Notes on Motifs in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The play Macbeth has certain elements which are repeated throughout because through them we notice the prime concerns of the play and they also reveal to us the worldview of the playwright and his age.

Table of Contents

Fair and Foul

In the very first scene, the three witches chant together, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” and the very first sentence by Macbeth in the play is “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Further, in the play, we get to see how characters and situations look like and how in reality they turn out to be.

Banquo emphasises upon the same thing when he warns Macbeth that, “oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray in deepest consequence.

When the Thane of Cawdor betrays, Duncan orders his execution and after confirming it he says, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.Lady Macbeth while provoking Macbeth for the future plotting asks him to learn how to look different from how he is really going to be.

Teaching him this she says, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” The play basically repeats this particular vice in human beings to show us how it drives us into the tragic downfall in life.

Observing the fair and foul theme, Macbeth delivers this dialogue, “…false face must hide what the false heart knows.” As if to tell us how hard it is to connect the entirely opposite nature of things which happens in the play, Macduff says to Malcolm after his test of loyalty, “such welcome and unwelcome things at once, ‘tis hard to reconcile.


The play from its beginning to the end invokes blood in various ways. Blood being pictured literally to blood representing guilt in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it keeps being repeated across the play. While planning to kill King Duncan, Lady Macbeth first strongly wishes to “thick my blood; stop up the access and passage to remorse.”

After murdering Duncan, Macbeth’s conscience begins to be haunted. Here blood shows the severity of his guilt. He despairs whether “great Neptune’s ocean” can “wash this blood clean from his hand?” and Lady Macbeth in stark contrast to him says, “My hands are of your colour (blood), but I shame to wear a heart so white.”

Once the Ghost of Banquo and other guests leave the banquet scene, Macbeth fears that “blood will have blood.” While sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth reveals her internal disintegration due to guilt and says that her guilt for her involvement in her husband’s crime is so inerasable that “all the perfumes of Arabia” can not sweeten her hands.

Towards the end of the play, Macduff orders his soldiers as “harbingers of blood and death.” In a way, it reminds us of who is the real harbinger of blood and death. Macbeth, in the end, says, “make me bleed.


The question of manhood recurs throughout the major portion of the play by both female and male characters. When Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches for the first time, it baffles them and in confusion, Banquo asks them that “you should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.

It makes us think of the physical idea of manhood during the time when the play was written. Lady Macbeth at the very instant when she receives the news from her husband for the first time, she wishes intensely to “unsex” herself.

When Macbeth tries to give in to the moral call of his conscience, Lady Macbeth chides his manhood saying that the only moment he was a man was when he informed her of this enterprise for the first time.

When the Ghost of Banquo reveals Macbeth’s terrible fear, Lady Macbeth in full anger again questions him, “are you a man?” and when the Ghost reappears, Macbeth gathering himself dares it that “what man dare, I dare.” 

The Unnatural against Nature

When Macbeth and Banquo come across the three witches, Banquo questions them that they “look not like the inhabitants o’the earth, and yet are on’t?” The witches may be the first unnatural foray into the natural order in the play.

When Lady Macbeth is preparing herself for the misdeeds, she asks for another unnatural intervention and she says, “stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose.

She is asking to stop her conscience to intervene and that is an unnatural demand bound to fail. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth describes the wounds on the king’s dead body as “a breach in nature.”

In a scene when the old man and Ross are wondering about ominous happenings of that time, they discuss how unnaturally “a falcon, towering in her pride of place” was killed by a “mousing owl.” The doctor comments upon the sleepwalking of Lady Macbeth as “a great perturbation in nature.

Apart from these, there is a motif of equivocation too which is emphasised in the porter scene that how truth is told in such a way that the other person can be deceived in the end. Such ill-intended half-truths are repeated through prophecies of the three witches and deceptions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.