Macbeth

Themes

Loyalty and Trust

King Duncan is a trusting ruler who takes his subjects on face value. He believes Macbeth to be entirely loyal to him, rewards his service in promotion and honours him greatly by visiting his castle. However, it is Macbeth who murders him. On Macbeth’s return from battle, Duncan greets him with honoured thanks, “The sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy on me” and Macbeth responds with an unwavering allegiance, “The service and the loyalty I owe / In doing it, pays itself.” (Act 1, Scene 4). Banquo equally trusts his friend Macbeth and addresses him as “my noble partner” (Act 1, Scene 3), yet Macbeth also murders Banquo, after he suspects he knows the truth about Duncan’s murder. Unlike Duncan, Banquo lives to observe a change in Macbeth’s demeanour. He has full knowledge of the witches’ predictions, and as he watches them come true he begins to question his faith in Macbeth’s honesty: “King, Cawdor, Glamis, all, as the weird women promised, and I fear thou played’st most foully for’t” (Act 3, Scene 1). The night before Duncan’s murder, Banquo asks Macbeth an honest question in private, openly sharing his dreams of the Weird Sisters, and the audience witness Macbeth’s first betrayal of their trust as he responds, “I think not of them”. (Act 2, Scene 1) Their friendship never recovers.

Macbeth is most commonly considered a work about driving ambition and a lust for power. However, it is also a study of the fragility of the frameworks that support power structures, most notably trust and loyalty. Why does Macbeth trust a word of the Weird Sisters’ prophecies? He does initially “start and seem to fear” these “imperfect speakers”, (Act 1, Scene 3) but when the first prophecy comes trues, Macbeth can’t help but dream for more: “The greatest is behind” (Act 1, Scene 3). His loyal friend Banquo gives him honest counsel, warning Macbeth of how dark spirits can blur the boundaries between truth and illusion, and deceive by presenting small truths:

And often times, to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths
Win us with honest trifles to betray‘s
in deepest consequence.

Act 1, Scene 3

Macbeth trusts his wife, and she encourages him to murder King Duncan. Macbeth agrees to the bloody deed but begins to lose trust in his own judgement. He manages to talk himself out of the act in a lengthy soliloquy, in which he highlights trust as something he holds in the highest regard:

He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.

Act 1, Scene 7

Macbeth considers his ‘deep and dark desires’ (Act 1, Scene 3) but that is simply a private distrust in his head, to act on his desires is a very different thing. Upon arriving at Lady Macbeth’s home, King Duncan trusts his hostess. Her flattery, however loyal on the surface, hides a sinister purpose:

All in our service,
In every point twice done and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honours deep and broad wherewith
Your majesty loads our house. For those of old,
And the late dignities heaped up to them,
We rest your hermits.

Act 1, Scene 6

Lady Macbeth is being polite in her comment, “rest your hermits”. This means “pray for you constantly”, but this reference could be referring to her intention to put Duncan closer to God, in other words, to kill him.

Having betrayed trust in this way, Macbeth becomes obsessed with the possibility that others might be intending to betray him. Even before the Weird Sisters warn him to “beware Macduff”, he suspects he cannot rely on Macduff’s support: “How sayst thou that Macduff denies his person / At our great bidding?” (Act 3, Scene 4) He mistrusts the lords who appear to serve him, even to the point of having spies in his Thanes’ households: “There’s not a one of them but in his house / I keep a servant fee’d.” (Act 3, Scene 4) Macbeth doesn’t even trust his wife, and begins to keep most of his dealings secret from her: “Be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck”. (Act 3, Scene 2) He begins to place his trust solely in the Weird Sisters. His investment in their darker world grows more and more as the play progresses and by Act 5 his entire reign and rule rests on the shoulders of their flimsy word play. Even this trust crumbles as their final prophecy, “No man of woman born can harm” Macbeth, proves to be another fallacy when Macduff announces, “I was from my mother’s womb untimely ripped”. (Act 5, Scene 8)


The Supernatural

It is not only witches who appear in this play, but ghosts, conjured apparitions, ill omens and a goddess of magic derived from mythology, most likely inserted into the play by Thomas Middleton. In Shakespeare’s time, audiences delighted in being frightened. However, the crucial point about the supernatural figures in Macbeth is that they never enchant or directly compel anyone. Their power lies solely in revealing the truth to their listeners. This makes them a much more interesting narrative element than mere spell-casters would be. In a sense, Shakespeare disempowers the witches by reducing their prophecies to simple truth-telling and word play, yet at the same time empowers them by proving the immense impact that the power of suggestion can have on human nature.

