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The Theme of Macbeth

From Macbeth. Ed. Charles W. French. MacMillan and Co.

The tragedy of Macbeth may be justly ranked as Shakespeare's greatest work. It is true that it lacks the careful elaboration which characterizes the most of his other plays, and is devoid of those finer touches of sentiment and playful humor of which he was so eminently the master. But here his purpose is too serious, and the motive of the play is too stern and insistent to permit of any digression. From beginning to end it is a profound and philosophical study of the effect of sin upon human life and its resulting degradation and suffering. Yet it is more than this, for the deadly issues of evil-doing are worked out in all their fearful reality, and temptation with its ever-deepening shades weaves itself into the fabric of human life, before our very eyes.

The poet has given us no fancy picture, but with a stern and unfaltering purpose has created for all mankind an episode of the truest life history. The most consummate traitor of all the ages is no more a real personality than is Macbeth, and no more impressive moral lesson is taught on the pages of the world's literature, than that which comes to us in this the greatest of English dramas.

So serious a purpose admits of no trifling or delay, hence the action of the play is rapid. Its current of human passion flows swift and black, and, as we follow its rapidly descending course, we shrink with horror from the scenes of violence and of human woe which are disclosed, but a relentless fascination bids us follow on until its dark waters hurl themselves into the final abyss of desolation and ruin. So intense and unabating is the interest that the sympathies and envotions of the reader are often subjected to a severe and almost painful strain.

The one absorbing subject for study and meditation in Macbeth is to be found in its ethical content. Other plays may be studied from literary or critical standpoints, but here the moral lesson is of such surpassing importance that all other considerations sink into comparative insignificance. The mechanism and movement of the play and its vocabulary should be given only sufficient attention to disclose the artistic skill of the poet, and to make his thoughts luminous.

Macbeth should be taught and studied as the most powerful chapter in literature upon the birth and development of evil in the human heart. The process is complete in detail from the first yielding to temptation until the nature of its victim becomes wholly perverted, and the punishment which he has invited descends upon him. Upon this central theme all the lights and shadows of real life are turned. With consummate art the poet makes his purpose dominate every detail. There is the background of innocence upon which the shadow of sin is cast. There is the environment of peaceful nature, in the midst of which deeds of tumultuous violence or of secret destruction are wrought. There are sunny skies, which shine down upon dark passions and cruel ambition; and virtuous natures which forsake purity, and abandon themselves to vice and sin. But dominating them all the voice of the prophet never ceases its proclamation, "The wages of sin is death."

Nowhere is Shakespeare's analysis of human character more keen and exhaustive. Not content with tracing the outward manifestations of guilt and its human punishment he penetrates the innermost chambers of life, and discloses the purposes and motives which dwell therein. The gradual loss of reputation, influence, and honor, and the gathering power of vengeance are but the manifestations of a more fearful process which is being wrought in the heart, and is reaching out through all the functions and relations of life. With unmistakable clearness he shows that the real punishment of the criminal is not that which is meted out to him by the hand of man. This may be painful, humiliating, terrible, but it is soon over. His true punishment is that which is worked by his own hand into his own life and character for all eternity; a degradation and perversion of nature which he can never struggle against successfully. A man who yields to temptation and commits a crime may conceal it from all human knowledge; but he has planted the seeds of a retribution in his own breast from which he cannot escape.

Macbeth's punishment was not inflicted by the hand of Macduff, who slew him. This was but an incident in his career. For years he had suffered the pangs of a moral deterioration, which were worse a thousandfold than the most cruel death. So powerfully are these sufferings, inflicted by an outraged conscience, depicted by the poet that the indignation and horror excited by his crimes almost give way to pity for his utter wretchedness.

Lady Macbeth, the guilty partner in her husband's first crime, illustrates the same great principle. She was less imaginative and better able to conceal her emotions, yet she gives many a hint of the remorse that is consuming her soul, until at last it is fully, though unconsciously, revealed in the deeply affecting sleep-walking scene.

The theme of the play may be well summed up, in the words of Mr. Hiecke, as: "the representation of ambition as a fiendish living force, driving on an heroic nature, that is possessed of high aims and capable of the grandest deeds, yet restricted by external barriers, to conspiracy against an anointed power, an established hereditary royalty, on fealty to which depends not only the prosperity of all, but the true, genuine happiness of the conspirator himself; hereby dooming countless numbers to destruction, as well as plunging the rebel himself into spiritual and, by the final moral concatenation, into physical ruin, but by these very means causing the power which has been outraged to emerge all the more gloriously."

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Charles W. French. London: MacMillan and Co., 1911. Shakespeare Online. 30 Sept. 2013. < >.


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Did You Know? ... "The simplest division of the drama is into prose and verse. There is comparatively little prose in Macbeth, the letter in i. 5 is naturally in prose; the porter in ii. 3 talks prose as do most of Shakespeare's low comedy characters; the dialogue between Lady Macduff and her son in iv. 2 wavers between verse and prose in a rather curious fashion; and finally the sleep-walking scene, v. i, is for the most part in prose." Thomas Marc Parrott. Read on...


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