In the GCSE exams you will be asked to write about either a theme or a character from Macbeth. This revision guide sets out everything you need to know about the themes in Macbeth. We’ve set out how these Macbeth themes are presented and included a set of key quotations for each theme. Make sure you learn about the themes below and memorise some important quotations! 

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Ambition

Key Points

  • Ambition is shown as powerful and potentially very dangerous for the individual and society.  
  • Macbeth describes his own fear about his ambition. He calls his ambition “vaulting”, suggesting it is too extreme. Shakespeare shows this extreme ambition leads to murder and madness for the individual and tyranny for the whole country. 
  • Lady Macbeth shares this extreme ambition (and perhaps even exceeds it). She encourages Macbeth to do whatever it takes to become king.   
  • Lady Macbeth is so certain in her evil ambition that she even persuades Macbeth to carry out Duncan’s murder when he has doubts.
  • Shakespeare does show some positive ambition, as long as it remains inside the natural order or looks to restore it. Macduff and Malcolm, for example, are driven by the ambition to rid Scotland of Macbeth and restore the legitimate bloodline to the throne. 
  • Overall Shakespeare suggests that some ambition is good. Medieval nobles were right to strive to be strong warriors and to maintain power. Extreme ambition outside the natural order, however, is shown to be terrible for everyone.
  • Macbeth’s overwhelming ambition is one of the “fatal flaws” of his tragic character. The ‘fatal flaw’ is the fundamental problem in a character’s personality that leads to his/her downfall. All of this links closely to themes of the supernatural and order vs disorder (outlined in more detail below). 

Quotations

Macbeth: ” I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself”

Macbeth: “Two truths are told, as happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme.”

Lady Macbeth: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature: it is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it”

Lady Macbeth: “Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear; and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round

Lady Macbeth: “Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, like the poor cat i’ the adage?

Lady Macbeth: “When you durst dot, then you were a man; and, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man… I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.

Malcolm: “our power is ready; our lack is nothing but our leave; Macbeth is ripe for shaking, and the powers above put on their instruments

The Supernatural

Key Points

  • The supernatural is a driving force in the play.
  • The witches’ prophecies push Macbeth into taking action and murdering King Duncan.  
  • We should not, however, absolve Macbeth of responsibility. Ultimately it is his actions that lead to the turmoil of the play. 
  • As with any tragedy, wider forces influence the protagonist, but ultimately it is his fatal flaws that lead to his downfall. 
  • Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both try to command and use the supernatural to achieve their ambitions. In the first quotation here, Lady Macbeth uses the imperative to command the supernatural to do as she wishes.
  • Macbeth tries several times to command the witches. Firstly, he wants to know more when the witches reveal their prophecies. Then later Macbeth demands the witches tell him more as he tries to prevent Banquo’s descendants becoming Kings. In reality though, the supernatural cannot be commanded. They influence human characters, not the other way around.
  • The audience sees different reactions to the supernatural. Macbeth is initially curious, then driven by the supernatural and then desperate for more help. Lady Macbeth tries to control the supernatural. Both of these responses are self-destructive. Banquo has the most positive reaction. He is sceptical and dismissive of the witches. Banquo tries to explain the reality to Macbeth, but he won’t listen.
  • Context is crucial here. Shakespearean audiences believed in the existence of supernatural forces. They would have thought of Macbeth as a cautionary tale. People also believed in the natural order on Earth (as in heaven). This was a belief in a sort of pyramid of existence, with the King at the top, followed by nobles, then knights and merchants and finally peasants at the bottom. The supernatural aimed to undermine this by creating mischief. Subverting the natural order would lead to terrible problems for everyone, which Macduff alludes to late in the play.

Quotations

Lady Macbeth: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty!

The witches: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Macbeth: “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more… say from whence you owe this strange intelligence? Or why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.

Macbeth: “I will be satisfied: deny me this, and an eternal curse fall on you! Let me know.

Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!“

Banquo: “That trusted home might yet enkindle you unto the crown, besides the thane of Cawdor. But ‘tis strange: and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.” 

Macduff: “each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out like syllable of dolour.”

Guilt

Key Points

  • From driving ambition and the supernatural come murders, exile, fear and terror. The impact of their crimes is not lost on Macbeth or even Lady Macbeth. Both characters are shown to feel and deal with guilt at different points in the play. 
  • Macbeth initially feels guilty for considering murder and then for actually killing Duncan. 
  • He is then consumed by guilt following the second murder of Banquo. At a banquet Macbeth hallucinates with visions of Banquo’s ghost sitting in his place. 
  • It is Lady Macbeth who remains calm and in control up to this point. 
  • The mental states of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth trade paces in the final stages of the play. Macbeth regains control over his guilt and his sanity, while becoming a much darker, more brutal character.
  • Lady Macbeth, however, loses control as the play continues. She descends into madness and dies alone, seemingly consumed by guilt for her crimes. 

Quotations

Macbeth: “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature?

