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There are quite a number of themes, motifs and images that track throughout the play. I thought I'd identify and discuss some of them here. The section headings are quotes from the body of the play that essentially state the nature of the theme being discussed.

Fair is foul and foul is fair

In my summary of the play, I have the Witches saying "fair is foul and foul is fair. Remember that - it's a major theme of the play." And so it is. Good news from the witches (congratulations – you're going to be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland!) leads to foul acts on the part of Macbeth, who doesn't want to wait around to see whether the prophecy might in time come true on its own.

The prophecy to Banquo is not nearly as effusive, but he is told that his male offspring will be kings of Scotland (and, indeed, there was a Banquo who was an ancestor to King James I, so it was a smart move to link that up, whether the Banquo in the play was the same guy or not). Earlier versions of Macbeth, including the Chronicles written by Raphael Hollinshead, indicated that Banquo was at the very least complicit in the murder of Duncan, if not directly involved. Again, changing that to make someone who might have been the King's ancestor more noble and less of a villain was a smart move for someone who relied on the tolerance – and patronage – of the Court. The news for Banquo is in some ways foul, but with better long-term results, as the Witches themselves acknowledge in Act I, scene 3. ("Lesser than Macbeth, and greater." "Not so happy, yet much happier.")

Macbeth's first entrance (Act I, scene 3) repeats the theme propounded by the Witches two scenes earlier: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen."

In Act I, scene 5, Lady Macbeth advises her husband to "Look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under it." In the closing scene of Act I, Macbeth again references the "appearances vs. reality" theme when he says "Away, and mock the time with fairest show:/False face must hide what the false heart doth know." Lady Macbeth, already slipping into madness (you can tell by the nature of her rhyme), notes the difference between appearance and reality, and that success, which ought to be good, is a curse:
Naught's had, all's spent
Where our desire is got without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than, by destruction, dwell in doubtful joy.
  Act III, sc. 2

Malcolm, Duncan's son who ends the play as King of Scotland, observes that Lucifer was the most beautiful angel of all, and that both foul and fair things can have a fair appearance: "Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell;/Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,/Yet grace must still look so." Act IV, sc. 3.

Blood will have blood

Macbeth is a bloodbath, plain and simple. It opens during a time of war, and casualties are discussed. Somewhere offstage, the current Thane of Cawdor is executed for treason and his head displayed on a pike. Macbeth personally murders Duncan, and his good wife stabs the dead Duncan for good measure to plant evidence on his two guards, whom Macbeth then kills as well. Macbeth then hires brigands to kill Banquo and his son (who escapes), then enlists the aid of those same brigands to slaughter the residents of Macduff's castle at Fife. They kill Macduff's son onstage, Lady Macduff, the rest of her children, and all of the servants they can get their hands on offstage. Lady Macbeth dies (offstage). Macbeth then kills young Siward before meeting his own death at the hands of Macduff.

Not only is reference made to the blood attendant on all of these murders, but blood and blood imagery are used throughout. Even before Macbeth slays Duncan, he envisions a bloody dagger leading him on. (Act II, sc. 1.) After Duncan's death, neither Macbeth nor his wife can get the image of the bloodied king from their minds. Macbeth says that not all of Neptune's seas can wash his hands clean: "No; this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red." (Act II, sc. 1.) Macbeth again envisions a giant body of blood in Act III, scene 4: "I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Lady Macbeth's obsession with the idea of blood being on her hands - literally and figuratively - comes out most clearly in her famous sleepwalking scene, which includes her rubbing at her hands and the infamous line, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" along with "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him" and "Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." Act V, sc. 1.

Macbeth himself observes how his involvement in so many murders has immured him to fear and alarm. He's describing a state of numbness, in my opinion, when he says in Act V, sc. 5:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't: I have supp'd full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.

Immediately after that, he receives news that his wife is dead, and has no emotional response to it.

Glamis hath murdered sleep

This play isn't just a profile of power, murder, and madness; it's also a cautionary tale about what can happen when people don't get enough sleep. The phrase "Macbeth hath murdered sleep" comes from Act II, scene 1, but it's not the first mention of lack of sleep in the play. In Act I, scene 3, the Witches discuss plans to bedevil a sailor; the statements about the sailor turn out to apply as well to Macbeth, at least metaphorically (a "pent-house lid" is an eyelid, btw):

First Witch
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se'nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.

