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Themes Macbeth is a fascinating play which explores many themes. Guilt One of Shakespeare’s reasons for writing the play was to illustrate the terrible consequences of murdering a king. The play was first performed in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, and this theme would be very politically acceptable to an audience composed of members of James I’s court. Shakespeare shows the murderers of a king tormented by their own guilt and driven to their doom. Things that do sound so fair? The word ‘start’, meaning to jump with shock, is always associated with a guilty reaction. Later, Macbeth’s guilt takes visual form when he hallucinates that a blood-covered dagger is leading him to murder Duncan.
In the murder scene, we again see Macbeth tormented by guilt. Shakespeare has the murder happen offstage so that he can focus on Macbeth’s tormented mental state. Macbeth is terrified by his own sense of sin, as he could not say ‘Amen’ when he heard someone praying. One of most striking images in the play equates guilt with the idea of blood-stained hands. Macbeth refers to his own hands as “hangman’s hands”, which would be covered in blood from disembowelling victims of execution. When Lady Macbeth urges him to wash the blood off, he realises the impossibility of washing away his guilt. During the murder scene, Lady Macbeth reassures him: “A little water clears us of the deed”.
The audience will realise the irony of this during her sleepwalking scene later in the play, when she obsessively washes imaginary blood from her hands. After arranging Banquo’s murder, Macbeth is tortured by guilt even more. Again this takes visual form, as he imagines the ghost of Banquo returned to accuse him: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me”!
In Act 5, we see Lady Macbeth destroyed by the strain as her guilt becomes revealed for all to see. The metaphor of a guilty conscience being represented by the image of sleeplessness is shown in her sleepwalking. She is also seen constantly washing her hands, as her guilt has made the stains seem indelible to her: “Out damned spot! All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”. When he meets his nemesis, Macduff, Macbeth finally faces his guilt. Believing in the witches’ prophecy that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”, he warns Macduff to stay away from him, admitting “My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already”, a reference to the brutal killing of Macduff’s wife and children. When Macduff reveals he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”, Macbeth knows he is about to pay for his crimes.
The nature of the ideal king Shakespeare’s patron, King James, had written a book on this topic, Basilikon Doron, and so this theme was also of great contemporary interest. The first example is Duncan, who is a good man but not a perfect king. However, as a king, Duncan has the fatal flaw of being over trusting and gullible. Banquo would clearly have made a good king, and Macbeth is jealous of his “royalty of nature”, acknowledging his courage and wisdom. Shakespeare was aware his own monarch, James Stuart, claimed descent from Banquo, and this is a flattering tribute. By contrast, Macbeth is unfit to be a king.
He is dishonest and unscrupulous, happy to blame others for Duncan’s murder. He is even responsible for the killing of Macduff’s wife and children. Macbeth becomes the worst sort of king, a tyrant, whose cruelty drains the life blood from his country: “each new morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry. Duncan’s son Malcolm is depicted as the perfect king.