Monday, May 4, 2015


Analysing each Act

The acts in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are constructed according to a formula in which each scene in the play has a specific purpose. The act is structured like this:
·       exposition
·       development of conflict
·       climax
·       denouement
·       catastrophe

Act I begins with an exposition on the qualities of “noble” Macbeth. The audience is first introduced to Macbeth through the opinions of others, who reflect on his bravery and courage.

The conflict develops quickly as Macbeth discovers the witches’ prediction that he will become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.

The climax is reached with Macbeth’s soliloquy, “If it were done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”

The denouement (pronounced day-noo-mahn) is the ‘untying of the complications of the plot’, where confusion and the doubtful destinies of the characters are clarified. This takes place during Act 1 Scene 7 when Lady Macbeth reminds Macbeth about his promise to kill the king:

“                                        What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?”

Catastrophe is sure to follow Macbeth’s decision to commit the murder:
“Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. Will it not be received,
When we have marked with blood those sleepy two
Of his own chamber and used their very daggers,
That they have done’t?” (Act 1 Scene 7)

They have both agreed on the murder.

Focus activities
·       As you read each Act take notes on the structure.
·       Draw a graph of what the structure looks like, remembering that the catastrophe represents a higher point than a denouement.
·       How does the structure further the action of the play? Think about the impact this will have on the audience.
·       Use the Connecticut Academic Proficiency Test (“CAPT”) style response sheet (which focuses on the skills of identifying, developing an opinion, critical stance and connection with personal experiences) from the Macbeth <> website to assist your writing about the themes and events that you identify in each act.

This asks you to:
1.    List ten important events in each act.
2.    Write a five sentence paragraph to locate and identify figurative language associated with one of the events.
3.    Write a five sentence paragraph to explain how one of these events furthers a theme.
4.    Explain how one of these events relates to some aspect of your life or reading.
5.    Write your “CAPT” responses in your response journal.

Act summaries

Summaries can be found at several locations, such as:
·     Macbeth Navigator <>
·     Macbeth: An Indepth Analysis <>
·     Classic Notes: Macbeth Short Summary <>
·     SparkNotes: Macbeth <>.

6. A closer look at each Act

As you examine each Act identify the ten most important events in each. This will help to increase your understanding of how the themes are developed throughout the play.

Act I
The main events in Act I are:
1.    The witches’ plan to meet Macbeth.
2.    Macbeth is introduced as a hero who will become Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his loyalty.
3.    The witches prophesise that Macbeth will be king and Banquo will be the father of a line of kings.
4.    Duncan orders the execution of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor. He rewards Macbeth but announces that Malcolm will become heir to the crown.
5.    Lady Macbeth learns of the witches’ prophesies through the letter Macbeth has written her.
6.    Macbeth arrives and Lady Macbeth tells him to look ‘like the innocent flower but to act like a serpent,’ when Duncan arrives.
7.    Duncan is greeted by Lady Macbeth. He does not suspect what fate awaits him.
8.    Macbeth is troubled by his conscience and almost talks himself out of killing Duncan.
9.    Lady Macbeth torments Macbeth about his promise to kill Duncan, and his lack of manliness. She convinces him that a real man would keep his word. She gives the impression that she is more of a man that he is.
10. They then plan the murder together.

As you analyse Act I, you need to identify the role played by the witches. Who or what are they? Is the role they play as ambiguous as the riddling language they use to cast their spell over Macbeth, or do they serve some other function?

It is Banquo’s fear that the witches' words will "enkindle [Macbeth] unto the crown;" that they will stir an ambition in Macbeth that is already latent within him (Act I Scene 3, line 132). This fear is soon realised as Macbeth's thoughts quickly turn to murder (Act I Scene 3, line 152). Why does Macbeth rely so heavily on the predictions of the witches? Does he perceive a connection between these ‘weird sisters’ and the Fates of Greek myth? The word ‘weird’ comes from an Old English word ‘wyrd’ which means ‘fate.’ Do the witches perform the function of an oracle, of the kind we associate with Greek Tragedy?

Macbeth and Banquo are presented as characters who appear equal in many respects yet Banquo does not act on the witches' prediction that he will father kings. How does his refusal to act on the witches’ prediction reflect on the differences between himself and Macbeth? What images of masculinity do the differences between Banquo and Macbeth suggest to the audience?

The ambiguity of the language used by the ‘weird sisters’ is compatible with the play’s theme of equivocation. Banquo recognises the witches as agents of the supernatural, who speak a language that appeals to the inner desires of the characters.

“But ‘tis strange,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.”

  • Why is Macbeth unable to see the double meaning of the language used by the ‘weird sisters’?
  • In Act 2 Scene 1, Banquo dreams of the three ‘weird sisters.’ Why does Macbeth say, “I think not of them”?
  • How does this difference between the way these two characters perceive the split between their inner and outer worlds reflect on the plays others themes of “fair” being “foul;” and the ideas of loyalty and ambition?  Lady Macbeth also shares Macbeth’s prejudice in appealing to the supernatural. For her, a prediction becomes a “promise”.

“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised; yet I do fear thy nature”
Lady Macbeth (Act I Scene 5)

·       How does Macbeth’s written reference, “They met me in the day of success, and I have learned by the perfectest report they have more in them than mortal knowledge,” strengthen the similarities or differences between how Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo see the role of the ‘weird sisters’?

·       Why does Shakespeare make double use of ideas like this, e.g. we all see things differently? In most of Shakespeare’s plays, he uses a mirroring of ideas between the characters, which serves to heighten their differences. Macbeth is no exception.

