Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 815-88).


1. In Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3, how is the truth status and significance of the supernatural element in this play established by the three witches or Weird Sisters? What do the Sisters look like to Macbeth and Banquo? What can we gather from their spells in these scenes? What information do they present to Macbeth and Banquo, and how do they present it?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the Sergeant describe and evaluate for King Duncan and others the performance of Macbeth during the battles against Norway, Macdonwald, and the now-disgraced Thane of Cawdor? How might the information we hear in this scene affect our understanding of the following scene, in which the Sisters reveal the future to Macbeth and Banquo?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, how do Macbeth and Banquo, respectively, respond to the prophecies made to them? With regard to Macbeth, first, what emotional effect has the Sisters’ news and prophecy stirred up in him, and what are his reflections on his current state of mind? With regard to Banquo, how does his reaction differ from that of Macbeth?

4. In Act 1, Scenes 4 and 6, what assessment can we make of Duncan’s perceptions and his hold upon power as Scotland’s king? What are his reflections on the disloyal former Thane of Cawdor? How does Duncan comport himself towards his powerful subjects first at his own palace in Forres and then when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle home? What plan does he announce to Macbeth regarding titles and the succession?

5. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does Lady Macbeth compare to her husband in the reception of the supernatural knowledge he brings her? What anxiety does she show regarding Macbeth’s ability to succeed in the enterprise that looms before them both? What does she reveal about her position and sensibilities as a woman confronted with what would traditionally be considered a man’s violent work?

6. In Act 1, Scene 7, what is Macbeth’s self-assessment on the eve of the murder? Consider as well the conversation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? What rhetorical means does she use to drive him towards the execution of the plot that owes so much to her ingenuity as a co-conspirator?


7. In Act 2, Scene 1, what are Macbeth’s thoughts and actions immediately prior to the dreadful act he is soon to commit against Duncan? What insight does the “Dagger” part of this scene afford Macbeth and us? What, that is, can we gather about Macbeth’s attitude towards the self-transformative deed he is about to carry out, and what, if anything, can we infer from it about his conduct in subsequent actions?

8. In Act 2, Scene 2, in the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder, what happens to Macbeth’s sensibilities? Choose a few examples that allow you to compare and contrast Macbeth before and after his violent crime. In particular, how do the effects of conscience manifest themselves, and what unforeseen consequences of his deed do they signal?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, the Drunken Porter scene is one of the most admired instances of comic relief in tragedy (along with the Gravedigger scene in Hamlet). What makes the scene funny? (Consider the difference between the Porter’s outlook on things and the perspective of more important characters.) Moreover, what does the Porter explain that could be applied to Macbeth and his situation after killing Duncan?

10. In Act 2, Scene 3, what image of themselves do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth project towards others in the killing’s aftermath? Also in this scene, 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 imply?

11. In Act 2, Scenes 3-4, how much do Banquo, Macduff, and Rosse appear to understand about what has just happened — do they suspect that Macbeth has killed his royal guest? What decision do they make towards the end of Scene 4?


12. In Act 3, Scene 1, once Macbeth has attained the throne, what problem begins to preoccupy him? What rhetorical strategy does he use to spur the agents of his plot against Macduff? How does that rhetoric stem from Macbeth’s own situation, self-image, and anxieties?

13. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Macbeth explain to himself and us the logic of the predicament into which his own ambition has driven him? How has the balance of his relationship with Lady Macbeth changed by this point in the play?

14. In Act 3, Scene 4, what effect does the appearance of the ghost of his onetime friend Banquo (murdered at his instance in Act 3, Scene 3) 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 confronted the “dagger of the mind”?

15. In Act 3, Scene 5 (probably not genuine), what is Hecat’s understanding of the Witches’ conduct from the play’s outset, and how does she clarify Macbeth’s chief human flaw or weak point?

16. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Lennox and his fellow lord describe the current state of affairs in Scotland? What actions are under way beyond the kingdom, and why?


17. In Act 4, Scene 1, when Macbeth goes for his second visit to the Weird Sisters and Hecate, what successive visions do they unfold before him? How does Macbeth respond to each, and what plan of action does he make on the basis of what he has learned from these visions?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff and her young son are murdered. What perspective do these two characters provide that has not as yet found its way into this play about political intrigue and vaulting ambition? How might we characterize the structural principle in accordance with which this painful scene appears where it does?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, as Malcolm and Macduff consider the way forward against Macbeth, what accusations does Malcolm level against himself? Why does he subject Macduff to this disturbing self-deprecation? Moreover, what does the scene suggest about the play’s delimitation of the boundaries of royal power?

20. In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff is informed of the murder of his own family, and Malcolm immediately tries to shape the stricken man’s response. Describe the rhetoric he employs to do so. How might this portion of the scene (Macduff’s response and Malcolm’s rhetoric) be taken as metacommentary on the ethos and language of war and manhood that runs all through this play?


21. In Act 5, Scene 1, what symptoms of insanity does Lady Macbeth display? (In responding, look up “obsessive-compulsive disorder” (OCD), which is today’s term for this character’s affliction.) What’s the point of dwelling on the Queen’s psychological symptoms in a play filled with supernatural events? Why is it Lady Macbeth and not Macbeth who suffers this fate, even though the man had himself shown some of the same guilty obsession right after the murder of Duncan?

22. In Act 5, Scene 2, Menteth, Cathness, and Angus describe Macbeth’s plight. In Scene 3, how does Macbeth bear out this description in his actions and words? How does his conversation with the doctor attending Lady Macbeth deepen our insight into his current state of mind as the forces arrayed against him begin to close in, and disaster looms?

23. In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth faces the death of his distracted wife and the eerie news that Birnan Wood is moving towards him, making a cruel mockery of what had seemed a solid prophecy of his continued hold on power. With what quality of speech, what attitude, does he greet these events? How do his reflections mark a change from what we have become accustomed to in the king since the murder of Duncan? Do we have here a traditional recognition scene where the protagonist acknowledges the nature of his mistake and accepts the consequences, or would you describe what happens some other way? Explain.

24. In Act 5, Scenes 7-8, in what manner does Macbeth face the destruction that he now understands to be imminent? As he moves from the philosophical reflection of Scene 5 to the attitude he displays in the present scenes, what pattern has reasserted itself in Macbeth’s attitudes and actions from the play’s beginning?

25. In Act 5, Scenes 8-9, Macbeth is killed and Malcolm is proclaimed king. Several of Shakespeare’s tragedies, among them Hamlet and King Lear, end with a political restoration. Discuss the quality of that restoration in the current play; to what extent has the damage done by Macbeth been repaired? Does the principle of order seem secure at the play’s end? Explain the rationale for your response.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake