Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Explore the tragic themes in Macbeth
What was a tragedy play?
What did Shakespeare, and the people that he was writing for, think a tragedy was? Today we use the word frequently, often for news events that are particularly sad: missing children, natural disasters, needless killing. For us, tragedy can be used to describe real events and experiences that have happened in people’s lives, but for an Elizabethan theatregoer, this would have been puzzling; a tragedy only referred to fictional stories that appeared in poems or plays. Shakespeare’s audience expected a play to be one of three types: a comedy, which usually has a happy ending; a history play, which dramatises stories from the past; or a tragedy, which is characterised by death and disaster. While we still see sad films or read sad novels, our modern idea of tragedy is something that we have taken from fiction and applied to reality.
Most Shakespearean tragedies involve characters of very high status in society. Julius Caesar is the most important man in Rome, Hamlet is a prince and King Lear is ruler of all Britain. This was normal for the 16th and 17th centuries. Part of a tragedy’s power is derived from the idea that the whole of society is affected in the play, from the top down; if something bad happens to a person at the top, everyone else is affected. Macbeth is a lord who gains extra power before becoming king: each time Macbeth’s status heightens, it is not only his development, but affects the whole of Scotland. It is this that leads Malcolm to lament:
‘I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash
is added to her wounds’
— Act IV, scene 3
Because Macbeth was a real Scottish king, Shakespeare could have written a history play. Instead, the playwright changed the history books to make his play more dramatic and exciting. The real Macbeth was a successful, popular king whose reign lasted many years. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though, meets witches, sees ghosts and convinces himself that he has to murder children to keep his throne. But the most important thing Shakespeare adds is the thought process of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. ‘Stars, hide your fires!’ says Macbeth, ‘Let not light see my black and deep desires’ (Act I, scene 4). We in the audience, though, do see those desires. We see him change his mind – ‘We will proceed no further in this business’ – and so does Lady Macbeth, who has to change it back:
‘Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour,
As thou art in desire?’
— Act I, scene 7
We know the desires which Lady Macbeth is talking about, for we have seen them just as she has. The difference is that we know when they are ‘acted’ upon, tragedy will surely follow.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
How does Shakespeare’s Macbeth fit the description of a tragedy?
Do the events of the play affect the whole of society, from the top downwards?
Who do you think is most to blame for the tragic events of the play?