Key Themes in Shakespeare

Love and romance are recurring themes throughout Shakespeare’s works, often taking center stage in plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Love and romance

Love and romance are recurring themes throughout Shakespeare’s works, often taking center stage in plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In these works, Shakespeare explores the complexities of love, from the passionate and intense love between Romeo and Juliet to the mischievous and playful love between the characters of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. 

“They do not love that do not show their love.” – Two Gentlemen of Verona

Through these plays, Shakespeare is able to explore the power of love and its ability to bring joy and sorrow, and to bring together unlikely characters. He also examines the idea of love as a force that can bring out the best and worst in people, and can lead to both tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare’s exploration of love and romance is a testament to his skill as a playwright, and his ability to capture the complexities of human emotion.

Death and mortality

Shakespeare’s plays often explore the idea of death and mortality, which is a major theme in many of his works. In “Hamlet”, for example, the protagonist is consumed by his own mortality and the idea of death is a constant presence. The play is full of references to death, from the ghost of Hamlet’s father to the graveyard scene in Act 5. Moreover, Hamlet contemplates the afterlife and the implications that the manner of someone’s death has on heaven and hell.

In “Macbeth”, death is also a central theme, as the characters grapple with their own mortality and the consequences of their actions. The play is full of references to death, from the witches’ prophecies to Macbeth’s own death at the end. Death and mortality are recurring themes in Shakespeare’s works, and they are often used to explore the human condition and the fragility of life.

Ambition and power

Ambition and power are recurring motifs in many of Shakespeare’s plays. 

In “Macbeth”, ambition is the driving force behind the actions of the titular character, leading him to commit heinous acts in his pursuit of power. The titular character is drawn in by a supernatural prophecy of greatness which he then tries to make true. Similarly, “Richard III” is a play about a man’s ambition to become king, and the lengths he will go to in order to achieve his goal. 

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself And falls on the other side” – Macbeth

Both characters demonstrate the corrupting influence of ambition, and the consequences of unchecked power. Shakespeare’s exploration of these themes serves as a warning to his audience, reminding them of the dangers of unchecked ambition and power. He shows that when ambition is unchecked, it can lead to tragedy and destruction. By exploring these themes, Shakespeare creates a powerful message about the importance of controlling ambition and power.

Betrayal and jealousy

Betrayal and jealousy are two of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare’s works. In “Othello”, for example, the titular character is betrayed by his trusted friend Iago, who manipulates him into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful. This betrayal leads to Othello’s ultimate downfall, as his jealousy and rage drive him to murder his beloved wife. 

In “King Lear”, the theme of betrayal is also explored, as Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan turn on him and deny him the love and loyalty he expects from them. This betrayal leads to Lear’s descent into madness, as his pride and anger overwhelm him. Both of these works demonstrate the destructive power of betrayal and jealousy, and how these emotions can lead to tragedy.

“Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words” – Henry VI, Part 2

Fate and free will

Fate and free will are two of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare’s works, particularly in plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth”. In these plays, the characters are often presented with a choice between fate and free will. In “Romeo and Juliet”, the two lovers are presented with a choice between following their families’ wishes and pursuing their own desires. Similarly, in “Macbeth”, Macbeth is presented with a choice between following the witches’ prophecies and making his own decisions.

In both plays, the characters must make a choice between obeying fate and exercising free will, and the consequences of their choices have a profound impact on the outcome of the play.

The theme of fate and free will is also explored in other plays by Shakespeare. In “Hamlet”, the protagonist is presented with a choice between following his duty of revenge and pursuing his own desires. In “Othello”, the characters must choose between following the dictates of society and following their own hearts. In each of these plays, the characters must make a choice between fate and free will, and the consequences of their choices have a profound impact on the outcome of the play. 

“Let us sit and mock the good housewife Fortune from her wheel, that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally.” – As You Like It

Ultimately, Shakespeare’s works demonstrate that fate and free will are two sides of the same coin, and that the choices we make can have a profound impact on our lives.

Madness and mental illness

Shakespeare’s exploration of madness and mental illness in his plays is a testament to his understanding of the human condition. In “Hamlet”, the title character’s descent into madness is a reflection of the inner turmoil he experiences as he struggles to come to terms with his father’s death. Similarly, in “King Lear”, the aging monarch’s descent into madness is a result of his inability to accept his own immortality. In both plays, Shakespeare uses the motif of madness to explore the depths of human emotion and to illustrate the fragility of the human psyche.

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” – Hamlet

The motif of madness and mental illness is also used to explore the power dynamics between characters. In “Hamlet”, the title character’s madness is used to manipulate those around him, while in “King Lear”, the aging monarch’s descent into madness is a result of his own hubris and his inability to accept his own mortality. In both plays, Shakespeare uses the motif of madness to explore the power dynamics between characters and to illustrate the consequences of unchecked ambition and pride.