A major concern of the play is the relationship of the personal inner world of the character and its relationship to the social and political order of the outer world, and the way characters act or refuse to act on the way they perceive the world. Macbeth is prepared to engage in deception at Lady Macbeth’s prompt to

"look like th'innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't".
(Act I Scene 5)

Macbeth knows that he must appear to be a loyal Thane, even while he is secretly planning his dark deeds.

Lady Macbeth uses her womanly looks to flatter Duncan’s hopes for loyalty, but has already ‘unsexed’ herself to commit the bloody deed of killing him. Aspects of the inner world of human psychology are revealed through the nightmares and guilt-ridden hallucinations that accompany the carrying out of the evil acts. Shakespeare chose to present the contrast between what someone is and what they appear to be, so as to accentuate the fundamental meaning of his use of the theme of equivocation, a theme which he also connected to the theme that appearances can be deceptive.

Shakespeare uses the theme that appearances are deceptive to present Macbeth as a character who is outwardly brave but inwardly indecisive. To this he adds the idea that Macbeth’s character contains a fatal flaw. He knows what is right and what is wrong and yet lacks the moral fortitude to act correctly preferring instead to allow himself to be deceived by vague notions about what a real man would do in the circumstances. Psychologically Macbeth is emotionally tormented. His eloquent soliloquies are full of pathos and audiences cannot help but sympathise with his distress.

·       Why does Shakespeare’s depiction of Macbeth evoke such sympathy?

·       Contrast and compare this view of Macbeth with his depiction of Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is presented as a ruthless character driven by a desire for greatness and status. However, her desire for power represents a masculine trait that requires her to shed her feminine qualities. In her “unsex me here” speech, she identifies the feminine virtues of keeping the peace and feeling remorse as barriers to achieving her great purpose. Lady Macbeth’s rejection of motherhood arouses ‘shock horror’ emotions from the audience.

·       What image of feminine power is Shakespeare presenting through his depiction of Lady Macbeth?

·       How does this depiction of an essentially uncaring, evil woman increase the sympathy the audience feels for Macbeth?

·       Can you think of any modern examples of this stereotypically evil woman?

Act II
All the scenes in Act II are set in or near Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. The Act begins with a discussion between Macbeth and Banquo. It is after midnight. Banquo wants to discuss the witches, but Macbeth tells him they will discuss them some other time, and bids him goodnight. He then delivers an important soliloquy beginning with the words, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”

In this act, you need to pay close attention to Macbeth’s state of mind. Does he really see a dagger or is it just a vision, a dagger of the mind? The inner world of Macbeth’s psyche seems to spill over into the physical world, as he carries, to conclusion, his plan to kill Duncan.

After killing Duncan Macbeth hears a voice saying, “Glamis hath murdered sleep and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.”

Earlier, Macbeth sees the dagger leading him to the murder scene. The ‘instrument’ he refers to in this speech recalls the influence of the witches referred to earlier by Banquo as the ‘instruments of darkness.’ The other references to ‘wicked dreams’ and ‘witchcraft’ support the idea that Macbeth is either possessed by the witches, or obsessed with the idea of killing Duncan to fulfill the witches’ prediction. You will need to decide to what extent Macbeth is provoked by either the witches or his own ‘heat-oppressed brain’ into committing the act of killing Duncan.

Sleep is important, as an extended metaphor, that signifies or represents Macbeth’s troubled existence, and the troubled state of the country. No one can sleep because Macbeth’s ambition to become king plunges the country into a darkness that seems to mirror his psychological state. Images of natural disorder abound in this act, an owl eats a falcon and two noble horses eat each other.
The symbolism of the act is centered on the images of birds at war with each other, and every scene in the act contains a least one reference to birds. It has been suggested that the references to the owl in this act represent a metaphor for Macbeth. Macbeth is like an owl, which sleeps by day and hunts by night.

·       Compare this idea to the Elizabethan world order, which places the eagle or falcon at the top of the order of the bird kingdom. What are the implications for the order of the world?

·       There are also several references to hell in this scene. The porter imagines that he is guarding the gate to hell. Explore the irony of these references.

·       What other biblical references can you find in Act II? What does Banquo’s declaration,
“In the great hand of God I stand and thence against the undivulged pretense I fight”
suggest about the differences between him and Macbeth (Act II Scene 3)?

·       What is the dramatic function of the Old Man’s single appearance in the play? Whose point of view does he represent? How do his lines reinforce the themes of the play?

Act III opens shortly after Macbeth has been crowned King. Macbeth’s succession has not brought peace, and the implications, in the text, reveal that he has to employ spies in each of the most important households to inform him of any move against him. The voice of conscience speaks loudly to Macbeth in this scene soon after he has Banquo murdered.

The theme to focus on in Act III is what does it mean to be a man? Earlier in the play Lady Macbeth defines masculinity as the ability to ruthlessly achieve a desired goal. In Act I Scene 2, Duncan applauds Macbeth’s ruthless killing of “the merciless Macdonald” who Macbeth “unseamed” from “the nave to th’ chaps.” Duncan exclaims, “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman.”

·       Identify as many versions of masculinity and femininity as you can as you read the play.

The idea of what it means to be a real man is a question that can be looked at from several different viewpoints. Try comparing the views of several different characters with each other. Then consider the way that the idea of what it means to be a man means to each of them. Consider how these ideas about masculinity move the action of the play forward. For example, Duncan rewards masculine valour with titles, this brings him closer to his own demise. Macbeth kills in order to gain power and honour from the king and his fellow thanes. He then kills the king to prove he is a man of destiny. Macduff defends his masculinity by killing Macbeth out of revenge for the killing of his wife and children.

·       Examine the role that masculinity plays in motivating each of the characters to carry out their plans.

