Reading Shakespeare: The Philosophy of Ideas in Macbeth

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By: Marc C. Conner, Ph.D.,Washington & Lee University

Macbeth, like all of Shakespeare’s truly great tragedies, stands out today not just as a brilliant play, but also as a profound exploration of some of the greatest ideas in world philosophy. To engage fully with the philosophical profundity of  Shakespeare’s greatness, it is necessary to delve deeper into the ‘drama of ideas’, the complex philosophical plots within the play. 

The image shows theater masks representing comedy and tragedy.
Shakespeare’s great tragedies have always dealt with complex philosophical ideas, and the titular character in Macbeth serves as a vehicle to deliver these ideas.
(Image: CloudyStock/Shutterstock)

Evading the discussion of philosophical ideas is next to impossible when discussing Shakespeare’s plays, from the functions of comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the role of fate in Romeo and Juliet. But in the high tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear, and also in the late romances such as The Tempest, the complex philosophical probing forms an essential part of understanding the plays, and the inherent ‘drama of ideas’.

A lot of the key philosophical ideas in Shakespearean literature can be understood through the great speeches, which play a fundamental part in the development of the characters. The speeches of Macbeth himself are no exception. 

Understanding Macbeth’s Philosophy

The play draws an excellent crossing of the character arcs of Macbeth and his wife, before and after the murders. While Lady Macbeth descends into a state of despair and madness after the murders, her husband behaves quite differently—he seems to be more resolute than ever before, and actually exhibits an astonishing sense of clarity and insight as the climax of the fifth act plays on. Ultimately, in the final act, he goes on to sound the very depth of meaning and meaninglessness, in his language, as well as in his actions. He becomes Shakespeare’s vehicle for examining the fate and worth of humanity.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Determination of Macbeth

Macbeth’s resolve is visible in the scenes following his final interview with the witches, when he receives the three prophecies. After that, he determines not to wait or have doubt, but to act: “From this moment, The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand … be it thought and done.”

The hesitation, doubt, and ambivalence seen during the first three acts is now gone. He does not need to be cajoled, convinced, or threatened by his wife, or the witches for that matter. 

His first command is to send assassins to Macduff’s castle, and even though Macduff is absent, his wife and son are brutally murdered. It’s another brief scene, but crucial, in that it shows how inhuman and callous Macbeth has become. It’s similar to when Macbeth had his good friend, Banquo, killed; now he has executed an innocent and loving, all meant to show us the descent into tyranny and savagery that commenced when he killed his king.

In a political corollary to this, when some Scottish lords rise against Macbeth in rebellion, a scene early in act five, they describe his state as such: “Some say he’s mad; others, that lesser hate him, / Do call it valiant fury: but, for certain, / He cannot buckle his distemper’d cause / Within the belt of rule.”

Not only does this apply to his rule, but to his mind as well: his tyranny, like his psyche, is governed by either madness or a “valiant fury,” an almost admirable refusal to submit to necessity that is closing in on him. 

Picture shows a painting made by Johann Heinrich Fuseli on Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head.
As time passes, Macbeth begins to resign to the meaningless of life, eventually giving one of the most lamenting speeches after the demise of his wife.
(Image: Fuseli/Public domain)

They say of his followers, “Those he commands move only in command, / Nothing in love”—we might almost say the same thing of Macbeth himself: He obeys his own commands through his own force of will, not through a sense of self-love but almost self-loathing.

The brilliance of Shakespeare, however, is visible in the fact that the more repellent Macbeth’s acts become, the more readers come to grudgingly admire his almost larger than life resilience. 

As the English army approaches, he proclaims, “The mind I sway by, and the heart I bear, / Shall never sag with doubt, nor shake with fear.” 

Learn more about Shakespeare’s drama of ideas.

Macbeth’s Resignation

There is a resignation in Macbeth, but not a submission. He realizes that his fate is sealed, that a grim necessity has compelled him to this state since his first choice to murder King Duncan. This, of course, is the very stuff of Greek tragedy, the overwhelming dominance of fate. Yet the greatest of tragic heroes refuse to submit to that fate, and Macbeth belongs to that camp. Thus his awful experience of horrors and dread moves him to a point where he is almost beyond human morality—in Nietzsche’s terms, Macbeth has moved beyond good and evil. When the women cry out upon the Queen’s death, Macbeth muses:

“I have almost forgot the taste of fears;

The time has been, my senses would have cool’d To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir

As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horrors; Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts Cannot once start me”.

His insights reveal a man who has been so thoroughly steeped in blood and horror that the ‘mundane’ fears of humanity no longer harm him.

It’s no accident that the very next thing Macbeth hears is the report of his wife’s death. This brings him to his most profound, if most negative, insight, into the very nothingness of life itself, what Stephen Greenblatt calls Macbeth’s “state of absolute spiritual emptiness” (Norton 2559), expressed in the play’s most famous speech and one of the defining speeches of Shakespeare’s entire career:

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing”.

Macbeth’s perspective of life toward the end is a stark contrast to how he saw life in the beginning of the play, filled with purpose and significance. Toward the end, he sees life as a play, a stage, and a bad one at that. He sees himself, as well as all readers, as parts of the play, filled with the pretense of significance. 

Macbeth’s embrace of nothingness is not meant to be merely another small aspect of the context, however. It is meant to linger with the readers, almost like an illness, not something that can be kept at arm’s distance. According to Harold Bloom, “Macbeth … is more frightening than anything he confronts, thus intimating that we ourselves may be more dreadful than anything in our own worlds” (Invention 543).

Macbeth represents a depth of meaning, and at the same time, a loss of meaning, one that Shakespeare tries to confront in all his great tragedies, especially in Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear

Not only do these tragedies present with great drama, but also with memorable scenes, moving poetry, and stirring characters. At the same time, Shakespeare tries to challenge the beliefs and ideas of humanity in the minds of the readers, engaging the most lasting ideas of philosophy and religion. 

Learn more about Shakespeare’s tools.

Common Questions about the Philosophy of Macbeth

Q: How does Macbeth’s character evolve during the play?

Macbeth, seen earlier as an unwilling ally to the murder, begins to display resoluteness and determination after the first three acts, further moving on to explore the philosophical notions of fate and the worth of humanity toward the end of the play.

Q: How do the Scottish Lords describe Macbeth’s state?

When the Scottish Lords rise in rebellion against Macbeth, they call his rule a “valiant fury”, a refusal to submit to necessity. This is perhaps also an understanding of his psyche, which is governed by a sense of ‘madness’.

Q: What does Macbeth do when he hears of his wife’s demise?

Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth breaks into what is arguably one of the most negative, yet popular speeches of Shakespearean literature. His speech shows his now negative and bleak perspective on life, a stark contrast to the hopefulness he had when the play began.

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