1. The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable figures in the play. How does Shakespeare characterize the witches? What is their thematic significance?
2. Compare and contrast Macbeth, Macduff, and Banquo. How are they alike? How are they different? Is it possible to argue that Macbeth is the play’s villain and Macduff or Banquo its hero, or is the matter more complicated than that?
3. Discuss the role that blood plays in Macbeth, particularly immediately following Duncan’s murder and late in the play. What does it symbolize for Macbeth and his wife?
4. Discuss Macbeth’s visions and hallucinations. What role do they play in the development of his character?
5. Is Macbeth a moral play? Is justice served at the end of the play? Defend your answer.
6. Discuss Shakespeare’s use of the technique of elision, in which certain key events take place offstage. Why do you think he uses this technique?
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Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare)
Macbeth (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)
Macbeth is often cited as a famous example of what the American sociologist Robert Merton called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Discuss how the mechanism of the witches’ prophecy works in terms of its self-fulfillment.
The question may be approached by examining the psychology behind Macbeth’s character and his relationship with Lady Macbeth (e.g. his easily-tempted character becomes his fate). It may also be fruitful to perform a close reading of the passage around Banquo’s famous lines “If you can look into the seeds of time / And say which grain will grow and which will not, / Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate” (I iii 55-59). An ambitious essay might also consider a comparison to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or another play containing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine a staging of Macbeth. Who would play the third murderer who appears unannounced? Who would play the anonymous messenger who warns Lady Macduff about her imminent doom? Why?
Consider current and past productions of Macbeth. There is a certain logic to staging Macbeth as the third murderer, for example, and Ross as the messenger. How would a different staging change the dynamics of the play?
Some critics have considered the porter scene out of place in an otherwise cruel and compact play. Does it really provide comic really relief? How do you imagine the scene to be staged?
Compare and contrast a lighter, comic staging to a darker, hellish staging. Here, the issue is simply tone, as the text supports either interpretation. If the porter's comic relief is properly juxtaposed against the violent circumstances, he comes across more as pitiable than a discordant jester.
Macbeth is the one to express doubts over murdering Duncan but it is Lady Macbeth on whom the burden of crime takes its toll. How do the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth develop differently over the course of the play?
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can be considered to have switched characters, in a broad sense, over the course of the play. Lady Macbeth goes from proclaiming “unsex me here” to “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (I v 39; V i 42-43), Macbeth becomes more resolute and tyrannical as the play progresses. And yet Lady Macbeth also shows a morsel of humanity early on in the play. After she has intoxicated Duncan’s two guards, she remarks: “I laid their daggers ready; / He could not miss’em. Had he [Duncan] not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (II ii 11-13). The question lies in the judgment of whether a coherent psychological picture underlies the two characters, or whether they serve to illustrate some more or less formulaic “meaning.”
Perform a close reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy beginning “She should have died hereafter” and ending “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V v 17-27). Why does Macbeth believe that Lady Macbeth should have died on a future date? What does he think lies in the future? What does this say about his character?
There are many possible interpretations of the passage—in particular of his comment about Lady Macbeth’s death. One answer will draw on Macbeth’s lines immediately preceding the soliloquy in question. In the past, he claims, a sound such as Lady Macbeth’s shriek of death would have shocked him deeply, but at present he has become unmoved and apathetic. Macbeth still seems to believe that the future holds peace for his reign. At the same time, he seems to have already accepted Lady Macbeth’s death as inevitable. What does this calm acceptance say about how his character has changed?
What is the significance of Macbeth’s vision of the dagger and of Banquo’s ghost in the play?
Macbeth’s visions seem to be indicative of his guilty conscience. At the same time, they also seem to interact with the supernatural order that the witches have brought about - the three apparitions and their specific prophecies. It would also be interesting to consider different stagings of such visions.
Discuss the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff in Act V Scene iii. Is Malcolm really testing Macduff—and if so, why does he do it? What is the dramatic significance of the testing?
The scene immediately proceeds the murder of Lady Macduff and Macduff’s son. Given the dramatic irony that Macduff has yet to hear the news, the scene seems to heighten the sense of cruelty that pervades the play. It may also be worthwhile to consider a counterfactual alternative: what would have happened if Macduff had responded differently? Could he have responded differently?
Discuss the dramatic conclusion of Macbeth. The resolution to the problems presented by the later prophecies relies on a play of words. Macduff was not technically “born” of a woman, so to speak, and Birnam Wood only “comes” to Dunsinane Hill in a manner of speaking. For a play as grave as Macbeth, does not such a resolution seem strangely lacking in gravity?
The resolution of the play may attest to the power of words. The plot of the play—in all its terrible events of regicide and murders—are after all driven by nothing but a few words uttered by three weird sisters. These same words, of course, are powerful enough to overthrow a kingdom twice.
Why can Macbeth not bring himself to pronounce one “Amen” when Duncan’s guards say “God bless us” on their deathbeds (II ii 26-27)? Does this paint a coherent psychological picture? If not, what dramatic purpose does the scene serve?
Although Macbeth does not always act rationally, he is by no means an unintelligent character. On the contrary, his famous soliloquy beginning “She should have died hereafter” in Act V Scene v is testament to his perceptive worldview—if not his poetic sensibility. His inability to pronounce “Amen” may attest to the fact that he finds such a pronouncement overwhelmingly hypocritical.
The account of Duncan and Macbeth differs significantly between Macbeth and its primary source, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Compare the two accounts and discuss the effects of Shakespeare’s changes.
In Holinshed's account, Macbeth is a ruthless and valiant leader who rules competently after killing Duncan, whereas Duncan is portrayed as a young and soft-willed man. Shakespeare draws out certain aspects of the two characters in order to create a stronger sense of polarity. Whereas Duncan is made out to be a venerable and kindly older king, Macbeth is transformed into an indecisive and troubled young man who cannot possibly rule well.