Teaching Approaches

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416

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. 

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  • 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 their confidence in prophecy rather than reliance on their abilities?

Theme of Fate vs. Free Will: Highlight the tension between the fate that the witches predict for Macbeth and his free will to pursue or not pursue this fate. Macbeth is either predetermined to murder Duncan and cause his own downfall, or he creates this terrible future with the choices that he makes. 

  • For discussion: Is Macbeth’s downfall caused by the witches or is it the result of his own wrongdoing? How does fate shape the outcome of the story? How does choice play a role in Macbeth’s tragic end?

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • What role does magic play in this drama? To what extent does magic actually bring about the outcome of the play? 
  • What role does blood play metaphorically and physically throughout the play? What might blood represent? 
  • How does a character’s relationship to sleep reveal their internal landscape? 
  • Does Macbeth have a moral lesson? Why or why not? 


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

It’s Written in Iambic Pentameter and Verse: Shakespeare manipulates syntax and word choice to fit his meter and flow. This can make it hard to comprehend the lines at first glance. 

  • What to do: Rent an unabridged, taped performance of the play. Play the tape and read along as a class. Pause the tape at key moments to discuss language, plot, characters, and foreshadowing.

Portrayal of Women as Corrupting Influences: The few female characters in this play are not reputable women. There are witches, Lady Macbeth, and the faithless Lady Macduff. Women are depicted as the orchestrators that corrupt the men in the play. 

  • What to do: Discuss the role of women with your class. Ask students how the women are powerful even though they are evil. Discuss the connection between the story of Adam and Eve with this depiction of corrupting female presences in order to determine the origin of this negative presentation of women.

Shakespeare’s Language Is Unapproachable for Students: Shakespeare’s language can be really difficult for students to understand. However, it is not written in “old English” or even “middle English”; it is written in modern English and therefore comprehensible with some practice. 

  • What to do: Outline the whole plot of the story before beginning the play so that it is easier to follow. Consider hanging a timeline on the board or asking students to recap the plot at the beginning of each class. 
  • What to do: Start with a short passage and ask students to translate Shakespeare’s archaic language into plain English so that they can become familiar with the style.

The Cultural References Are Archaic: Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek and Roman mythology and religious stories that students might not be familiar with because they are not part of our culture. 

  • What to do: Do a short unit introducing students to Greek and Roman mythology before you start teaching Shakespeare. Explain that humanists, like Shakespeare, use a lot of allusions to ancient literature to get their message across. Consider bringing in a hip-hop, pop, or rock song with allusions to modern culture to illustrate your point. (Parody singers are especially useful for this activity.) 
  • What to do: Have students underline the names of people and places in the first act or scene who they do not know. Use minimal research projects to ask students to look up these allusions. 


Alternative Approaches to Teaching Macbeth

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play. 

Focus on Lady Macbeth’s character as an empowered woman who goes insane. She sets the events of the play in motion, yet this power drives her mad. Lady Macbeth seems to only feel regret for her actions when her husband begins to reveal what they have done. In other words, only when her society sees her as something evil does she begin to feel guilty for her evil actions. Discuss what this says about the role of women at this time. 

Focus on how this play established our modern conception of witches and the supernatural. Look at how the witches are described in acts 1 and 4. Compare this description to characteristics of Lady Macbeth. Discuss how Lady Macbeth can be interpreted as a kind of witch that manipulates fate. 

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