Study Guide

Macbeth Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Fate and Free Will

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    The dog ate my homework. The devil made me do it. She forced me to eat that apple.

    People have been coming up with excuses for their actions since Ugg first had to apologize for hitting Zog with a rock. (The saber-toothed tiger made me do it?) And the favorite excuse of great tragedy is almost always "fate." But Macbeth questions that excuse. Is it Macbeth's fate to be a traitor and a king-killer? Or is he alone responsible for his actions, and did he freely choose his choice? The play pits the prophecies of the three weird sisters against its own dramatization of Macbeth's internal conflict—and it's not clear which wins. In fact, fate and free will might just be working together.

    macbeth Video

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What is Macbeth's initial response to the weird sisters' prophesy? Does his attitude change at some point? If so, when does the change occur?
    2. Macbeth is repeatedly described as giving the witches his "rapt" attention. Why is that? What does this suggest about Macbeth's choices?
    3. Do all of the witches' prophesies come true?
    4. What role does Lady Macbeth play in her husband's actions? Is she always involved in Macbeth's decision making?


    Chew on This

    Macbeth leaves us hanging. It never answers the question of whether free will or fate determines a person's future.

    Macbeth may be fated to be king, but he decides all on his own that he will murder Duncan in order to obtain the crown. His actions suggest that fate may be predetermined, but free will determines how a people reach their destinies.

  • Ambition

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    You'd think it was enough to be the nation's greatest warrior and Thane of Cawdor. What more could a man want? Apparently, a lot. Once Macbeth has had a taste of power, he's willing to kill anyone (men, women, and children) who he thinks might undermine his seat on Scotland's throne. But Macbeth doesn’t get to enjoy being a gansgta for long. He puts his own desires before the good of his country, and, in the end, is destroyed by that ambition. So, maybe you should lay off that nefarious plot you're cooking up to become class president: according to Macbeth, the power and glory just isn't worth it.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. What compels Macbeth to murder Duncan? What drives him to continue committing heinous acts after the initial murder?
    2. What does Lady Macbeth say about her husband's ambition? What does this reveal about her desires?
    3. If Macbeth believed he was fated to have the crown, can he be credited (or blamed) with ambition in trying to gain it?
    4. What fuels Malcolm's interest in defending Scotland? Do his actions up to the final battle indicate that he's prepared to be King? Is he ambitious? What is the difference between him and Macbeth, if they’re after the same throne?

    Chew on This

    In Macbeth, ambition can be good if it's used for the best interests of the country.

    Macbeth portrays excessive ambition as unnatural and dangerous, with the ability to ruin individuals and entire countries.

  • Power

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely… unless, of course, your absolute power is a god-given right. In Shakespeare's time, the Divine Right of Kings was the idea that the power of kings comes directly from God. Guess who was a big fan of the Divine Right of Kings? Our man Will's very own patron, James I. In Macbeth, power is natural—until it's not. When Macbeth kills Duncan, he goes against the very law of nature and God by killing his king, and then gets killed in return. According to the play, it's okay to kill King Macbeth because King Macbeth is actually a tyrant. But who gets the power to decide what tyranny looks like?

    Questions About Power

    1. What kind of a ruler is King Duncan? How would you compare his leadership to Macbeth's?
    2. What is the play's attitude toward the murder of King Duncan? Toward the death of Macbeth?
    3. In Act iv, Scene iii, Malcolm pretends that he thinks he'll become a tyrant once he's crowned king. Why does he do this? What's Macduff's response? What's the overall purpose of this scene?
    4. Does the play ever portray an ideal monarch? If yes, what does that monarch look like? If no, why do you think the play never shows us a good king?

    Chew on This

    In Macbeth, regicide (killing a king) is unnatural and evil but tyrannicide (killing a tyrant) is A-OK.

    Although King Duncan is a good man and a virtuous king, he's too "meek" to rule effectively. Macbeth, on the other hand, rules Scotland like a tyrant. The play, then, suggests that a truly good monarch should be strike a balance somewhere between Macbeth and Duncan.

  • Versions of Reality

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Bearded witches, severed fingers, and floating daggers: Macbeth is more fun than a haunted house at the state fair. And, like that haunted house, nothing is quite what it seems. Fair is foul; foul is fair; and the rivers of blood turn out to be corn syrup and food coloring. But once you're in that rickety cart jerking around the tracks, can you you really be sure that the skeleton in the corner is fake?

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. At the beginning of the play, the witches say "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." What in the world does this mean, and how does that topsy-turvy feeling resonate in the play?
    2. How do Macbeth and Banquo respond to the witches' prophesy in act one, scene three? Does it seem real to them? Why or why not?
    3. What kinds of hallucinations and visions occur in the play? What purpose do they serve?
    4. Why is a doctor called in to tend to Lady Macbeth? What's wrong with her?

    Chew on This

    Truth and reality are often murky in Macbeth and the distinction between what is "foul" and what is "fair" is frequently blurred.

    Lady Macbeth's hallucination of blood stained hands is no hallucination: no matter what she does, she can never wash away her guilt for the murder of Duncan.

