Macbeth is the last and shortest of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (the other three being Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear). It is also considered by many scholars to be Shakespeare’s darkest play in its examination of evil and how briskly morality is sacrificed in the quest for power. Significantly, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most topical plays, as its exploration of the role of the monarchy paid homage to England’s new king.
For most of Shakespeare’s life and career, Queen Elizabeth I reigned in England. Her successor, King James I, ascended the throne in 1603, and Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth around 1606. Importantly, King James was the first ruler of both England and Scotland, and Macbeth—set in Scotland— was likely intended as a tribute to King James’s heritage. King James was thought to be a descendant of Banquo and his son Fleance, the former whom Macbeth murders so that his own heirs—and not Banquo’s—might ascend the throne. Fleance survives the attack meant to kill him along with his father, making King James’s birth—and reign—possible.
Apart from King James’s lineage, Shakespeare offers other tributes to England’s new king and his philosophies. King James believed in witches, and witches open Macbeth and drive the action. King James believed in the healing power of the monarchy; the witches’ evil machinations are held in contrast to King Edward’s use of magical healing on his subjects. Finally, it was an accepted belief in Shakespeare’s time that English monarchs ruled by divine right; they sat on the throne because God had chosen them to rule, and attempting to usurp them was doomed to fail. This is a central argument of Macbeth: Though Macbeth tries to interfere with destiny, his illegitimate reign is as brief as it is bloody. Macbeth is destroyed, Scotland’s rightful heir takes his place, and the natural order prevails. Shakespeare used several stories from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as background material for Macbeth, and while much of the drama is fictionalized or embellished, the real Macbeth did exist and died in 1057.
Although Macbeth incorporates interesting historical elements, the play endures for entirely different reasons. At its core, Macbeth is an answer to a question asked in Macbeth’s day, in Shakespeare’s, and in ours: How does evil overtake a human being? At the play’s outset, Macbeth is a noble, loyal warrior who shuns the idea of betraying his good king. Time is a critical theme in Macbeth, and within a short period, Macbeth becomes a schemer, a murderer, a king, and a tyrant. While at the play’s beginning he has a passionate marriage and feels ambitious about his future, in the end he feels life is only “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” En route to his downfall, he leaves a trail littered with abominable murders. Shakespeare explores how Macbeth unravels so speedily and how plausible such self-destruction becomes when ambition obliterates the line between wrong and right.
Along with its examination of evil and the role of the monarchy, Macbeth explores a rich collection of themes and creates iconic characters. In particular, Lady Macbeth’s character, arguably one of the most sought-after roles for actresses, has stood the test of time. As the greatest challenger of Macbeth’s conscience, she also denies her own—and famously, her gender—in order to channel all into her pursuit of power. Her decline and destruction are even more rapid than Macbeth’s. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is one of the most famous in Shakespeare’s dramas, and “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” is one of the most famous lines in literature. Her futile attempt while sleeping to wash away the blood she imagines on her hands expresses the depth of her guilt and the impossibility of redemption; her mind shattered, she soon commits suicide.
Guilt, madness, violence, and the supernatural all receive attention from Shakespeare in this short play, while he also explores gender roles, leadership, loyalty, and concepts of time. While accomplishing this lofty agenda in Macbeth, Shakespeare also creates passages of memorable language, from the sing-song witches’ “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” in Act One to Macbeth’s beautifully lyrical lament in Act Five:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
While examining Macbeth’s themes, structure, and context, therefore, it is important to savor its language, as well.
Filmmakers continue to make cinematic versions of Macbeth, and theaters continue to stage interpretations of the play, productions using Shakespeare’s language or modern adaptations. New performances are not likely to cease any time soon. For as long as humankind bears witness to incomprehensible acts of malice, Macbeth will continue to resonate in its answer as to why.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Determine what makes Macbeth such a timeless and popular work.
2. Define and describe the play’s central conflict.
3. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
4. Define and describe the role of the supernatural in the play.
5. Explain the play’s examination of destiny vs. free will.
6. Define the ideal role of a monarch for which the play argues.
7. Discuss the role of gender and explain how it relates to Lady Macbeth.
8. Examine critical passages and interpret their meanings.
9. Identify Shakespeare’s use of paradox and explain why it is an effective technique.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to...
(The entire section is 797 words.)
1. What arguments does the play make about leadership? What makes a good leader, and why?
Does Macbeth have any leadership qualities?
2. Shakespeare explores the theme of free will vs. destiny throughout the play. In the end, for which side does he argue? How does the character Macbeth try to utilize both?
3. Macbeth devolves from an ambitious warrior to an impassive murderer. Describe three key moments in the text that lead directly to his downfall.
