This web page is intended for students who are following GCSE syllabuses (a UK exam) in English Language and English literature. It may also be of general interest to students of Shakespeare's plays.
The text of the play
If you have the text of the play as an electronic document (an e-text), you can use your text editor (such as WordPad) or word processor (such as Word, WordPro or WordPerfect) to search for items of interest, and help you in other ways. To get a copy of the play as a text file, go to the e-text library of Project Gutenberg. To find the entire play in Web page (HTML) format, go to Bartleby Library. Click on the links below to do this:
The play in performance
Ideally, you should see the play in live performance. If you cannot do this you can watch a videotape of a good production. Roman Polanski's film-version is very accessible while Channel 4's recent TV version for schools condenses the play without losing the most important action and dialogue. If you have time, then the more versions you see, the better - you can compare these different interpretations, when you do the tasks on this guide or which your teacher sets for you. Use the links below if you wish to purchase a videotape of any of these versions:
About the play
Macbeth is a play: Shakespeare did not write it to be read in schools, but to be seen and heard in live performance. It is possible, and can be enjoyable, to act out Shakespeare's plays, but you should not expect to enjoy or understand everything. Why not? Because Shakespeare uses a form of English that often differs from how we speak today. Even in his own day, he used a far wider vocabulary (range of words) than almost anyone in his audience. He refers to ideas, people or objects with which the audience in his day would be familiar because these things were part of their education or current events. But modern audiences will not always know about them in detail. Also, the plays require great skill in the actors: it is easy to perform them incompetently. Shakespeare makes great demands of his actors, because he knows how good they are at what they do.
Although there are many beautiful and interesting speeches, Shakespeare was just as interested in narrative, that is telling a story in words and actions. Modern editions of the plays, for use in schools, have extensive notes to explain the meaning of odd terms or unfamiliar ideas. If you use these for your own reading and acting, you may begin to enjoy the plays. You should also try to see video or feature film versions, or listen to radio productions, but a good performance in the theatre should be better than all of these.
This guide is intended to support study of the play by an examination class. A range of activities will be described, from which students should make their own choice, or a selection negotiated with the teacher.
How to write about Shakespeare's plays
Let the teacher/examiner assessing your written (or spoken) work see that you know that a play is drama. It happens in performance in a theatre (or, today, in a feature film or TV or radio broadcast). It is not a book and there are no readers. You may have used a book containing the characters' lines, some basic stage directions and lots of notes to help you study the play. But this is not what Shakespeare intended for his audience.
Show that you understand the difference between (fictional) characters in the play, and the (real) actors who play the parts. And don't call the play a "film" or a "book".
Try not to copy long passages from the text of the play. Do quote short phrases or single words, putting these in speech marks. Do not write the verb "quote" to introduce a quotation. Always explain, or comment on, what you quote, using your own words. Note also that you do not have to quote directly all the time - indirect quotation is perfectly acceptable. To see the difference look at these two examples:
Macbeth says: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
Duncan says (of the Thane of Cawdor) that you can't judge someone's mind by looking at his face.
How to avoid retelling the story
Make judgements, and support these with reference to the play in detail or by direct (short) quotation. To see how quotation should be set out, look at the examples above. Where the point of your quotation is not obvious, you should explain it, and what it has to do with your argument. As a rule of thumb, your comment should follow the pattern of
It is a good idea to keep sentences short (don't try to make multiple comments). Ensure that you avoid basic spelling errors: get the names right, and remember how to spell characters.
The following ideas are suggested as ways into the text. They have been devised for students in Key Stage 4 of the English and Welsh National Curriculum, but can fairly easily be adapted for other year groups.
Acting parts of the play
For this you print a brief extract of the play on a card. Read through and act this out. A good variant on this is a technique (originally from Japan) which the German playwright Bertolt Brecht used in preparing a performance. Two pupils can share each part: one reads the dialogue, while the other performs the actions. Another of you can direct the speakers and actors.
Present a tableau, illustrating one of the key ideas in the play - this means you form into a static position or freeze frame, like a statue. If you wish you may develop this into an improvisation, with actions and dialogue.
A given episode may be acted out by different groups, with the teacher, as director, prompting you to play the scene in differing ways.
