Macbeth: Discussion Questions
1) For Aristotle, Macbeth would not "count" as a tragedy, since Macbeth appears too evil to be a proper tragic hero. But he does not begin the play as an evil character. Note statements concerning Macbeth's past, i.e. his role and reputation prior to the beginning of the play. What has he accomplished, and how is he rewarded? What is King Duncan's opinion of him? Is it justified? How fundamentally does
Macbeth change in the course of the play? Pinpoint key moments in his evolution from war hero to tyrant.
In the beginning, Macbeth was a war hero; the king and his captain recognize him as “brave
Macbeth” and a “worthy gentleman” after Macbeth essentially won the war for Scotland.
Having “unseamed him [the enemy] from the nave to th’ chops”, he is rewarded with the title of
Thane of Cawdor. However, the bravery that once made him a wholesome war hero is aroused and corrupted through the devices of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth first hears of his destiny as king from the three witches, but is skeptical; it is Lady Macbeth who truly introduces the greed behind his ambition. Such evil drive is demonstrated through the progression of his murders; what originally disturbed him became so comfortable and casual for him, as in when he murders
Macduff’s family and throws threats of crucifixion to an innocent messenger. Ultimately,
Macbeth is a tragic hero, a victim of Lady Macbeth’s devices
2) One of the Aristotelian principles of tragedy is that the hero's downfall is caused by a moral weakness or flaw that inexorably leads him to his tragic destiny. In this respect, can Macbeth be seen as an
Aristotelian tragedy? What basic human flaws or weaknesses does Macbeth display? How do they contribute to his downfall?
When the witches tell Macbeth about the titles in his future, there is a natural curiosity and greed; when spoken to about an accomplishment as great as becoming king, there is a natural inclination to explore and achieve it. With the security of the prophecies, he was blinded; the knowledge of his destiny led him to commit acts that should repulse him. However, with curiosity and greed by his side, the acts were justified in his own mind.
3) The three witches have been seen as figures of the Greek Moirae (Latin Parcae), or Fates, who respectively spin, measure out and cut the thread of human life. Note how the scenes with the "weird sisters" (Old Eng. wyrd=Fate) punctuate and structure the play. To what extent do their predictions dictate events? Are their prophecies binding? Is Macbeth trapped by destiny, a victim of fate, or does he have free will? How do we know? Note specific scenes and speeches that justify your point of view.
Ultimately, the witches lead Macbeth to believe his title as king is certain. Though they notify him of his future, he is the one that acts upon it, essentially playing into his free will. In Act II
Scene I, Macbeth sees the dagger in midair and he asks to “let me clutch thee;” he is aware of the presence of the dagger and of his will to kill. Had he not chosen to kill King Duncan, his prophecy may have come true nonetheless; however, because he did choose to kill King
Duncan, the title was open sooner.
4) Banquo is a foil to Macbeth in that both are the subject of prophecies concerning the future kingship of Scotland, but they react to these prophecies differently. How does each respond to his encounter with the witches? Are there key differences? Why does Shakespeare include two sets of prophecies?
What is the effect of this juxtaposition?
Though both have positive prophecies, Macbeth is intimidated by Banquo’s fate to father future kings (Act I, Scene III). Macbeth acts upon his prophecy, whereas Banquo does not. The juxtaposition of these two characters, one impatient and one patient, highlights Macbeth’s free will; he did not have to choose to act upon his prophecy. By including both prophecies,
Shakespeare emphasizes the difference between greed and satisfaction.
5) Macbeth begins with three witches chanting "fair is foul and foul is fair" (I.i.10), a line which evokes a world upside down, the reversal of the natural order. Look for other indications of nature gone awry within the play. Where does natural imagery occur? Note references e.g. to weather, vegetation, animals and birds, sterility and fertility, disease and health. What is the connection between this imagery and events in the play? For Shakespeare, "natural" behavior includes love for one's family and the loyalty between subject and liege lord; mistreating kinsmen or betraying one's rightful leader is
"unnatural”. Note examples of such "natural" and "unnatural" behavior (and occurrences of these words and of "nature") in Macbeth. Since treachery and betrayal play significant roles in the plot, look also for the familiar Shakespearean themes of the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality (allusions to disguises, masks, clothing, etc.) and the power of language to deceive (flattery, lies,
double meanings, ambiguity).
