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Macbeth Theme

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Teacher/Instructor Katie Aquino
Katie Aquino

Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University

Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.

What do Tonya Harding, Idi Amin and Kevin Lay of Enron, have in common with Shakespeare’s tragic hero Macbeth? Well they all gave up their morals in order to again power, and ultimately it all led to their demise.

Shakespeare struggles with these questions, age old idea of humans wanting power in his tragedy Macbeth. In this episode, we’re going to take a look at all the events that lead up to Macbeth’s downfall and then try to figure out through the theme development process, what Shakespeare is trying to tell us about that lust for power.

Act V of Macbeth is where the play truly becomes a tragedy. Let’s take a look at some of those final events. The first one we’re going to look at, is how the troops move in on Macbeth’s castle. The next is the fall of Lady Macbeth, and then finally, we’ll look at Macbeth’s end.

The first thing that we see is that the troops that belong to Malcolm, great Stuart and Ross move in on Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane hill. They gather themselves in Great Birnam Wood and here they’re directed to, “Let every soldier hew him down a bow/ And bear ‘t before him. Thereby shall we shadow/ The numbers of our host and make discovery/ Err in report of us.” We see here the troops really making the witches prophecy come true. They’re breaking down branches and then holding them over them, so that it doesn’t appear that there are as many soldiers as there are attacking Macbeth.

This also makes the witches' prophecy true, because when these soldiers start to move up the hill towards Dunsinane Castle it would appear that Birnam Wood is moving up the hill as well.

The next major event of this act is the fall of Lady Macbeth. This act opens with a doctor consulting with Lady Macbeth because her gentlewoman or her servant, has observed her sleep-walking in the middle of the night. What she says she sees her do, is really work to rub blood off of her hands and what she’s saying is, “Out, damn spot, out I say!” This is a really famous line in literature that you will see referenced over and over again. But we see the imagery or the symbol of blood coming back here, as Lady Macbeth though she doesn’t literally have blood on her hand, is really trying to wash off that inner guilt that she’s feeling. Eventually what happens, is the doctor comes to consult and he tells her servant that she doesn’t in fact need a physical doctor, what she needs is spiritual help.

The end result of this inner guilt that Lady Macbeth feels however, is the fact that she kills herself. When this news is delivered to Macbeth, surprisingly he doesn’t have much of a reaction. In fact this is where he gives, “His life is but a poor player on the stage soliloquy,” where he really reveals to us, 'life is really is meaningless, her death was going to happen now or later.'

The final thing we need to focus on for Act V is Macbeth’s end. This is truly what makes the play a tragedy. If you remember back to the definition of a Shakespearean tragedy, we have a hero of high standing, who has a tragic flaw, and he begins a disastrous downfall. But what really solidifies him as a tragic hero, is that he has to meet an untimely death. Here’s where we see this happen. Even though he’s been warned by the witches that should beware of Macduff, Macbeth goes head on into battle with Macduff’s army. And what he says is, “Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane/ And thou opposed, being of no woman born./Yet, I will try the last.”

We see this idea of his ambition and his pride and his over confidence really taking over him. He faces Macduff in battle and eventually Macduff beheads him and Malcolm is crowned the rightful king of Scotland.

Now that we’ve discussed the characters, the symbol and the irony used in Macbeth, we’re ready to start talking about the theme. Ultimately why did Shakespeare write this play? So that when your teacher asks you to do a project or complete an essay that really digs into analyzing this piece of literature, you’ll be ready to do so. Let’s take a look first at what issues and themes are. An issue is a problem or point of debate that a character in a piece of literature deals with that you also might deal with in your everyday life. It’s universal things like; money, war, love, power that kind of thing.

Once you’ve identified the issues that occur in a piece of literature and there will be many issues that occur in any one given piece of literature, you’ll then be ready to talk about the themes. A theme in a piece of literature is what the author is trying to communicate to the reader about a specific issue. Let’s take a look at this specifically dealing with Macbeth.

Some of the issues that come up in the play with Macbeth are power, ambition, appearance and guilt. Remember we’ve got Macbeth really being hungry for power and he’s also influenced by Lady Macbeth who is equally hungry for that same power. We see characters dealing with ambition. Macbeth struggles between trying to decide, should he do the right thing or should he wait for fate to bring him the kingship that the witches have promised him or should he go ahead and act on it. What is the ambition influence him to do?

We also see this idea of appearance when I say appearance I mean the difference between appearances and reality. We see this really presented and repeated by the witches when they say the line, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” We also see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reference it when they talk about, “Being the flower on the outside but be the serpent underneath.” Presenting oneself as something other than how they truly are.

We also see the characters quite clearly deal with their guilt. Remember that when Macbeth puts out that hit on Banquo and the murders kill him during the feast, Macbeth sees that ghost at the banquet table. Nobody else can see him but we see that outer manifestation of his inner guilt. Then again in Act V we see Lady Macbeth really seeing the spots of blood on her hands as a manifestation of that guilt as well.