Make predictions for different parts of the play - try to give reasons for what you expect. When you find out what really happens, you can review your prediction, explaining why you were right or wrong. For example:
Discuss how the play's themes are treated in soap-opera, television drama, feature films and popular magazines. This can be extended by writing of a script for such a treatment.
Alternatively, you can research the history of political assassinations and the treatment of the subject in the media: feature films (such as JFK, The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate), television or radio documentaries and newspaper features.
Transforming the text
Present an episode, or series of events from the play as it might appear in different newspapers, magazines or books by your favourite authors, showing awareness of style and presentation. How would Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton write about this story.
Update or translate a brief extract into modern English, possibly in more than one version: formal standard English, colloquial English and regional or ethnic registers. Discuss how well these might work on the stage, on TV or on film.
Using a word-processing program, find how often given words or roots of words occur in the text. Create tables or graphs to show this.
For an advanced version of this you could study recurring metaphors or thematic images, such as references to clothes, or to sickness.
Looking at themes
Make a short presentation (written or spoken) as a guide for your class on one or more of the themes of the play. Here are some suggestions, but you could add ideas of your own:
Questions about the play
These questions can be used to test or develop your knowledge of the play. Teachers can ask pupils to discuss them. If pupils are to respond in writing it is best to do this in a form that is useful either for revision or to become part of an essay or other written assignment. In some exam syllabuses students may do spoken work for assessment in a GCSE Shakespeare study.
Macbeth - character
Macbeth at the start of the play
At the start of the play, Macbeth is a good man who knows his place. He is a loyal servant of the King. God appoints the King to rule. If the King rules well, then his subjects will love him and he will reward their love with gratitude and generosity. This is the ideal state of affairs at the start of Macbeth, though just before it, there has been a rebellion, and the play opens with an account of the defeat of the rebels.
Although God appoints the ruler, it is possible for a gross disturbance of the natural order of things to happen. And this may allow a rebel (usurper) to overthrow the rightful monarch. In Macbeth, this is what happens when the witches dabble in the affairs of men. But Hecate, who must obey the higher powers of the universe, shows the witches that order must be restored, and Macbeth removed from power.
Macbeth is very loyal to begin with, so his treachery against Duncan is especially shocking. It is only believable (plausible) because of the way the witches arouse powerful ambition in him. But though they suggest things to him, the witches do not force Macbeth to kill Duncan. His evil action is freely chosen and (as we say today) premeditated.
In fact Macbeth sees very good arguments against Duncan's murder but is stung into firmness by his wife's scorn. She says that if she had made a promise like her husband's, she could even have dashed out the brains of her own child. (Perhaps, though, this is bravado - later she admits that she could not have killed Duncan because he resembled her own father. Does this mean she feels more love for a parent than a child? Or does it suggest fear of a father's authority?)
In Shakespeare's ordered universe there is no such thing as private or personal morality, and individuals can only be good in their proper station in society. To aspire to a position above (or equally below) one's station is a sin. And an ordinary man, like Macbeth, does not have the qualities that a king needs. Macbeth lacks political skill, and turns the gracious office of king into the rule of a bloody tribal warlord. When Macduff goes (Act 4, scene 3) to see Malcolm in exile, Duncan's son shows how diplomatic he is, by testing his visitor. When he leads a military force against Macbeth, he leaves the fighting to the experts (Siward and Macduff), just as Duncan does at the start of the play.
Macbeth does not know how to manage the Scottish lords with any diplomacy and Scotland descends into a reign of terror. Those who can do so flee the country, and wait for an opportunity to return. Those who have not fled desert Macbeth as soon as it is safe. The powerful English lords, Siward and Northumberland, are unhappy with the refugees crossing the border, and are ready to help restore Duncan's royal line in the person of Malcolm. Macbeth knows that his policy is unwise (see Act 5, scene 3, lines 24-9) but he has no alternative strategy.
As a military leader (at the start of the play), Macbeth is a good man. He is an able general in two senses.
Macbeth is especially ferocious in killing Macdonwald because he hates traitors. He is very loyal by nature, so it requires massive vaulting ambition to overcome this. He is also keen to relish the good reputation he has, after defeating the rebels - he says that he has bought golden opinions which he wants to wear now in their newest gloss.