In Act III, scene 2, Macbeth not only uses "sleep" to discuss sleep, but also as a metaphor for death. In conversation with his wife, he confesses that he isn't sleeping - he's interrupted by nightmares. His guilt is eating at him. Then he discusses Duncan's final rest as sleep (a way of foreshadowing that Macbeth will not go to his eternal rest, but will be in torment for eternity, I believe):

But let the frame of things disjoint, both the
worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

In Act III, scene 4, after Macbeth has wigged out at the dinner table over Banquo's ghost, Lady Macbeth says this, "You lack the season of all natures, sleep." Later, in Act V, scene 1, we learn that Lady Macbeth hasn't exactly been sleeping well either. She insists on having a light next to her all night, and she's been walking and talking in her sleep, implicating herself in the murders committed or ordered by her husband.

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

Macbeth's ambition - his willingness to achieve his goals by any means necessary - is something that resounds with audiences now as it undoubtedly did in Shakespeare's day. Not that it's something we as human beings are proud of, but it's definitely the dark side of ambition. (Cue the Emperor: "Use your aggressive feelings, boy. Let the hate flow through you. ") In Act I, sc. 4, Macbeth acknowledges his hidden desire to be king: "Stars, hide your fires!/Let not light see my black and deep desires." When he gets home, his wife feeds that ambition, saying "thou wouldst be great;/Art not without ambition" (Act I, sc. 5), and she challenges his masculinity (more on that below) to get him to firm up his resolve to act.

In Act III, scene 1, Macbeth discusses his plans to have Banquo and his son murdered, in order to prevent the witches' prophecy to Banquo from coming true. In Act III, scene 4, having murdered Banquo, Macbeth now plans to go after Macduff's family:
For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

Come, you spirits

The incorporation of supernatural elements in this play serve a few functions. On the one hand, they add some need foreshadowing and forecasting elements. On the other hand, they provide the temptation for Macbeth to take action against Duncan. The witches don't hold any real power over mankind, however - they are not the fruit of the tree of good and evil, but are the serpent, enticing Macbeth to rely on his own judgment. What they tell him, including what the apparitions in the play relate, is, strictly speaking, true. But his interpretation of what he hears is all on him. He leads, or misleads, himself according to his own will; he is not compelled to any of his deeds (or misdeeds), although his wife certainly urged him on when it came to disposing of Duncan.

Macbeth learns that lesson far too late - in Act V, sc. 8, immediately prior to his death:
And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.

Yet Banquo was smart enough to see the possibility of duplicity and/or error from the very start. As he observed in Act I, scene 3:
But 'tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.

Unsex me

The nature of gender roles is a key theme of this play. In Act I, scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls on the "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" to "unsex" her. (Notice the double meaning of "mortal" - it means "human", but also "deadly".) She wishes to be full of action, pitiless and without remorse. I kind of hope that she means that only by having no particular gender is that the case, because otherwise, her impression of what it is to be a man is seriously skewed, but I digress. Later, in Act I, scene 7, after calling Macbeth's masculinity into question, she avows that she would pluck her infant from her breast and dash its brains out, rather than break a promise to her husband. That, my friends, is decidedly unsexed behavior if you ask me.

In a comment to my Hamlet post entitled "Who's There?", Jenn Hubbard said "I would like to counter with 'What's there?' One thing that's always bothered me about this play is that it can be seen as a pro-violence argument. (i.e., Hamlet is a wuss while he's dithering and soliloquizing; he's not a real man still he starts drawing blood.) Do you see it that way, and do you think that was really Shakespeare's intent?" My answer to Jenn was (in short): "I suppose that one could construe it as a pro-violence argument, but I don't think that Shakespeare's intent. I construe it as a play about thoughts vs. actions, and about ends and means (not just Hamlet's, but those of lots of other folks as well). Hamlet becomes a "real man" at the point that he accepts his duty and responsiblity to avenge his father's death, not at the point that he kills anyone (or accomplishes that goal). And that's during a soliloquy. When he accepts his course of action is when he becomes manly, not when he acts on it." (There was more, but that will suffice.)

I'd like to contrast that with Macbeth, which really is about the idea that men (the gender, particularly, not just mankind) are inherently violent. It comes not only from Lady Macbeth's desire to be unsexed, but also from the arguments she uses to get her husband to carry through with the plan to kill Duncan. She basically calls him a pussy (to use a term of art), and tells him to man up:
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?

