English 304: Shakespeare: Major Plays
The best beginning procedure is always to familiarize yourself with the cast of characters and then to read the play (or at least an act or a scene) all the way through so that you know what's happening. The notes can help if you're stuck, but try to get the big picture of a scene before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to think about the questions.
1. What is the effect of beginning the play with the witches? (Compare the openings of the other plays we have read; are any of those like this one?) Whom are the witches going to meet, and when? Notice the language of lines 10-11 and watch for it later in the play.
1. What do we learn about and from the "bloody Captain" (1.2.1-44)? Who is Macdonwald and what has he done? What has been done to him and by whom? Did that end the problem with rebels (1.2.29-34)?
2. What do we learn from Ross and Angus (1.2.45-62)? Who was the traitor in this different revolt? What does King Duncan say about the traitor and about his title (1.2.63-65)?
1. What is the effect of what the witches tell each other in 1.3.1-27)? What is the effect of the specifics they tell? Are these details important to the plot of the play? Why are they here? What does the First Witch mean by line 9? Keep the line in mind; "do" is an important word in this play. How do the witches prepare for Macbeth's arrival, and what do they say (1.3.28-35)?
2. Does Macbeth's first line (1.3.36) remind you of anything we have heard before? What do the witches look like (1.3.37-45)? What do they tell Macbeth (1.3.46-48). What happens to Macbeth then? How do we know? (See 1.3.49-55.) What does Banquo ask the witches and what do they tell him (1.3.55-67; notice the paradoxes in 1.3.63-65, similar in structure to 1.1.10-11 and 1.3.36). What do we know that Macbeth doesn't know in 1.3.68-76)?
3. How does Banquo explain the witches (1.3.77-78)? What does Macbeth learn from Ross and Angus (1.3.87-114)? What is Macbeth doing in lines 114-156? Note where he is speaking to himself, where he is speaking only to Banquo, and where he is speaking to everyone. How is Macbeth reacting to what the witches have said and to what Ross and Angus have said? Read Banquo's speech in lines 120-125 carefully for a statement related to the themes of the play. Then read Macbeth's speech at 1.3.126-141 carefully. What is he saying? What is he beginning to think about? Notice an echo of the paradox of "fair is foul" in lines 140-141.
4. How does Macbeth explain his behavior (1.3.148-149)? How much of his thought does he plan to share with Banquo (1.3.152-154)?
1. How did Cawdor die (1.4.1-11)? How does the King respond (1.4.11-14)? Keep these lines in mind.
2. How does the King greet Macbeth and Banquo (1.4.14-35)? Note the imagery of planting and growing. What announcement does the King make in lines 35-42? (Prince of Cumberland is the title of the Scottish heir apparent, like Prince of Wales for the English.) Where does the King intend to go (1.4.42-47)? How does he react in his aside to the King's announcement of his heir (1.4.48-53)? What is going on in Macbeth's mind?
1. Has Macbeth reported accurately to his wife (1.5.1-12)? How does she respond? Read her speech in lines 13-28 carefully. How does she describe Macbeth? Does this match what we have seen of him?
2. How does Lady Macbeth respond to the news that the King is coming? Read her speech in lines 36-52 carefully. What does she intend to do? What does she have to do to herself to let that happen?
3. Who is in charge when Macbeth arrives (1.5.52-71)? Has Lady Macbeth decided what to do? Has Macbeth? What does she tell him to do, and what will she herself do?
4. What is Lady Macbeth's name? (A trick question-it's not in the play. But historical sources tell us her name was Gruoch and that she had a son by a previous marriage, named Lulach. See the Bedford Texts and Contexts edition of Macbeth, p. 128, with no source given there.)
1. Read the opening speeches (1.6.1-10) carefully, noting the imagery. How honest is Lady Macbeth's welcome (1.6.10-31)?
1. Read Macbeth's soliloquy in 1.7.1-28 carefully. Notice the repetition of "done" in lines 1-2. How ready is Macbeth to kill the King? What is he worried about in lines 1-12? What special rules of hospitality is Macbeth violating (lines 12-16)? What motivation does Macbeth attribute to himself (lines 25-28)?
2. What is Lady Macbeth complaining about in lines 28-30? What does Macbeth then say, and how does Lady Macbeth reply? Read their discussion in lines 31-82 carefully to see what positions each holds and what means each uses to convince the other? Who is the stronger person in this scene?
