Macbeth

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Themes and Colors
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
Manhood Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Macbeth, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Manhood Theme Icon

Over and over again in Macbeth, characters discuss or debate about manhood: Lady Macbeth challenges Macbeth when he decides not to kill Duncan, Banquo refuses to join Macbeth in his plot, Lady Macduff questions Macduff's decision to go to England, and on and on.

Through these challenges, Macbeth questions and examines manhood itself. Does a true man take what he wants no matter what it is, as Lady Macbeth believes? Or does a real man have the strength to restrain his desires, as Banquo believes? All of Macbeth can be seen as a struggle to answer this question about the nature and responsibilities of manhood.

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Manhood Quotes in Macbeth

Below you will find the important quotes in Macbeth related to the theme of Manhood.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Related Characters: Banquo (speaker), Macbeth, Weird Sisters
Page Number: 1.3.135-138
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth and Banquo have just learned that Macbeth has become Thane of Cawdor, which confirms the first part of the witches’ prophecy. In response, Banquo notes that the stories told by the witches may be attempts to manipulate Macbeth.

These lines pose an important question about the role of supernatural forces in this tragedy: Are the witches dictating these mens’ destinies or do men maintain the ability to avoid or affect the prophecies being presented? When Banquo says they “win us to our harm,” he contends that the witches are actively exploiting him and Macbeth, yet he also notes that they “tell us truths”—which would seem to imply that nothing they recount is false. The resolution comes in a similarly paradoxical phrase: “Honest trifles” that “betray.” What Banquo means is that aspects of the witches’ prophecies are genuine, but that those components are ultimately insignificant. He believes that these “instruments of darkness” will use the prophecies to gain control over him and Macbeth and then later manipulate them.

Banquo thus argues that he and Macbeth should resist believing the witches too much, even though they have thus far been correct in their prophecies. This belief posits a worldview in which humans can act freely from the influence of supernatural forces—choosing to believe them or not. Macbeth, on the other hand, represents the position that direct adherence to their prophecies will allow him to thwart his fate. Shakespeare thus uses these two characters mixed responses to present two different ways of viewing the supernatural forces in his work: as either maneuvering or merely recounting fate.

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Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.57-58
Explanation and Analysis:

After hearing that Duncan will visit his castle, Macbeth finds himself fantasizing about seizing power for himself. He wishes to obscure these evil thoughts from outside observers.

In these early moments in the play, Macbeth is still uncertain about how or whether to proceed with the murderous impulses that have arisen in him after hearing the witches prophecy. Though he ambitiously hopes to control the throne of Scotland, he also carefully watches these desires and seeks to hide them from others. Saying, “Stars, hide your fires” shows that Macbeth wishes to remain invisible and in complete darkness, such that his “black and deep desires” could not be observed. Metaphors of light and dark pervade this play, and here their meaning remains unclear: Darkness stands for Macbeth’s moral unscrupulousness, but “light” is not quite the inverse of ethical goodness. Rather, “light” is represented as an active agent that can “see” into those desires; it stands for a supernatural or even holy force that scrutinizes man’s actions.

Macbeth, then, seems to believe in the existence of a God-like figure who judges him for his thoughts, and from whom he wishes to hide. His concern is less that other human beings will spy his desires and more that it will be observed by supernatural forces—a point that confirms his allegiance to the witches’ paranormal tendencies. Within this short image then, we have the underpinnings of Macbeth’s striking guilt complex and the implication of a corresponding spiritual system, though the exact nature of that spirituality remains unclear.

Act 1, scene 7 Quotes
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.25-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth ponders whether he should follow through on his plan to kill Duncan. He observes that he is being motivated by aspirations for power rather than responding to a specific injustice.

Shakespeare here makes a subtle point about two different reasons why one would be impelled act. The first is to have a “spur” or clear impetus for doing something, while the second is a more general “vaulting ambition.” By describing the spur as something that can “prick the sides,” Macbeth stresses how it is a narrow and specific stimulus; as a result it has a direct causal effect on his “intent.” Ambition, on the other hand, tends to “o’erleap[] itself,” meaning that it encourages one to act beyond his or her reasonable means. It overshoots a goal and as a result can have negative consequences.

