A motif is a dominant or recurring idea in a literary work. In Macbeth, motifs are aplenty and running throughout the play. Some are dominant, while other appear momentarily and disappear and reappear again in another scene, or act. Some of the powerful motifs in Macbeth are discussed below.
Motifs in Macbeth
One of the powerful motifs in the play is the prediction of the witches. The witches appear in the first act and then in the third and last. They make a prediction that Macbeth shall be the king, and that his wife will be the queen. All the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are based on these predictions. Whatever action they take, its basis is the same prediction, and its attendant features that they will have to do nothing. In fact, these predictions occurring at different times make the play move forward with a fast pace.
Although violence is not the dominant motif, it is still an ensuring motif. It occurs due to the predictions of the witches. In fact, the play starts with the violent atmosphere where three witch sisters appear to weave a spell. However, the actual violence starts when the King Duncan is killed and Macbeth immediately kills the guards. Banquo, along with his children, is also murdered. This leads to a spiral of violence that ends with Macbeth’s musings.
Although very difficult to trace, the third recurrent and dominant motif in Macbeth. Gender has played an important role by instigating Macbeth. It is a result of a spell woven by three witches which are female in gender. Then when Macbeth does not take courage to move forward, it is Lady Macbeth who urges him. It is also that Lady Macbeth plays her role until the end of the play even chiding Macbeth “Why have you left the chamber?” to ensure his protection. In other words, it shows that even patriarchy is under the spell of feminism.
It is stated that weather is a way of predicting future course of action or circumstances. This could be a use of a foreshadowing. It is quite surprising that weather does not become significant though the witch sisters announce that they would be meeting again in a story weather. The symbols of thunder, lightning, rain, and bad storms are indicators of turbulent circumstances in Scotland. Moreover, the situation is always bad when the witches meet.
Sleep is also a significant motif running throughout the play. It becomes recurrent when different characters express their desire for sleep. It happens that Lady Macbeth, who appears in almost every other theme and motif, is again in the motif of sleeplessness. This motif is signifying how weak and frail creature loses her sleep due to the crimes committed by her. In other words, it shows that the enormity of the crime has devoid Lady Macbeth of her sleep. She clearly says in the second act that she has heard “Sleep no more.”
Although blood is not such a significant theme, it is, however, a significant motif in the play. This word first appears when King Duncan is murdered. However, this word has appeared in Lady Macbeth’s utterance, who says “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” It seems a very cruel utterance. However, as an essential ingredient of our physical living, blood can be “thick” or “thin” as Lady Macbeth often makes reference to it, according to the thinking of the person.
The motif of equivocation starts from the very first line of the play, Macbeth. The presence of two witches is a strong evidence. This continues with pauses wherever the witches appear, or their name echoes. However, it is quite obscure at times when human beings are involved and witches recede into the background. In other words, all the acts become doings of human beings, and not any incitement of supernatural beings.
Light and Darkness
Although the motif of light and darkness is pervasive and dominant in Macbeth, it runs with the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. When the witches first appear, Banquo warns his friend Macbeth saying they could be the “instruments of darkness.” This motif again emerges when Lady Macbeth is about to kill King Duncan. The darkness of the night and the darkness of the heart of Lady Macbeth has been given as representatives of evil. On the other hand, she refers to light in the sense of weakness or fragility of the women. However, it is not very much clear what role is played by the light. It is a sort of dichotomy of images that creates a contrast between the good and the evil and sets the mood of the play. Therefore, this motif becomes highly significant.
Imagery of Birds
The use of the imagery of birds to convey meanings is another minor motif in Macbeth. When King Duncan is assassinated, Lady Macbeth hears the sound of a shrieking owl saying that the owl is a “fatal bellman.” It means the bird announces death of somebody. Then at another place, Shakespeare has given the example of raven, a sign of bad omen. This raven announcing the bad luck of Kind Duncan in the play is hoarse. Then when the assassination is complete, there are cries of rooks, choughs and magpies. This shows that the bird imagery motif has been used to show bloodshed in Macbeth.
Treachery, though is very strong, is highly a significant motif in Macbeth. The treachery of Macbeth against King Duncan and his friend Banquo is a glaring example in the play. However, it does not emerge as a strong motif due to various other strong and dominant motifs. Treachery seems to dominate in the second half of the play when other assassinations take the center stage, and there is “hurly burly” in Scotland. People are running for their lives. It then becomes appear that treachery now dominates the scene.