Macbeth responds with "I dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do more, is none", whereupon Lady Macbeth follows up with her baby-smashing comments. But Lady Macbeth isn't the only one who defines the male gender as violent. Consider the end of Act IV, scene 3, after Macduff learns that his wife and children (and servants) have all been slain. He reacts emotionally at first, only to be castigated by Malcolm:

Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered: to relate the manner,
Were, on the quarry of these murdered deer,
To add the death of you.

Merciful heaven!
What, man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.

My children too?

Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.

And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too?

I have said.

Be comforted:
Let's make us medicines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Dispute it like a man.

I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now!

Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief
Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.

O, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape,
Heaven forgive him too!

This tune goes manly.
Come, go we to the king; our power is ready;
Our lack is nothing but our leave; Macbeth
Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above
Put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may:
The night is long that never finds the day.

An argument could be made that Macduff represents the proper, balanced nature of manhood - a balanced blend of emotion, thought and action. One cannot say, however, that Macbeth was imbalanced as between those three - he dwells in negatives, however. ACTION: Where Macduff kills Macbeth to satisfy a blood debt and to avenge the murder of his loved ones, Macbeth's murders are to get ahead (they have no "noble" purpose). EMOTION: Where Macduff mourns the loss of his kin and servants, Macbeth mourns for his lost sleep and peace of mind. THOUGHT: Where Macduff operates intellectually from a grounded position involving codes of honor (as demonstrated by his conversation with Malcolm on first arriving in England). Even after Macbeth has, in essence, cut him adrift by disposing of Macduff's family, Macduff commits himself to ridding the land of the scourge of Macbeth, but his response feels well-reasoned, and one doesn't get the sense that he would have gone after Lady Macbeth just to get back at Macbeth (had she lived that long, that is). In contrast, Macbeth operates from shifting sands throughout the play - from deciding to kill Duncan to equivocating to carrying it out, and then later, to wishing he could just end it all, then deciding to fight to the bitter end.

I'm pretty sure you have thoughts and opinions on the themes, images and motifs in Macbeth, including some I've not identified here. I'd love to hear your opinions, so I hope you'll leave comments!

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( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
Ok I am going to go with the following:

Major Themes To Me
Psychological effects of behaviour.
Good Vs.Evil
King Vs.Tyrant

I dont' know that I think there any deep hidden themes here, they all seem really well laid out and as usualy I think your summation is brilliant.
Jun. 16th, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
Your first one is a good one - it's really all about the guilt, isn't it?

I liked a comment that Tessa Gratton made in a comment to the earlier post, comparing Macbeth to Hamlet - Hamlet is all about finding reasons, and Macbeth is all about finding excuses.
Jun. 17th, 2009 01:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
Well that Tessa Gratton is brilliant but don't tell her I said so. ::wink::

That is a really good point.
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm

I also like linking Macbeth to Othello. Directly so through language ("out brief candle" among other things), and Othello is sort of a culmination of some of the themes in Macbeth. Iago is, in a lot of ways, the personification of the more abstract weird sisters. AND Lady Macbeth. A simpler, meaner, more poignant devil. ;) (Even though Othello was written first, I think...)
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
Expect an email from me when the clock tolls one. Sorry, that was a Dickens reference, and not a good one at that. Plus, it'll be sooner than one. But I'm doing Othello next Wednesday and Thursday, so I'm hoping you might be up for a wee bit of a guest appearance. Bwahaha. *rubs hands*
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
LOL. You got it.
Jun. 18th, 2009 12:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
That is an interesting comparison, Othello and Macbeth. Iago is hands down my fav Shakespearean villian.

Jun. 18th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
*wonders about this* Do you think it's because Iago embraces his own villainy, whereas Macbeth questions his own morality and, near the end, seems to welcome death?
Jun. 18th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
Absolutely, Iago is the unabashed villian and I love that...he enjoys the scheming.

For all around best villian grouping Id go with Titus but hell who isn't a villian in Titus? LOl.
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmmmmmm
That Tessa Gratton is brilliant.
Jun. 17th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
I think it's really interesting to look at the gender roles here, how Lady Macbeth's ambition is always couched in masculine terms. Also interesting that she's not a mother in a time when that was a woman's chief function. I wrote a paper once comparing Lady Macbeth with Goneril and Regan in King Lear; if I remember correctly, there's a parallel there with ambitious women being punished with barrenness.
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)
Lady Macbeth wasn't completely barren. She'd had a child, but apparently it died. (She refers to knowing what it is to love a sucking child, but as Macbeth is without heir at the time of his takeover, I'd have to guess that it died in infancy. That's certainly the tack taken in the Shakespeare Re-Told version starring James McAvoy.)
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)
Wait. There's a James McAvoy version???
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
It's part of the Shakespeare Re-Told version. I'll be posting about it in a wee bit. The BBC did a series of 4 plays, retold in modern language and settings. Much Ado (which is BRILLIANT), Macbeth (which is DARK, yet BRILLIANT), The Taming of the Shrew (which I've not yet watched) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (ditto).
Jun. 17th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC)
I have a confession to make.

