Key Themes in Macbeth

Antonia Blankenberg
Slide Set by Antonia Blankenberg, updated more than 1 year ago
Antonia Blankenberg
Created by Antonia Blankenberg over 3 years ago


Learn more about the key themes in Macbeth with this slide set. A number of the main themes are highlighted, including the themes of power, ambition and violence.

Resource summary

Slide 1

    The entire plot of Macbeth is based around Macbeth trying to acquire and keep the crown.   In Shakespeare's time, a king was considered to be God's representative on Earth.   There are a variety of different kings seen throughout the play, each with their own characteristics. (See Characters Resource)

Slide 2

    This theme is similar to the theme of kingship. During the period of the play, kings ruled by Divine Right, giving them absolute power over their subjects.   Lust for power is what motivates Macbeth and Lady Macbeth throughout the play.  ​​​​​​​ However, Macbeth discovers that power without security is not worth having: "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus".  ​​​​​​​ This leads to the corruption of power and introduction of tyranny to the play. ​​​​​​​ Macbeth abuses his power in the later scenes of the play to have Banquo and Macduff's family killed.

Slide 3

    Fate is the development of events outside a person's control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power; in the case of Macbeth, this power comes from the Three Witches.   The predictions of the witches in Act 1 are what set the plot of Macbeth in motion. Macbeth plans all of his actions based on the word of the witches and this is what eventually leads to his downfall.   As much as he tries, Macbeth cannot change his fate. 

Slide 4

    Macbeth is a famously violent play. Despite this, most of the killings take place offstage.   The action of the play is bookended by a pair of bloody battles: in the first, Macbeth defeats the invaders; in the second, he is slain and beheaded by Macduff.    In between these events is a series of gruesome murders.   Blood is recurring image throughout the play. 

Slide 5

    The Three Witches are a supernatural presence that control the plot of Macbeth.   Macbeth is met with a floating dagger on his way to kill Duncan.   After Banquo is killed, his ghost appears in Macbeth's castle to torment him.   The supernatural elements in the play are often contrasted against natural imagery.

Slide 6

    Ambition has a different effect on each of the characters in Macbeth.   In the case of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it has a negative effect, driving them to murder. However, Banquo is also seen to be an ambitious character, but this does not get in the way of his good nature.   Unchecked ambition, Macbeth suggests, can never be fulfilled, and therefore quickly grows into a monster that will destroy anyone who gives into it.

Slide 7

    The major theme of the play is appearance vs. reality, which involves quite a lot of deception.    From the first scene, we see the Three Witches discussing deception; "Fair is foul and foul is fair".   Lady Macbeth gives her husband the advice to  "Look like th' innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t".   Macbeth appears to others to be a loyal Thane, but he isn't. 

Slide 8

    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 1606, the year after the Gunpowder Plot, and this theme would be very politically acceptable to an audience composed of members of James I's court. After killing Duncan, we see the guilt eat away at Macbeth straight away. It takes a longer time for the guilt to have an effect on Lady Macbeth, but as we see, the effect on her is much greater, causing her to kill herself in Act 5.

Slide 9

    In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth breaks away from traditional gender roles throughout the play.    As Lady Macbeth propels her husband toward committing Duncan's murder, she indicates that she must take on masculine characteristics. Her most famous speech (Act 1, Scene 5) addresses this issue.   Gender is out of its traditional order between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This disruption of gender roles is presented through Lady Macbeth's taking of the dominant role in the Macbeths' marriage; on many occasions, she rules her husband and dictates his actions.   The disruption of gender roles is also represented by the Three Witches. Upon meeting them, Banquo says, "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so". Their facial hair symbolizes their influence in the affairs of the male-dominated warrior society of Scotland. 
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