evil and/or deception is at play before the main characters and plot are even introduced.

This violent and depressing weather of dreary northern Scotland plays in with the story’s motifs. These motifs help to reinforce the overall themes of the play. First, the motif of violence ties directly in with the weather. For example, when King Duncan is murdered, an unrelenting storm rages on throughout the night. The weather tends to mirror the violent action of the play and enhances the sense of disorder and chaos that the characters go through. Another motif is that of prophecy. The Three Witches prophesize that Macbeth will become king of Scotland among other things. Almost all of their prophecies come true but the mystery that is emphasized with the gloomy and foggy weather holds with the prophecies as well—were they really destined to be through some metaphysical workings? Or were they simply self-fulfilling? A final notable motif is hallucinations. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become consumed with guilt as their environment becomes more and more unstable and they cause more and more crimes and killings to be carried out. They hallucinate as a result of their guilt and see many eerie spectral images that refuse to let them have any peace. Everything in this play works together to create an unsettled atmosphere that contributes to the madness of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and subsequently their total demise.


Themes in Macbeth

Here’s a list of major themes in Macbeth.

  • Ambition
  • The Destruction of Unchecked Power
  • Masculinity
  • Guilt

Theme of Ambition

macbeth themes ambitionAmbition leading to one’s downfall – Throughout the play, many characters show ambition, although they show it in different ways. Macduff and Lady Macduff show ambition in creating a well-rounded life without doing others harm. King Duncan shows ambition in ruling Scotland as a fair and just ruler. Banquo shows ambition in finding a way for his family’s lineage to reach the throne, but his morally sound character prevents him from taking action in any way that would harm anyone. Finally, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth allow their ambition to rule Scotland totally destroy them. Macbeth has heard the prophecy that he will become king and he is ready to make that happen in any way possible. Lady Macbeth influences him that King Duncan must be immediately murdered so that Macbeth can rise to the throne right away. This sets the two into a mad spiral in which they hallucinate due to their extreme guilt. Ultimately, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth let their ambition drive them to commit violent crimes and they both wind up simultaneously with everything they dreamed for and nothing at all, as they both die as a result of their selfish actions.


The Destruction of Unchecked Power

macbeth themes essayThe destruction of unchecked power – A major theme of Macbeth is that ambition unchecked by morals will lead to destruction. Similar to the theme discussed prior to this one, unchecked power and ambition will lead to extreme misfortune, but not just for the person letting their ambitions and power run unchecked. The results will also cause everyone around them to suffer. In the case of this play, all of Scotland suffers as the morality and order represented by a fair ruler (Duncan) is destroyed so that one man can have all that he desires (power). Many people are killed as a result of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth abusing their power, and ultimately, they suffer by dying as well.


Theme of Masculinity

How easily masculinity can lend itself to cruelty – Gender is a frequently occurring issue in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tends to be seen as a character who subverts gender norms because she influences and controls her husband. Her power and ambition lead her to manipulate her husband to do as she wishes. It is implied that she uses her sexual influence over him in order to maintain power. However, masculine traits are an inherent part of Macbeth’s characters as well. In a similar way that Lady Macbeth goads her husband into action, Macbeth questions the manhood of the killers that he has hired to murder Banquo and his sons. He does this to prompt them to take the most effective method of action that they can—to not fail. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth uphold masculinity as a way to manipulate and get what they want. Both fail to consider the effects that this has on people around them. Ultimately, it can be seen that any time masculinity is flexed as a tool, violence and chaos follow. It is important to note that damaging masculinity is not only seen in male characters. In fact, Lady Macbeth is not the only character who uses her masculine side as a tool. The Witches and the goddess Hecate do this as well by summoning their power to direct chaotic energy upon people’s lives. Another case of masculinity being tied to violence is when Macduff finds out that Macbeth has murdered his wife and child. Instead of mourning, he vows to get revenge upon Macbeth.


Theme of Guilt

macbeth theme of guiltThe mental prison that guilt creates – Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience guilt so profound that they descend into madness. Lady Macbeth is immediately wracked with guilt and her downfall is much more acute than Macbeth’s is. She immediately sees herself as unclean, hallucinating blood all over herself that she cannot wash off. Lady Macbeth is unable to sleep, and she is unable to stop seeing herself as unclean. Macbeth, on the other hand, experiences a much slower descent into madness. He struggles greatly to maintain a grip on reality even though he is also experiencing hallucinations. While Lady Macbeth’s guilt leads to suicide, Macbeth’s leads to further violence as he recklessly tries to maintain his sanity in any way he can. However, he cannot escape and for the duration of the play, he becomes more and more insane and senselessly destructive.