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Themes in the Tragedy of Macbeth by Shakespeare Essay

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2020

The Tragedy of Macbeth written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1606 is a sophisticated examination of evil and its vicious impact on people. Shakespearean tragic heroes reveal a great variety of themes and motifs among which are the tragic flaw of ambition, the role of fate, witchcraft and evil, superstitions, and others. In considered tragedy, ambition appears as a hazardous quality resulting in the demise of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and provokes a series of murders. Consequently, ambition is the characters’ driving force.

The theme of ambition is undoubtedly one of the primary importance in the play. Ambition is determined as the strong desire to reach something, in this case, in the play, Macbeth, as well as his wife, craves to become a king. Lord Macbeth, the protagonist of the tragedy, is a Scottish noble, Thane of Glamis, later Thane of Cawdor, and a fearless warrior. The author describes him as “valor minion” and “Bellona’s bridegroom” (Shakespeare 25). This perspective is complicated, and Hubbard states, “Macbeth acknowledges his ambition in his first soliloquy when he enumerates many reasons why he cannot kill Duncan” (39). He claims, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself / And falls on the’ other” (1.7.25-28).

The compulsion that drives Macbeth to commit murder, therefore to self-destruction is more commonplace and controversial. He has the prophecy of the witches, but the tendency to self-doubt makes him struggle with conscience throughout the play. The character of Macbeth is used by Shakespeare to illustrate a man who lacks the strength of moral fiber under the affection of guilt and ambition.

Macbeth becomes irretrievably evil, although he is separated from Shakespeare’s other great malefactors – Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Richard III in Richard III – by his weak personality. Macbeth wants to be a great king “The king-becoming graces / [are] justice, verity, temperance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, [and] lowliness,” as Malcolm says (4.3.92-93). Instead, he becomes a tyrant who is unable to cope with himself needless to say about the whole country. Jones characterizes Macbeth in the following way:

“Macbeth, if compared with Richard III, marks the marvelous advance of the dramatist’s art in subtlety and impressive power. In both plays, criminal ambition with its consequences forms the central theme. The hunchback king, at the crisis of his fate, feels the avenging power of the conscience which he had so long deliberately set at defiance”. (194)

Macbeth is stroked by worry and even considers not to kill Duncan. He is a great warrior in distinction from his lack of preparedness for the psychological consequences of crime. It makes Lady Macbeth encourage and push him into the action. After the crime, however, her dominant personality begins to fall apart, leaving him fully alone. Macbeth’s vacillation between moments of the horrible sense of guilt (for instance, during Banquo’s ghost appearance), a series of assassinations made to protect his crown, and absolute despair (when his wife goes mad) repulse the dramatic strain within him.

Conscience and conscientious are struggling with each other, whether to stop him from murdering his way to the top or try to be happy with himself as a murderer: “Macbeth has tied himself ‘to the stake’ and must watch as he plays the nightmare of his own making out to the end” (Drakakis et al. 93). Nevertheless, Macbeth never seems to commit suicide: “Why should I play the Roman fool,” he asks, “and die / On mine own sword” (5.10.1-2).

Shakespeare’s one of the most well-known and terrifying female characters is Lady Macbeth. She reckons: “Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it” (1.5.17-19). These lines suggest that to gain this goal there should be something more except turning to the dark side and inbuilt ambition to be a king. Lady Macbeth also has a strong desire and enough advantages such as clear-thinking, ambition, and heartlessness to become a queen while her husband is too weak-minded for such a deed.

Using revolting metaphors to demonstrate her loyalty, Lady Macbeth also claims what she would do if she were in his place, I “pluck would my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dash would the brains out” (2.7.35-37). She believes she must give Macbeth a bit of bravery to rule him as king. Smith writes, “his wife’s ambition was a desire, anxiety, a preoccupation with eminence, distinction, seemed never to live here” (134).

However, because of the strong effect of crime committed upon her, she begins a slow slide into mental illness fiercely trying to wash off invisible spots of blood and starting to sleepwalk through the castle. Lady Macbeth is unable to handle, her passionate ambition becomes her weakness once the sense of guilt comes home to roost: “his wife moves more and more to the background, at first reduced to being Macbeth’s spouse and companion but no longer his support” (Bloom 166).

The play The Tragedy of Macbeth suggests the problem is that it is almost impossible to stop one if he concludes to gain power with the help of carnage. Macduff, Fleance, Banquo will always correspond to some potential threats to the crown and to use violence to eliminate them is always tempting. The unrestricted ambition here bases on the three main features: Macbeth’s personality and ambition, Lady Macbeth’s ambitious nature and her pressure upon Macbeth, and superstitions (people were very superstitious during Shakespeare’s time, and believed in witches and wizardry).

In the tragedy, the Three Witches play the role of witnesses and agents as symbols of chaos, conflict, and darkness. Their aptitude for mixing the play’s borders between reality and the supernatural causes much of the puzzlement that springs from them. While Macbeth was not directly told by the witches to murder Duncan, they apply a subtle form of temptation. They effectively direct him on the path to his devastation putting this thought in his mind.

At the end of the tragedy, Macbeth’s and his wife’s ambition causes greed, insanity, and death. Scotland and the play itself could be saved from the confusion provoked by Macbeth only with Malcolm’s victory and accession to the throne. Instead of trying to achieve the crown in any possible way, they lose everything. Reading the play, one may observe probable consequences of murder and power-lust. Of course, there should be some ambition in everyone to reach desired goals. The point is that too much ambition leads only to the physical and psychological eventual downfall of man. Total power deteriorates absolutely.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Print.

Drakakis, John, and Dale Townshend. Macbeth: A Critical Reader. New York: Bloomsberry Plc, 2013. Print.

Hubbard, Shelagh. Philip Allan Literature Guide (for GCSE): Macbeth. Oxfordshire: Hachette, 2011. Print.

Jones, Richard. Beth Tragedy of Macbeth. 1899. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2009. Print.

Smith, Gay. Lady Macbeth in America: From the Stage to the White House. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

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