Natural imagery occurs pertaining to birds (“The raven himself is hoarse/that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/under my battlements”), fertility and anatomy (“Come to my woman’s breasts,/and take my milk for gall”), vegetation (“I have begun to plant thee, and will labor/to make thee full of growing”), and weather (Act III, Scene III). Such imagery not only creates a certain mood, but also draws out the idea of natural occurrences, whether they are birds or natural feelings of greed. This naturalness transcends into behavior too: Macbeth is initially reluctant to kill King Duncan, restricted by “the loyalty between subject and liege lord.” His behavior eventually turns unnatural though; when he betrays the king, he can no longer distinguish between what is real and what merely seems to be real, like Lady Macbeth’s fake flattery, the floating dagger, and Banquo’s ghost (Act I, Scene V; Act II, Scene I; Act III, Scene IV).
6) Macbeth displays high regard for his wife, Lady Macbeth, who is a surprisingly equal partner in their marriage (a situation that many in Shakespeare's time would find "unnatural"). Pick out references to their partnership or feelings for each other throughout the play. What is the effect of these details? (To excuse Macbeth from responsibility for his actions? To humanize him by showing him in at least one
"natural" relationship? Or what?) Overall, do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear to have a good marriage? Are they well matched? Do they feel real affection for each other? To what extent is Lady
Macbeth responsible for Duncan's murder? Are she and Macbeth equal partners in crime? Does their relationship (and their collaboration) shift over time? At what point does Macbeth start to act alone, without her help or knowledge? Read carefully Lady Macbeth's words in the sleep-walking scene. What do you think caused her breakdown? What prior events does she allude to, and what does she have to say about them? How does Macbeth react to the news of his wife's death? How does her death change him as a character?
When readers are first introduced to Lady Macbeth, she is reading a letter from Macbeth, informing her about the prophecies. Because we do not see their relationship prior to such knowledge, it can be assumed that their relationship has always been shallow. Throughout the play, Macbeth refers to his wife as “my dearest love” along with other terms of affection, but
Lady Macbeth does not return such feelings. While she does not express love, she does express power. (NOT DONE)
7) Apart from the Weird Sisters, there are only two significant female characters in the play.
Compare/contrast Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff. Are they foils to one another? Why or why not?
What do they have in common? How do they differ? Lady Macduff is defined principally as a mother, while Lady Macbeth is apparently childless (see IV.iii.216). Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth says that she has
"given suck, and [knows]/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks [her]" (I.vii.54-55). Can that shared experience of motherhood be seen as a bond between the two women? Does Lady Macbeth share the blame for Lady Macduff's murder? Does she approve of her husband's actions? Before she dies, Lady Macduff complains of her husband's "unnatural" behavior in abandoning wife and children
(IV.ii.9). Is her anger justified?
8) At the end of the play, Macduff kills Macbeth in a scene easily read as the victory of Good over Evil.
But would that be an accurate characterization? Is Macbeth wholly evil? (Consider e.g. his initial heroism in the war against Norway; his love for his wife; any other factors that may serve to make him seem more "human" or believable.) By the same token, is Macduff wholly good? (Is he really blameless? What mistakes has he made? Of what is he guilty?) Are we dealing here with entirely
"black" and "white" characters, like the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in an old western, or is there some "gray" area? And if so, is that a strength or a weakness of the play? What is the effect of this moral ambiguity?
9) In some respects, Macbeth is a meditation upon "manhood." It explores "natural" and "unnatural" gender behavior, offering varying views on what constitutes real "manhood." Note statements throughout the play that deal with "manliness," masculine identity, being a man, etc. How do the various characters in the play define "manhood"? How do these definitions shift over the course of the play?