What is intriguing about this passage is that Macbeth seems keenly aware of his motivations and limitations. Though he may be acting out of “vaulting ambition,” he is not immediately convinced by that desire. He can critically assess what stimulates him to act, and its likely consequences. Yet, at the same, time he will ultimately ignore this skepticism and indeed "o'erleap" himself.  Shakespeare thus gives a complex presentation of human psychology, in which people may introspectively note the flaws of their motivations, while still falling prey to those very flaws.

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more, is none.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.51-52
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided moments earlier against murdering Duncan, Macbeth finds his manhood challenged by his wife. In response, he argues that composure and allegiance are more characteristic of masculinity than rash violence.

His claim is made through somewhat indirect language. Using the term “dare” presents manhood as adventurous, even though Macbeth defines it through inaction rather than action. For he will only perform actions that “become a man”—a pun on “become” as meaning both to make one seem agreeable and to turn into. If one does “more,” Macbeth reasons, he would not be a man, for he would have overstepped the boundaries of behaviors that define men and that make them attractive or worthy. In this way, Macbeth describes manhood as a limit on his actions instead of a justification for more action like Lady Macbeth.

This passage returns to the theme of gender identities. Recall that Lady Macbeth renounced her womanhood earlier in Act 1, Scene 5 in order to disavow empathy and heartlessly pursue her goal of power. Yet in the lines after Macbeth's quote here, she asks Macbeth to do just the opposite with his gender: to maintain and embrace it. This contrast shows that she sees manhood as equivalent to brute and rash action, whereas before that cruelty seemed to stem only from the supernatural or inhuman realm. Macbeth, however, unseats her opinion by defining manhood in terms of composure and calm intent. Shakespeare thus places the question of gender identity at the heart of this tragedy, presenting it as an ideological tool used by the characters to encourage each other to act more or less aggressively.

Macbeth: If we should fail.
Lady Macbeth: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker), Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.68-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth continues to convince Macbeth that they should kill Duncan. When he wonders whether they will actually succeed, she argues that with sufficient fortitude they will certainly triumph.

The first two lines in this passage are halting and uncertain. Macbeth begins a hypothetical clause—“If we should fail”—but does not successfully finish it; while Lady Macbeth offers the similarly half-formed question “We fail?” In contrast to these fragmented construction, she opts for an aggressive command—“screw your courage”—and acerbic claim: “we’ll not fail.” Bravery and adherence to one’s goals, in her opinion, will ensure success.

Their exchange insinuates two diverging views on human destiny: Whereas Macbeth attributes success to the whims of fates and prophecies, Lady Macbeth believes that humans themselves can select their own destiny. Her command “screw your courage to the sticking-place” implies that sufficient bravery will ensure success regardless of any external influence. Between these two characters, then, Shakespeare defines a spectrum of human relationships to destiny and personal agency—in which some attribute success to personal prowess while others see it as being out of one’s own hands.

Act 5, scene 5 Quotes
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
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.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 5.5.22-31
Explanation and Analysis:

As the final battle against Macduff's army approaches, Macbeth gives this moving soliloquy. He claims that life is an endless repetition and inherently meaningless.

To arrive at this nihilistic conclusion, Macbeth first ponders the succession of day after day. He notes how monotonous they are—a series of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”—to the extent that life never seems to significantly shift. If the future holds nothing novel, the past is similarly devoid of meaning—only ever bringing indications of “dusty death” to come. Instead of hoping to grasp closely life’s fleeting existence, however, Macbeth commands it to depart as rapidly as possible with the phrase “Out, out, brief candle!” His ambitious and cruel nature has thus culminated in a complete rejection of the significance to life itself: at the apex of his success, life has become to him nothing but a series of haphazard noises and commotions with no underlying meaning.

Shakespeare brilliantly links this general pronouncement to the more specific case of reading and analyzing literature. Alliterating “petty pace” and repeating “day to day” reiterates how repeating patterns appear in language as well as in time; casting time to be made of “syllables” presents it as a construction of language. Presenting humans as “a poor player” and his environment as “the stage” similarly makes the experience of theater a metaphor for one’s life in the world. Macbeth’s “tale” becomes a symbol for the larger tale of human experience. Shakespeare makes a castigating self allusion with the phrase “told by an idiot,” which shows that he has no greater access to truth or meaning than any of his readers. His text itself resists pure comprehension in that it is “sound and fury” alone—“signifying nothing” because no single meaning can be attributed to its characters or constructions. In this way, Shakespeare presents the finitude and emptiness of Macbeth’s experience and the void of his language as a layered metaphor for each human’s eventual demise.