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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THEMES

Here are some of the major themes in Macbeth. Notice that each is expressed through some combination of plot, character, and language.

1. AN ANATOMY OF EVIL

A powerful sense of evil hangs over every scene in the play. Each character has to either fight or give in to it. The play makes several points about the nature of evil. The first point is that evil is contrary to human nature. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to contort their natures to murder Duncan. First, Lady Macbeth has to beg evil spirits to tear all human feeling from her, and then she has to make her husband ignore his own conscience. But the play also says that human nature cannot be avoided indefinitely. By the end of the play, both characters have been destroyed from within. Fear and guilt drive Lady Macbeth mad; Macbeth sees life as an empty, meaningless charade.

The second point is that it is evil to disrupt the natural order of the world. In nature, everything happens in its own time. A flower blooms when the laws of nature say it should, neither sooner nor later. When Macbeth takes the crown by murder, he upsets the natural order of his life-and the order of Scotland. Without the rightful, God-given king on the throne all society is disordered; under a usurper there can only be evil and chaos. Even nature becomes upset: it's dark during the day; horses eat each other; owls kill falcons. Nearly every scene has references to unnatural deeds or occurrences. When Macbeth is killed and Malcolm takes the throne, the natural order is restored.

The third point is that evil is a disease. Like a disease, evil infects its victims and makes them sicken until they die. Once Macbeth kills Duncan, he is committed to a course of lying and killing. His sense of right and wrong is eaten away. Even before he is killed, Macbeth is dying of a diseased spirit. Scotland is also infected, and Macbeth is its disease. The longer he is king, the worse things get. When Macbeth is overthrown, the country is healed.

2. AMBITION

Many readers feel that Macbeth's downfall is caused by his ambition. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth seems to be a brave, noble, and loyal thane. For his desire to become king, he is willing to turn his back on what he knows to be right. Lady Macbeth, because of her ambition for her husband, uses all her strength and intelligence for evil purposes. They are very unlike Banquo, who will not compromise his honor for anything.


3. APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

Practically nothing in the play is what it appears to be. The witches' predictions sound like good news; actually, they lead to death and destruction. Macbeth and his wife seem like gracious hosts; actually, they are plotting murder. The Macbeths appear to achieve their heart's desires; in reality, they only gain torment and death. In reading the play, examine each scene to compare what appears to be happening with what is really happening.

4. HONOR AND LOYALTY

In a feudal society such as the one in Macbeth, peace and order are maintained largely through honor and loyalty. Men of honor obey certain rules. Macbeth throws all ideas of honor out the window. Once he has done that, the country is in turmoil. Nobody knows whom he can trust. Look at what Macduff has to go through to win Malcolm's trust in Act IV. In Act V, it is made very clear that the few followers Macbeth has left have been forced to stay with him. They feel no sense of loyalty toward him. When it comes time to fight, they just give up.

5. FATE AND DESTINY

The play suggests that a person should trust his destiny to a higher power. After encountering the three witches, Macbeth tries to take fate into his own hands, and that action brings him nothing but grief. Malcolm, on the other hand, trusts that all things will work out "...by the grace of Grace [in other words, heaven]" (Act V, Scene viii, line 72). "Be what you're meant to be," the play seems to be saying.

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