Betrayal and Deception / Appearance and Reality

The two most obvious betrayals are Macbeth’s betrayal of King Duncan and of his comrade Banquo. However, the concept of betrayal runs much deeper: betrayal of office, betrayal of friendship, betrayal of trust, betrayal of rank, betrayal of truth and betrayal of justice. Lady Macbeth betrays her womanhood by calling on the spirits to “unsex” her as she seeks masculine strength in order to fulfill the Weird Sisters’ prophecy.

In Macbeth, characters believe that what they can see is fair or good, but in most instances this is not the case. They are deceived by appearances and the central characters are well aware of the power that holds. King Duncan has no sense of danger or foreboding when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, the setting where he will soon be murdered. On the contrary, he finds it very agreeable:

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

Act 1, Scene 6

Macbeth perceives the prophecies made by the “armed head” and the “bloody child”, on his second meeting with the witches, to be good omens. He later discovers that these prophecies are deceptive wordplays that foretell his own downfall. The tactic of Malcolm is to use the trees of the forest as cover, and so for Macbeth Birnam Wood does “come to Dunsinane.” Macduff was, in fact, born of a caesarian section and therefore is “not of woman born.”

Lady Macbeth believes her husband to be a bad actor, too transparent in his responses – “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.” (Act 1, Scene 5) She constantly urges her husband to conceal his true intentions: “Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.” (Act 1, Scene 5) He must “look up clear” and not “alter favour”. (Act 1, Scene 5) On being resolved to the murder, Macbeth echoes this sentiment “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” (Act 1, Scene 7) Despite their performances, others suspect their intentions. On the morning Duncan’s body is found his son Donalbain tells his brother “There’s daggers in men’s smiles”. (Act 2, Scene 3) Eventually Lady Macbeth can no longer conceal the truth. The secrets she has held in come bursting forth in her sleepwalking confessions, ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him’. (Act 5, Scene 1)

Pictures are used by Lady Macbeth to describe insubstantial fears. Duncan’s body is “a painted devil” (Act 2, Scene 2), being unable to move or hurt her, although of course her participation in the murder does wound her deeply. Macbeth deeply fears the vision of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, but Lady Macbeth must play the role of actor and keep up appearances with her guests, saying “He is often thus”. (Act 3, Scene 4) She works to devalue and dismiss this actualisation of her husband’s guilt as merely “the very painting of your fear.” (Act 3, Scene 4) The idea that appearances are no reliable guide to reality is one that Shakespeare returns to over and over in many of his plays, including Hamlet, Othello, and Measure for Measure, but also in comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Betrayal and Deception / Appearance and Reality

The two most obvious betrayals are Macbeth’s betrayal of King Duncan and of his comrade Banquo. However, the concept of betrayal runs much deeper: betrayal of office, betrayal of friendship, betrayal of trust, betrayal of rank, betrayal of truth and betrayal of justice. Lady Macbeth betrays her womanhood by calling on the spirits to “unsex” her as she seeks masculine strength in order to fulfill the Weird Sisters’ prophecy.

In Macbeth, characters believe that what they can see is fair or good, but in most instances this is not the case. They are deceived by appearances and the central characters are well aware of the power that holds. King Duncan has no sense of danger or foreboding when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, the setting where he will soon be murdered. On the contrary, he finds it very agreeable:

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

Act 1, Scene 6

Macbeth perceives the prophecies made by the “armed head” and the “bloody child”, on his second meeting with the witches, to be good omens. He later discovers that these prophecies are deceptive wordplays that foretell his own downfall. The tactic of Malcolm is to use the trees of the forest as cover, and so for Macbeth Birnam Wood does “come to Dunsinane.” Macduff was, in fact, born of a caesarian section and therefore is “not of woman born.”

