Macbeth Study Notes

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Macbeth

Themes:

• Ambition causes ignorance to the reality of an appearance or the truth behind an equivocation. Evil deeds feed the destruction of societal order through extreme violence. Macbeth’s conscience overwhelms him with guilt, as he fights himself to behave as a ‘man’. Macbeth loses his free will by being over-confident in the witches’ supernatural soliciting, and is overcome by fate and retribution.

• Ambition and Desire: Macbeth ruthlessly seeks power, urged on by his wife. It is the tragic flaw that causes his downfall, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition”.

o M and B are shown as ambitious from the beginning, but their reactions to the witches’ prophecies are very different. o “Naughts had, all’s spent / Where our desire is got without content” • Appearance and Reality: Deceit and hypocrisy mean that appearance cannot be trusted, for evil hides behind fair looks. o “Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t”. o “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” • Evil: Murderous intention and action that destroys whatever is good o “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (paradox)

o “Things bad begun, make themselves strong by ill” o “from the crown to the toe, top full of direst cruelty” • Order and Disorder: The struggle to maintain or destroy social and natural bonds and the destruction of morality and mutual trust. Unnatural acts such as murder and witchcraft are always accompanied by unnatural events in nature. Eg, after Duncan’s murder we are told that darkness seemed to cover the earth and that his horses ate each other; and storms, lightning and thunder accompanied the witches’ meetings. o “unnatural deeds / Do bring unnatural troubles.” o “unsex me here”

• Man: The violent cutthroat feudal society of hierarchical male power breed’s bloody stereotypes of what it is to be a man. “I dare do all that may become a man”, say Macbeth when contemplating murder. However, other visions of manhood are offered; “But I must also feel it as a man”, cries Macduff when weeping of the news of his family’s murder. Further to this is “in the catalogue ye go for men”. • Guilt and Conscience: This is a strong theme and is always present in M and LM. Uses sleep and blood imagery often to convey this theme. o “Macbeth doth murder sleep”

o “His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt / Of our great quell” o “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad.” o “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself.” • Violence: Obviously present, violence occurs in the murder of Duncan, Banquo and especially Lady Macduff. The battle at the end is also violent. o “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood”. o “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked” • Fate and Free Will: When M tried to stop some of the prophecies such as the one about Banquo’s sons becoming kings, it happened anyway. There is no way to go around fate.

• Loyalty: The loyal characters all seemed to lose something precious to them, in a society where loyalty is skin deep and corruption is common. Ross is an example; he is willing to be loyal to whoever is in power to save himself, even by allowing the killing his cousin Lady Macduff.

• Hospitality: Sign of friendship and community. Duncan’s murder as Macbeth’s guest and Banquo’s ghost appearance during a feast represent moral dissolution of both himself and Scotland.

Themes

• The Corrupting Power of Unchecked Ambition

The main theme of Macbeth—the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints—finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better...
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