Themes and Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays

Subject: Literature
Pages: 7
Words: 1827
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: School

Shakespeare was a master craftsman who depicted almost all aspects of human life in his plays. He delves deep into the psyche of the characters and tries to bring out the most inner feelings of the characters in his dramatic works. The theme of ambition is a recurrent theme for the dramatist in many of his plays and among them, Macbeth assumes greater significance as the play revolves around the ambitious nature of the protagonist Macbeth.

One can also come across the theme of ambition in Julius Caesar and King Lear: in the former, the plot of the play develops from the murder of Julius Caesar as he was an ambitious autocrat, and in the latter, it is the ambition of the elder daughters to have power that leads to the downfall of the central character King Lear. In all these three plays the theme of ambition has a negative connotation as ambition leads to the destruction of the heroes in the plays.

Similarly, the play Macbeth brings out the husband-wife relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Macbeth’s relationship with his wife is crucial in the play as it is her influence that motivates him to murder Duncan, the king of Scotland, which is followed by a series of other crimes. In King Lear, the focus is on the father-children relationship. We have just an opposite kind of husband-wife relationship in Julius Caesar as both Caesar and Brutus do not pay heed to their wives’ pleading which actually leads them to their doom.

The growth of Macbeth from a valiant military leader into a treacherous villain unfolds the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. At the beginning of the play, one finds a victorious Macbeth who defeats the traitorous Thane of Cawdor and the King of Norway in a closely fought battle. Being the Thane of Glamis, Macbeth does have indomitable ambition deep within his mind which is stirred up by the prophecies of the witches that he will be the Thane of Cawdor and the future king of Scotland.

The ambition within him is intensified when he comes to know that he is appointed as the Thane of Cawdor by Duncan. Even then, Macbeth seems to be suspicious regarding the prophecy. However, his inner feelings are evident from the soliloquy where he remarks: “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind.” The fact that Macbeth is dissatisfied and angry towards Banquo’s descendants occupying the throne is still another instance that he believes the prophecy, and that has made up his mind to kill Banquo. His frustration is evident when he tells Banquo: “Upon my head, they placed a fruitless crown And put a barren scepter in my gripe,” (III, i: 65).

However, Macbeth is unable to act promptly to realize his ambition and he feels guilty at the very thought of murdering Duncan. Even though he was ambitious from head to toe, he suffered from a wavering mind that pulled him back from taking any serious actions. One feels sympathy for Macbeth as a close reading of the book makes it clear that Macbeth could not have committed the series of crimes without the continual pleading of Lady Macbeth whom many consider being the fourth witch in the play.

It is Macbeth’s warm relationship with his wife that leads Macbeth to undertake the cruel deed of killing Duncan. The husband-wife relationship in the play is significant as both of them are complementary to each other. Knowing for certain that her husband does not have the temper to undertake the murder on his own, lady Macbeth provides him with confidence and pushes him to murder Duncan. Unlike Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is unscrupulous and is equally ambitious as her husband. She is courageous and exhorts him: “When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than you were, you would Be so much more the man.” (I, vii: 55).

Once the first murder is committed, one finds a totally changed man in Macbeth: he commits a series of other murders including that of Banquo. Macbeth, thus, proves himself to be a treacherous and unscrupulous villain, who is malicious enough to resort to any kind of action to preserve his power. No doubt, it was his vaulting ambition that acted as the tragic flaw in the life of Macbeth and one can never forget the role played by Lady Macbeth to bring about this change in her husband. But after the murder of Duncan, she suffers from psychological depression and her “sleep-walking in 5.1 is essentially about delusion, but caused by psychological disturbance, not by a supernatural agency” (p. 5) (The Tragedy of Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Edited by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.).

Thus, Shakespeare in Macbeth makes both the husband and the wife powerful characters- the former being an epitome of physical power whereas the latter displays incredible mental powers to withstand any sort of guilty feelings.

The theme of ambition takes a different twist in Julius Caesar as Brutus claims that he killed Caesar because he was ambitious and because he loved Rome more than Caesar. He states: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more….but, as he was ambitious, I slew him” (Julius Caesar. III. ii. 21-26). Brutus, being the actual protagonist of the play, is not pictured by the dramatist as ambitious but we do have people like Cassius who display ambitious temperament in the play.

