If we want to understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a play, there are a series of questions that we can ask which take us deeply into both storyline, character and theme. They are provided here for those familiar with the work or studying it, without set answers - each individual reader or audience member might have something different to say in reply to each one.
It’s an interesting exercise.
Act One, Scenes 1-4
1. Why does the play open with a thunderstorm? In terms of the view of the universe that his audience would have had, what effect would this have had? What effect would it have on the play if Scene 1 were omitted altogether?
2. Have the sergeant and Ross come from the same place?
3. How would Macbeth’s society have viewed war? How would people of Shakespeare’s time have seen Macbeth’s role in the recent battles? How does that contrast with people of today?
4. What kind of power do you think the witches have? Do you think it has any limits? What clues are there in the play that lead you to believe this?
5. How do the witches affect Macbeth? How do they affect Banquo? What does this tell you about differences in the two men? What picture do we then get of Macbeth’s personality?
6. What should Macbeth expect as a result of risking his own life for the king? Why do you think Duncan, after thanking Macbeth in Scene 4, suddenly changes the subject and proclaims Malcolm ‘the Prince of Cumberland’ (and therefore his heir)? Why does this annoy Macbeth so much?
Act One, Scenes 5-7
1. In his letter to his wife, what has Macbeth already done in relation to the weird sisters? Why? Do you think that he truly believes in God at this point?
2. Does Lady Macbeth already believe that Macbeth has had thoughts of killing the king? Does this idea seem to disturb her at all? Who first puts the thoughts into words?
3. Against what does Lady Macbeth warn her husband near the end of Scene 5? Why?
4. In your own words, what is going through Macbeth’s mind in Scene 7? What sense of personal integrity does he still seem to have at this point?
5. What kind of person is Duncan? What leads you to think this? How would people in Shakespeare’s time have responded to him? And people of today?
6. What does Lady Macbeth do to her own mind in the first Act? Are her speeches calling upon the forces of evil effective? What has she said and done or threatened to do that would have alienated her with the audience of the time? Do you think any audience could feel sympathetic towards her? What do you think is the reason for making her this extreme?
1. What do you think Banquo’s ‘cursed thoughts’ might be?
2. Why do you think Macbeth sees the dagger? Why does it disappear?
3. Is it more effective to see the murder take place or to have it happen off-stage? Why? What would happen to audiences if Shakespeare tried to portray the murders in the play in graphic detail?
4. What does Lady Macbeth say just after the murder of Duncan that indicates she is not really totally evil?
5. Are there signs of weakness in Lady Macbeth prior to the murder of Duncan?
6. Why has Shakespeare written the Porter scene in this way? What effect does it have? In terms of the view of the universe that his audience would have had, what effect do you think that this mention of Hell might have had?
7. Why does Macbeth speak in such short sentences to his visitors? What is happening while Lennox is speaking to Macbeth in Scene 3?
8. What do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth each do to try and appear as shocked and innocent of the deed as everyone else?
9. Do Macduff and Banquo believe Lady Macbeth’s faint?
10. Has Macbeth managed to convince everyone that he had nothing to do with the murder? What would make someone suspicious?
11. What do the following mean?
a) Pale Hecate’s offerings
b) With Tarquin’s ravishing strides
c) Great Neptune’s ocean
d) A new Gorgon
Act Three, Scenes 1-4
1. Does Banquo suspect Macbeth?
2. Does Macbeth distrust Banquo? Why? What opinion do you think we are supposed to have of Banquo?
3. What is happening to Macbeth’s character at this point, and what are the expectations of the audience as far as his final fate is concerned? Does his wife notice these changes in character? Why does she ask about Banquo?
4. Do you have any theories as to who the Third Murderer might be? Why do you think he is there?
5. Why do you think Shakespeare has the ghost visible to the audience and to Macbeth but to no one else? Why does the ghost eventually disappear? What would ghosts have represented at the time of the play? From a twentieth century perspective, what would Macbeth’s experiences with the supernatural seem to indicate?
6. From Lady Macbeth’s speeches during the ghost scene, of what is she afraid? How does she tackle Macbeth on the subject? Is she showing any signs of mental instability at this point?
7. Once the ghost is gone, what is Macbeth’s next fear and why? What does he propose to do about it? What line from Macbeth best sums up his attitude at this point?
Act Three, Scenes 5 and 6
1. Why is the metre of Scene 5 different?
2. Who is Hecate? Why do you think her appearance is often cut out of the play? What effect would leaving this scene out have on an audience?
3. Lennox and another lord speak very critically about Macbeth - what does this tell you about his reign so far as king, and the state of affairs in Scotland at this point?
4. Which character are we led to believe will rescue Scotland? How are we led to believe this?
5. Why do you think the first apparition is an armed head?
6. Why is Macbeth still prepared to kill Macduff after all the witches have shown him?
7. Why do you think the third apparition carries a tree in his hand?
8. What is meant to be indicated by the term ‘two-fold balls and treble sceptres?’
9. Do you think Banquo’s ghost the same entity as appeared to Macbeth at the banquet?
10. What do you think is the effect of the scene of Lady Macduff and her son’s murder on theatre audiences? What does Shakespeare do to make it more effective?
11. What is your attitude to Macbeth at this point in the play?
Act Four, Scene 3
1. Why is Macduff seeking Malcolm? Malcolm describes himself as being worse than Macbeth in order to test Macduff. Why does he do this, and do you think that that is all there is to it? How does Malcolm compare with Macbeth?
2. Why do you think the king of England is portrayed as such a saintly monarch? Order and harmony with God are stressed at this point - why?
3. What stages does Macduff go through when he learns about his family’s slaughter? How does Shakespeare get us to sympathise with him? Do you think Shakespeare wants us to view Macduff as completely good and Macbeth as completely evil?
Act Five and Beyond
1. What do you think has happened to the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth since we last saw them together? Why?
2. How much time do you think has passed between our last view of Macbeth and his appearance in Act Five? What has happened to him since we last saw him?
3. Do you think Lady Macbeth committed suicide? Why? What mood is Macbeth in after he learns of Lady Macbeth’s death? What does he think about life at this point? As a reader/viewer, do you feel sorry for Lady Macbeth? For Macbeth?
4. Despite the fact that every prophecy the witches have made has gone wrong for him, Macbeth continues to cling to their words to the last. Why do you think this is?
5. At the end of the play, Macduff kills Macbeth, again off-stage. Do you think that we are supposed to feel anything for Macbeth at this point?
6. What do you think became of the witches after the story is over?
For much more about literature and how it works, visit Writing and Publishing World here.