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William Shakespeare's Macbeth: Thematic Interpretation of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, & the Three Witches

Updated on September 13, 2016

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth's primary theme is that ultimate power corrupts absolutely, which is best defined by the two main characters, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth's primary theme is that ultimate power corrupts absolutely; which is best defined by the two main characters, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Within the play, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth seize power and dispose of potential threats without the basic understanding that their ambitions need not always take the path of violence to best obtain them. The determination of who is responsible for the tragedy that befalls the cast of characters in Macbeth becomes, really, an interpretation of the actions of each character based upon their moral definition of determining right from wrong. With that said, a close look will be taken into the motives and actions of the three main forces within Macbeth: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the three witches (who tempt the characters to the path of evil), to determine who is at fault and who is ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

Macbeth's Inner Turmoil and Consequences of his Ambitions

Macbeth’s inner turmoil begins in Act I, scene VII where he has a long soliloquy about his impending murder of King Duncan. He exclaims that, “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/It were done quickly. If th’ assassination/Could trammel up the consequence, and catch/With his surcease, success; that but this blow/Might be the be-all and the end-all, here” (Shakespeare, Act I, scene VII, lns 1-5). In this, Macbeth is realizing that if he is to commit such an act, he must do it quickly, and, at the same time, if possible, relieve himself of the guilt of that act. He reflects that “we still have judgment here, that we but teach/Bloody instructions which, being taught return/To plague th’ inventor. This even-handed justice/Commends th’ ingredience of our poisoned chalice/To our own lips” (lns 8-12). Indeed, Macbeth understands that he is killing a man, his king, for his own ambitions. At the same time, he knows that he should be standing up in arms to protect his king at all costs because it is the law.

But, in the end, Macbeth’s ambitions are more important, just now, than the law could ever be. He rationalizes that, “besides, this Duncan/Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against/The deep damnation of his taking-off” (Act I, scene VII, lns 16-20). Though Duncan is his king, Duncan is a weak man, unable to retain the throne because he lacks ambition—and it is better if Macbeth does the deed so that he might be the one to stand in line to take the crown, knowing the prophecy as he does. He concludes, almost with resignation that “I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself/And falls on th’ other” (lns 25-28). Overall, though he knows killing the king is wrong, he can find no fault in Lady Macbeth’s plan. Her ambitions are as strong as his and he has pledged himself to the deed without recriminations. Thus, Macbeth is responsible for literally killing King Duncan, despite his reservations for doing so. And, in the end, despite his emotional turmoil, Macbeth falls to the dark side, finding sanctity in his villainous actions.

Lady Macbeth is Responsible for All of the Tragedy

For her part, Lady Macbeth is a standard character with easily definable motivations and ambitions. Her only goal in life is to rise in power and authority, and she is willing to do anything, at any cost, to obtain such a goal. The moment that Macbeth tells her of the witches’ prophecy, Lady Macbeth becomes completely focused, knowing that, for the first time, her ultimate goal is within reach. From there, everything becomes simple for her: convince Macbeth to murder King Duncan and she will find herself the new Queen of Scotland. Her true malevolent colors are shown in Act I, scene V when she reviews her plot to kill King Duncan.

Within her soliloquy, there are several important elements that expose her nature to continue with her wicked plot at any and all costs. She calls out, “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” (Act I, scene V, lns 37-40). In this, she is calling upon the spirits to fill her with cruelty, free from remorse, to unsex herself in the manner that she represents kindness and generosity as a woman, a lady even, and she needs freedom from this ideal. She continues with, “make thick my blood/Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse/That no compunctious visitings of nature/Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between/Th’ effect and it” (lns 40-44). She wants to revel in her dark deeds without any emotional or guilty influences. She finishes with “come, thick night/And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell/That my keen knife see not the wound it makes” (lns 47-49). In this, her motives are clear. Lady Macbeth plans to commit the deed (by convincing Macbeth to do it) but she doesn’t want to feel any sort of messy guilt or remorse for her part in the murder. From this, a reader can infer that Lady Macbeth is responsible for the tragedy that befalls the characters. She convinces Macbeth to commit the murder at all costs, even though he shows the slightest bit of reluctance for the dark deed. However, despite her malevolent intentions, there is another force at work here that set the entire plot into motion.

The Three Witches - Evil Weavers of Tragedy and Destruction

Ultimately, the three witches predicted the death of King Duncan and used this action as the link to control Macbeth by his ambitious emotions. At the start of the play, the three witches are speaking to each other, “when shall we three meet again?...when the battle’s lost and won/That will be ere the set of sun…Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air” (Act I, scene I, lns 1-13). Their words, here, serve to foreshadow the entire events of the play. The battle being lost and won; refers to the final battle that ends Macbeth’s life—where they had orchestrated his final blow as a mad former king brought down by the new King of Scotland; which would be the end of a tyrannous reign, or the “setting of the sun.”

Shakespeare uses the three witches as a clever plot device, depicting them as the hands of fate, of which their only purpose within the play is to tangle the characters up in a web of tragedy and destruction. Indeed, the very purpose of their existence seems to be toying with Macbeth and using his ambitions to encourage the larger part of their evil plot to destroy him. In order to best control Macbeth, they use his ambitions against him, making prophecies that come true to gain his confidence which he is unable to resist as he watches them coming to fruition. In this way, the three witches serve as the true evil within Macbeth. Their actions set the course for the actions of all the characters within range of their evil weaving, and it is because of their dark desires that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth find themselves villains responsible for a great tragedy. True responsibility, however, has to be placed upon the witches for orchestrating the whole event.

The morality of the three witches is nonexistent. They are evil to the core, believing that “fair is foul and foul is fair,” making clear their notions that they can do whatever they want, without consequence. They are above the reproach of mere humanity and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are ultimately their playthings. Macbeth, they clearly believe, is a toy to be tinkered with, to see how far they can take him before he finally cracks. They use his ambitions against him, playing with his emotions to the degree that Lady Macbeth is able to take up their dark purposes and use the same ambition against him. For their part, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have no purpose in the play other than following the prophecy of the witches, as seen in their lack of choices to remove themselves from the dark path where they ended up after the murder of King Duncan, which, ultimately, makes the three witches responsible for the tragedy that befalls the cast of characters within Macbeth.

References

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Germaine Greer, ed. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

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