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Themes

Macbeth is a fascinating play which explores many themes.

Guilt

One of Shakespeare's reasons for writing the play was to illustrate the terrible consequences of murdering a king. The play was first performed in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, and this theme would be very politically acceptable to an audience composed of members of James I's court. Shakespeare shows the murderers of a king tormented by their own guilt and driven to their doom.

The idea of guilt first appears in Act 1 Scene 3, when Banquo shows his surprise at Macbeth's reaction to the witches' promises: "Why do you start and seem to fear, /Things that do sound so fair?" The word 'start', meaning to jump with shock, is always associated with a guilty reaction. Later, Macbeth's guilt takes visual form when he hallucinates that a blood-covered dagger is leading him to murder Duncan.

In the murder scene, we again see Macbeth tormented by guilt. Shakespeare has the murder happen offstage so that he can focus on Macbeth's tormented mental state. Macbeth is terrified by his own sense of sin, as he could not say 'Amen' when he heard someone praying. He imagines his guilty conscience will never let him sleep peacefully again: "Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more”". References to sleeplessness recur later in the play, as when Lady Macbeth says, "You lack the season of all natures, sleep". Even when he does sleep he will be tormented by his guilt in the "terrible dreams that shake us nightly".

One of most striking images in the play equates guilt with the idea of blood-stained hands. Macbeth refers to his own hands as "hangman's hands", which would be covered in blood from disembowelling victims of execution. When Lady Macbeth urges him to wash the blood off, he realises the impossibility of washing away his guilt. His crime is so wicked that the blood will "the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red".

During the murder scene, Lady Macbeth reassures him: "A little water clears us of the deed". The audience will realise the irony of this during her sleepwalking scene later in the play, when she obsessively washes imaginary blood from her hands.

After arranging Banquo's murder, Macbeth is tortured by guilt even more. Again this takes visual form, as he imagines the ghost of Banquo returned to accuse him: "Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me"!

In Act 5, we see Lady Macbeth destroyed by the strain as her guilt becomes revealed for all to see. The metaphor of a guilty conscience being represented by the image of sleeplessness is shown in her sleepwalking. She is also seen constantly washing her hands, as her guilt has made the stains seem indelible to her: "Out damned spot!…'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand". Her rambling words reveal her complicity in Macbeth's crimes: "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? … The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?" Her reassurance to Macbeth in Act 3"What's done is done" is twisted into a despairing admission of guilt: "What's done cannot be undone".

When he meets his nemesis, Macduff, Macbeth finally faces his guilt. Believing in the witches' prophecy that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth", he warns Macduff to stay away from him, admitting "My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already", a reference to the brutal killing of Macduff's wife and children. When Macduff reveals he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped", Macbeth knows he is about to pay for his crimes.

The nature of the ideal king

Shakespeare's patron, King James, had written a book on this topic, Basilikon Doron, and so this theme was also of great contemporary interest.

The first example is Duncan, who is a good man but not a perfect king. Macbeth pays tribute to his personal qualities when he considers in his soliloquy that Duncan has done nothing to deserve his fate: "so clear in his great office, hath born his faculties so meek….his virtues will plead like angels..." However, as a king, Duncan has the fatal flaw of being over trusting and gullible. After being taken in by the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, he transfers the title to Macbeth who will prove even more treacherous. Similarly, when Duncan comes to Macbeth's castle he misjudges the atmosphere and sees it as a "pleasant" place where the air smells "sweetly".

Banquo would clearly have made a good king, and Macbeth is jealous of his "royalty of nature", acknowledging his courage and wisdom. Shakespeare was aware his own monarch, James Stuart, claimed descent from Banquo, and this is a flattering tribute.

By contrast, Macbeth is unfit to be a king. He is dishonest and unscrupulous, happy to blame others for Duncan's murder. He is even responsible for the killing of Macduff's wife and children. Macbeth becomes the worst sort of king, a tyrant, whose cruelty drains the life blood from his country: "each new morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry." He is contrasted with the king of England, the saintly and Christ-like Edward, who is described as treating his subjects with "healing benediction": "sundry blessings hang about his throne / that speak him full of grace". This religious imagery contrasts with the demonic imagery used to describe Macbeth: "this fiend of Scotland".

Duncan's son Malcolm is depicted as the perfect king. In his testing of Macduff, he lists the "king-becoming graces", such as justice, verity, temperance, mercy, lowliness etc., showing his awareness of how a king should be. He has his father's noble character but without Duncan's fatal flaw of gullibility. He tells Macduff that he is aware Macbeth has tried to entice him back to Scotland to his death, and shrewdly tests Macduff for signs of being a dishonest flatterer. A metaphor describes Malcolm's healing role: he will be "the medicine" for his country. He restores order to Scotland after the disruption caused by Macbeth.

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