  • Gender

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Ah, 11th-century Scotland: a time when men were men, and women were … either bearded witches, unsexed nags, or dead. (Yeah, did you notice that not a single woman is left alive at the end of the play?) Shakespeare may be known for strong female heroines, but they're not hanging around this play. Not that Macbeth is full of strong male heroes, either. We get a lot of examples of how not to do it, and in the end we're left with Macduff and Malcolm as our role models. So, which one are you going to look up to: the man who left his family to the not-so-tender mercies of Macbeth's murderous crew; or the new king, whose first impulse was to run away?

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does Lady Macbeth convince her husband to kill Duncan? Could (according to the logic of this play) a man have used a similar strategy on a woman, or a man on a man? Or does this kind of convincing only work one way?
    2. What is meant when Lady Macbeth says Macbeth is too "full o'th'milk of human kindness"? Why "milk"? Is this description gendered?
    3. How does the play define "manhood"? What is it that makes one a "man" in Macbeth?
    4. How are women characters portrayed in Macbeth? What kinds of roles do they play? Is "womanhood" or "femininity" defined in the way that masculinity is?

    Chew on This

    For Lady Macbeth and her husband, masculinity is synonymous with cruelty and violence.

    In the play, women are portrayed as dangerous forces who can emasculate and ruin men.

  • The Supernatural

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Are the three weird sisters witches, or are they just … three weird sisters? Is there really a floating dagger, or is Macbeth just making up excuses? Does he really see a ghost, or is it just the impression of his guilty conscience? Do you believe in magic? In Macbeth, the supernatural isn't just for stories around the fireplace; it's a real, everyday fact of life. Almost, you might say, natural.

    Unless, of course, it isn't. To figure out what's going on with all the witches and ghosts, you have to decide whether you believe in fate. Is Macbeth seeing daggers and ghosts because someone outside his control is controlling him? Or is he simply seeing the fevered imaginings of a guilty and freely choosing mind?

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. How do Banquo and Macbeth react when they first encounter the weird sisters in Act I, Scene iii? Are they surprised, afraid, confused?
    2. The witches accurately predict Macbeth's future, but do they control his fate? Why or why not?
    3. How would you characterize the witches' speech? What does it suggest about their characters? How does it set them apart from other characters in the play?
    4. Are there connections or similarities between the witches and any other characters in the play? If so, what are they, exactly

    Chew on This

    Macbeth consistently undercuts the reality of the supernatural by focusing on the Macbeths' internal guilt and struggle.

    In Macbeth, the supernatural represents the fear of the unknown.

  • Violence

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Do violent TV shows and video games actually make kids more violent? Maybe. But if they do, then you're going to have to lock up Shakespeare with a MA-17+ rating, too, because Macbeth's body count is out of control. And it's not just aliens or zombies being brutally slain: it's women and kids, too. As with all of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth piles on the violence. Just as we ask whether it's necessary or gratuitous in the latest James Bond movie, we can ask the same thing here: is there a good reason for all the violence, or did people in the 17th century like to watch blood being spilled just as much as we do?

    Questions About Violence

    1. Most characters in the play have won their honors on the battlefield. To what degree could you describe politics in Macbeth as a kind of battlefield? Is this political violence acceptable.
    2. Nature always seems to be rebelling against the unnatural acts going down in Dunsinane, yet violence is a central part of the natural world. Are humans any more than animals here?
    3. The play ends with as much violence as the original battle against another traitor to the crown. Is there a suggestion here of cyclical and never-ending violence? Is there any way to argue against Macbeth's claim that blood demands blood? And where have all the flowers gone?
    4. When Malcolm wants to grieve, Macduff tells him instead that violence in the name of Scotland is a better cure. Yet when Macduff finds out his family is murdered, he grieves first before taking revenge. Is violence a justified reaction to a wrong, or is it just an emotion out of control that can be rightfully calmed with thought?

    Chew on This

    The reason that Macbeth's violence is inexcusable is because it doesn't play by the established rules. In Macbeth, organized violence is sport, and individual violence is uncivilized.

    Throughout Macbeth violence and cruelty are associated with masculinity.

  • Time

    (Click the themes infographic to download.)

    Macbeth's most famous speech begins "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow," so, yes: we're going to say that time matters. (And, to be honest, this theme takes the Tough-o-Meter up a notch or two, but we think you can handle it.) Basically, the idea is that time literally comes to a halt when Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne. All of the events that take place between the murder and the final battle seem to happen out of time, almost in some sort of alternate reality, in some witch-land outside of history. Macduff's final remark that the "time is free" now that Macbeth is defeated and Malcolm is set to take his rightful position as hereditary monarch clues us in to the relationship between the seeming disruption in linear time and the disruption of lineal succession: without its rightful ruler, a country has no future.

    Questions About Time

    1. What is the weird sisters' relationship to time? Are they the only figures capable of seeing into the future?
    2. What kind of future does Lady Macbeth imagine for herself and her husband? Do either of the Macbeths spend much time imagining the future? (And what do you make of the fact that they apparently don't have children, even though Lady Macbeth talks about breastfeeding?)
    3. How does Shakespeare's interest in representing the past (11th-century Scottish history) in Macbeth relate the play's overall portrayal of time?

    Chew on This

    Although Macbeth did everything in his power to secure his future on earth, by the end of the play, time is out of his control.

    In Macbeth time comes to a complete halt and the "hours" are thrown out of joint when King Duncan is murdered. Normal time is only restored when Macbeth dies.