Title: The Meaning Behind Macbeth

Summery: A closer look at the themes of Macbeth; A-level standard work.

Word count: 1 897

A/N: This is my English Literature AS Level coursework essay on Macbeth, easily (in my humble opinion anyway) one of Shakespeares best plays, if not the best play. I got 28/30 for this, the highest mark in my class, and I just wanted to share my thoughts on Macbeth with the rest of you.


Kenneth Muir writes:

'The play… is about damnation.'

What do you think the play is about?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most iconic plays, a story of Witches, prophecies, regicide and treachery on both sides of a bloody war. Kenneth Muir is quoted as saying that the play is about damnation, which is a state of eternal punishment in the future or present self, but can also be interpreted as a sin worthy of eternal punishment. I shall explore the various themes in the play, and shall be looking to see whether the play is about one overall theme, or an amalgamation of many themes.

On the theme of damnation, it could be seen that Macbeth is damned when he disrupts the order of the universe. Kings were appointed by God to preserve the social order and be the head of that order themselves. This order affected everything, from the weather to the animal kingdom. The storm at the beginning of the play foreshadows the disorder to the world that is first caused by the treachery of Macdonwald and later by Macbeth. When the audience first meet Macbeth, he comments on the weather.

'So fair and foul a day I have not seen.'

(Macbeth; Act 1, Scene 3)

Not only does this mirror the Witches speech (who are the embodiment of disorder and evil), but it also shows confusion and disruption have already begun to take hold in the play. Macbeth is predestined to damnation when he takes the office of Thane of Cawdor, a title already tainted with treachery by Macdonwald. When Macbeth murders the sleeping Duncan, the contemporary audiences at the initial performances of the play would have seen this as destroying God's order and the social order of Scotland. When Macduff sees the dead king, he cries out:

'Confusion now hath a new masterpiece!'

(Macduff; Act 2, Scene 3)

This shows that the repercussions of Macbeth's actions will be instantly felt. Macbeth could be seen as double damned, for the same reasons that Duncan was double trusting of him; not only did Macbeth kill his king, but his kinsman and guest. The day after the murder, Ross and an Old Man are talking about the event, showing Shakespeare's ideas of order.

'By th' clock 'tis day,

And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp…

A falcon towering in her pride of place,

Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed…

And Duncan's horses… Turned wild in nature'

(Old Man and Ross; Act 2, Scene 4)

The animal kingdom has been turned on its head and the weather is acting strangely, the sun refusing to shine with a traitor on the throne.

The play could also be about ambition, and the desire for becoming more than yourself. Macbeth's desire to become King could have been instilled by the Witches when they announced their prophecy; Macbeth was a good and loyal soldier to Duncan in a battle just fought, but after meeting with the Witches, his head is turned by thoughts of Kingship and glory.

'Glamis, and thane of Cawdor:

The greatest is behind'

(Macbeth; Act 1, Scene 3)

However, Lady Macbeth dispels this theory in her soliloquy, as she talks about her husband's ambition for the throne.

'Thou wouldst be great;

Art not without ambition'

(Lady Macbeth; Act 1, Scene 5)

After having been provoked by the Witches and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is ready to realise his ambition and seize his chance; ambition is the catalyst for the play and the character.

Another more modern interpretation is that the play is about mental illness and how Macbeth becomes mentally unstable. Macbeth is a strong leader in the battlefield, but he appears to be weak minded, particularly in the view of Lady Macbeth.

'Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem'st in the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own esteem?'

(Lady Macbeth; Act 1, Scene 7)

She believes him to be weak because of cowardice and lack of manhood, and that he should 'screw his courage to the sticking place'. Macbeth hallucinates of daggers before he has killed Duncan, and hallucinates of Banquo at the feast. Though the ghost of Banquo is given stage directions in the scene, many directors omit the ghost from the view of the audience. In his role of Macbeth during his time at the Royal Shakepeare Company, Sir Ian McKellen chose to play Macbeth in this scene as a man suffering from an epileptic fit, not as a man suffering from a guilty mind. This interpretation becomes more pertinent when Lady Macbeth attempts to excuse her husband's behaviour.

'My lord is often thus, and hath been from his youth… The fit is momentary; upon a thought he will be well again.'

(Lady Macbeth; Act 3, Scene 4)

If Macbeth had been suffering from epileptic fits, then Lady Macbeth would have no reason to be alarmed by this event. However, Lady Macbeth is shocked and disturbed by her husband's outburst.

'You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting, with much admired disorder'.

