The Macbeths’ marriage, like the couple themselves, is atypical, particularly by the standards of its time. Yet despite their odd power dynamic, the two of them seem surprisingly attached to one another, particularly compared to other married couples in Shakespeare’s plays, in which romantic felicity appears primarily during courtship and marriages tend to be troubled. Macbeth offers an exception to this rule, as Macbeth and his wife are partners in the truest sense of the word. Of course, the irony of their “happy” marriage is clear—they are united by their crimes, their mutual madness, and their mounting alienation from the rest of humanity.
Though Macbeth is a brave general and a powerful lord, his wife is far from subordinate to his will. Indeed, she often seems to control him, either by crafty manipulation or by direct order. And it is Lady Macbeth’s deep-seated ambition, rather than her husband’s, that ultimately propels the plot of the play by goading Macbeth to murder Duncan. Macbeth does not need any help coming up with the idea of murdering Duncan, but it seems unlikely that he would have committed the murder without his wife’s powerful taunts and persuasions.
One of the important themes in Macbeth is the idea of political legitimacy, of the moral authority that some kings possess and others lack. With particular attention to Malcolm’s questioning of Macduff in Act 4, scene 3, try to define some of the characteristics that grant or invalidate the moral legitimacy of absolute power. What makes Duncan a good king? What makes Macbeth a tyrant?
After Duncan’s death, the nobles of Scotland begin to grumble among themselves about what they perceive as Macbeth’s tyrannical behavior. When Macduff meets Malcolm in England, Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth in order to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland. The bad qualities he claims to possess include lust, greed, and a chaotic and violent temperament. These qualities all seem characteristic of Macbeth, whereas Duncan’s universally lauded reign was marked by the king’s kindness, generosity, and stabilizing presence. The king must be able to keep order and should reward his subjects according to their merits. For example, Duncan makes Macbeth thane of Cawdor after Macbeth’s victory over the invaders. Perhaps the most important quality of a true king to emerge in Malcolm’s conversation with Macduff is loyalty to Scotland and its people above oneself. Macbeth wishes to be king to gratify his own desires, while Duncan and Malcolm wear the crown out of love for their nation.
An important theme in Macbeth is the relationship between gender and power, particularly Shakespeare’s exploration of the values that make up the idea of masculinity. What are these values, and how do various characters embody them? How does Shakespeare subvert his characters’ perception of gender roles?
Manhood, for most of the characters in Macbeth, is tied to ideals of strength, power, physical courage, and force of will; it is rarely tied to ideals of intelligence or moral fortitude. At several points in the play, the characters goad one another into action by questioning each other’s manhood. Most significantly, Lady Macbeth emasculates her husband repeatedly, knowing that in his desperation to prove his manhood he will perform the acts she wishes him to perform. Macbeth echoes Lady Macbeth’s words when he questions the manhood of the murderers he has hired to kill Banquo, and after Macduff’s wife and children are killed, Malcolm urges Macduff to take the news with manly reserve and to devote himself to the destruction of Macbeth, his family’s murderer. Ultimately, there is a strong suggestion that manhood is tied to cruelty and violence: note Lady Macbeth’s speech in Act 1, scene 5, when she asks to be “unsexed” so that she can help her husband commit murder. Yet, at the same time, the audience is clearly meant to realize that women provide the push that sets the bloody action of the play in motion. Macduff, too, suggests that the equation of masculinity with cruelty is not quite correct. His comments show that he believes emotion and reflection are also important attributes of the true man.