Explore Macbeth includes a literary overview, suggestions for teaching the play, extended learning activities, and bibliographies.
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Teaching Strategies:
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When teenagers first see a Shakespearean play performed or read one for the first time, they frequently are troubled by the language. Understanding how and why Shakespeare used language overcomes this stumbling block to comprehension.

(1) Blank Verse#% - Except for a few scenes, Macbeth is written in blank verse, which resembles more than any other verse form the natural rhythm of spoken English. Read parts of the play aloud to illustrate how the language flows, how punctuation is used, and how rhythm is employed. Choose a line from iambic pentameter and read it with the flow of the rhythm, the accents of the stressed syllables, and the lack of end rhyme.

I am afraid to think what I have done (II,ii)
Play with the rhythm by reciting lines chorally or individually.

(2) Varying the Verse#% - Students may understand the play better when they recognize how Shakespeare varies the verse to express meaning. For example, the language of the witches is in a choppier form of verse (IV,i), and the tension of the language used by Lady Macbeth during her famous sleepwalking scene (V,i) provides an interesting contrast to the more natural flow of rhythm in blank verse used in the greater part of the play.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One:
two: why, then 'tis time to do't. Hell is murky.
Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeared? What need
we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow'r to accompt? (V,i)

Compare the language variety in the play to background music used to portray emotion in films and television. Play several pieces of music and identify the feelings they portray. Now read several sections of Macbeth orally and listen to how the change of verse expresses feeling.

(3) Rhymed Couplet#% - Point out that the end rhyme of the rhymed couplet was used to indicate the end of a scene to an audience in a theater without curtains. For example:

Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (I,vii)

Look through the play to find other examples.

(4) Diction#% - Consider Shakespeare's diction which is so masterfully displayed in Macbeth. Choose passages that best exemplify Shakespeare's use of sound, rhythm, and meaning and discuss how the passage reveals the character's feelings. For example, Lady Macbeth says:

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One:
two: why, then 'tis time to do't. Hell is murky. (V,i)
The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is
she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No
more o' that, my lord, no more o' that! You mar
all with this starting.(V,i)

(5) Vocabulary#% - Frequently students find the Elizabethan and literary vocabulary an impediment to understanding the play. Therefore, keep a list of terms essential to understanding the play including those literary terms cited that are unfamiliar to students (e.g.: dramatic irony, tragic flaw). List in a journal or notebook vocabulary important to comprehension of the play (e.g.: equivocator, thane).

Dramatic Interpretations

Since Shakespeare wrote for the stage, the more you can make his stagecraft part of your teaching, the better your students will understand the play.

(1) Shakespearean Theater - Study the Shakespearean theater.#% Students will better understand the play if they have some knowledge of Shakespeare's theater. The fact that the plays were performed in daylight, without curtains, in the round needs to be considered when visualizing how scenes would have looked and been linked to each other. The fact that male actors played all the roles might have influenced the actors' portrayal of Lady Macbeth and the witches. Ask students to picture the opening scene given what they know about the plot, themes, character, language, literary devices, and Shakespeare's theater. What props might Shakespeare have used? What costumes might have been worn by the witches? Since there were no microphones, how would the actors have spoken their lines?

(2)Classroom Drama - Presenting the play in class need not be complicated. Try some informal classroom drama.

Choral Reading*: Prior to reading a scene, assign several students to each part. Practice reading the scene with each character represented by a chorus of students. Present the scene chorally with every member of the class involved.

Readers Theatre#: Assign a scene to a small group of students; each group should have one student per character and be assigned a different scene; rehearse the scenes: read each scene in order with the entire class participating.

Story Theater%: Students are assigned to groups to rehearse scenes; two students are assigned each part. One reads the part, while the other acts it out. As the students decide how to present the oral interpretation of their lines for a particular scene, they will better understand the motivation and attitudes of the various characters.

(3) Differing Dramatic Interpretations#% - Interpret and present a single scene with a small group of students. An excellent scene to explain the variations which the reader/actor provides with intonation/interpretation is Lady Macbeth's response to Macbeth when he is afraid their murder plot might fail (I,vii). She might respond with, "We fail!" as a derisive scoff (= We will NOT fail), as a question (= How could we possibly fail with my perfect plan?), or with yet another appeal to the love they share by stressing the WE (= My darling, how could WE possibly fail when we are in this TOGETHER?).