In Act III Scene 1, Macbeth’s discussion with the murderers about how a man is meant to behave mirrors the words used by Lady Macbeth in Act 1. Macbeth taunts the murderers with references to their rank, station and file (Act III Scene 1, lines 90-105).

·       Reflect on the relationship Macbeth has with the murderers and how closely it mirrors the methods he and Lady Macbeth used to kill Duncan. What does this suggest about all murderers? Especially note the references to stains and blood in committing the act of murder which are meant to signify guilt.

·       Why does Macbeth refer to the blood on the murderer’s face? Is this real or imagined blood? How does this link with the themes of appearances and disturbance of the natural order? How does this foreshadow the blood Lady Macbeth tries to wash from her hands in Act V?

·       When Macbeth see Banquo’s ghost he is ‘unmanned’. Could it be that Macbeth’s feminine side is asserting itself through his guilt? Compare this view of masculinity to Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech.

·       How do some of the supernatural elements of the play undermine notions of masculinity and femininity? What message is being directed to the audience about the roles men and women are meant to play?

·       How does witchcraft undermine the established order? Relate this to the idea of cleanliness; what is being implied? Are all witches capable of murder?

·       Lady Macbeth is not involved in the plan to kill Banquo and her role in the play is diminished after Act III. Think carefully about the way Shakespeare uses this mirroring technique. Lady Macbeth’s character is not as fully developed as Macbeth’s because, unlike Macbeth, she doesn’t consciously weigh the consequences of her actions. Her realisations are depicted as unconscious responses performed in sleep, whereas Macbeth thoughts are consciously and eloquently articulated to the audience.

·       Is Lady Macbeth a foil for Macbeth, whose function is designed to move the audience toward a deeper understanding of the tragic nature of the play’s bloody events?

·       Think of Macbeth’s speech on “vaulting ambition” as you reflect on how each of these two characters influence each other, before you decide what her dramatic function is.

The idea of cleanliness permeates this act, and the theme of removing stains and washing runs throughout the whole play. In Act II Scene 2, Lady Macbeth instructs Macbeth to wash the blood from his hands after murdering Duncan. She says, “a little water clears us of this deed,” but it doesn’t.

After the murder of Banquo, Macbeth is haunted and tormented by the sight of Banquo’s ghostly appearance at the banquet. The idea of being unable to cleanse the mind and the spirit is closely tied to the play’s themes of order and disorder and light and dark. The killing of Duncan has upset the spiritual order of the world and the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. This confusion is mirrored in the character of Macbeth who, quite literally, has replaced order with disorder on every level, including the spiritual order.

This mirroring reinforces the themes of appearances not being what they seem, but also foreshadows the madness and suicide of Lady Macbeth, which is bound to flow from such an unnatural state of affairs.

Consider Lady Macbeth’s pathos, reflected in her sleep-walking speeches, “out, damned spot”. Here, ‘damnation’ accompanies the stain that corrupts the spiritual order of the world. Macbeth’s realisation that,“ all great Neptune’s oceans” cannot wash the blood from his hands mirrors Lady Macbeth’s words, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Both characters are damned, reinforcing the idea that they have brought hell to earth with their deeds.

·       The identity of the third murderer is a question that is also worth considering in Act III. Some critics have suggested that it is Macbeth himself. What are the implications regarding the events that follow if this is true?

·       Think about Macbeth and Banquo in terms of the act’s references to light and dark that they are associated with. How do the images of light and darkness tie in with the theme of good versus evil? How does the contrast between light and dark accentuate the essential nature of each of these two characters?

·       What is happening to the light as Banquo is murdered? Find other references to the sun/son in the play. What are the implications? What do these references symbolise?

Act IV
Act IV begins with the witches’ reminder of the “double, double” nature of their predictions. The apparitions that the witches summon give a double message to Macbeth and he, typically, believes what he wants to believe. The apparitions warn him to fear no man born of woman, and that he need only fear when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

The doubling or mirroring idea continues as the witches summon the "show of kings." Each king who appears looks "too like the spirit of Banquo," which is deeply disturbing to Macbeth. They remind him of the ghost of Banquo of the previous scene.

The line of kings seems to go on forever and Macbeth notes that he sees some carry "twofold balls and treble scepters" (Act IV Scene 1). It is believed that these lines were written to flatter King James 1 who was one of Shakespeare’s patrons. James would have been very pleased with the thought that his ancestry would last “till the crack of doom.” There is also irony in the scene when Macbeth curses the witches “eternally,” as they deliver their own eternal prophesy of Banquo’s progeny. And, at the end of this “show of eight kings”, the eighth king holds a mirror in his hand. This king, an eighth-generation descendant of Banquo, is James I himself.

The extension of the play’s themes carries a greater degree of mirroring than even the audience could have guessed at, as suddenly, the play's James is doubled in the real James, who was also part of the audience. Once again, Shakespeare has blurred the boundary between imagination and reality to emphasise the idea that confusion is magnified by dabbling with the supernatural.

Think here about the importance of the coin with the flower and serpent on it. By reflecting on the nature of reality, as to whether the world of the play or the world of the audience is reality, Shakespeare warns the audience of the dangers of double dealing. Confusion, truly has made its masterpiece. The dramatic effect of the scene foreshadows the need to restore order in the world, a message that will not be lost on the audience as the grizzly events of Act IV unfold.

Shakespeare’s use of doubling is extended to the characters in the play, but it is his use of opposites that gives the play its dramatic impact. The scene in which Lady Macduff is killed continues the bird symbolism that began in Act I. Lady Macduff complains to Ross about her husband's abandoning them. She uses a bird metaphor to explain her feelings,

                               "the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl"
(Act IV Scene 2, lines 11-14).