I am constantly tempted to steal your icons.

The end
Jun. 17th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
Most of them are stealable - just give credit to whomever made them (the info is on my icon page when it's available).
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
I don't think Lady Macbeth is saying that men must be violent to be men - more that men must stand up and do what needs to be done, and if that happens to be violence, well, so be it. She's all about tactics, which is seen in her speeches to her husband - she changes until she finds the most effective - and I think that if they could have locked up the family and still taken the throne, I'm sure she would have been fine with that, but it didn't seem a realistic option.

I find it interesting that she asks to be unsexed, when her speech to get him to rise to action is full of her own and their shared sexuality.

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
(assuming that this is dressing after sex, not sleep)

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?
(sex again, assuming that she got him to agree to kill the guy beforehand, but now that he's gotten what he wanted, he's having second thoughts about his promises)

From this time
Such I account thy love.
(no more lovin' for you unless you do as told)

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?
(this has so many layers, all of them feminine. "Are you scared?" (motherly) "in desire" - double meaning - along with what he wants, but also said "in desire")

Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?
(final twist of the dagger - showing what he could have, then calling him names to get him to try for it)

And then to cap it all, she takes the most feminine imagery she can give him - breastfeeding, and turns that one on its head.

I seriously doubt she wants to "unsex" herself. If anything, she wants to heighten her own sex enough that she'll um... inspire him to do what she wants him to do. If it takes questioning his manhood, fine, but that's just a tactic and but this doesn't necessarily make a violent man her view of the ideal man.
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
She is decidedly all about the tactics. There's no evidence in the play (and some evidence to the contrary) that she knew of the plots against Banquo or the Macduff family until after they were executed, so I don't know how she'd have felt about those things. I do know that she was all about manipulation. Never read the scene you sited as her bartering sex for his agreement, but it certainly could work!
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
God, I love this play. It's one of the rare stories that I love, despite not really liking or loving any of the characters. (Because of my love it plays a huge role in the ms my agent is getting ready to submit! Blood! Angst! Magic! Choice! My favorite things!)

Most of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare come from this play. We never read it in high school, this was one I read on my own and went through a month where I memorized practically the whole thing. I was fascinated by the intersection of destiny and choice - and nothing holds up that idea that we create our own destiny better than this play. (Not really in a good way, either.)

Your comparison of Macbeth and Macduff is interesting. They're set up to be compared, but I've never thought about them as positive/negative reflections of gendered men. And I've always assumed that Lady Macbeth was wanting to be made more "manly" but your reading of her as ungendered, and Macbeth/Macduff as... "extra"-gendered is making me want to go through and read the whole thing again. Here's what happened when you remove the cultural expectations of gender, versus two examples of what can happen when you embrace cultural expectations of gender.

COOL. Did I mention I love this play? I could babble for a long long time.
Jun. 17th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
There are undoubtedly scholars out there who could - and would - rip my theories/opinions to shreds. But really, Shakespeare knew how to say what he meant (or to imply what he meant to imply, or both), and he didn't have Lady M asking to give her the strength of a man (easily said and done - look at Beatrice's diatribe about "O that I were a man! I'd eat his heart in the market-place!", and you can see that Will knew how to do it).

My take on Macbeth/Macduff was probably underdeveloped, but you managed to seize the thread of it anyhow. Clever Tess.
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
All my degrees are in gender studies of some sort, so I'm wired to think about gender in weird new ways! And scholars can rip any thesis to shreds, no matter how cool or valid. It's a skill. Sometimes an art form itself. :D
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC)
It all comes down to who has the biggest . . . footnotes.
Jun. 17th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
Sep. 9th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
I read your Macbeth posts last week and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed them. I was snorting so badly on the train ride home at your "synopsis" post that I had to de-snot and de-spit the paper (don't tell the dude in front of me, I may have missed the paper once or twice). The discussions on theme etc. was excellent too. I'm looking forward to the rest of June - 13 or so to go.
Sep. 9th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you liked them. And tickled that I made you laugh so hard that you expectorated onto a stranger.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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