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MacBeth's Major Themes


The Paradox



Light vs. Dark

"Thunder and lightning." This is the description of the scene before Act I, Scene I, line 1. The thunder and lightning represent disturbances in nature. Most people do not think of a great day being filled with thunder and lightning. So the witches are surrounded by a shroud of thunder and lightning. Also, the first witch asks in line 2 about the meeting with Macbeth, "In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" The meeting will also be filled with these disturbances. The witches are also surrounded by more undesired parts of weather: "Hover through the fog and filthy air" (line 11). The weather might personify the witches, meaning that the witches themselves are disturbances, though not limited to nature. The bad weather also might mean that the witches are bad or foul ("filthy air") creatures.

In Act II, Scene I, it is a dark night. Fleance says "The moon is down" (line 2), and Banquo says, "[Heaven's] candles are all out [there are no stars in the sky]" (line 5). Darkness evokes feelings of evilness, of a disturbance in nature on this accursed night. It creates a perfect scene for the baneful murders.

Another disturbance in nature comes from Macbeth's mouth, "Now o'er the one half-world / Nature seems dead" (lines 49 - 50). This statement might mean that nowhere he looks, the world seems dead (there is no hope, as the existentialist philosophy supports). It might also give him conceited ideas that the murder he is about to commit will have repercussions spreading far. The doctor says in Act V, Scene i, line 10, "A great perturbation in nature," while talking about Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking. This is just another example of how nature is disturbed by human doings, placing emphases on mankind (following the Humanistic philosophy).

The Paradox
The witches chorus on
Act I, Scene I, line 10:

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair."

This is a paradox. It is also a prophecy, where one thing seems like another (the characters of the play), or about how things will change through the story (again the characters). Being so early in the play, it is a good grasper for the reader. Not being a simple statement, it makes the reader think about the line to find some meaning for themselves. It is easier to grasp a meaning of this line as you progress through this book.

This theme is a subtle theme, but no with out meaning. We will refer to this theme again and again throughout the play, adding new lines to the theme, or analyzing characters and events using this theme.

The first thing that Macbeth says when he enters scene three (line 38) is, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." Maybe when the witches said "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," during scene one, they were just referring to the condition of the day when they meet Macbeth, though I believe that there is more, something we'll see later in the play.

"Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here," says Lady Macbeth (Act I, scene v, lines 41 - 42). She wishes she were a man. Why? What does Lady Macbeth see is a man? "And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, / Stop up th' access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctions visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose, not keep peace between / Th' effect and it!" (lines 43 - 48). This is what a true man to Lady Macbeth is.

To help convince Macbeth not to call the murder off, Lady Macbeth questions his manhood. She says, "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" (lines 49 - 51). The sad part is that Lady Macbeth truly does believe that Macbeth wouldn't be a man if he didn't agree to the killing.

Probably the most direct example of manhood being a theme in Macbeth is Macduff at the end of Act IV. While Malcolm implores him to "dispute it like a man" (line 220), Macduff says that he must also "feel it as a man" (line 221), which changes the image of a man given above by Lady Macbeth. While she portrays men as being cruel and cold-hearted, Macduff shows that a man is cruel and cold when he needs to be, but feels just as intensely as he acts.

In Act I, scene v, as Lady Macbeth talks to Macbeth, she gives him specific instructions:

"Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue: like th' innocent flower, But be the serpent under 't." --- lines 65 - 67.

Or in other words, put on a poker face so no one will suspect us (be foul though seem fair, as the witches put it in scene one). Throughout the play, many characters put on metaphorical masks to hid their true nature, thoughts, or feelings.

In scene vi, Lady Macbeth puts on her mask. She says (lines 14 - 20) that the service and hospitality are nothing "Against those honors deep and broad wherewith / Your Majesty loads our house . . ." She easily keeps any suspicion off of her in her ruse.

There's one other thing before we move on. "But be the serpent under 't" (line 67). Lady Macbeth might be referring to herself, that she is the serpent under Macbeth, and that Macbeth is the mask, or screen, which diverts attention from Lady Macbeth.

As said earlier, Banquo sees through Macbeth's masks. In Act III, scene i, Banquo puts up his own masks. He almost knows that Macbeth is the murderer, but he hides his suspicions while he idly talks to Macbeth. The masks aren't always limited to uses of evil.

Light vs. Dark
Much of this play is filled with the struggle between light and darkness (symbolizing Macbeth-- he asks for darkness to hide his desires in Act I, and then darkness shrouds the night of the murder). The light in the first two acts is King Duncan, but the struggle went in favor of darkness. This struggle occurs in every act of the play.

Also, in Act V, Scene vii, Macduff enters and says, "If thou [Macbeth] be'st slain and with no stroke of mine,/My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still" (lines 15 - 16). Macduff can't rest until he gets revenge on the killer of his family, something Malcolm and Fleance (whose family was also killed by Macbeth) didn't say.

Macduff is the hero of the play. He is the light that will soon come to a final climactic battle with the dark (Macbeth). There is also religious meaning to this: God against the devil, Macbeth being the devil (remember how he couldn't say "Amen" in Act II?). This theme has been used in many contemporary stories; it's an epic battle of good vs. evil.

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Margaret Stewart-Zimmerman
May 22, 1998 - 2010