Her son also helps to extend the metaphor by reassuring her that he will have to live "as birds do". This metaphor becomes more powerful because the audience knows that Macduff’s castle is about to be attacked by Macbeth's men.

Macbeth, as suggested, is identified with the owl, and Lady Macduff, trying to protect her son, becomes the wren in a self-realisation of her own words. There are similarities here between Lady Macbeth’s haughty declaration that she would rather ‘smash out’ her baby’s brain than fail to keep a promise, such as Macbeth had made, and Macbeth’s own actions in ordering the deaths of Lady Macduff and her children. But it is the differences between the two views of mothering that creates the most dramatic impact for the audience.

·        Reflect on the ideas of feminine values each of the play’s two women represent.

·        Why does Shakespeare use two very different examples of womankind? How do these examples of mothering contrast with the images of fatherhood represented by Duncan, who, like a father, would like his subjects to “grow” according to their position and their worth.

·        Why does Macduff leave his wife and children?

Act V
Act V begins with Lady Macbeth’s guilty, but unconscious, revelations about the murders. The audience now sees the weak side of Lady Macbeth, which presents a shocking visual contrast with the Lady Macbeth of previous acts. The washing theme is continued as the sleep-walking, sleep-talking Lady Macbeth, in vain, tries to scrub the stains of the murders from her hands. The blood represents guilt, but as guilt is associated with sin, the stain reminds the audience of the biblical reference to the sin in the book of Genesis, when Cain killed Abel and God placed a mark upon Cain.

During the period of James’ 1 reign, as many as 8000 people were tried and found guilty of witchcraft and were burned at the stake. Some were accused of being witches because they were said to have ‘the mark’ of the devil on them, which in reality, was often a mole or birth-mark. God placed ‘the mark’ on Cain to protect him, but it is clear that Lady Macbeth’s mark does not protect her because others have identified her guilt which identifies her with the devil.

This scene would remind the audience of the witchcraft trials that were going on all over the country. The doctor and nurse who attend Lady Macbeth are witnesses to her guilt. The doctor later tells Macbeth that he cannot cure an ‘infected mind’ and that Lady Macbeth has more need of a priest than a doctor.

This reinforces the play’s underlying theme of good versus evil. You can contrast this need for healing with the healing powers that are associated with the good King Edward who could heal his subjects with a touch of his hand.

·       Turn to the description of the ‘miraculous’ healing powers of King Edward in Act IV Scene 3, lines 149-161. What powers are associated with the reign of a good and virtuous king? How does Shakespeare’s use of biblical imagery support the contrast he creates between Macbeth’s reign and that of King Edward’s?

·       Using two columns, headed good and evil, list some of their individual characteristics.

·       Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot, out, I say!” speech employs a choppier form of language that we associate more with the witches rather than with her use of the complex rhythm of her earlier speeches.
What theme is Shakespeare accentuating through this use of language? What does this use of language suggest about Lady Macbeth’s status and her state of mind?

·       Compare the Act V examples of her speech with the language she uses to greet Duncan in Act I. What do you notice about the length of the sentences and the kind of words she uses?

·       Does Shakespeare use this language to foreshadow Lady Macbeth’s death?

·       The way a person uses language indicates their status in Shakespeare’s plays. The nobility use a poetic language to indicate their rank. Read the Language features section for a more detailed understanding of the way Shakespeare uses language.

·       Just as clearly as Lady Macbeth’s shriveling is made visible to the audience, Macbeth’s own demise appears to be written and foreshadowed in his use of language.
Compare the language used by both characters. What differences do you notice? Is Macbeth ever robbed of his status by the words he uses?

·       Even in defeat, Macbeth’s refusal to yield to Malcolm is amplified by the fact that he chooses to hold on to the nobility that is expressed through his use of poetic language. Does this different use of language shift the guilt of the deed of murdering Duncan more towards Lady Macbeth? Explain your view, and show how the language used influences the themes already discussed.

·       How does Macbeth’s use of language ‘mark’ him as the tragic hero in the play? Has Macbeth been too trusting in listening to the witches, and his wife?

·       Reflect on Macbeth’s speech that life is a ‘tale told by a fool’ in Act V.

·       How does this linking of ‘life’ with the lowest in rank, ‘the fool,’ reveal the moral of the play? What are the implications regarding connecting one’s fate too closely to the double-talk and predictions of others?

·       What does this positioning of Shakespeare’s male and female characters reveal about the traditional roles that men and women are expected to play? How is a violent woman depicted in comparison to a violent man? How is masculinity related to violence?

·       It is useful, in this last Act, to think of both the Macbeths as puppets of the devil, and it is interesting that Macbeth’s only remaining servant in Act V is Seyton. Given the double play that Shakespeare uses, who then is the real master and who is the real servant within the economy of this mirror play?

·       The role of the mirror (in a dramatic sense) in this play, is one that is barely mentioned by most scholars, yet it joins together most of the themes used by the playwright.

Reflect on this and comment on your experiences in reading other literature where a mirror technique has been used effectively.

7. Audience and purpose

The question of the playwright’s purpose is one that you should consider frequently as you explore different aspects of the play. Keith Windshuttle said; “It is easy to see the parallels between modern political reporting and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dramas, which were also about ‘power in high places’. Political reporters today were looking for the same dramatic aspects of the struggle for power as were the script-writers of yesteryear.”

The question of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays to entertain or to inform his audience is one that should be looked at from as many different perspectives as possible.

Remember that all the actors on the Elizabethan stage were male. The plays were performed in daylight in a theatre space that was round and sparse.

Focus activities
1.    Do you think the historical sources Shakespeare uses are effective in establishing a context for the play? How?

