Macbeth Teaching Approaches
by William Shakespeare

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Teaching Approaches

Banquo as a Foil to Macbeth: Initially, Banquo and Macbeth are similarly portrayed as skilled, honorable soldiers. Soon, however, Banquo’s prudence serves as a foil to Macbeth’s haste; Banquo’s reaction to the prophecy is measured, skeptical disbelief rather than Macbeth’s immediate, ambitious belief in the prophecy. While Banquo’s reaction seems to be the “right” way to respond to the prophecy, because the witches have turned the world upside down with their prophesying and supernatural abilities, he is rewarded for his goodness only posthumously with royal descendants. 

  • For discussion: How do Macbeth’s and Banquo’s traits contrast with one another? How is Banquo rewarded for his goodness, and Macbeth for his wickedness? 
  • For discussion: How does Banquo’s ghost act as Macbeth’s conscience?

Establishing the Supernatural with the Uncanny: The witches and other supernatural elements of the play—visions of daggers, for example—are associated with otherworldly situations that are not quite right or in accordance with nature. The witches begin the play by upsetting the natural order by declaring that good is evil and evil is good (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”). In this way, the supernatural elements of the play have some grounding in reality as readers question whether the events truly are supernatural or just the visions of mentally unstable and confused minds. 

  • For discussion: What role do the witches play in Macbeth’s downfall? How are they set apart from other characters in the play—societally, linguistically, spiritually? How do their dress and dialogue in the first scene set the tone for the rest of the play? 
  • For discussion: Are the ghosts and other visions that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth witness real or just manifestations of guilty consciences?

Lady Macbeth’s Guilt as the Cause of Her Madness: Highlight the contradictory nature of Lady Macbeth’s character. She claims both that she would dash her own child’s brains out in order to achieve her ambitions and that she cannot murder Duncan because he looks like her father. Lady Macbeth spurs her husband to action and sets the murderous plot in action, but also she exhibits moments of humanity, regret, and depression. 

  • For discussion: From our first introduction to Lady Macbeth’s character, it does not seem likely that she has any moral compass. Yet, by the end of the play, she is apparently driven mad by guilt. What accounts for this sudden change of heart? Could something else explain her madness other than guilt? Or does she show this conscience throughout the play?

Prophecy as Revealing Character: Notice the difference between how Macbeth and Banquo hear the prophecy that the witches tell them. Macbeth schemes for how he will take the throne with murder, whereas Banquo doubts the witches. How a character interprets a prophecy demonstrates their true nature. Though Macbeth is initially presented as a strong, honorable hero, he is actually an ambitious, unscrupulous man. 

  • For discussion: How is Macbeth’s reaction to the witches different from Banquo’s reaction to the witches? Why is this significant? 
  • For discussion: Consider the second time Macbeth speaks to the witches. How does he interpret the prophecies that they tell him? What does this tell us about his character?

Theme of Ambition as the Catalyst for Macbeth’s Downfall: Explain that Macbeth’s unchecked, ruthless ambition to become king leads to his downfall in this play. His ambition corrupts his identity as a noble warrior and turns him into a murderer. Likewise, Lady Macbeth’s ambition causes her to become an unnatural monster. This fatal quest for ambition mimics the Greek tragic-hero cycle, in which a hero’s hubris (pride) or ambition causes her downfall. 

  • For discussion: How do Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s parallel ambitions doom them? After the initial murder, what drives Macbeth to further acts of cruelty? Are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth prideful to a fault, or are they doomed by...

(The entire section is 1,416 words.)