So Act 1 shows an ideal relationship between the good king and his true subject:
The murder of Duncan
When Macbeth learns from Ross and Angus that he is now Thane of Cawdor, he thinks seriously about the third greeting of the witches. He thinks that they do speak true, but wonders what this means. Can he wait for chance to crown him king? Or must he act to bring it about? Lady Macbeth sees this as kind of hypocrisy. He wants the reward of evil but dare not commit the evil act:
Wouldst not play false
Seeing him waver, Lady Macbeth goes to stiffen his resolve. She takes a familiar line of belittling his manhood - a point about which Macbeth seems very insecure. (Is this connected with his lack of an heir?).
Duncan has discovered from the previous Thane of Cawdor that you cannot see the mind's construction in the face, but is confident enough of Macbeth's loyalty to place himself in his keeping. Macbeth sees that this makes killing him even worse than it would be anyway. There are several powerful reasons against it:
Duncan's visit gives Macbeth a unique opportunity - but it is only for the one night. Lady Macbeth knows this, but is sure that she can arrange things and manipulate her husband to ensure that the deed is done.
As soon as he kills the king, Macbeth is full of remorse. He also loses any sense of proportion he had - after this terrible deed other killings become easy, even the murder of a friend (Banquo), a woman (Lady Macduff) or children (Fleance and the Macduff boys). Although Macbeth pretends to know nothing of the murder, he is probably sincere when he says that if he had died an hour earlier he would have lived a blessed time. He means what he says when he states that there's nothing serious in mortality and all is but toys.
When Macduff and Lennox arrive, Macbeth's actions are largely automatic or directed by his wife. He makes mistakes, like bringing the daggers out of the room, and giving a wholly unconvincing explanation of his reason for killing the grooms. Lady Macbeth diverts suspicion by fainting, but Lennox (Act 3, scene 6) later reveals his doubts - he praises Macbeth for acting wisely as it would have angered anyone to hear the men deny their guilt.
Macbeth as tyrant
Killing Duncan makes Macbeth less free - every move from now on is made to secure his throne: To be thus is nothing,/But to be safely thus. Malcolm's and Donalbain's flight gives Macbeth a breathing space, as it suggests that they are behind their father's murder. Banquo, though, knows too much, and Macbeth cannot buy him off. Moreover, if Banquo and Fleance live, then the witches' forecast (that his heirs would be kings) may come true. Arranging the murder seems easy, and he does not need help from Lady Macbeth - instead he invites her to approve a deed, while being innocent of the knowledge. What he says at the banquet, when he sees Banquo's ghost, will make little sense to guests who do not yet know the reason for Banquo's absence, but later they may seem suspicious.
Early in the play, as Macbeth gradually yields to temptation, the audience will sympathise with the plight of a good man who is tempted. But as he becomes more brutal, and less reflective, this sympathy is lost. Killing Banquo is less serious (in the eyes of the Jacobean audience) than the killing of a king, but is so coldly arranged, that we cannot excuse it. And the murder of Lady Macduff and her brood is gratuitous and grotesque - Macduff has left them undefended because he supposes that they are of no concern to the tyrant. In fact the sequence is a convincing portrayal of the unreason of a megalomaniac - the witches warn Macbeth about Macduff, so he decides to have him killed. But Macduff has already escaped. Macbeth blames himself for delaying (quite unreasonably) and out of anger or a desire to do something, gives the order for Macduff's family to be slaughtered.
The inevitable and predictable result is that those thanes (lords) who have so far accepted Macbeth's rule in the hope of being left alone now transfer their loyalty to the tyrant's opponents. The scene in which Lady Macduff awaits her killers is painful, and the resistance shown by her son pathetic. We see that Macbeth has become a monster, and regret this when we see from what a height he has fallen.
From this point on, Macbeth acts without guidance from his wife (she reappears only to show her insanity). He is furiously active, and acts on impulse, while the witches have confused him entirely. He cannot plan rationally when he is deserted by so many of his troops, yet believes that he is miraculously protected. He makes his headquarters at Dunsinane, perhaps because this is the place mentioned in the witches' forecasts. He puts his armour on and takes it off almost in order to find something to do.
