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In this unit we will look at
Macbeth written by William
Shakespeare. We will consider
its storyline, characters and
Before we start looking at the
play itself, it will be useful to
explore some of the
background to the play and its
What do you know about William Shakespeare?
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Author information
Name: William Shakespeare
Dates: 1564–1616
Background Information:
Shakespeare is the most famous British
playwright in history. There are many texts
on his life and work that you can read to
further your knowledge of him. His work is well known across
the world, and his plays are still performed frequently. In
addition, some of his best known works have now been turned
into films.
Shakespeare came from Stratford-upon-Avon, where the Royal
Shakespeare Company are now based. He worked in London,
and was extremely prolific, writing poetry as well as many plays.
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Studying Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s plays are written very differently to modern
ones. Here are two of the differences – see which others you
can think of:
They are written both in poetry (usually using iambic
pentameter) and in prose. As a rule, the important
characters talk in verse, while the servants and other
minor players talk in prose.
The way that language is used, and some of the
vocabulary, may seem strange to you at first. Most
versions of the text will offer definitions of words that might
not be understood by modern readers.
When you find any words or phrases that you
do not understand, discuss them as a class to
see if you can work out what they mean.
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Studying a play
Studying a play is very different from reading a novel or a
poem. When you are writing about and analysing Macbeth,
you should bear in mind that:
a play is written to be performed.
When you read it, you should
remember this, and try to see the
actors on stage in your mind. If
possible, do go to see a live
performance of the play, as this
will develop your understanding.
the main way that we learn about the story and themes of a
play is through hearing the characters speak to each other.
When you read the dialogue, think about how they might
stress certain words, or the rhythms that they might use in
their speech, to put across their emotions.
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Plot summary exercise
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Macbeth anagrams
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The two central characters in the play are Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth. They seem to feed off each other, both in terms of
how ambitious they are and also in the evil that they do. They
are clearly very close, and although there are several
different interpretations, it would seem that Shakespeare
views Lady Macbeth as the stronger person; she has a great
deal of influence on her husband. She wants to mould him so
that he gains power, and consequently she will become more
powerful too.
…Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?
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Themes wordsearch
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Both Macbeth and his wife are deeply ambitious and hungry
for power. When Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecy, he
immediately starts to imagine how he might be king. In an
aside (spoken to the audience, so that none of the other
characters can hear) he says:
“If chance will have me king,
why, chance may crown me …”
Macbeth writes to his wife to tell her of his encounter. As
soon as he arrives home, they start to plan how they might
kill Duncan, and thus become king and queen. Lady
Macbeth’s ambition is for her husband, but bear in mind that
at this time this would have been her only way of gaining
power and fulfilling her own ambitions.
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Chaos and disorder
The evil crime committed by Macbeth and his wife creates
disorder in the natural world. At the time Shakespeare was
writing, it was believed that the death of a king, appointed by
God, would cause chaos in nature.
In Act Two, Scene Four, Ross and an Old Man talk outside
Macbeth’s castle. They discuss the unnatural things that have
been happening. Ross tells the Old Man how Duncan’s
horses “Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
/ Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would / Make war
with mankind.”
The country has been thrown into chaos
with the death of its king, and this disorder
is apparent at Macbeth’s banquet, when he
sees Banquo’s ghost.
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Light and dark
Even before Macbeth returns, Lady Macbeth is calling
up the night to hide the crime that they will commit:
“Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest
smoke of hell, / That my keen knife see not the
wound it makes, / Nor heaven peep through the
blanket of the dark”.
Duncan’s murder takes place at night; it is easier for
Macbeth to hide what he is doing in the darkness.
When Lady Macbeth goes mad, she keeps
a candle with her constantly to keep the
darkness at bay. It is as though, with the
darkness of night, evil lurks all around.
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The crime that Macbeth commits is the
ultimate evil: killing a king. It is left to the
reader/ audience to decide whether the evil is
precipitated by the prophecies of the witches,
or if these simply act as catalysts to wake the
evil that was already inside the couple.
Once evil takes hold, there is no turning back for Macbeth and
Lady Macbeth. They commit further murders, including that of
Macbeth’s best friend, Banquo, and Lady Macduff and her
children. Eventually, the evil that they have done returns to
haunt them, both literally, in the form of Banquo’s ghost, and
metaphorically, in the blood that stains Lady Macbeth’s hands.
Reread Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger?’ speech in Act
Two, Scene One. He is yet to commit a crime, but his
mind is already affected by thoughts of evil.
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Is this a dagger?
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Headline techniques
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As well as the themes, there are also many recurrent images
in Macbeth. Shakespeare makes careful use of imagery in all
his plays, and Macbeth is perhaps one of the most powerful
Can you think of any images that recur in Macbeth?
Did you think of these?
There’s one did laugh in’sMake
cried ‘Murder!’
the did
other. Itostood
and heard them.
did say theirvisitings
prayers of
addressed them
purpose, nor keep peace between
to fell
The effect and it.
Find three more quotations that illustrate
these themes.
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As soon as the crime has been committed, both Macbeth
and his wife have difficulty sleeping. In Act Two, Scene Two,
he tells his wife that he heard a voice crying, “Sleep no
more! / Macbeth does murder sleep”.
Again, in Act Three, Scene Two, Macbeth tells of how they
both “sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams /
That shake us nightly.” At this point, it seems that they are
both having trouble sleeping. As we have seen, it is at night
that evil is abroad, and their lack of sleep strengthens this
Finally, we find that when Lady Macbeth has gone mad, she
is both sleepwalking and, dangerously, talking about their
crimes in her sleep.
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After murdering Duncan, Macbeth returns with blood on his
hands. Lady Macbeth tells him to “wash this filthy witness
from your hand”. Macbeth despairs that he will ever be
able to clean his hands, asking “Will all great Neptune’s
ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?”
The blood acts as a metaphor for the evil crime they have
committed, a crime that cannot simply be washed away. Like
their guilt, the blood stains their minds.
In her final scene, when she has gone mad, Lady Macbeth
believes that her hands, too, are stained with blood, and that
she will never wash them, or her guilty conscience, clean.
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In the hotseat
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Who said what?
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