1. What is the purpose of the opening of 2.1 (lines 1-9)? Notice the references to time (lines 1-3), and think about the other references to time so far in the play (1.1.1-5; 1.3.56, 146, and 152; 1.5.8 and 56-62; 1.7.51 and 81). What is the function of the discussion about the witches in 2.1.20-29?
2. Read Macbeth's soliloquy in 2.1.33-64 carefully. What is happening to him? How does he explain it? What will he do about it? Notice references to time in line59 and to deeds and done in lines 61-62.
1. What is Lady Macbeth's state of mind in her soliloquy (2.2.1-13)? What has she done? What does she assume Macbeth is now doing? Why didn't she do it (lines 12-13)?
2. What deed has Macbeth done (2.2.14)? What is Macbeth worried about in lines 17-31? How does Lady Macbeth respond (lines 31-32)? Notice the heavy emphasis on the murdering of sleep in lines 33-41. What problem arises in line 46? How is it solved? Keep lines 44-45, 58-61, and 65 about washing in mind for later in the play.
1. What does the porter pretend to be doing? Notice the emphasis on equivocation in this speech and in the following dialogue with Macduff. Equivocation was a doctrine espoused by Jesuits living secretly in England (and in danger of arrest, torture, and death) that allowed them to swear oaths with double meanings in order to preserve their lives while also maintaining their faith but that looked to their opponents very much like lying under oath. Equivocation had recently been much discussed because of the trials surrounding the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605, a Catholic attempt to blow up Parliament while the members and the King were present. Watch how the idea of equivocation functions in the play.
2. What is the thematic function of Lennox's conversation with Macbeth about the unruly night (lines 50-59). What is the theatrical function of the scene? Why does something need to be here?
3. What news does Macduff report at line 59? How do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respond? What does Macbeth report in lines 103-104 that he did? What do Malcolm and Donalbain decide to do and why (lines 116-121 and 131-142)? Where will they go? What do they seem to expect will happen if they don't leave?
1. What is the function of the dialogue between the Old Man and Ross (lines 1-20)? What do we learn from Macduff about Malcolm and Donalbain? About Macbeth? Where has Macbeth gone? Where will Macduff go? (Macbeth was historically a member of the royal family; his mother and Duncan's mother were sisters, daughters of Duncan's predecessor as king; both Duncan and Macbeth were historically about the same age. Duncan ruled from 1034 to 1040 and Macbeth from 1040 to 1057.) Notice that many of the key words and ideas we have been tracing appear in this scene.
1. How does Banquo react to Macbeth's being King (3.1.1-10)? What does he suspect has happened to Duncan?
2. What does Macbeth learn from Banquo in lines 19-38? Why does he want to know it? What does he say about Malcolm and Donalbain in lines 31-34?
3. Read Macbeth's soliloquy in 3.1.49-73 carefully. What is bothering Macbeth?
4. How does Macbeth get the two murderers to agree to kill Banquo? Has he told them the truth about Banquo and himself? What has brought the murderers to be willing to do a deed like this?
1. How much does Macbeth tell Lady Macbeth about his fears? How much does he tell her about what he plans to do? Does she know as much as we know at this point?
1. How do the two murderers respond to the third one? How does the third one explain his presence?
2. How successful is their mission?
1. During the banquet, what does Macbeth learn from the First Murderer (3.4.11-31)? How does that affect Macbeth's participation in the banquet?
2. What appears at 3.4.36? Who can see it? What "trick" does it play on Macbeth (3.2.36-46)? How does Macbeth respond? How does Lady Macbeth explain his response to him? To the guests? What does Macbeth find strange (3.4.74-82)? What happens to the banquet?
3. Who is the next problem person mentioned (3.2.127-129)? How well does Macbeth trust his followers (3.4.130-131)? Where will he go tomorrow and what does he want to find out (3.4.131-134)? How does Lady Macbeth diagnose his infirmity (3.2.140)?
1. What is Hecate's complaint to the witches? What does she tell them to do? What will happen tomorrow? Where?
1. Why is Lennox talking in such an indirect way to the other lord? What is Lennox trying to tell him? What might he be trying to learn about him?
2. What has happened to Macduff?
3. What is the function of this scene in the play?
1. How many witches appear in this scene?
2. What messages does Macbeth get from the witches and their apparitions? Does he feel safe after the first three apparitions? Should he? How does he feel after the fourth, the line of kings?
