Themes in Macbeth

This resource is designed as a reference guide for teachers. We have listed the major themes and motifs within Macbeth and provided examples of scenes where you can study them.

Themes:


Motifs:
(Recurring elements and patterns of imagery in Macbeth which support the play's themes)


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This document is designed as a resource for teachers which can be adapted to use with your students.

Themes

Ambition and the devastation which follows when ambition oversteps moral boundaries.
Some related scenes:

  • Act 1 Scene 5: Lady Macbeth receives Macbeth's letter, analyses his character, and invokes the forces of evil.
  • Act 1 Scene 7: Macbeth reflects on what is needed to achieve his ambition and Lady Macbeth taunts him to 'screw your courage to the sticking place.'
  • Act 3 Scene 1: Macbeth determines to kill Banquo in order to prevent his children succeeding to Scotland's throne.


Kingship
and the difference between appropriate use of power and tyranny.
Some related scenes:

  • Act 1 Scene 7: Macbeth reflects on Duncan's qualities as king.
  • Act 3 Scene 6: Lennox and another lord discuss life under Macbeth's rule.
  • Act 4 Scene 3: Malcolm and Macduff compare tyranny to honourable kingship.


Fate and free will
and the extent to which we control our own destinies.
Some related scenes:

  • Act 1 Scene 3: Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches on the heath.Macbeth reflects on their prophecies.
  • Act 2 Scene 1: Macbeth talks with Banquo about their encounter with the witches, sees a visionary dagger and makes his decision to kill Duncan.
  • Act 6 Scene 1: Macbeth visits the witches who offer him further prophecies.


Appearance and reality, and how people and events are often not as they seem.
Some related scenes:

  • Act 1 Scenes 1 and 2: The witches invoke confusion ('Fair is foul, and foul is fair').
  • Act 1 Scene 4: Duncan reflects on the traitorous Thane of Cawdor and ironically rewards Macbeth with this title, saying, 'I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/To make thee full of growing.'
  • Act 1 Scene 6: Duncan remarks on the Macbeths' castle having 'a pleasant seat' as the Macbeths plot his murder.


Motifs

Nature / The natural world and its disruption when the bounds of morality are broken.
For example:

  • 'Against the use of nature'
    Act 1 Scene 3
  • ''Tis unnatural,/ Even like the deed that's done.'
    Act 3 Scene 4
  • 'And his gash'd stabs looked like a breach in nature'
    Act 3, Scene 1
  • 'Boundless intemperance/ In nature is a tyranny.'
    Act 4, Scene 3


Light and darkness, representing innocence and evil.
For example:

  • 'Stars, hid your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires'
    Act 1 Scene 4
  • 'that darkness does the face of earth entomb,/When living light should kiss it?'
    Act 4 Scene 2
  • Come, seeling night,/ Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day'
    Act 3 Scene 2


Children, representing the future and highlighting evil when they are abused.
For example:

  • 'Your children shall be kings.'
    Act 1 Scene 3
  • 'And pity, like a naked new-born babe,'
    Act 1 Scene 7
  • 'I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me'
    Act 1 Scene 7
  • 'He has no children. All my pretty ones?'
    Act 4 Scene 3


Blood, representing evil plans and consequences of overreaching ambition.
For example:

  • 'Make thick my blood'
    Act 1 Scene 5
  • 'And on thy blood and dungeon gouts of blood/Which was not so before. There's no such thing:/It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes.'
    Act 2 Scene 1
  • 'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?'
    Act 2 Scene 1
  • 'Here's the smell of blood still.'
    Act 5 Scene 1


Sleep, a natural process and its disruption as caused by the fracture of the moral order.
For example:

  • 'Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse / The curtain'd sleep'
    Act 2 Scene 1
  • 'There's one did laugh in's sleep, and one cried 'Murder!''
    Act 2 Scene 2
  • 'Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'
    Act 2 Scene 2
  • 'we may again / Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights'
    Act 3 Scene 6
  • 'A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching!'
    Act 5 Scene 1


Visions, representing the extensions of a guilty conscience.
For example:

  • 'Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / To feeling as to sight?
    Act 2 Scene 1
  • 'Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mockery, hence!'
    Act 3 Scene 4
  • 'Wash your hands; put on your nightgown; look not so pale! I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried.'
    Act 5 Scene1
  • 'My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still'
    Act 5 Scene 7

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