'Macbeth': Themes and Symbols

As a tragedy, Macbeth is a dramatization of the psychological repercussions of unbridled ambition. The play's main themes—loyalty, guilt, innocence, and fate—all deal with the central idea of ambition and its consequences. Similarly, Shakespeare uses imagery and symbolism to illustrate the concepts of innocence and guilt. 

Ambition 

Macbeth’s ambition is his tragic flaw. Devoid of any morality, it ultimately causes Macbeth’s downfall. Two factors stoke the flames of his ambition: the prophecy of the Three Witches, who claim that not only will he be thane of Cawdor, but also king, and even more so the attitude of his wife, who taunts his assertiveness and manhood and actually stage-directs her husband’s actions.

Macbeth’s ambition, however, soon spirals out of control. He feels that his power is threatened to a point where it can only be preserved through murdering his suspected enemies. Eventually, ambition causes both Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s undoing. He is defeated in battle and decapitated by Macduff, while Lady Macbeth succumbs to insanity and commits suicide.

Loyalty

Loyalty plays out in many ways in Macbeth. At the beginning of the play, King Duncan rewards Macbeth with the title of thane of Cawdor, after the original thane betrayed him and joined forces with Norway, while Macbeth was a valiant general. However, when Duncan names Malcolm his heir, Macbeth comes to the conclusion that he must kill King Duncan in order to become king himself.

In another example of Shakespeare's loyalty and betrayal dynamic, Macbeth betrays Banquo out of paranoia. Although the pair were comrades in arms, after he becomes king, Macbeth remembers that the witches predicted that Banquo’s descendants would ultimately be crowned kings of Scotland. Macbeth then decides to have him killed.

Macduff, who suspects Macbeth once he sees the king’s corpse, flees to England to join Duncan’s son Malcolm, and together they plan Macbeth's downfall.

Appearance and Reality 

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know,” Macbeth tells Duncan, when he already has intentions to murder him near the end of act I.

Similarly, the witches utterances, such as “fair is foul and foul is fair”, subtly play with appearance and reality. Their prophecy, stating that Macbeth can’t be vanquished by any child “of woman born” is rendered vain when Macduff reveals that he was born via a caesarean section. In addition, the assurance that he would not be vanquished until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” is at first deemed an unnatural phenomenon, as a forest would not walk up a hill, but in reality meant that soldiers were cutting up trees in Birnam Wood to get closer to Dunsinane Hill.

Fate and Free Will

Would Macbeth have become king had he not chosen his murderous path? This question brings into play the matters of fate and free will. The witches predict that he would become thane of Cawdor, and soon after he is anointed that title without any action required of him. The witches show Macbeth his future and his fate, but Duncan’s murder is a matter of Macbeth’s own free will, and, after Duncan's assassination, the further assassinations are a matter of his own planning. This also applies to the other visions the witches conjure for Macbeth: he sees them as a sign of his invincibility and acts accordingly, but they actually anticipate his demise.

Symbolism of Light and Darkness

Light and starlight symbolize what is good and noble, and the moral order brought by King Duncan announces that “signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers" (I 4.41-42).”

By contrast, the three witches are known as “midnight hags,” and Lady Macbeth asks the night to cloak her actions from the heaven. Similarly, once Macbeth becomes king, day and night become indistinguishable from one another. When Lady Macbeth displays her insanity, she wants to carry a candle with her, as a form of protection.

Symbolism of Sleep

In Macbeth, sleep symbolizes innocence and purity. For instance, after murdering King Duncan, Macbeth is in such distress that he believes he heard a voice saying "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep,' the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care." He goes on to compare sleep to a soothing bath after a day of hard work, and to the main course of a feast, feeling that when he murdered his king in his sleep, he murdered sleep itself.

Similarly, after he sends killers to murder Banquo, Macbeth laments being constantly shaken by nightmares and by "restless ecstasy," where the word "ectsasy" loses any positive connotations.

When Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, Lady Macbeth remarks that he lacks “the season of all natures, sleep.” Eventually, her sleep becomes disturbed as well. She becomes prone to sleepwalking, reliving the horrors of Duncan’s murder.

Symbolism of Blood

Blood symbolizes murder and guilt, and imagery of it pertains to both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. For example, before killing Duncan, Macbeth hallucinates a bloody dagger pointing towards the king’s room. After committing the murder, he is horrified, and says: “Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No."

Banquo’s ghost, who appears during a banquet, exhibits “gory locks.” Blood also symbolizes Macbeth’s own acceptance of his guilt. He tells Lady Macbeth, “I am in blood / Step't in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er”.

Blood eventually also affects Lady Macbeth, who, in her sleepwalking scene, wants to clean blood from her hands. For Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, blood shows that their guilt trajectory runs in opposite directions: Macbeth turns from being guilty into a ruthless murderer, whereas Lady Macbeth, who starts off as more assertive than her husband, becomes ridden with guilt and eventually kills herself.