Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Explore the theme of violence in Macbeth
Macbeth is an extremely violent play.
Macbeth takes the throne of Scotland by killing Duncan and his guards, and tries to hold on to it by sending people to murder Banquo and Macduff’s family. Finally, he attempts to keep his reign by fighting Macduff. These might be the scenes of violence which are the most obvious in the play, but there are others throughout. Even before any characters are on stage, the theatre’s special effects of thunder and lightning, made with gunpowder, cannonballs and fireworks, would have sounded, and smelled, like a battle.
After the Witches, one of the first characters we see is the Captain, wounded in battle in Act I, scene 2. ‘What bloody man is that?’ asks Duncan, drawing attention to him. So when the play begins, the violence of the battle has already been happening. We are not told the causes of ‘the revolt’ but merely its ‘newest state’, that is, just the latest developments.
Those developments are described very graphically by the Captain, who tells us of Macbeth fighting Macdonwald:
‘Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements’
— Act I, scene 2
So, before we even meet Macbeth, he has sliced someone in half and chopped his head off as a prize. This might seem in character for the killer that we know Macbeth to be. The difference is that Macbeth’s actions here are celebrated by the king: ‘O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!’. Later in the scene, Duncan sentences Cawdor to death. So what the play gives us is two different types of violence: one that is acceptable, and one that is criminal; the first holds Scotland together, the second tears it apart.
Violence is definitely linked to power in the play: the most successful king seems to be the one who is the best at killing. What this means is that the world of Macbeth is caught in a repeating circle of violence:
‘It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood’
— Act III, scene 4
is how Macbeth sums this up. It also leaks into the language of the characters, who make their points with bloody images. Perhaps the most unsettling one belongs to Lady Macbeth, who imagines a baby:
‘I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out’
— Act I, scene 7
She is trying to persuade Macbeth to keep his promise, but has to do so like this because the language of violence is the most convincing in Macbeth’s world.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
What do you think about violence in the play?
In what ways is it similar to violence today?
How is it different?
Does the play offer alternatives to a cycle of violence?