3. What does Macbeth learn from Lennox at line 158? What does he plan to do about it?
1. What is Lady Macduff's reaction to her husband's departure for England (4.2.1-30).
2. What is the function of the scene between Lady Macduff and her son (4.2.30-64)?
3. What happens to Lady Macduff and her son?
1. What do we know at the beginning of the scene that Macduff doesn't know?
2. What is the main issue between Malcolm and Macduff in the first part of the scene (4.3.1-32)? Why might Malcolm be suspicious of Macduff? How does Macduff respond (4.3.32-38)? What changes when Macduff starts to leave at line 35?
3. What does Malcolm say about himself, and how does Macduff respond (lines 38-115)? What bothers Macduff more in a king, lust or avarice? Why does this character of Malcolm's surprise Macduff (lines 106-112)? (Malcolm's mother was the daughter of the Old Siward mentioned in line 135, which might explain why he is helping. The description of his mother sounds more like St. Margaret of Scotland, who in fact was later this Malcolm's wife.)
4. How does this threat to leave by Macduff change Malcolm's story? What is Malcolm's explanation for his behavior (lines 115-133)? What was Malcolm about to do when Macduff arrived (lines 134-138)?
5. What is the purpose of the discussion of King Edward's healing powers? How does this compare to the present King of Scotland in the play? Note lines 155-157: King James, who was from Scotland and who as a Stuart was considered one of those descendants of Banquo, had recently revived this practice when the play was written, which gives another reason for including it in the play.
6. What message does Ross bring? How long does it take for him to tell it? How does Macduff respond? Note lines 214-217: Who "has no children"? We assume he means Macbeth, but could he mean Malcolm, who is perhaps too hasty in telling him to "Be comforted"? Notice the mentions of "man" in lines 221-223 and 237 and compare the use of the word earlier in the play (as at 1.7.46-51 abd 72-74; 3.1.92-102; and 3.4.57, 72, 98, and 107). What does it mean to be a "man" in this play?
7. What are Malcolm, Macduff, and Ross ready to do at the end of the scene?
1. What has the gentlewoman seen Lady Macbeth do (5.1.1-15)? Why won't she tell the Doctor what Lady Macbeth said?
2. What does Lady Macbeth reveal in her sleepwalking speeches and actions (5.1.23-58)? To what does the Doctor relate this in 5.1.61-69? What is he suggesting in lines 66-67?
1. Where are the soldiers heading in 5.2? Whose side are they on? What do the mentions of Birnam Wood (line 5) and Dunsinane (line 12) remind us of?
1. What reports are the servants bringing to Macbeth (5.3.1)? Why does Macbeth say he is not afraid? What does he think about himself in lines 20-29?
2. What does the Doctor say about Lady Macbeth (lines 39-46)? What does Macbeth wish the Doctor could do (lines 52-58)?
1. What does Malcolm tell the soldiers to do (5.4.4-7)? What effect do you expect this to have on Macbeth?
1. What does "the cry of women" signify (220.127.116.11, 15)? Read Macbeth's famous speech in lines 16-27 carefully. What is he saying? How does he feel about life at this point?
2. What news does the messenger bring in lines 28-33? How does Macbeth react to this news? What does he now think of the witches (lines 40-46)? (Notice the return of "equivocation" in line 41.) Yet what is his mood at the end of the scene (lines 49-50)? Will he go out with a whimper?
1. What do we learn in this scene? Why are Siward and his son mentioned?
1. What is Macbeth's attitude at the beginning of the scene (lines 1-4)? What happens in his encounter with Young Siward?
5.8 (5.7 continues in most editions)
1. Who is Macduff looking for and why (lines 1-10)?
5.9 (5.7 continues in most editions)
1. How is it that Malcolm and Siward are able to enter the castle so easily (lines 1-6)?
5.10 (5.8 in most editions)
1. What unwished-for information does Macduff have for Macbeth (lines 1-16)? How does Macbeth respond? What will happen if he doesn't fight? Why does he fight?
5.11 (5.8 continues in most editions)
1. How upset is Siward at his son's death? Why?
2. What does Malcolm promise his followers (lines 26-41)? What does he tell us about Lady Macbeth's death (line 36-37)? Should we believe him? (He is her enemy, after all-but remember the Doctor's instructions in 5.1.66-67.)
Return to English 304 list of reading questions
Return to English 511 list of reading questions