What was it all for? The glorious prospect of kingship has proved illusory, and he envies Duncan, sleeping peacefully in death, with his reputation intact. Instead of honour, love, obedience, troops of friends he has curses and mouth-honour (lip-service; Act 5, scene 3). The queen's death reminds him of the brevity and meaninglessness of life: ...a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.
While he is forced to wait for his enemies, they are seen moving inexorably northwards, their numbers growing all the time. It is a popular cause, almost a moral crusade and many unrough youths are fighting for the first time. Caithness notes how wild and unrestrained Macbeth's actions are, but Angus passes the most damning judgement. He notes how Macbeth feels his secret murders sticking to his hands (echoing Macbeth's words on the night of Duncan's murder, and those of Lady Macbeth more recently). Every minute, says Angus, a new revolt breaks out, and those who serve the tyrant do so only out of fear. A good king (like Duncan) has great moral stature but Macbeth lacks this - so his royal title appears as ridiculous as would ...a giant's robe/Upon a dwarfish thief.
When Birnam Wood does come to Dunsinane, Macbeth supposes that no mortal can harm him, and when he kills Young Siward he is more confident still. Macduff's disclosure may strike audiences as a silly or hair-splitting distinction, but the point is well made by Macbeth that they are juggling fiends...that palter with us in a double sense. He has been thinking of the reference to woman while all the time the critical word was - and Macduff was ripped from the womb untimely.
Shakespeare shows us in Macbeth a rapid degeneration from loyal general to bloody despot - a story, by the way, which has many parallels in the modern world. He also manipulates the audience's sympathy. At the start of the play we see Macbeth's inner debate, and even after Duncan's death we are sympathetic, seeing all that Macbeth has lost. Perhaps the watershed is the killing of Lady Macduff and her children. And we now see Macbeth from many other people's viewpoints - those of Macduff, Malcolm, Lennox, Angus and Ross). In Act 4, the action moves to England to show the contrast with Scotland (or what Scotland has lost through Duncan's murder). In Act 5, as Macbeth reviews his life, and sees how little he has really gained, we feel a slight renewal of sympathy. The killing of Macbeth is just, but also necessary - to purge Scotland of its moral sickness and restore its health. There is, therefore, a clear symmetry in the play: it begins and ends with the overthrow of a traitor. And Macdonwald's executioner now suffers at the hand of another.
Studying the play for GCSE
For GCSE courses in English and in English literature you will have to study and respond to one or more plays by Shakespeare. Some exam boards allow you to do this work orally - this is quite a good idea, but your teacher will have to make quite detailed notes to assess you, unless you prepare a recording on videotape or audiotape. Whether you speak or write you will be assessed for reading (which really means showing that you have understood what you read). The examiners for one assessment board, break this down into three different headings or categories:
Studying appearance and reality in Macbeth
The outline below shows you how to write or speak about one of the most important ideas in Macbeth - appearance and reality, or, if you like, things not being what they seem. You will find it organized under the three headings above - if you keep to this pattern you will make it easier for your teacher to give you a good grade. This will also help you not to miss out any of the three sections. When you prepare your work, don't spend so long on the first one that you miss the other two. The second and third parts are where you show that you know this is a play, not a novel or story to be read on the page.
In each of these three categories, you will find bullet points for you, your friends and your teacher to develop or explain. You may also find notes in the copy of the text you have been given - if you can understand these and use your own words, you can do well.
The nature of play - implications and moral or philosophical significance
This means the ideas or themes in the play - what it is about but not simply its story. In studying appearance and reality in Macbeth this means at least the following:
The general idea of things not being what they seem
People who are not what they seem
Things and places not being what they seem
Stagecraft and appeal to audience
This means the way Shakespeare uses features of the live performance - actions, use of props and costume, as well as the play's structure. Some things for you to consider are:
Explain metaphor, symbolism, word-play and other effects of language in the extracts below. You can use a word processor to search a text file of the script. This will show you the context and the rest of the speech. Do not use the whole phrase as this may not match the original exactly - a short phrase, like "foul and fair" should be enough.
In conclusion, you should make a personal judgement both about the play and about the version(s) of it which you have seen. It helps if you can be positive without being obviously gushing and over the top in your compliments!
© Andrew Moore, 2001; Contact me