4. What is the connection between guilt and madness in Macbeth? Are the two linked in our world today?
5. Even before he kills...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Act One, Scene One
heath: shrubby uncultivated land
hurly-burly: commotion, uproar
1. What mood is conveyed with the first scene? Name three details that help set the play’s tone.
The mood is dark and mysterious, ominous. Shakespeare uses several details to make this clear. The weather is stormy and violent, and the characters in this scene are witches. They refer to “fog and filthy air” and are accompanied by a cat, Grey Malkin, and a toad, Paddock—two mysterious and foreboding creatures associated with witchcraft.
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Act One, Scene Two
broil: archaic a battle
deign: to do something in a way that shows it is considered a great favor
foe: an enemy
gallowglasses: archaic soldiers armed with axes
Golgotha: the “place of skulls” where Christ was crucified
haste: great speed
kerns: lightly armed foot soldiers
lapped in proof: wrapped in a strong army
mark: to note, to pay attention
minion: favorite one, darling (in context)
quarrel: a dispute
(The entire section is 289 words.)
Act One, Scene Three
aroint: archaic be gone
aught: archaic anything
corporal: material, physical
peak: to grow emaciated
rapt: completely fascinated by what one is seeing or hearing
ronyon: a scabby woman
swine: a pig
thither: there; to that place
withal: with (by) it
wrack: destruction, ruin
1. What have the witches been doing since they last appeared?
One of the witches has been killing swine, or pigs,...
(The entire section is 899 words.)
Act One, Scene Four
enfold: archaic to embrace
peerless: without equal
recompense: to make amends for losses
1. What regrets does Duncan have about the executed Thane of Cawdor?
Duncan regrets that he misjudged the Thane of Cawdor by trusting him. He laments, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
Act One, Scene Five
hie: to hasten
illness: archaic wickedness
pall thee: wrap yourself
1. Macbeth misquotes the witches’ prophecy, telling his wife in a letter that they said, “Hail, King that shalt be!” and not “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!” What does this misquote reveal about where Macbeth stands on the subject of the prophecies?
Macbeth misquotes the witches in a way that implies they are already referring to...
(The entire section is 543 words.)
Act One, Scenes Six and Seven
chamberlains: personal attendants
frieze: a type of rough, woolen cloth
holp: archaic helped
jutty: a projection
sewer: archaic a butler
shoal: a group of people
spungy: archaic drunk
swinish: coarse, gross, pig-like
trammel up: to entangle
warder: a guard
wassail: to carouse
(The entire section is 861 words.)
Act Two, Scene One
dudgeon: the handle of a dagger
gouts: drops (as in drops of blood)
Hecate: Greek mythology goddess of witchcraft
husbandry: thrift, economy
informs: archaic takes on a shape
knell: toll of a bell rung at funerals or after a death
offices: servant’s quarters
sensible: archaic perceptible
shut up: archaic wrapped up
so: archaic provided that
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Act Two, Scene Two
balm: a healing ointment
bellman: a bell-ringer who announces an impending death
gild: archaic to make bloody
grooms: male servants
incarnadine: red, especially bloodred
Neptune: Roman mythology god of the sea
possets: hot, spiced drinks
1. What does Lady...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Act Two, Scene Three
auger hole: a small hole; a hiding place (in context)
chance: archaic moment
downy: soft, soothing
equivocator: one who uses words ambiguously
expedition (th’expedition): haste
Gorgon: Greek mythology a female monster who turned those who looked upon her to stone
lamentings: cries of grief
lees: archaic dregs
livelong: archaic long-lasting
(The entire section is 753 words.)
Act Two, Scene Four
benison: archaic blessing
invested: given authority, crowned
pretend: archaic to intend
ravin up: to devour greedily
threescore and ten: seventy years
1. What happened to Duncan’s horses? What theme does this further?
Duncan’s horses went wild after he died and ate each other. Their behavior was strange and eerie, emphasizing the play’s supernatural themes.
2. Who is...
(The entire section is 297 words.)
Act Three, Scene One
Caesar: Octavius Caesar became ruler of the Roman Empire after defeating Mark Antony
catalogue: an official list
dauntless temper: fearless temperament
grapples: archaic attaches tightly
Mark Antony: Roman general who was defeated by Octavius Caesar
oracles: mediums for communication with the gods
parricide: murder of one’s father
posterity: line of descendants
rancours: bitter hatred
scepter: a monarch’s...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Act Three, Scene Two
disjoint: to collapse
ecstasy: archaic frenzy
lave: to wash
naught: archaic nothing
scarf up: to blindfold
1. What suggests that Lady Macbeth is not happy, though she holds the title of Queen?
Although Lady Macbeth is now the queen, her position has come at a great...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
Act Three, Scenes Three and Four
augurs: prophecies made by interpreting the behavior of birds
avaunt: archaic be gone
charnel houses: buildings housing the bones of the dead
degrees: archaic ranks
mayst: archaic may
(The entire section is 743 words.)