Similarly, husband-wife relationships in the play should be understood from the point of view of a man-dominated society that did not pay heed to the woman’s voice. In Act II, Scene ii, we find Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, disturbed by horrible dreams the previous night, persuading her husband to agree not to go to the senate-house on the Ides of March. But Caesar does not succumb to her stating that “danger knows full well/That Caesar is more dangerous than he” (II. ii. 44-45); he did not want others to speak of him as a coward.

Shakespeare makes the tragedy of Julius Caesar more powerful as the reader gets the impression that had he listened to the words of his wife he could have averted the tragedy that awaited him. Another instance of a husband-wife relationship can be seen in Act II, Scene I where Portia, the wife of Brutus enquire about the reason for his worry. She promises that she would keep it a secret: “Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em”( II. ii. 298).

But, Brutus does not disclose the secret for his worry as he believed that it is necessary to be a statesman first and a husband then. Both Julius Caesar and Brutus wanted to give first priority to their public life rather than their personal life and both the women seem to be powerless to resist their husbands: “Caesar and Brutus rebuff the pleas of their respective wives, however; they not only prioritize public matters but also actively disregard their private emotions and intuitions. As such, Calpurnia and Portia are powerless figures, willing though unable, to help and comfort Caesar and Brutus” (Themes, Motifs & Symbols. Spark Notes, 2006).

Available at website. Thus, the wives as pictured in the play live in the shade of their powerful husbands and this theme forms only a minor reading of the text as it has got various other thematic concerns.

One of the greatest tragedies of Shakespeare depicting the human predicament, King Lear also deals with the theme of ambition. Ambition in King Lear assumes the nature of treachery just as in Macbeth but in King Lear, the treachery takes place more at an emotional level as the father figure is thoroughly broken when he experiences neglect and distrust from his two elder sisters. King Lear makes a fatal mistake by trusting two of his elder daughters Gonerill and Regan who play treacherous deeds on him, and by not understanding the true love of his youngest daughter Cordelia. When he is ill-treated by Gonerill he tries to find solace in Regan’s care.

But he fails to understand that “she and Gonerill are in cahoots, determined to deprive Lear of every shred of power, real or symbolic, he once had.”( p. 40) ( King Lear: A Guide to the Play. By Jay L. Halio. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 2001). Undoubtedly, both Gonerill and Regan were so much ambitious regarding power and wealth that they forgot to look after their own father after grabbing his power through unfair means.

Thus the downfall of King Lear from the status of the emperor to that of a beggar is a result of his own pride and misjudgment. He failed to understand what was real and what was false. He was very well exploited by the two daughters who could really grasp his weaknesses. He does not realize that both of them were evil at heart and he could not discern their ambitious and greedy nature. The play develops tension in the minds of readers as they can very well experience the mental conflicts and tensions that pass through King Lear’s own mind.

Thus, a close reading of these three great plays by Shakespeare convinces one that Shakespeare depicted human characters that are very much part of the society in which we live. The plays of Shakespeare develop significance even in the modern world as one can find stories of ambitious people today who make use of any means to achieve their goals or power. The relationship between husband and wife forms the crux of any society.

There are again other plays by the great dramatist like Othello where the relationship between husband and wife is unearthed in vivid detail. The theme of ambition is very much dominant in Macbeth compared to the other two plays by the dramatist. Macbeth could not have become so cruel and beast-like unless he was moved by the single weakness in his character-that of ever-increasing ambition. Lady Macbeth proves herself to be a better match for her husband as she takes initiative to cherish the hidden dream of her husband. The relationship between the husband and wife is significant as we do not find any instances of Macbeth blaming his wife for the mental agony that he suffers from.

Julius Caesar considered as one of the well-constructed works of Shakespeare’s Roman plays is centered on the murder of Julius Caesar, the titular hero of the play, who rose to eminence because he was ambitious and met with death for the same reason- for being ambitious. Thus, research into the theme of husband-wife relationships and Ambition in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar is worthwhile as all of them do have a different version of the theme of ambition and the husband-wife relationship. Each character in each plays displays his/ her inherent traits and so all of them have different stories to tell- stories that are significant in one way or another.


The Tragedy of Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Edited by Nicholas Brooke. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols. Spark Notes, 2006. Web.

King Lear: A Guide to the Play. By Jay L. Halio. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.