2.    Keith Windshuttle suggested that politics in Australia has more to do with a politician’s media image than policy. Do you agree or disagree?

3.    Imagine you are a reporter. Write about Macbeth as an heroic military leader from the point of view of Ross, and use some his quotes from Act I.

4.    Create a photo essay titled The Tragic Hero, beginning with the caption Macbeth on the battlefield - glorious in battle. Imagine that your images could be used in a later newspaper story to show the changes that brought about Macbeth’s downfall.

8. The aspects of drama

The different aspects of drama include the play’s setting, characterisation, language, the structure of the play, the theme/s and the performance. Use the following sections to increase your understanding of each of these different aspects of the play.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is meant to be set in various historical locations in the years 1040-1057 in Scotland and England. Scotland was politically independent from England then, although, at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, the two had recently been united under one monarch. It is more than likely that Shakespeare chose a Scottish history for his play because King James VI of Scotland, who had recently become King James I of England, was his patron.

The play’s intended settings have some symbolic and historical importance. For example, Scone is located near Dunsinane, close to Birnam Wood and Glamis. Scone was the place where the Kings of Scotland were crowned. Forres, is near Cawdor and Inverness in the north. Macbeth is buried at Iona or Colmkill, the traditional burial place of Kings of Scotland.

The action of the play shifts from a deserted heath, to Duncan's palace at Forres, to Macbeth's castle at Inverness, to Macduff's castle, to England and back to Inverness.

More important than the physical setting is the atmospheric setting of the play. Examine each of the play’s settings and try to work out why the setting is important.

In a staged performance of a play some of the features of these locations are incorporated into set designs to inform the audience that a change of location or atmosphere has occurred.

A film version of Macbeth may give the director more visual scope but simulated sets can have even more impact because they can draw upon symbolic references from the play to add greater dramatic or ironic impact to the performance.

Setting also refers to the time and the society in which the play is set. The stage setting establishes the mood for the drama which is about to happen.

Write answers to the following questions:
1.    Compare and contrast the differences between staged and filmed versions of the play. How does the mode or medium influence decisions about production?
2.    Why is the setting important to the events of the play?
3.    How has the playwright used the setting?
4.    In what ways does the setting affect the conflict central to the play?

Focus activities
·        What is more important, the actual setting or the atmospheric setting of the play?

·        Design a cardboard box miniature set for a scene from Macbeth.

·        Experiment with sound and lighting, for example, coloured, bright, dull, or flickering, or crowd sounds; loud, soft, shrill, eerie, whispering, or musical sounds, like the sound of bagpipes. How would this affect the mood of an audience?

·        Ask a small group of friends to be an audience and provide feedback. Compare their individual and group responses. To what extent do their responses agree or disagree? Record your results in your response journal.

·        Reflect on these comments. What does this tell you about the way audiences are influenced by a setting?

Visit these sites for general ideas on lighting and set design.
·        Internet Theatre Resources <>
·        Steven L. Williams <>.

Social context
The material in Life in Elizabethan England: A compendium of Common Knowledge <> should help you to establish a social context for the play.

Geographical location
The play is set in various locations in Scotland and England. Locate many of these locations on Old English Pages: Map of Anglo-Saxon England <>.

Additional activities
·       If you have time to experiment, try using puppets or dolls with your set design to see how this form influences an audience.

·       Use your set to inspire the design of a cartoon that reflects on a social or political aspect of the play.

·       List the names of all the characters and write a brief description of each character. A character list can look like the one provided at Macbeth: An Indepth Analysis <>.

·       Create a profile for each character. Make notes about each character’s background, appearance, things they say and do, things said about them, their personality, their relationship with others, how they change, and the best quotes to use made by them. The profiles take time to compose but will give you a valuable tool that will assist you in your writing and analysis of the play.

Focus activities and questions
·       Keep a separate page for each character in your response journal. On this page, list the motives of the character. A motive for Macbeth would be his burning ambition to be king. List and describe as many motives as you can think of.

·       Describe the methods the characters use to fulfill their plans. For example, Macbeth wrote Lady Macbeth a letter to tell her of the witches’ prophesy.

·       Finally, describe the means by which the character carries out his/her plans.

·       How does Macbeth reward the three murderers who killed Banquo?

·       In your reflective journal write your thoughts about what you have learnt about each character, and reflect on how you learnt it.
1.    How has your perspective of each character changed?
2.    How has your understanding of the character helped you to better understand the play’s conflicts?
3.    How has the character’s responses reinforced the play’s themes, mood and action?

Language features
The Elizabethan’s spoke and wrote differently to the way modern versions of English are spoken and written. To gain an appreciation of these differences look at Ren Faire: Elizabethan Accents <>. You will be able to access sound files on the use of vowels and Old English greetings.

You should experiment with language accents as you perform the play. The use of a different accent is particularly effective for the porter’s lines in Act II.

Roman Polanski’s film version of the play provides a good example of this mood altering effect created by using language more appropriate to the status of the character.

The visual language of the play is emphasised by the gestures and body language of the characters. As you watch a version of the play take note of how the characters deliver their lines.
1.    What gestures do they use?
2.    How does their body language reveal their intentions?

Visual language can be used by producers to create an effect or to send an additional message to the audience. Lightning strikes or mist, at appropriate times, become part of the visual language of a production.

List as many examples of these visual cues as you can think of. Camera angles and the length or shortness of the frame sometimes replaces the need for spoken dialogue.

How does the filmed version of the play make use of framing to increase the visual impact or meaning of a scene?

In most productions of the play the murders take place off the set, why do you think a producer makes this kind of aesthetic decision?

