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Macbeth: themes and symbols

The tragedy of Macbeth (The tragedy of Macbeth ) is a key point in the extensive work of William Shakespeare. It is a dramatization of the psychological and vital impact of unbridled ambition. The main themes of the work, loyalty, guilt, innocence and destiny, are articulated on the idea of ​​ambition and its consequences. William Shakespeare uses images and symbols to develop these themes, based on the antithetical concepts of innocence and guilt. We will briefly see a description of these themes and the symbology displayed by William Shakespeare in Macbeth.

The ambition

Macbeth’s ambition is the main element of his characterization, his most tragic flaw. It is the cause of the inevitable fall of Macbeth, on the other hand a character devoid of any moral principle. Two factors fan the flame of his ambition: the prophecy of the three witches, who affirm that he will not only become the “thane” of Cawdor (a noble title comparable to a baron), as named by King Duncan in recognition of his his part in defeating the invasion of Scotland, but he will also be king. And the second factor is the attitude of her wife, who mocks her assertiveness and manliness, and manipulates her husband’s actions.

Ambition makes Macbeth lose all semblance of rationality, and he feels his power is threatened to the point where he can only preserve it by murdering those who get in his paranoid path. It is ambition that brings about the downfall of Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth. He is defeated in battle and beheaded by Macduff, while Lady Macbeth succumbs to her guilt-ridden madness and commits suicide.

Macbeth and the three witches. Macbeth and the three witches.

The loyalty

The theme of loyalty is developed in various ways in the play. In the beginning, King Duncan rewards Macbeth with the title of “thane” of Cawdor after the former betrayed him and joined forces with Norway in the invasion of Scotland, while Macbeth behaves like a brave general in the victory over the invading armies. However, when King Duncan names his son Malcolm as heir to the throne, Macbeth comes to the conclusion that he must kill King Duncan to become king, just as the prophecy of the three witches foretold.

In another example of Shakespeare’s dichotomy of loyalty and betrayal, Macbeth betrays his friend Banquo out of paranoia about retaining power. Although they were comrades in arms, willing to lay down their lives for each other, after Macbeth became king he recalls that the witches predicted that Banquo’s descendants would be crowned kings of Scotland. Macbeth then decides to kill him to root out the threat.

Macduff, who suspects that Macbeth was responsible for the king’s death, defects and travels to England to ally himself with King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who had fled after his father’s murder. And together, with the support of England, they plan the defeat of Macbeth.

appearance and reality

The false face must hide what the false heart knows ,” Macbeth tells King Duncan towards the end of Act I, when he already intends to assassinate him. The witches’ parliament goes in the same direction: « Fair is disgusting and dirty is fair », which play subtly with appearance and reality. The second prophecy of the witches, which states that Macbeth cannot be defeated by ” no man born of woman “, becomes vain when Macduff reveals that he was born by caesarean section when his mother was already dead. The prophecy also gives him a false reassurance when it states that Macbeth would not be defeated until ” the great forest of Birnam moves and rises towards Dunsiname.”(the castle where Macbeth lived, located on a hill) to fight with him ». The prophecy is considered an impossible phenomenon of nature, since a forest would not climb up a hill, but its true meaning was that the soldiers would camouflage themselves with branches that they would cut from the Birman forest in order to get closer to the castle.

Fate and free will

Would Macbeth have become king if he hadn’t chosen to be a murderer? This question raises the conflict between fate and free will. The witches predict that he would become Baron of Cawdor and soon after he is anointed with that title without Macbeth doing anything to get it. The witches show Macbeth his future and his destiny, but the murder of King Duncan is a decision made by Macbeth in full use of his free will. And subsequent murders are entirely his own decision. The conflict is also observed in the following visions of the witches, which are interpreted by Macbeth as a sign of invincibility, for which he acts with consequent cruelty, but which actually anticipate his defeat.

light and dark

The light and the stars symbolize what is good and noble, and the moral order given by King Duncan states that ” the signs of nobility, like the stars, will shine… on all deserving ones .” The cross of that are the three witches, identified as midnight witches , and also Lady Macbeth, who asks the night to cover up her actions before heaven. Similarly, once Macbeth becomes king, day and night become indistinguishable from one another. When Lady Macbeth goes mad, before committing suicide, she wants to take a candle with her, as a form of protection.

The dream

The dream symbolizes innocence and purity. For example, after murdering King Duncan, Macbeth is so distraught that he thinks he heard a voice and says I heard a voice crying ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth murders the dream’, the innocent dream, the dream that binds frayed care . He goes on to compare the dream to a relaxing bath after a hard day’s work, and to the main course at a party, feeling that when he murdered his king in her sleep, he murdered the dream itself.

Similarly, after sending Banquo to be assassinated, Macbeth laments constant nightmares and unremitting ecstasy , where the word ecstasy loses any positive connotation. When Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, Lady Macbeth makes a comment that her dreams have also been disturbed. She sleepwalks, reliving the horrors of King Duncan’s murder.

The blood

Blood symbolizes murder, guilt, and bloody images are associated with both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Before killing King Duncan, Macbeth envisions a bloody dagger pointed towards the King’s room. After committing the murder, he is horrified and says, ” Will Neptune’s great ocean wash away all this blood and cleanse it from my hand?” No ».

The ghost of his friend Banquo, who appears during a banquet, has ” bloody locks “. The blood also symbolizes Macbeth’s own acceptance of his guilt. He tells Lady Macbeth: ” I am bloodied… Walking in it, I should not wade any more, coming back was as tedious as going .”

Blood is also associated with Lady Macbeth, who, in her sleepwalking scene, wants to clean the blood from her hands. The symbology of blood shows that guilt runs in opposite directions for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth goes from feeling guilty to being a ruthless killer, while Lady Macbeth, who starts out even more aggressive than her husband, takes on the guilt, doesn’t get over it, and finally kills herself.


Stanley Wells, Editor. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies . Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN 0521318416

Nicholas Brooke. The tragedy of Macbeth edited by Nicholas Brooke . Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0199535835.