E432 Shakespeare Questions: Macbeth

William Shakespeare Questions on Macbeth for English 432 Shakespeare's Tragedies and Romances, Spring 2009, Alfred J. Drake at Chapman University in Orange, California

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Assigned: The Tragedy of Macbeth (1360-87).


Act 1

1. What is the truth-status and function of the supernatural element in this play -- the witches, the visible "dagger of the mind," the ghost of Banquo, etc? How can we tell that it isn't just a metaphor of Macbeth's spiritual travail or his ambition?

2. In our introduction by Stephen Orgel, Duncan is said to be anything but a good ruler -- Orgel suggests that the King's saintly demeanor and language are not to be taken seriously. Do you agree or disagree, based on what you find in the first act? Whether he's a good king or not, does he make any mistakes? Explain.

3. How does Banquo respond to the prophesy given to Macbeth, in which he, too, is mentioned?

4. How does Lady Macbeth compare to her husband in the reception of supernatural knowledge? What difference does it seem to make that she is a woman?

Act 2

5. Concerning the "lead-up" to the murder of Duncan, what is the point of including the "dagger" scene -- what basic point does it make about Macbeth's intentions and subsequent conduct?

6. In the immediate aftermath of Duncan's murder, what happens to Macbeth's sensibilities and to the quality of his speech?

7. The "Drunken Porter" scene is one of the most admired instances of comic relief in tragedy (along with the "Gravedigger" scene in Hamlet). But what further might be said about this scene -- what does the Porter explain that could be applied to Macbeth?

8. How much do Banquo and Macduff appear to understand about what has just happened -- do they suspect that Macbeth has killed Duncan?

9. The princes Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee the scene of their father's assassination. What reasons do they give? What conception of politics do such reasons presuppose?

Act 3

10. Once Macbeth has attained the throne, what begins to preoccupy him? How, throughout the third act, does he explain to himself and us the logic of the predicament into which his own ambition has driven him?

11. What effect does the appearance of his murdered onetime friend Banquo have upon Macbeth? How does this intrusion of the supernatural differ, if it does, from Macbeth's earlier encounters with that realm -- in the person of the witches, for example, or when he confronts the "dagger of the mind"?

Act 4

12. When Macbeth goes for his second visit to the Weird Sisters or witches, how does he respond to the three successive visions they and Hecate allow him?

13. What perspectives do Lady Macduff and her young son provide that have not as yet found their way into this play about political intrigue and vaulting ambition?

14. What weaknesses and strengths does Malcolm show in his attempts to spur on Macduff, when the two learn of the latter's loss (the killing of his wife and children)? How might this scene be taken as metacommentary on the language of war and manhood that runs all through this play?

Act 5

15. What is the point of showing Lady Macbeth's insanity -- her repetitive hand washing and other symptoms of distraction -- in a play with supernatural events and "causes" that are so obviously meant to be taken seriously? Why is it Lady Macbeth who suffers this fate while Macbeth does not? And how does Macbeth take the death of his beloved wife?

16. As it happens, Malcolm brings "Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill" and Macduff reveals that he was "not of woman born" but was instead "from ... {his} mother's womb untimely ripped. But how is the manner of these fulfillments ironic, considering the significance Macbeth attached to them when he heard them during his second meeting with the Weird Sisters?

17. Macbeth waxes philosophical when it comes time to face death. Do we have here a traditional "recognition" scene where the protagonist learns the nature of his mistake and is able to accept the consequences? Does Macbeth's understanding rise to that quality? Explain.

Edition: Evans, G. Blakemore et al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN: 0-395-75490-9.