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Key Macbeth themes with quotes

Whether you’re learning Macbeth at GCSE, KS3 or A-Level, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is a tale of superstition, leadership, ambition and power. For a number of exam papers, especially English literature GCSE, the examiner will expect you to use quotes from the extract provided as well as remember some of your own. Whether you’re learning Macbeth for GCSE AQA, Edexcel, OCR or CIE – these themes and quotes are worth remembering.

So we’ve analysed and listed some key Macbeth themes and accompanying quotes to ensure you are ready for exam day.

Power and ambition

Macbeth at its very core is a play about power and ambition. Power at the beginning of the play is held by Duncan, the king, and is eventually passed over to Macbeth after his murder.

  • By killing Duncan, Macbeth has contradicted the Divine Right of Kings, which is a doctrine that believes that as god appoints the king – anyone that attempts to displace the god’s appointed king, like Macbeth murdering Duncan, is treasonous. At the time the play was being written and performed, this was a blasphemous and heinous act, which is why Macbeth’s murder of Duncan is serious example of power being stolen.

Act one,scene two

DUNCAN
What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state

  • Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both struggle for power in their relationship. Lady Macbeth uses manipulation and subtle digs against Macbeth throughout the play (ie, by questioning his manhood repeatedly) to take control. As a woman with little power of her own, the use of her language to subvert the power norms works well and Macbeth, to some extent, does her bidding for her.

Act one, scene five

LADY MACBETH
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it

  • The abuse of power is also a reoccurring theme in Macbeth. King Duncan is seen as a fair and benevolent leader at times, who rewards Macbeth for his work on the battlefield. And yet, he names his son heir apparent to the throne, which would be seen as an abuse of power at the time, as Scotland was an elective monarchy when the play was performed. Similarly, when Macbeth becomes king, he abuses his power and becomes a tyrannical leader.

Act one, scene four

DUNCAN
My plenteous joys,
Wanton in fulness, seek to hide themselves
In drops of sorrow.—Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland; which honor must
Not unaccompanied invest him only,
But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine
On all deservers.—From hence to Inverness
And bind us further to you.

The supernatural

The play revolves around the supernatural and this is epitomised by characters such as the witches and the strange apparitions that Shakespeare describes throughout.

  • The witches are the first characters we meet in act one; who prophesize that Macbeth will be king one day. This acts as a catalyst for the whole plot and drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to kill King Duncan and eventually go mad in their own ways.

Scene one, act one

THE WITCHES
Fair is foul and foul is fair.

  • James VI, the King of England at the time Shakespeare’s Macbeth was first performed, was hugely suspicious of witchcraft. In 1591, he began a series of witch trials throughout England, to identify the witches that he believed were conspiring to murder him. Ultimately, nearly 100,000 women were put on trail, and approximately half of those were killed.

Act one, scene one

FIRST WITCH
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

  • There are several apparitions that come to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth throughout the play. Notably, a floating dagger that leads Macbeth to kill Duncan and the blood spots that Lady Macbeth is seemingly unable to wash out.

Act two, scene one

MACBETH

Is this a dagger I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight, or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

Masculinity

Masculinity in Macbeth is complemented with violence, ambition, power and madness throughout the play. While femininity and female characters often act as catalysts to spur the plot along.

  • Notably, Lady Macbeth continues to site Macbeth’s manhood, or lack thereof, as a manipulation tactic. She parallels his inaction with femininity and cowardice – claiming that it is unmanly of him to not kill Duncan and seize power for himself. Similarly, throughout the play, Lady Macbeth wishes to be “unsexed” so that she herself can be a pivotal and active character in realising their ambitions. Instead, she has to play on Macbeth’s masculine insecurities to get her way.

Act one, scene five

LADY MACBETH

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!

  • The theme of women being manipulative characters throughout the play that must rely on their words to inspire action is evident. The witches inform Macbeth of the prophecy and inspire him to kill the king – they, arguably, don’t carry out any direct action themselves. The fact the Shakespeare repeatedly insinuates that women are the catalyst for the chaos in the play leads some to believe that it is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic work.

Act one, scene three

FIRST WITCH
I’ll drain him dry as hay.
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.
Look what I have.

Fate and freewill

Shakespeare continuously asks the audience to questions whether Macbeth is responsible for his own actions or whether it was fated; could he choose the path he was on or was it chosen for him?

  • When the witches tell Macbeth about the prophecy and he goes on to kill Duncan, we must question whether this was fate or freewill. The witches represent supernatural, almost god-like figures, who may have been controlling Macbeth’s actions, or perhaps, the prophecy became self-fulfilling. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we mean that when you are told something (or an action) will take place, and you, as an individual then will conspire to make it happen, perhaps subconsciously. Arguably, the prophecy in Macbeth is actually a self-fulfilling one, and Macbeth’s actions, which he chooses, all lead to killing Duncan.

Act one, scene three

FIRST WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

SECOND WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

THIRD WITCH
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

  • Macbeth escapes fate several times too. At the beginning of the play, the character known as ‘Captain’, says that Macbeth should have been killed in battle but escaped fate, which he personifies.

Act one, scene two

CAPTAIN
And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution

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We hope this makes for some useful revision, but if you’re still struggling, Tutor House has a number of fantastic English literature tutors that can help.

  • Bill is the former Head of English at a London-based college and available for lessons either at home or online.
  • A graduate of English at Cambridge, Sophie is an accomplished full-time tutor who is always happy to help.
  • Anil is a full-time tutor, available for one-to-one lessons and residential or international placements.

Give us a call on 0203 9500 320 or email info@tutorhouse.co.uk if you want tailored tuition advice.