Themes

Ambition

One of the major themes of Macbeth is ambition. In itself, having ambition is often a positive human quality, but Shakespeare’s play tells the story of a man whose lust for power ends up destroying him. Macbeth’s ambition is kick-started by the witches’ prophecy in Act 1, Scene 3, but we get the impression that he has been thinking about becoming king before then; his many asides in this scene show how quickly he starts playing with the idea of being king.

Macbeth’s wife describes him as not being “without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it.” (1.5.19-20). The fact that he is ambitious but fearful of the consequences of his actions makes him ill-suited to usurp the throne, and this is also partly why he is destroyed by it in the end.

Once Duncan has been killed and Macbeth’s prophecy has come true, he expects the loyal Banquo to be equally ambitious about having his own prophecy come true. This is why Macbeth feels threatened by him and decides to have him killed as well. It also shows us how Macbeth’s paranoia is increasing. As soon as he gets the crown, he realises that becoming king is not enough - he needs to remain king.

Fate versus Free will

Macbeth is heavily influenced by its Elizabethan context. Paradoxically, the Elizabethans believed in free will while also believing in destiny. Although superhuman forces controlled the universe, humans had been given free will and the gift of reason by God. It was then up to the individual to use his or her abilities the right way. As a tragic hero, Macbeth fails to do this. Partly because he is flawed, and partly because he is tricked by supernatural beings.

This creates an interesting question about responsibility: is Macbeth’s tragic end entirely his own fault, or was he manipulated into it by the witches and his wife? In connection with this, you may also consider how it affects the interpretation of the play whether we consider the supernatural elements – the floating dagger, Banquo’s ghost, and to some extent the witches – to be real or not? If we think of these elements as real and not just figments of Macbeth’s imagination, it takes away some of the responsibility from Macbeth.

You may also discuss which is the more powerful driver of the action in the play: is it the supernatural and fate, or is it Macbeth’s ambition? In connection with this, it is an important point that Macbeth does not seem to trust fate. Although he initially says that “chance may crown me,/ Without my stir” (1.3.154-155), he soon decides to stop waiting and take matters into his own hands. In order to make the prophecy of becoming king true, he kills King Duncan himself. Later, he has Banquo murdered too because Banquo, according to the prophecy, poses a threat to Macbeth’s royal line.

When Macbeth seeks out the witches and gets the second round of prophecies in Act 4, Scene 1, he still does not trust that fate will deliver. He is here told to be wary of Macduff and...

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