Macbeth: “Prithee, see there! Behold! Look! Lo! …If charnel-houses and our graves must send those that we bury back, our monuments shall be the maws of kites.

Macbeth: “To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done: the castle of Macduff I will surprise; seize upon Fife; give to the edge o’ the sword his wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls that trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool; this deed I’ll do before this purpose cool. 

Macbeth: “I am in blood steepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!“

Order vs Disorder

Key Points

  • The opposing forces of order and disorder run throughout Macbeth. We see Shakespearean and medieval views of an ordered society vs chaos. 
  • At a basic level, a legitimate king and loyal subjects provide order. At the very beginning of the play order is restored when Macbeth and Banquo lead Duncan’s victorious armies against the Scottish rebels and the Norwegian invaders. The legitimate king is kept in place, he rewards his loyal subjects and all seems like it could be well in the kingdom. 
  • The witches very quickly undermine this order, as the supernatural forces do their work to create disorder and chaos. 
  • Earlier in this post I explained the concept of the natural order of the world, which a contemporary audience would have believed in and desired. The forces of the supernatural – represented by the witches in the play – are consistently trying to subvert and undermine this natural order. They prey on weak, flawed characters like Macbeth to sow chaos. 
  • As the unnatural disorder starts to take hold under Macbeth’s reign, Scotland starts to sink into a tyrannical mess. Banquo and Macduff’s family are murdered, Fleance just escapes with his life and Malcolm and Donalbain have to flee the country. We also hear about terrible problems affecting every aspect of life in the kingdom. Disorder in the structure of society creates chaos everywhere. 
  • The audience is shown how brave characters like Macduff and later Malcolm stand up to this tyranny and take on Macbeth’s disorder, ultimately restoring the natural order of things as Malcolm takes the crown back to its legitimate home. 

Quotations

Duncan: “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!

Duncan: “No more that thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, and with his former title greet Macbeth.” 

Duncan: “What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.

Macbeth: “The service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part is to receive our duties; and our duties are to your throne and state children and servants, which do but what they should, by doing every thing safe toward your love and honour.” 

Macduff: “each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out like syllable of dolour

Macduff: “Bleed, bleed, poor country! Great tyranny!

Ross: “Alas, poor country! almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be call’d our mother, but our grave

Macduff: “Hail, king! For so though art: behold, where stands the usurper’s cursed head: the time is free: I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl, that speak my salutation in their minds; whose voices I desire aloud with mine: hail, King of Scotland!

Power – Kingship vs Tyranny

Key Points

  • We’ve touched on this theme when discussing all of the others. The Shakespearean audience had two concepts of leadership, stemming from medieval kings. 
  • Firstly, noble kingship would be based on a legitimate king who derived loyalty from his subjects. He would rule well and in the interests of the kingdom and his subjects. 
  • In contrast, a tyrant would be a leader like Macbeth. Possibly illegitimate and definitely ruling in his own selfish interests. A tyrant would not think twice about murdering, stealing or being corrupt simply to stay in power and promote his interests. A tyrant would create disorder and chaos throughout his kingdom. No element of society would function properly under a tyrant. 
  • Shakespeare presents some examples of both types of leadership. Duncan, Malcolm (and in the future Banquo’s descendants) will rule justly and maintain order. 
  • Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and shown to become cruel tyrants, driven to the extreme by overriding ambition and the influence of the supernatural. 

Quotations

Duncan: “O worthiest cousin! the sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy on me

Macbeth: “The service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part is to receive our duties; and our duties are to your throne and state children and servants, which do but what they should, by doing every thing safe toward your love and honour.” 

Ross: “Alas, poor country! almost afraid to know itself. It cannot be call’d our mother, but our grave

Angus: “Those he commands move only in command, nothing in love: now does he feel his title hand loose about him, like a giants robe upon a dwarfish thief.

Macbeth Themes – Further Revision

There’s quite a lot to learn about Macbeth’s themes. Once you’ve read through this guide, try filling in our Macbeth themes worksheet from our learn online page. You should be able to complete the worksheet in your own words and go back through the play to pick out new quotes that you think are important. The quotes we’ve provided in this guide should just be your starting point. Notice how we’ve shown some quotes for more than one theme (particularly the final two). This is a useful tip – find good quotations that can be used to cover more than one theme. Many in this guide will also be the best quotes to use for questions on individual characters. Focusing on these quotes means you can minimise the number you have to remember.

For some further revision, you should also check out the helpful information from the Royal Shakespeare Company. They have provided some great stuff, including plot summaries and details of past performances. As ever, BBC bitesize has some excellent revision resources as well. Use these alongside our revision guides and worksheets to ensure you ace your exams.

Would you like some more help revising for your GCSE English exams? For more personalised support try a one-to-one lesson with one of our expert English tutors. Contact us directly and we’ll match you with the right tutor for you. They can either travel to your home for the lesson or provide sessions online.

Macbeth Themes

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