These are all problems that the characters deal with that we also might come across in our everyday lives. Once we’ve got our issues identified, now let’s start talking about well what Shakespeare is trying to tell me about these.

Let’s go into the theme development process. Now that you’ve got your issues, and you’re asked to do an assignment on what Shakespeare is trying to say, there’s a nice quick six step process for this. The first step in it is to identify the issues. Well we’ve already done that, so let’s pick one that we really want to take a little bit further. In this case we’re going to take power.

The next step we’ll do is develop a simple theme. And developing a simple theme is really easy, all you have to ask yourself is, what is Shakespeare trying to say to me about power, given the actions of the character and the things that happened in the play? So we develop something like this; Shakespeare believes that taking power that isn’t yours can be dangerous. I would say the play proves this. Notice also that the theme statement always begins with the author’s name.

When we’re starting to dig into theme, we don’t want to worry about what we believe in or whether or not we agree with what the author is telling us, what we really want to focus on is what is the author trying to say, what the leaf is he trying to communicate about a particular issue in a play. This is a nice really general statement, but it’s not quite specific enough to be able to be used as a thesis statement for an essay or the focus for a project. Let’s take it to the next level.

The third step in theme development is to probe your simple theme by asking some probing questions; some things that are really going to pick it a part and make it a lot more specific. For that simple theme I ask the questions, well how can it be dangerous? How can the need for power be dangerous and why shouldn’t you take it if it doesn’t belong to you. I’m going to brainstorm some answers. Well, the need for power can be dangerous because you can do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. You can become blinded by this idea of having status or having money or having a particular position of power and that can lead you to make some moral compromises.

Another thing here that says, why shouldn’t you take it? Well should we take things that don’t belong to us? Probably not and along the way in the play Macbeth does a lot of sacrificing, I mean he gives up his best friend because he’s taking something that doesn’t belong to him.

Once we’ve developed some answers to these questions then we can move on to the fourth step, which is to develop a sophisticated theme. What we do is take that simple theme that we had, use the brainstormed answers to our probing questions and then we put them together to come up with something a little bit more specific and so sync, something that would really direct an entire essay or an entire project.

I came up with; Shakespeare believes that the thirst for unlimited power can lead people to betray their friendships, morals and selves. Now we’ve got a much more specific statement and something that’s going to be really easy to prove using specific examples from the play. Note here even thought it’s a sophisticated theme statement, we still start with Shakespeare’s name so we’re making that statement, that this is what he’s trying to communicate to us or this is what he believes.

So the hard work is done, now we’ve just got to figure out to break this statement down and make it a little bit more approachable especially in essay form. What you’re going to do is develop some subtopics. What you want to do is take a look at this statement and say, well what is one part of the statement that I need to prove in order for it to be true? That’s called identifying your subtopics. What we came up with for this one is; the lust for power can lead people to betray even their closest friends. For this particular part of my essay or my project, I’m going to focus just in on how the lust for power can lead people to betray their friends.

The next step which is the final step in the process is once you’ve got the statement made, well we’ve got to support it with specific examples from the piece of literature. So if I was thinking back to a time in Macbeth where he betrayed his friends because of his lust for power I definitely would think of Banquo. I went to this section where he said, “Both of you/ know Banquo was your enemy/…So is he mine, and in such bloody distance/ That every minute of his being thrusts/ Against my near’st of life.” This is where we see Macbeth talking to the murders and trying to talk them in to being the ones to kill Banquo. I think this is a really great example of showing that Macbeth’s lust for power has caused him really to betray his friend by hiring murderers to kill him.

That’s the quick theme development process. Again if you were going to write an essay about this, you’d go through the process of developing your subtopics and find more support but you’ve got what you need right now to write a solid essay.

Let’s review just really quickly the steps you need to go through.

First you identify your issues. And remember, those are the problems that the characters deal with in the piece of literature that we also deal with in our everyday life. From there you come up with a simple theme, where you ask yourself, what did Shakespeare believe or what’s he trying to say about that issue? You develop some probing questions to make it more detailed. After you’ve got those probing questions, and you’ve brainstormed some answers, you want to make sure that you come up with a sophisticated theme, one that’s a little bit more detailed than specific. Then you break that down into subtopics and finally find specific examples from your piece of literature to support what you’re saying.

You should be well equipped to get started on your project or essay. Good luck.

Macbeth is often considered one of Shakespeare’s most classic tragedies. In this episode we took a look at some of the main events from Act V that qualify it to be a tragedy. People often also wonder why Shakespeare was so dark. Well in this episode, we took a look at some of the issues that come up, how Shakespeare dealt with them and then use the quick six step theme development process, in order to reveal the messages that Shakespeare is trying to communicate to his readers. Hopefully they won’t end up in the same position as some of the real life Macbeths.