(4) Oral Interpretation* - Students who are hesitant to attempt informal classroom drama will often respond to the teacher's oral interpretation. Become one of the witches and select two more "weird sisters" from students in the class and "perform" Act I, scene 3. Or, divide the class in half with each half reading one of the other two witch parts chorally.

(5) Recordings - Listen to a recording of Macbeth.* There are many presentations of Macbeth on record and cassette. Students who have difficulty with the language of Shakespeare benefit from the interpretation of mood that professional actors give the lines. Students can become bored when listening to long recordings. Therefore, it is important to break the listening at key places for discussion of character,* and theme.#%

After listening to a scene, students can present their own variations using informal classroom drama techniques suggested above. #%

(6) Visual Interpretations - Sketch the action.* Many students who have difficulty with verbal interpretations derive a clearer understanding of developing action by sketching the action in a picture which summarizes an act. Overhead transparencies, as well as other visual media-such as posters, collages, original drawings - depicting the major events of an act (with symbols for king, general, castle, etc.) can prove valuable to students who are visual learners.

Writing and Discussion Activities

(1) Journal Writing - Keep a journal or log.* Students can gain significant benefit from keeping a journal or reading log. The journal/log can serve several functions:

(a) a chronological sequence of events of the play, +

(b) a diary of one of the major characters [recording in diary form what the character is doing and feeling],*

(c) a character development journal [noting traits, changes, interaction with other characters, interaction with the themes of the play, the character's use of language], #%

(d) writing about one or more of the themes of the play [how they are interpreted by Shakespeare, how they relate to the modern world], #%

(e) writing about one of the symbols in the play [selecting one symbol, blood for example, and listing each quote in which it appears and discussing how the symbol furthers the development of plot, character, and theme], %

(f) a vocabulary journal [listing and defining words of literary and dramatic importance], +# and/or

(g) a response journal [writing about the student's personal interaction with the play].*

(2) Responding to Theme - List recurring themes #% (things are not what they seem, the corruption of power, blind ambition, superstition and its effects on human behavior) that develop as you read. Add notations of act and scene to serve as a guide for later reflection and writing. %

(3) Imagery and Theme - Shakespeare's use of imagery develops many themes, list these as they appear in the play. % For example, the use of clothing begins with "borrowed robes" (I,ii) and continues with clothing representing a disguise of "false face" (I,vii) being repeated many times. Other examples include: flowers/planting, omens and unnatural events (superstitions), darkness, water/cleansing, blood, weather, and sleep/death.

(4) Relationship of Characters - Now that students are familiar with the plot, examining characters in terms of their loyalties is interesting and useful. Have the students list the characters and diagram their relationships on chart paper, using a format similar to the one presented below.* If this is done in small groups, students can compare their diagrams and discuss differing interpretations. They might also compare their diagrams to the one in this study guide.

Relationship of Characters

Macbeth's supporters:

Macbeth - Scottish general; ambitious enough to commit regicide to become king
Lady Macbeth-His wife; ambitious; convinces Macbeth to perform the murder; later remorseful

Seyton - Lieutenant to Macbeth


Three witches - Predict Macbeth's ambitions will soon come true; later predict his downfall

Duncan's supporters:

Duncan - King of Scotland; his murder by Macbeth is the first in a series of many murders

Malcolm - Eldest son of Duncan; heir to the throne of Scotland; flees to England after Duncan's murder; becomes king at end of the play

Donalbain - Youngest son of Duncan; flees to Ireland after Duncan's murder

Lennox - Nobleman, loyal to Duncan

Siward - English Earl; supporter of Malcolm

Young Siward - Bravely faced Macbeth though he is killed in battle

Banquo - General; witches predict his offspring will become kings; murdered by Macbeth's hired killers

Fleance - Banquo's son; escapes murder by Macbeth's hired killers

Macduff - General; discovers Duncan's body; becomes suspicious of Macbeth and joins forces with Malcolm; slays Macbeth and proclaims Malcolm

Ross - Cousin to Macduff

(5) Quote Analysis - Analyze quotes.% The quotes chosen should reflect the development of plot, character, and theme.

For high school students quote analysis should be a game in which students fill in:

1. Speaker
2. To whom the character is speaking
3. Situation (and its significance to plot development)
4. Interpretation (include any literary devices, etc.)

For example:

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 favors nor your hate. (I,iii)


1. Banquo
2. To the witches
3. The witches have given Macbeth the good news that he will be king
4. Banquo expresses a curiosity to hear his own future (the metaphor of the "seeds of time") but, unlike Macbeth, shows neither fear nor great desire to receive special concessions from these women.

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