Key words
Shakespeare used key words to create significant meanings and atmosphere. Key words recur to emphasise a dramatic effect. Identify the key words in Macbeth using the word cruncher exercise mentioned above. Christy Desmet’s word-cruncher exercise for Macbeth draws attention to the biblical references in the play, for example, heaven, hell, angel, devil, fiend, good, and evil.

1.    Why are there more references to evil and to hell in the play?
2.    Why is the word “sleep” referred to at least 32 times?
3.    Do words like “sleep” act like a metaphor to extend the meaning of the play’s emotional or spiritual references and themes? How?

Focus activity
Do as many word cruncher activities as possible. This activity will help you understand the imagery used by Shakespeare.

Hyphenated words
Shakespeare used hyphenated words constantly in his plays. He used this technique to create many new words many of which are used every day. Pay attention to these hyphenated words. What function do they serve?

The witches
The witches have a style of speaking that is all their own. They almost always speak in a four beat rhythm, for example, “fair is foul, and foul is fair”.

Focus activities
Read the opening scene, Act I, Scene 1.
1.    Why do you think Shakespeare has chosen to give the witches their own speech?
2.    How is this language used?
3.    Why is the language used by the witches a choppier form of verse?
4.    What does Shakespeare’s use of the words ‘I’ or ‘I’ll’ suggest about the function the witches serve in moving the action forward?

Compare and contrast the tension of the language used by the witches with the ‘choppy’ form of prose used by Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene in Act V. What are the similarities and differences?

Equivocal language
Equivocation is a major theme of the play. Equivocation means to use deceptive language intentionally. Equivocal language is capable of more than one interpretation and is therefore ambiguous, i.e. language that has a double-meaning.

Macbeth accuses the witches of using double-meanings in Act 5 Scene 8:
“Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cowed my better part of man; ’And be these juggling fiends no more believed
That palter with us in a double sense.”

How does this direct use of the theme of equivocation suit the theme of what it means to be a man?

Examples of equivocal language can be found throughout the text. The famous examples are the predictions that the three apparitions make to Macbeth in Act IV.

Find other examples and add them to your character profile sheets. Note how the language is intended to be understood and what it really means in the context in which it is used.

Except for a few scenes, Macbeth is written mainly in blank verse, which more than any other verse form, resembles the natural rhythm of spoken verse. The play’s unrhyming lines have a five beat rhythm called ‘iambic pentameter.’ Each line has five iambs (feet) each with a stressed (/) and unstressed (x) syllable: For example:

x        x          x        x          x
I am/ a fraid/ to think/ what I/ have done
(Act II scene 2)

Experiment with reciting the lines in iambic pentameter individually, or as a chorus.

Why does this rhythm suit the play?

There are five examples of prose sequences in the play:
·       Macbeth’s letter to his wife
·       the porter scene
·       Macbeth’s conversation with the murderers
·       part of Lady Macduff’s conversation with her son
·       Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking.

List the similarities and difference between these different uses of prose.

Discuss how and why prose is more suitable than blank verse.

What dramatic function does the change of writing style serve?

Shakespeare used prose to define the role of lower status characters, such as servants, or for comic speeches. The porter scene is an example of the use of comedy. Prose is used to allow the audience to experience the drama from a different perspective.

How effective do you think this technique is in holding the interest of the audience?

Rhymed couplets
A rhymed couplet was used to mark out something as important. The Elizabethan theatre was without curtains, so the rhymed couplet was used to inform the audience of the end of the scene. Here is an example:
“Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,
those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.”

As you read note other examples.

Shakespeare’s diction is superbly demonstrated in Macbeth. Note how his use of words convey sounds and images in this extract from Act V Scene 5.

“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!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

1.    How does the language express the mood in this soliloquy?
2.    How do the sounds and pauses reinforce the meaning of the speech?
3.    What use has Shakespeare made of literary devices, for example similes, or metaphors?
4.    What is ‘life’ compared to?

Metaphors and similes are examples of figurative speech. Other examples of figurative speech are personification and alliteration.

What is being personified in each of the following examples?
“If change will have me King, why, chance may crown me without my stir.”
(Act I Scene 1)

“Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since.”
(Act I Scene 7)

Alliteration is the repetition of consonants, usually at the beginning of words, for example;
x            x
Double, Double toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds
    x           x                      x
Double, Double toil and trouble
         x                            x
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

The example above demonstrates a use of onomatopoeia, that is, the use of words whose sound mimics what they are describing.

Stage directions
Shakespeare’s use of literary devices supports the dramatic effects he is trying to create. Stage directions are also used to describe dramatic effect.

Focus activity
Turn to the beginning of Act 4 Scene 1. Read the stage directions. In a group act out the scene using sound effects for the thunder as the witches enter the field.

1.    Discuss how you would recreate this scene for the stage.
2.    What kind of visual and sound language would best suit the scene?
3.    Write a paragraph about how you would stage the scene.
4.    How does your presentation differ from others?

A soliloquy is a form of monologue (single voice) spoken by one character while alone on the stage (or who is under the impression they are). A soliloquy communicates the inner thoughts of the character to the audience. It represents thinking-aloud, but can also involve the audience. A monologue is not a soliloquy if the speaker is not alone.

Macbeth contains several very important soliloquies. Find some examples and take note of why Shakespeare has used them. What function do they serve?

Antithesis is a contrast or oppositional use of language. Identify opposing words in the following lines:
“fair is foul and foul is fair”
“when the battle’s lost and won”

How does Shakespeare use antithesis in the play?

The play’s themes have been discussed above. You should read this section several times, and the section below on imagery. The sectio, A closer look at each Act gives insights into learning how to identify a theme in order to understand how it is used to create meaning. There are other themes that have not been given detailed treatment here: honour and loyalty, sickness and health, light and dark, fate and fortune. These themes are implied through an extension of the play’s other themes referred to above.

