Themes, concerns revealed through motifs #
The meanings of a play emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders.
Meaning can also be derived from discerning patterns of recurring Motifs, which unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.
Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities. As John Bell states:
“he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.
Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message. Motifs help to foster textual integrity. Macbeth is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence (are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception, Betrayal, Loyalty……
Both Macbeth and King Lear do appear to have a subtle political agenda. It is quite likely that Shakespeare is sending the new King, James I, a subtle but cautionary message about loyalty and tyranny. Don’t trust all your advisors and realise your power does have limitations.
Because of ambiguity and ambivalence we are given scope for a range of interpretations, “nothing is what is not”, “fair is foul and foul is fair”, “things cannot be ill, cannot be good”. These open possibilities of meanings that leave us confounded. Problematic plays raise imponderable questions, but provide few conclusive or pat answers.
According to R.S. White in Ambivalent Macbeth, “at least it does not coerce, but rather encourages us individually to clarify. amplify modify and articulate our unique individual responses.
Macbeth’s Ambition #
From the time he hears the witch’s prophecies until he meets his fate at the hands of McDuff, Macbeth has succumbed to the lust for intoxicating power thus losing his soul and integrity.
His initial hopes are dashed when Duncan announces that his son Malcolm is to succeed him and yet Macbeth is determined to act:
The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies.
In a moment of self recognition Macbeth is fully aware of his lust for power.
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
During his soliloquy hallucinating about the dagger he admits:
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
Secure power craves absolute power - so without that - fear and paranoia prevail:
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
our fears in Banquo stick deep
and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared.” -Macbeth
Nature in Macbeth #
Mankind is seen as part of God’s grand design and we are subject to forces in nature beyond our control: As in Julius Caesar, unfavourable omens, and natural auguries portend disaster: Lady Macbeth notes this before the death of Duncan:
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,*
Which gives the stern’st good-night.*
The death of great people is generally accompanied by disturbances in nature:
LENNOX - commenting on the night that Duncan died.
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.
Later the Doctor says in Act V.i.10 commenting on Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking: “A great perturbation of nature”
Scotland is seen as being a garden and Macbeth is seen as a weed.
“I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
To make thee flail of growing Act 1 Scene 4
King Duncan to Macbeth and Banquo
“look like th’ innocent flower,
but be the serpent underneath” Act 1 Scene 5 .
“Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.” Act 5 Scene 2
Blood in Macbeth #
Brutal actions have brutal consequences. The political and natural world is broken and the Macbeths seize this opportunity to rise through the ranks and control their destiny. But their ambitions unravel into a living nightmare in a world where boundaries are paper thin - between the natural and supernatural, love and hate, joy and despair.
Blood represents the guilt felt by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth about what they have done. Lady Macbeth becomes so obsessed about blood remaining on her hands that she talks in her sleep and visualises blood on her hands even when there is none there.
What bloody man Is that?
“will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green-one red.” Act 2 Scene 2 . fl4.
“It will have blood, they say blood will have blood”
“I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er” Act 3 Scene 4 Los?
L. Macbeth talks in her sleep about the blood on her hands.
“Yet here’s a spot” Act 5 Scene 1
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” Act 5 Scene 1
“Here’s the smell of blood still, all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” Act 5 Scene 1
After killing Duncan, Macbeth becomes so paranoid that he is startled by the most common of sounds.
“I heard a voice cry Sleep no more” Act 2 Scene 2
“Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me. when every noise appals me? Act 2 Scene 2
The blood motif is sustained by Angus in Act V Sc. 2:
“Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands”;
Despite all their efforts, the blood of his secret murders continues to stick on his hands.
Clothing imagery in Macbeth: #
We wear clothing for a variety of reasons; for warmth and protection, modesty, occasion and distinction. The more regalia worn, the higher the rank, however cloaks and vestments may also be used to cover up a multitude of sins. Power dressing has always existed, so women wear solid colors, high heels and shoulder pads. Men wear suits, collars and solid ties. Today’s trend is toward more casual wear.The minimalist dress is often referred to as a fig-leaf.
Mark Twain was a great humorist. His words were laced with humour, wit, and sarcasm. In this quote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” he wishes to impress upon us the importance of dressing well. To make his point, he compares well dressed people to stark naked ones, who probably don’t have an opinion of fashion and style. The original quote was made by Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet. He wrote, “Clothes maketh the man.” Twain added his own twist to Shakespeare’s words.