Act Three, Scenes Five and Six
accursed: under a curse
broad: archaic frank
clogs: burdens, hampers
homage: acts of allegiance
ratify: to approve
rue: to regret
1. Who is Hecate, and why is she angry?
Hecate is the leader of the witches. She is angry because she was left out of the witches’ plans and exchange with Macbeth, and as their leader, she should have been consulted. She also feels Macbeth, as a “wayward son,” was...
(The entire section is 343 words.)
Act Four, Scene One
aright: archaic rightly
black: archaic evil, deadly
conjure: to call upon solemnly
firstlings: first-born things
impress: to enlist into an army
lion-mettled: fierce and proud
pernicious: ruinous, deadly (archaic wicked)
resolute: firmly determined, bold, steady
sear: to burn
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Act Four, Scene Two
coz: a cousin, a friend
doubt: archaic to fear
egg: very young thing (in context)
fell: archaic fierce
judicious: having good judgment
laudable: deserving praise and commendation
school: to control, to discipline (in context)
vehement: forceful, passionate
wanted the modesty: lacked the restraint
1. Why is Lady Macduff angry with her husband?
She’s angry because he...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
Act Four, Scene Three
abjure: to renounce
at peace: dead; untroubled (both apply in wordplay)
avaricious: greedy for wealth
benediction: a grace, a blessing
cistern: a large water tank
perchance: archaic perhaps
strangely-visited: afflicted in unusual ways
1. What reasons does Malcolm give for why he is suspicious of Macduff?
(The entire section is 557 words.)
Act Five, Scene One
annoyance: self-harm (in context)
guise: archaic custom, manner
starting: nervousness, fits
taper: a slender candle
1. Why has a doctor come to observe Lady Macbeth?
He has come because Lady Macbeth’s attendant has observed her sleepwalking at night and performing strange rituals in her sleep.
2. What tortures Lady Macbeth? What parts of her past does she replay?
Lady Macbeth is tortured by guilt over Duncan’s murder...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Act Five, Scene Two
alarm: a call to arms
minutely: archaic every minute
recoil: to suddenly spring back
upbraid: to reproach
weal: a commonwealth, a state
1. Where do the noblemen and soldiers plan to meet Malcolm, Macduff, Siward, and the English army?
They plan to meet near Birnam Wood.
2. Where is Macbeth, and what is he doing?
Macbeth is at his castle, Dunsinane, which he is fortifying against the looming attack.
(The entire section is 215 words.)
Act Five, Scenes Three and Four
chambers: private rooms
err: to make a mistake
industrious: diligent and hard-working
linen: archaic white
patch: archaic a fool
push: an attack
skirr: to scour
taint: to become stained
1. Using examples from the text, characterize Macbeth and his behavior in Scene Three.
Macbeth demonstrates several different emotional states in the scene. He is at times commanding, forceful, and...
(The entire section is 423 words.)
Act Five, Scenes Five and Six
fury: fierce passion
hereafter: archaic at some time in the future
sooth: archaic truth
1. At the beginning of Scene Five, Macbeth has a moment of self-reflection about how much he has changed. In what way does he think he has changed?
Macbeth notes that whereas he used to startle easily, now that he has “supped full with horrors,” he
is immune to fear....
(The entire section is 576 words.)
Act Five, Scene Seven
clatter: a continuous rattling sound
crests: archaic helmets
hell-hound: a demon in the form of a dog
palter: archaic to equivocate
rabble: a crowd of commoners
salutation: a greeting
staves: staffs used as weapons
1. To what final hope of his survival does Macbeth cling?
Macbeth clings to the...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
1. Duncan makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor because
A. Macbeth is a favorite of Malcolm’s.
B. Macbeth has fought valiantly for the king.
C. Banquo told Duncan about the prophecies.
D. Malcolm is going to become a prince, thus leaving his position open.
E. Duncan knows that Macbeth will betray him otherwise.
2. Which of the following do the witches tell Macbeth he will become?
A. King of Scotland
B. Thane of Fife
C. King of a combined Scottish/English empire
(The entire section is 1166 words.)
1. Explain the role of gender in Macbeth. According to the central characters, what traits are women supposed to embody? What traits are men supposed to embody? How are those roles challenged in Macbeth, and what is the effect?
Characters in Macbeth often make references to the expectations of their gender. Women are supposed to be caring and nurturing, in keeping with their ultimate role as mother. While expected to be softer in all ways than their male counterparts, they are also supposed to stoically support and uncomplainingly obey their husbands. Men are supposed to be courageous fighters who show little or no feeling. However, characters also challenge gender...
(The entire section is 2686 words.)