The imagery used in Macbeth is not only vivid but is well connected to the playwright’s use of themes. Imagery in the play is also connected to the playwright’s use of literary devices e.g. figurative language, metaphors, similes. An example of this is the references to birds in Act II.

The images of the birds becomes a metaphor for the life and death struggle between the forces of good and evil in the play. Note the kinds of birds that appear. Find some of these examples and take note of how each bird image is used.

The imagery of clothing or “borrowed robes,” is also a metaphor for things not being what the appear to be. Why does Shakespeare use the image of Macbeth putting on “borrowed” clothing?

Other examples of Shakespeare’s use of imagery include his references to sleep, light and darkness, blood, babies and children, eating, illness and death.

Find an example of how a reference to each of these images is used by the playwright to support a theme.

To see some artistic images of the play go to
·        Colin.Witches <>
·        Fuseli. Three Witches <>
·        Fuseli. Macbeth <>

Focus activity
Choose a theme and research it.
1.    How is it developed throughout the play?
2.    How do the symbols used further the use of a theme?

Jahn, Manfred (2001): A Guide to the Theory of Drama. Part II of Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres.

“In a bookshop, you will find the drama section next to the fiction and the poetry sections. But does that mean that a play is a type of text just like a novel or a poem? Today, most theorists assume that the true nature of a play lies in its orientation toward a public performance, toward becoming a 'play in performance'. The play's text is variously seen as a guide to a performance, comparable to a blueprint, a musical score (Krieger 1995: 78), or even a recipe for baking a cake (Searle 1975: 329). As to the role of the audience, audience reactions (laughing, crying etc.) are not only integral parts of a performance, they also have an immediate feedback effect. All this is reflected in Pfister's basic definition.

A play is a multimedial form designed to be staged in a public performance. A play is 'multimedial' in the sense that it uses both auditory and visual media: a play's audience has to use their eyes as well as their ears, a novel, in contrast, is a 'monomedial' form.

A tragedy is a serious play whose protagonist (main character) dies in the end. A fall-of-princes tragedy is one that treats the tragic downfall of a prince ('prince' is a generic term that covers kings and queens as well); a domestic tragedy is one that presents the unhappy fate of a more common person; a revenge tragedy is propelled by the motif of violent revenge (the first play of this kind is thought to be Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1586). Hamlet is a fall-of-prince and a revenge tragedy; Othello is a domestic tragedy.”

How would you categorise Macbeth?

Just as there is no single written interpretation of Macbeth that is absolutely correct, so too, there is no particular ‘right’ way of performing the play. If you can, try to experiment with as many different performance styles as possible to tap into the imaginative possibilities of performing the play.

Try starting with an empathy exercise on each of the main characters to show how circumstances have influenced their decision to act in a certain way. Modernize the setting and context of the play to help with the empathy process.

Imaginative scenario:
Imagine Lady Macbeth is a woman who is really a strong character, who has recently been driven mad by her husband’s indifference to her, over the loss of their only child, a daughter. At the time she receives Macbeth’s letter she is experiencing a bout of severe post-natal depression. Macbeth has always been more childish than her and showed little remorse when their child died because he only really wanted male children. When he hears the witches’ prediction about becoming king his imagination runs away from him and he conceives of the idea to murder the king, believing that fate is compensating him for being fatherless. Taking advantage of her weakened mental state Macbeth convinces her to go ahead with the murder.

Alternative scenario:
Imagine Macbeth is a great man whose wife is very corrupt. Lady Macbeth is a woman who has always had a weak character which she has managed to disguise brilliantly. She has been used to getting her own way for most of her life. She is attracted to Macbeth because he has a military genius which she thinks will lead to her to greatness, if only she can alter Macbeth’s moral view of the world. She drugs his food and plants ideas in his head as he sleeps. Because he is drugged when he meets the witches, Macbeth imagines they have supernatural powers but they are secretly acting on instructions from Lady Macbeth. Later, the witches hypnotize Macbeth into believing that he has killed Duncan when in fact the deed was really done by the wickedly scheming Lady Macbeth and her witches.

These empathy exercises are meant to get you to use your imagination to interpret the character’s emotions and motives. If you are able to see a performance of Macbeth, think about other ways in which the performance could be presented.
1.    How would you perform your own version of the play?
2.    What kinds of movements or gestures will be used to support the themes of the play?
3.    How will sound effects be used?
4.    If you are filming the production; what camera angles will you use to highlight the emotional responses of the characters to create a greater dramatic impact on the audience?
5.    How will costumes be used to create effect?
6.    Is make-up required to accentuate aspects of the character’s personality? (e.g. thick lips for sensuality, thin lips for meanness or a sterner character.)

Focus activity
How does the new social context of the play influence the way we see the characters?

9. A glossary of dramatic terms
Glossaries help you understand the correct terms to use in your writing. There are several sites that contain excellent glossaries for the study of drama. Follow these links to improve your use of the technical and literary use of dramatic terms.

·        School Show Page: Glossary of Theatre Terms <>
·        Jahn: PPP/Drama <>.

A glossary of literary terms

A well presented and searchable glossary of literary terms can be found at:
·        A Glossary of Literary Terms <>
·        Literary terms <>.

Additional activities

Try to make a cardboard version, (1/150th) scale model, of the famous Globe theatre where Shakespeare performed most of his plays. To see how it is done go to SGC (USA) Research: Models <>. To compare this with newer modes and concepts of The Globe go to Index of/globe/newglobe <>.

A more highly detailed version of this plan can be found at Jahn: PPP/Drama <>.