Lady Macbeth believes her husband to be a bad actor, too transparent in his responses – “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.” (Act 1, Scene 5) She constantly urges her husband to conceal his true intentions: “Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.” (Act 1, Scene 5) He must “look up clear” and not “alter favour”. (Act 1, Scene 5) On being resolved to the murder, Macbeth echoes this sentiment “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” (Act 1, Scene 7) Despite their performances, others suspect their intentions. On the morning Duncan’s body is found his son Donalbain tells his brother “There’s daggers in men’s smiles”. (Act 2, Scene 3) Eventually Lady Macbeth can no longer conceal the truth. The secrets she has held in come bursting forth in her sleepwalking confessions, ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him’. (Act 5, Scene 1)

Pictures are used by Lady Macbeth to describe insubstantial fears. Duncan’s body is “a painted devil” (Act 2, Scene 2), being unable to move or hurt her, although of course her participation in the murder does wound her deeply. Macbeth deeply fears the vision of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, but Lady Macbeth must play the role of actor and keep up appearances with her guests, saying “He is often thus”. (Act 3, Scene 4) She works to devalue and dismiss this actualisation of her husband’s guilt as merely “the very painting of your fear.” (Act 3, Scene 4) The idea that appearances are no reliable guide to reality is one that Shakespeare returns to over and over in many of his plays, including Hamlet, Othello, and Measure for Measure, but also in comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ambition

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are incredibly ambitious, and it is their ambition that drives them to commit dark deeds in order to achieve power and increased social stature. In Act 1, Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter about his meeting with the Weird Sisters with delight: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised.” (Act 1, Scene 5) On the basis of his letter she indicates to the audience that she wants Macbeth to be ambitious and follow the Weird Sisters’ prophecy. Yet Lady Macbeth also reveals that she doubts Macbeth has the drive to fulfill the prophecy:

Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.

Act 1, Scene 5

Lady Macbeth cajoles her husband, playing on the ambition she knows he has when he arrives back at their castle after a long absence: “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!” (Act 1, Scene 5) She admits her own ambition to him, stating that his “letters have transported” her “beyond this ignorant present” and she feels now “the future in the instant”. (Act 1, Scene 5) Forward motion sits at the very heart of ambition, and Lady Macbeth seems to be in a perpetual state of trying to “jump the life to come”. (Act 1, Scene 7)

Macbeth’s soliloquy when he considers murdering Duncan, reveals that Macbeth recognises his own ambitious nature, but also realises it to have limitations:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other.

Act 1, Scene 7

Lady Macbeth enters at the end of Macbeth’s soliloquy and the depth of her ambition is revealed in her strong and unwavering counter argument. She challenges Macbeth’s love for her, his manhood, and particularly his commitment, pointing out the extreme lengths she would go to for him:

I have given suck and know
how tender tis to love the babe that milks me,
I would while it was smiling in my face,
have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
and dashed the brains out had I so sworn
as you have done to this.

Act 1, Scene 7

In response, Macbeth swiftly buries the moral arguments he has been toying with:

I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Act 1, Scene 7

But it is not only the Macbeths who are ambitious in the play. Even Banquo is not immune to the temptation of ambition. When he sees that Macbeth has become king he wonders whether this suggests he should take the witches' prophecies seriously: “May they not be my oracles as well / And set me up in hope?” (Act 3, Scene 1) However, unlike Macbeth and his wife, Banquo does nothing to try to hasten what he has been promised. King James I disliked anyone who attempted to forget their place in his strictly ranked court and nation, so ambition became a flaw when it caused someone to attempt to rise beyond their allotted position in society. Shakespeare was sure to show King James he adhered to this notion by outlining the fatal path that results from unlawful and amoral usurpation.