How to Study Macbeth
You have just learned that you will be required to read not any old Shakespearean play but one of the Bard’s complex tragedies—Macbeth. How will you ever muddle through the unfamiliar language or plot? Following these 8 steps will help you quickly understand and appreciate the play. You may even become quite the Shakespeare connoisseur!
1) Read a modern translation along with the original. Most teachers will be happy for you to also use a modern translation because they know it can be tough to understand Macbeth at first. For an excellent side-by-side translation, see the eNotes version here. One word of caution, however—be sure to still read the original words. Once you get the hang of it (and we promise that you will), the language really makes the play. You won’t want to miss out!
2) Relate to the passion between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Love is a timeless theme, so you can comprehend how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship thrived on love and mutual support, trust, and respect. However, when trust breaks down, secrets reign, and respect dissipates, any relationship will fall apart...whether you are from the 17th century or 21st century.
3) Do background research into the time period. You will appreciate Shakespeare and his works so much better if you take the time to research some of the history and culture of the Elizabethan era. What was it like to be a member of a royal family? What did people do for recreation? What beliefs and superstitions did people hold? The answers to those questions and many others will help you relate to the characters and themes of Macbeth.
4) Delineate the tragic flaw. A tragic flaw is an inevitable shortcoming of a character that often leads to his or her demise. How does this concept apply to the character of Macbeth? Is he a victim of a domineering wife with no scruples? Is he a puppet of the evil witches? Is he just a man with a dream he cannot control? Pinpoint some answers to these questions, and you have mastered one of the major themes of Macbeth.
5) Realize the plot is action-packed and exciting. Would you want to read a story with supernatural twists, a passionate relationship, betrayal, and murder? How about one that you could always relate to no matter how long ago the book was written? All of these descriptive phrases characterize Macbeth. From the eerie witches predicting (or controlling?) the action to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s ambitions spurring them to perform unspeakable horrors, a better story would be hard to find!
6) Act out complicated scenes. Most teachers will have students act out scenes from Macbeth as part of a class study. Volunteer to be a character, and you’ll really understand the ins and outs of what makes that character tick. Also, you will understand the play far better if you act it out rather than read it silently. Plays, after all, are meant to be performed and are written with this end in mind.
7) Annotate and react. Use whatever strategies for annotation and active reading your teacher has taught you in the past while you read Macbeth. Make note of quotes or moments that confuse or intrigue you as well. When you read a difficult work, this step is crucial.
8) Label or organize characters to keep them straight. Make a “family tree” or create an original graphic organizer to help you keep the characters and their roles in the play straight. Have this organizer with you while you read, and make additional notes right in the text whenever needed.