(Lady Macbeth; Act 3, Scene 4)

Therefore, evidence points to the fact that Macbeth is loosing his mind because of the guilt of disrupting God's order by killing his king. Lady Macbeth shows signs of loosing her mind because of guilt as well, as near the climax of the play she is seen sleep walking, muttering about spots of blood on her hands. The Doctor brought in to cure Lady Macbeth sees that her madness is caused by guilt.

'More she needs the divine than the physician.'

(Doctor; Act 5, Scene 3)

The theme of guilt is more compelling than the idea of mental illness, because only those who feel as though they've done wrong feel guilt, whereas mental illness is indiscriminate and can affect anybody.

However, another important theme in the play is the theme of masculinity and femininity. In the play, Lady Macbeth constantly attacks Macbeth's manhood and masculinity, particularly when he has doubts about killing Duncan.

'When you durst do it, then you were a man;

and, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man.'

(Lady Macbeth; Act 1, Scene 7)

Macbeth is very attentive to what his wife tells him to do, and the reader almost has the feeling that Lady Macbeth wishes that her husband was more of the traditional vision of manhood. Instead, he treats her as his equal, and she treats him as a lesser. However, this changes when Macbeth is King of Scotland and Lady Macbeth is his Queen. Where before he informed her of everything, he now keeps the assassination of Banquo from her; where he once listened to her, he ignores her commands to stop reacting and seeing the ghost of Banquo, upsetting the feast; before she was his 'partner in greatness', now he calls her 'dearest chuck'. Now Macbeth is in the traditional husband role, Lady Macbeth is expected to act like a subservient wife, though she cannot fulfil this role. Earlier in the play, she called upon demons to 'unsex' her, to make her barren so she would not be distracted from the task before her. The critic William C. Carroll wrote this about Lady Macbeth and her femininity:

'Lady Macbeth's plea for self induced amenorrhea is in effect an attack on her own womb – and it exactly her womb that is in the question of the play. The Macbeth's are childless, without an heir… the play also shows us a Lady Macbeth who resists everything maternal about her own body'.

(William C. Carroll;

Macbeth Texts and Contexts, Discourses of the Feminine)

When Carroll writes that Lady Macbeth's womb is the central question of the play, he means that, though Macbeth is King, he can never have an heir to the throne, making the murder of Duncan ultimately worthless, as, if Macbeth were to remain unchallenged throughout his reign, Lady Macbeth would leave no King or Queen of Scotland behind, throwing the country into further disorder. I believe that this guilt, as well as the guilt of the murder of Duncan, is what drives Lady Macbeth to madness and suicide.

The other women in the play are the Witches and Lady Macduff. Contemporary audiences knew witches as old women living alone, so the witches would have been associated instantly with women and femininity. However, Shakespeare makes it very clear that the Witches have facial hair.

'You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.'

(Banquo; Act 1, Scene 3)

This means that the Witches are above classification; they are both male and female. This makes them above insults to sexuality thrown about by the characters, and, in a way, above harm and hurt. The Witches can therefore be seen as immortal beings, which would appeal to contemporary audiences and James I, who was the king at the time of the plays initial release. He was obsessed with witchcraft, claiming to have met a witch, and would have been intrigued by the bearded Witches in Macbeth.

Lady Macduff is the only other major female character in the play, and although she is only in one scene, she leaves a lasting impression on the reader. She is odious about her husband to her son and to Ross, her cousin. She says this about Ross' suggestion that Macduff fled the country with wisdom and knowledge.

'Wisdom! To leave his wife, to leave his babes,

His mansion and his titles, in a place from whence himself does fly?

He loves us not… All is the fear and nothing is the love.'

(Lady Macduff; Act 4, Scene 2)

However, despite her views towards her husband, who is the ultimate hero of the play, Lady Macduff is a victim in a world of disorder, madness and supernatural events. She symbolises the traditional female role in the play; and innocent and motherly woman, but with a biting tongue.

I think that Kenneth Muir oversimplified the play when he said it was about damnation; it would be wrong to say that Macbeth is about one single theme. I believe that the play is a combination of damnation, guilt, ambition, sexuality and the supernatural, all connected by the overarching theme of disorder. Disorder of nature and of God's plan is what the contemporary audiences of the play would have seen as the most important aspect of the play's complex narrative and symbolism, and I believe that the desire of Malcolm and Macduff to correct the order is what brings about the events of the play and ultimately what drives the narrative.

A/N: Thank you for reading my essay, it means alot to me. I put alot of work into this, so if you could leave a review, I would be very grateful.

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