Introductory Lecture and Learning Objectives

Macbeth eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

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.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

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

Act One, Scene One


ere: before

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

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

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

Act One, Scene Four


art: skill

enfold: archaic to embrace

liege: lord

peerless: without equal

plenteous: bountiful

recompense: to make amends for losses

studied: practiced

wanton: unrestrained

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

Act One, Scene Five


compunctious: remorseful

dunnest: darkest

fell: cruel

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

Act One, Scenes Six and Seven


chamberlains: personal attendants

durst: dared

ermites: hermits

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

surcease: ending

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

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

largess: gifts

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

Act Two, Scene Two


balm: a healing ointment

bellman: a bell-ringer who announces an impending death

confounds: ruins

gild: archaic to make bloody

grooms: male servants

incarnadine: red, especially bloodred

multitudinous: numerous

Neptune: Roman mythology god of the sea

possets: hot, spiced drinks

ravelled: frayed

surfeited: drunk

unbend: weaken

wherefore: why

1. What does Lady...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Act Two, Scene Three

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

mars: spoils

napkins: handkerchiefs

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Act Two, Scene Four

Act Two, Scene Four


benison: archaic blessing

invested: given authority, crowned

pretend: archaic to intend

ravin up: to devour greedily

suborned: bribed

threescore and ten: seventy years

thriftless: worthless

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

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

foully: sinfully

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

Act Three, Scene Two


disjoint: to collapse

ecstasy: archaic frenzy

fancies: imaginings

jocund: cheerful

lave: to wash

malice: animosity

naught: archaic nothing

note: notoriety

scarf up: to blindfold

spent: exhausted

vizards: masks

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

Act Three, Scenes Three and Four


apace: speedily

augurs: prophecies made by interpreting the behavior of birds

avaunt: archaic be gone

blanched: whitened

charnel houses: buildings housing the bones of the dead

degrees: archaic ranks

folly: foolishness

grandam: grandmother

imposters: imitators

infirmity: illness

lated: belated

locks: hair

mayst: archaic may


(The entire section is 743 words.)

Act Three, Scenes Five and Six

Act Three, Scenes Five and Six


accursed: under a curse

beldams: hags

broad: archaic frank

clogs: burdens, hampers

homage: acts of allegiance

ratify: to approve

rue: to regret

wayward: willful

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

Act Four, Scene One


aright: archaic rightly

black: archaic evil, deadly

bodements: predictions

chafes: angers

conjure: to call upon solemnly

firstlings: first-born things

harped: guessed

impress: to enlist into an army

lion-mettled: fierce and proud

pernicious: ruinous, deadly (archaic wicked)

pricking: tingling

resolute: firmly determined, bold, steady

sear: to burn

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Act Four, Scene Two

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

prattler: chatterer

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

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

desolate: lonely

perchance: archaic perhaps

rawness: vulnerability

scruples: doubts

stanchless: unstoppable

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

Act Five, Scene One


accustomed: usual

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

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

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

stead: place

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

Act Five, Scenes Five and Six


avouches: affirms

direness: dreadfulness

fury: fierce passion

hereafter: archaic at some time in the future

sooth: archaic truth

tarrying: remaining

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

Act Five, Scene Seven


clatter: a continuous rattling sound

cowed: intimidated

crests: archaic helmets

hell-hound: a demon in the form of a dog

keen: sharp

palter: archaic to equivocate

prowess: bravery

rabble: a crowd of commoners

rendered: surrendered

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.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

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.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

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.)