Themes in Shakespeare’s plays



The theme of a play is the underpinning issue or idea that propels and sustains the play. Gibson refers to themes as, the underlying motifs that give shape, pattern and significance to a play. This can be done in two main ways:


A. Through Language

The theme is conveyed most powerfully through language. This may be through individual words uttered  repetitiously throughout a play such as ‘blood’, ‘honest’ or ‘nothing’ or through the use of a particular language device such as antithesis and oxymoron.


B. Through Recurring Images

For the audience, imagery builds up a sense of deep preoccupation of the play. Images of light and darkness in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are but one example; suffering bodies in ‘King Lear’; the theme of false appearance in ‘Macbeth’ are others.

As time passes, different generations look at the themes in Shakespeare with new eyes, redefining and reinterpreting as influenced by the political, social and cultural conditions of each era. How you interpret the play we explore this semester will depend on your own cultural and societal values and mores and how you see the characters and issues that they face.


Four Common Themes

1. Conflict

Here lies the essence of all drama and in Shakespeare’s drama, conflict can take many forms. It may be rivals in love and war, quarrels within families or quarrels between families, historical and political quarrels.


2. Appearance and reality

Shakespeare is a master of making people and things appear what they are not. Women pretend to be men, others pretend to be friends whilst planning treachery, characters pretend to be mad; identities are mistaken. In some plays, the idea of appearance and reality lies at the very heart of what the play is about. ‘Measure for Measure’ is depends on the notion of ‘appearance’ whilst in ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Hamlet’ there is also deceit and treachery.


Consider some of these lines:

There’s daggers in men’s smiles


Some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, millions of mischief


Why, I can smile and murder whiles I smile


I did not smile till now


One may smile, and smile, and be a villain


Shakespeare loved the idea of disguise and used it often. One of his favourite variants on this idea was to have girls disguise themselves as boys. (as men only played women in Shakespeare’s time, this added even more complexity to the issue). Here are some of the most notetable of his usage of disguise:


-    King Henry pretends to be a soldier as he visits his troops

-    the Duke of Kent pretends to be a servant in ‘King Lear’

-    Julia in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’

-    Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

-    Rosalind in ‘As you Like It’

-    Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’




Order, Disorder and Change

Another common element in Shakespeare’s plays is the idea of stability giving way to confusion. This may happen to a person (King Lear goes mad), to society (England is divided by civil war), or nature (storms and tempests fractured the lives of people and societies). (adapted from Gibson p.132) The ultimate ending in these plays is restoration - restoration to all that has been destroyed, insight to those who have been in misery or madness. Indeed, Shakespearean scholars have argued diversely about whether Shakespeare ends his plays with all restored or that disorder still exists. What we do know is that in every play characters change in this way. This may be from life to death or the development of new insights and empathy.

Here are some examples as outlined by Gibson:

-    Nick Bottom is magically transformed into an ass in ‘Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’.

-    In ‘Twelfth Night’, a false letter tricks Malvolio into changing from a puritan steward to a foolish would be lover

-    Sometimes change happens in unique contexts: the woods, a heath, an island or a near magical setting of some kind.

Time usually underlines the changes witnessed in the plays.



Gibson points out that themes work at three different levels in each play:

1. The individual level (psychological, personal). Personal conflict, mental or spiritual disorder may be experienced by a specific character/s

2. The social level (family, nation, society)

3. The natural level (cosmic, supernatural or nature). This can be witnessed in the forms of storms, witches, ghosts or nature itself. Disruptions and conflict in the life of the characters is mirrored by disruptions in nature which are then often restored by the end of the play.





Some Particular Themes

1.   Macbeth. ambition, evil, order and disorder, appearance and reality, violence and tyranny, guilt and conscience, witchcraft and magic

2.   Romeo and Juliet. love and hate, fate and free will, life and death, youth against age, fortune.

3.   The Tempest. nature V nurture, imprisonment and freedom, colonialism, illusion and magic, forgiveness and reconciliation, sleep and dreams, transformation

4.   Hamlet. procrastination, madness, revenge, sin and salvation, poison, theatre and acting, corruption

5.   King Lear. justice, nature, sight and blindness, the tortured and broken body

6.   Othello. jealously, racism, self-deception


Acting and the Theatre

Shakespeare was intrigue with the profession of acting and he wrote all his plays of the human condition with one recurring theme - that the world is a stage, that humankind, like actors, make a fleeting and brief appearance on earth/stage to ‘play their part.’

Consider this wonderful piece of work from ‘As you Like It’ that compares the journey of the individual through life to the differing parts an actor plays on stage:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His Acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous I honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,

In fair round belly, with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances,

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again towards childish treble pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last Scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (in Gibson, p.137)





© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006