Examine the influence of the witches. Consider them in light of the play’s historical context. Explore the witchcraft extract below and list what people believed witches could do.

Witchcraft extract: The following law was passed by Parliament on the wishes of James 1 in 1563. It was not repealed in England until 1951.
“That ‘if any person shall use any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit; 2. Or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil or cursed spirit to or for any intent or purpose; 3. Or take up any dead man, woman or child out of the grave, - or the skin, bone, or any part of the dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; 4. Or shall use practice, or exercise any sort of witchcraft, sorcery, charm or enchantment; 5. Whereby any person shall be destroyed, killed, wasted, consumed, pined, or lamed in any part of the body; 6. That every such person being convicted shall suffer death.”

Witches could be blamed for everything and anything that went wrong.

Consider: How are witches viewed today? (e.g. Buffy teenage witch, Blaire Witch etc.)

Regicide is the killing of a king. Imagine you are able to interview the real Macbeth. Use your interview skills to interview the real Macbeth on the reasons why he chose to kill his cousin, Duncan. Concentrate on the ideas of power, betrayal, envy, and succession.

Explore the changes that each of the main characters has undergone in the play (e.g. Lady Macbeth appears to develop a conscience whereas Macbeth loses his). What implications do these changes have on the overall meaning of the play?

Debate the idea that, “Women are as good as men in committing serious crimes.”

Explore the play’s concepts of masculinity, and compare: what physical or social attributes make a man a “real man” today? Cut out pictures from magazines that emphasise what the attributes of a real man are today and make a class presentation using a collage of images to report your impressions.

Women and children are often the victims of violent crime, yet producers appear to think very little about the impact that violent images have on young audiences. How should the violent scenes of the play be presented to a modern audience?

Though witchcraft has appealed to both men and women through the ages, the number of female witches who were put to death was greater, many of them were older women who were living alone. How have social perspectives of ‘older’ women living alone changed since Shakespeare’s day?

In Act V Lady Macbeth wrote in her sleep. Read the sleep-walking scene again. Imagine that you are Lady Macbeth. Write a letter to a close relative or a diary entry focusing on the words “hell is murky”, and the changed relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.

To get some ideas about how to set out your work go to Macbeth’s Letter to Lady Macbeth <>.


Essay writing

Many students do poorly in exams because they do not know how to write effectively in the time allowed. Write at least two practice essays of your own, and if you can, get written feedback on them.

These hours of preparation, plus the time spent doing the journal and character profiling, (not to mention all the fun you had working out how the play was meant to be performed!) will help. Here are some tips for answering the Shakespeare question in the exam.

Make sure you know the text inside out. Examiners recommend that you read the text at least three times. If you are responding to a film version of the play you will still need to know it as well as you know the text for the play. So don’t be fooled into thinking that you only need to have seen the film. You will still need to be able to recall lines from the text to support your interpretation, and discuss how technical effects contributed to the production.

Read the exam question and any relevant material at least three times. Answer that question. Many students write good essays but don’t address the question because they have a pre-conceived idea of how to write an essay response to the play. Consequently, they get a disappointing result.

Take time to plan what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Are you going to write a persuasive response? Have several response approaches in mind, before the exam.

When you discuss the play, discuss it as a piece of drama, rather than as a book that you have read closely; this is not what the purpose of studying drama is about. Therefore, you must interact with the text in an imaginative way, paying careful attention to the mood and atmosphere of the play and not merely the technical details of the production. You should have a picture in your mind of what the characters look like, their gestures, their facial expressions, the way they talk, their motives etc. This knowledge of the play’s emotional context adds to the dramatic impact that the playwright is creating. You also need to be aware of the context in which the characters are speaking and how this context can be influenced by the interpretation placed on the performance by the director’s interpretation, or the actor, in delivering the lines. Think of the social, cultural and historical setting or context; what does this add to the meaning and the timing of a particular production?

Expand your critical vocabulary. Don’t simply fall in to the trap of using particular words or phrases without ensuring that they strengthen your argument.

Use quotes from the text to support your interpretation.

Don’t summarise or retell the story.

Practically everyone makes mistakes when they are under pressure so allow time to re-read your essay and proof-read it for obvious mistakes.

Make sure you know how to write an essay.

To get help with essay writing, go to: IPL Teenspace: At Research & Writing <>.

Sample essay questions
1.    In Act I Scene 5 Lady Macbeth speaks about the things that would enable her to kill Duncan. What does she need to be or do to do this? Relate her imagined self image to the physical appearance of  the witches, as they are described in Act I. What similarities and differences do you notice between the witches and Lady Macbeth? What do you think Shakespeare’s purpose is in creating these characters?

2.    Consider the similarities and differences throughout the first half of the play between how Macbeth and Banquo handle the information given to them by the witches. What do the differences between them suggest about their responses to the following; the future, fate, loyalty, and the supernatural?

3.    Consider the references to ‘nature’ and ‘unnatural’ throughout the play. How does the symbolism of the moving forest extend the play’s themes of order and disorder, and good and evil? In your answer, discuss how other ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ images have been used by Shakespeare? In your answer, make references to the emotional impact these images were meant to evoke from the audience.

4.    What do the events in Act III tell us about the major themes of the play?

5.    Compare the attributes of a good king to Macbeth. Use the idea of illness and health to support your answer. How does Macbeth’s reign, and his use of authority, compare to this idea of what a good king is?

6.    Lady Macduff’s character represents that of a good noblewoman. How does Lady Macbeth compare to her and the other women of the play? Include the witches, or the image of the dead prostitute, in your comparison.



A timeline for the historical context of Macbeth can be found at Literature in Context-Macbeth <>.

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