Fashion is the most universal form of self-expression, whether it’s a sign of tragic self-effacement or delightful defiance that so many women use clothes to make a statement about themselves. Our relationship with clothes changes as our relationship with ourselves shifts so at all times our dress sense should reflect our real selves.. Sometimes we like to dress up; at other times we dress down.
The number of references to clothing in Macbeth signifies Shakespeare’s interest in its importance as a metaphor for power and position.
“lapt in proof(I.ii.54) armour that proved effective. (protection)
“Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?” *
Macbeth is uncomfortable with this new title, because the witches have just predicted it but he knows the former Thane of Cawdor still lives. Ironically he too betrays King Duncan.
“New honours come upon him
like strange garments, cleave not their
mould but with the aid of use.” (distinction)
Just like new clothing often need to be worn in, new positions take a while to adjust to and become comfortable with.
“I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people
Which should be worn now in their newest gloss.” (distinction)
New clothing, like reputations have to be taken care of so they don’t get soiled.
“And when we have our naked frailties hid
That suffer in exposure”. (modesty and protection)
Raw, naked emotions need time to recuperate.
“Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.” (distinction)
Malcolm and Donaldbain realise they are vulnerable under a new King.
“who wear our health but sickly in this life”. (protection)
Another reference to the fragility and serendipity of life.
“Now does he find his title
hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarf” (V.ii.20) (distinction)
Macbeth’s authority has been eroded and Shakespeare uses the clothing metaphor to illustrate his diminished stature.
Deception in Macbeth #
The values of the witches, like most of the characters have become inverted so that good is considered evil and evil – good. Don’t trust appearances.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air. Exeunt.
What bloody man Is that? He can report-, As seemeth by his plight
All appearances can be deceptive.
No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive
Our bosom interest.
This indicates Duncan’s credulity
MACBETH. So foul and fair a day I have not seen
These first words of Macbeth echo the witch’s philosophy and portend a major thread running throughout the play that nothing is what it seems.
Why do you start, and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?
There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
Again Duncan entertains a false sense of pride in his judgement of character. He is obviously too trusting – a gull or dupe.
That which you are my thoughts cannot transpose.
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.
Perhaps the most profound observation in the play; just because evil looks good, doesn’t mean that good can’t also give the appearance of good.
And often times, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles to betray’s
- In deepest consequence
Perhaps the most honest and telling cautionary tale of false hope – of getting sucked in.
Stars, hide your fires:
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand: yet let That be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Macbeth calls on the dark forces of the universe to disguise his true self.
Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
Lady Macbeth merely reinforces Macbeth’s intentions.
LENNOX. Goes the King hence today?
MACBETH. He does: he did appoint so.
Macbeth quickly corrects himself – he knows Duncan is not going anywhere but he is not about to let Lennox know that.
LADY MACBETH. Help me hence, ho!
As Macbeth rambles on justifying his killing of the guards, he is in danger of inadvertently letting incriminating evidence slip, so Lady Macbeth distracts everyone by feigning a swoon.
Let’s not consort with them.
To show an unfelt sorrow Is an office Which the false man does easy.
Where we are there’s daggers
In men’s smiles; the near in blood,
The nearer bloody.* *
Macbeth on the witch’s assurances.
Infected be the air whereon they ride;*
And damn’d all those that trust them!
And be these juggling fiends no more believed
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.
Reality Vs Illusion in MACBETH #
Closely related is the conflict between reality and illusion at the core of the play. It can be noticed frequently in the speeches of many characters.
The idea of reality Vs illusion begins in Act 1 Scene 1
“Fair is foul and foul is fair”
meaning that the way things appear may not be how they really are. It introduces the ideas of deceit and distrust which continue throughout the play.
“Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the ‘innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ‘
Here she tells Macbeth to put on a mask to hide his true nature, thoughts, and feelings. To be foul though seem fair.
“Against those honours deep and broad,
wherewith; Your majesty loads our house”
Here she welcomes Duncan, saying it is an honour to have him visit their house even though she is planning to murder him.