Family and loyalty

Family and loyalty are two of the most important themes in Shakespeare’s works. In “King Lear”, the King tries to divide his kingdom among his daughters based on how much they claim to love him. However, when one refuses to do so because they believe the task lacks dignity, it leads to a breakdown of family loyalty and a tragedy of epic proportions. 

Obey thy parents; keep thy word justly” – King Lear

Similarly, in Henry IV Part 1, the titular character’s decision to deny his son, Hal, the throne leads to a struggle between father and son that is only resolved through Hal’s loyalty to his father. In both plays, loyalty to family is tested, showing the importance of family and loyalty in Shakespeare’s works.

The theme of family and loyalty is also seen in other works by Shakespeare, such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Tempest”. In “Romeo and Juliet”, the two protagonists are willing to defy their families in order to be together, showing the power of love over family loyalty. In “The Tempest”, Prospero’s loyalty to his daughter Miranda is tested when he is offered the chance to reclaim his dukedom, but he ultimately chooses to remain on the island with her. These examples show that loyalty to family is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s works, and one that is often rewarded.

Disguise and deception

Disguise and deception are recurring motifs in Shakespeare’s works. In plays such as “Twelfth Night”, “The Tempest” and “Measure for Measure”, characters use disguise and deception to achieve their goals. In “Twelfth Night”, Viola disguises herself as a man in order to gain employment in the Duke’s court. Through her disguise, she is able to gain access to the court and ultimately reunite her separated family. In “The Tempest”, Prospero uses deception to manipulate the other characters. He creates illusions and disguises to deceive the other characters and ultimately achieve his desired outcome. In “Measure for Measure”, the Duke disguises himself as a friar in order to see how his rule is affecting ordinary people.

“Look th’innocent flower but be the serpent under it” – Macbeth

Deception and disguise are powerful tools that allow characters to gain access to places and people they would otherwise be denied. Through the use of disguise and deception, characters are able to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Shakespeare’s use of these motifs in his plays highlights the power of deception and disguise in achieving one’s goals.

Morality and justice

Morality and justice are two of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare’s works. In plays such as “Measure for Measure” and “King Lear”, the characters grapple with the notion of morality and justice, and how they can be reconciled. In “Measure for Measure”, Angelo attempts to bring justice to a city that has become morally corrupt by implementing a strict system of punishments. However, he succumbed to his own temptation, acting unethically to procure a sexual favor from Isabella. This ultimately leads to his downfall, showing the danger of hypocrisy. 

“Some rise by sin, others by virtue fall” – Measure for Measure

Similarly, in “King Lear”, the titular character is forced to confront the consequences of his own moral failings in putting ostensible shows over substantive loyalty. 

Shakespeare’s exploration of morality and justice is often complex and ambiguous, as he does not provide a clear-cut answer to the questions he raises. Instead, he allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about the themes, and how they can be reconciled. Through his characters, Shakespeare shows that morality and justice are not always mutually exclusive, and that it is possible to find a balance between the two.

Order and chaos

Shakespeare’s plays often explore the tension between order and chaos.  In “Macbeth”, the protagonist’s ambition leads to a chaotic destruction of the existing order, while in “King Lear”, the disintegration of the kingdom is caused by the king’s own chaotic decisions. In both cases, the chaos is eventually resolved by a restoration of order. This theme of order and chaos is a powerful one, as it reflects the human struggle between the need for security and the desire for freedom. The characters in these plays must find a balance between the two, or risk facing the consequences of their actions. 

By exploring this theme, Shakespeare shows us the importance of understanding the consequences of our choices and the power of order in restoring balance. Many of these lessons also held relation to the governing of Jacobean England, showing Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate the wider political landscape within which he lived.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Who Was William Shakespeare?;

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in April 1564. His exact date of birth is unknown, but it is traditionally celebrated on April 23rd.

The Elizabethan World;

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change and upheaval in England. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the country experienced a period of religious reformation, economic growth, and exploration.

The Early Works;

Shakespeare's early works are a testament to his genius and creativity. His earliest plays, such as ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, are full of wit and wordplay, and demonstrate his skill in creating complex characters and storylines.

The Great Plays;

"Hamlet" is one of Shakespeare's most renowned plays, and its story is one of tragedy and revenge. The play follows the titular character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, as the ghost of his father charges him with avenging his murder.

Shakespeare’s Language;

Shakespeare's use of language was a major factor in his success as a playwright. His mastery of the English language was evident in his use of puns, wordplay, and blank verse. 

Adaptations of Shakespeare;

Shakespeare's works have been adapted in a variety of ways, from stage productions to films to graphic novels. Stage productions have been the most popular form of adaptation, with countless productions of Shakespeare's plays being performed all over the world.

Copyright (c) 2023 Kinnu Ltd.