‘ what not put upon His spongy officers
Who shall bear the guilt of our great quell” l. 7
Here Lady Macbeth is trying to conceal reality by putting the blame for the murders on the king’s guards.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? come, let me clutch thee:
I have thee not and yet I see thee still “ 2.1
Macbeth does not know whether the dagger is real or just an illusion.
Woe, Alas! What, in our house” 12.3/
Here Lady Macbeth tries to hide reality by acting surprised when told about the murder of Duncan while she herself had been involved in it. This can also be seen when she faints, not because of the death of the king but to take attention away from her husband who is in a difficult situation.
I wish your horses swift and sure of foot;
and so I do commend you to their backs’ f3.1/
Here Macbeth wishes Banquo and Fleance a good ride and a safe journey while he himself is sending murderers after them.
“And make our faces vizards to our hearts, Disguising what they are”
Here Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that they must hide their true feelings.
“Here had we now our country’s honour roofed,
were the graced person of our Banquo present”
The theme of reality Vs illusion is evident when Macbeth under pretence asks, at the banquet why Banquo is not there even when he well knows that Banquo has been murdered at his own orders.
...S/:all raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him onto their confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear:
And you all know security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. “
Here Hecate tells how the witches through illusions and false confidence will destroy Macbeth.
“Let every soldier hew him down a bough,
And bear it before him: thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host” 15.4/
Here Malcolm tells his army to carry branches in front of them so that Macbeth will not be able to guess their numbers. This gives an illusion of the actual wood moving.
“And be these juggling fiends no more believed, To palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
and break it to our hope” 5.8
Here Macbeth finally realises that the witches were not to trusted as their words were like illusions and had double meanings.
Manhood in Macbeth #
Shakespeare explores the issue of masculinity in several passages and ways. Lady Macbeth aspires to manly attributes and later challenges Macbeth about his masculinity.
“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 felt 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,
- “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.
When Macbeth interviews two henchmen to dispose of Banquo, he questions their manhood:
We are men, my liege.
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed; whereby he does receive
Particular addition. from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men.
Now, if you have a station in the file,
Not i’ the worst rank of manhood, say ’t;
Both murderers demonstrate how desperate they are to serve their King.
It is the supernatural that unnerves Macbeth and threatens his manhood:
What man dare, I dare:*
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or be alive again,
Probably the most direct example of manhood being a theme in Macbeth is Macduff at the end of Act IV when he hears about the death of his wife and children.
While Malcolm implores him to “dispute it like a man” (line 220), Macduff says that he must also “feel It feel it like a man” L. 221) which challenges the image of a man given above by Lady Macbeth. Essential manhood does not require a repression of emotion. While she portrays men as being cruel and cold-hearted, Macduff shows that a man may be cruel and cold when he needs to be, but feels just as ‘intensely’ as he acts.
Light vs. Dark images in Macbeth #
Much of this play is filled with the struggle between light and darkness (symbolizing Macbeth– he asks for darkness to* hide his deep and dark desires* in Act 1, and then darkness shrouds the night of the murder). The light in the first two acts is King Duncan, but the struggle went in favour of darkness. This struggle occurs in every act of the play.
Also, in Act \/, Scene vii, Macduff enters and says,
“If thou [ 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.
Loyalty in Macbeth #
• Macbeth initially shows loyalty as being a brave and loyal soldier fighting against the rebellion invasion of Scotland by Norwegian troops.
• Loyalty and service to Duncan become mere irony.
• Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pretend to be horrified at Duncan’s murder (regret)
• Lady Macbeth is loyal to her husband up till the .very end - as she has the same ambitions he did.
• At the height of Macbeth’s loyalty, he plans to murder Duncan. After this, all his loyalty and honour is a mere illusion
“Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou coulds’t!”
He wants to reverse what he has done.
“had I but died an hour before this chance I had lived a bless’d time.”
“There’s no art to find the minds construction in the face.. An absolute trust”l 1.4]
• Duncan believes Macbeth is being very loyal at this time.
• Macduff offers his assistance to Malcolm (true heir).
• Puts country above home and family when he flees to England and Leaves his castle at the mercy of Macbeth.
• Convinces Malcolm of his loyalty by sincerity of his grief.
• When Ross enters, to join Malcolm and Macduff, Macduff questions him first of the country and then of his family.
• Lennox, Ross - remains loyal to Macbeth up to banquet scene.
“We will proceed no further in this business; he hath honour’d me of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people…”
• Macbeth’s loyalty wins over his ambition for a short time in the play.
“The service and loyalty I owe, in doing it, pays itself Your highness’ part is to receive our duties are to your throne and state children and servants, which do but what they should, by doing everything safe towards your love and honour.”
• Macbeth shows his early loyalty and honour to Duncan
Banquo has a very strong sense of loyalty, stronger than his ambition to become king, and so, despite the three witches prophecy that he will be the father of many kings, he does nothing to act upon this, and remains ever loyal to King Duncan, and to his friend Macbeth:
• yet it was said that it should not stand in thy posterity, but that myself should be the root and father of many kings… Why, by the verities on thee made good, May these not be oracles as well, and set me up in hope?”
Banquosuspects Macbeth has murdered Duncan, yet he still remains loyal to Macbeth:
“Thou hast it now, king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
as the weird women promised,
and I fear thou playedst most foully for’t”
Later he makes his loyalty to Macbeth clear:
“Let your highness command apon me, to which my duties are with a most indissoluble tie for ever knit”
However, this feeling of loyalty is not mutual, as Macbeth again let’s his ambition overcome his loyalty to Banquo, as he fears Banquo may challenge Macbeth’s throne:
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
our fears in Banquo stick deep and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared.” -Macbeth
True loyalty should be mutual and cut both ways.
Sleep in Macbeth #
Sleep is very important to all of us for the proper functioning of our body and mind. People who are sleep deprived do not function as well as those who get at least 6 hours of sleep – the ideal is at least 8 ½ . Prolonged sleep deprivation can have psychological effects, both short term and long term. Some believe it may be one of the factors in causing dementia.
It took scientists 500 years to verify this:
Why we sleep. The reason for sleep is the subject of a new study published this week in the journal *Science. *Using mice, researchers showed for the first time that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours.
“Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and a leader of the study. For centuries, scientists and philosophers have wondered why people sleep and how it affects the brain. Only recently have scientists shown that sleep is important for storing memories. In this study, Dr Nedergaard and her colleagues unexpectedly found that sleep may be also be the period when the brain cleanses itself of toxic molecules.** RICHARD FARMER Crikey**
Here is another viewpoint from Norman Doidge:
A recent study at the US University of Rochester showed that, during sleep, brain cells called glia open up special channels that allow waste products and toxic buildup in the brain – including the same proteins that build up in dementia – to be eliminated. On top of this, while we sleep, newly formed connections — between neurons that are created by the learning that we did the day before — become consolidated and made more durable.
Modern westerners have been progressively losing sleep because of inventions that estrange us from our true natures. The electric lightbulb and, of course, 24/7 internet, mean we are often so alert that we are not listening to our body’s signals when it is time for sleep. In the 19th century, the average western adult thought it was normal to get about nine hours of sleep. In North America, it is now closer to seven hours – and dropping. Recommendations vary, but some researchers say 8.5 hours is a better average to aim for.
Macbeth expresses it best:
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast –
The play is littered with references to sleep and its disturbances. The 1st Witch who has been offended by a sailor’s wife intends to exact revenge by depriving her husband of Sleep:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sen nights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
Lady Macbeth plans the assassination:
When Duncan is asleep,
When in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lies as in a death,
Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep
There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried `Murder!’ ……
But they did say their prayers and addressed them again to sleep.
Macbeth recognises that a bad conscience can have adverse effects on peaceful sleep:
Methought I heard a voice cry `Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’ -the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast –
Lady Macbeth: What do you mean?
Still it cried `Sleep no more!’ to all the house;
`Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more’.
Lady Macbeth expresses a common medieval connection between sleep and death:
Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures
Ring the alarum bell! Murder and treason!
Banquo and Donalbain! Malcolm, awake!
Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,
And look on death itself!
Both the worlds suffer
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly. Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Lady Macbeth You lack the season of all natures, sleep.
Come, we’ll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.
We are yet but young in deed
That, by the help of these -with Him above
To ratify the work -we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep In spite of thunder.
Since his majesty went into the field I have seen her rise from
her bed, throw her nightgown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, old it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.
A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of
sleep and do the effects of watching.
This disease is beyond my practice; yet I have known those which
have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds.