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Study Questions on Macbeth

8 pages
2074 words
Carnegie Mellon University
Type of paper: 
Literature review
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Q: What are the central issues that the play is concerned with? What are its themes? You might ask what is a theme? Is there some aspect of the play that is especially interesting to you?

A: Macbeth is one of Shakespeares great tragedies that are famous for their uniquely profound, poignant and gripping exploration of the human nature. Macbeth is a play that focuses on the corrupting influence that extreme ambition and thirst for power exercise upon morality. Just like many other Shakespeares plays, it also deals with the problem of regicide, gender stereotypes, conscience and action, etc. Personally, I find the theme of predestination and choice the most interesting, because it is relevant to most modern day contexts.

Q: Aristotle says that the tragic character is more noble than evil. Can you say this about Macbeth? Are we only concerned with a bad man getting his just deserts, or can we find common human instincts in Macbeth to identify with? Is good really the opposite of evil?

A: Macbeth is a very complex character. Had Shakespeare created him as an embodiment of pure evil, he would have been too predictable and boring for the viewer. But there is nothing black and white in this character. Though he commits terrible crimes, his conscience severely tortures him, which means that his humanity is still intact. As it seems, he truly loves his wife, though she honestly admits that she would prefer to kill her baby than lose a chance to gain power. Macbeth is ambitious, vain, impulsive, gullible, and at the same time, he is valiant, imaginative, risky, passionate. Any reader can find some of the features on this list in his own personality. This fully human side of Macbeths character proves that he is not a living incarnation of evil, but just a struggling human being. Thus, in the play the good is shown not as an opposite of the evil but rather as a choice of opposing evil in your soul which is portrayed as a battlefield of the two forces. As for Macbeth, one can say that he is both noble and evil.

Q: Macbeth is a political play, dealing with power, absolute power, and what it is to be a good leader. It had political relevance in Shakespeares day. Is there any political relevance now? What happens when symbolic power (king) is at odds with real power (warrior)? We may see many similarities to military dictatorships, but should political power not be military?

A: The play allows the modern spectator to build many parallels with the world of today, including Hitlers rise to power and Stalins rule of terror. If one looked at a broader context of the problem of the corrupting effect of power absolute power the recent transformation of Russia into a medieval state would also come to mind. These examples show that to achieve efficient functioning of the country, there must be a balanced distribution of power where nobody possesses it in its full entirety.

Q: At what point in the play does Macbeth reveal that he has or is contemplating murder to achieve the throne? What does it say about his character that he considers murder at this point in the play? Is Macbeth a free agent, responsible for his actions, or is he set up by the witches? Is he their victim? What is the nature of the witches' prophecies? How does their ambiguity allow for different interpretations and choices of action? Is he predestined to kill?

A: Macbeth starts considering murder as early as he hears the witches malign prophecy and learns that the first part of it has come true. Though he has no real plans yet, he is already thinking of the ways in which he might gain the throne (Act I, Scene 3). He is only too easily prompted to consider murder first, by the witches, then by his wife. Obviously, this means that in his nature Macbeth is quite prone to violence and immensely hungry for power. It is quite natural, though, as without these qualities he would not have succeeded as a military leader. And yet, Banquo, a great warrior too, who also hears quite a promising prophecy concerning his future heirs ruling Scotland, chooses his loyalty and honor over any temptation. Thus, the viewer is led to a conclusion that in similar conditions different people can act in different ways depending on their personal choice. The witches prophecy is quite ambiguous (it does not specify how Macbeth will ascend to power), but Macbeth interprets it in the way he wishes. He consciously chooses betrayal over loyalty, which makes him a free agent rather than a victim predestined to act in a certain way.

Q: What is the connection between the porter's speech about the "equivocator" who goes to Hell, and the prophecies of these "juggling fiends." Who else are equivocators in the play?

A: The witches first prophecy is not complete as it does not reveal how Macbeth will gain the throne. This lack of clarity leaves enough space for him to make his own choices. As a result, Macbeth yields to the dark, cruel side of his nature. The second prophecy is mysterious and even misleading. The witches knowingly misguide Macbeth to ensure his final fall. Thus, the witches can be called equivocators as they are saying only part of the truth, manipulating Macbeth and consciously letting him deceive himself. Other equivocators in the tragedy are Macbeth and his wife who put up a play when the murder of Duncan is discovered.

Q: Consider the progress of Macbeth's moral decay. How much does conscience play a role in his thoughts and actions? At what point does he give up all moral consideration, all conscience against doing evil? Was he ever moral at all?

A: Being a complex character, Macbeth loses his humanity gradually: first when killing his monarch, then his friend, later an innocent family. And while in the beginning remorse tortures the villain when he vividly remembers how kind the king had been to him (Act I, Scene 7) (which shows that he is not fully devoid of morality) and the murder he has committed horrifies him (Act II, Scenes 1 and 2), his conversation with Lady Macbeth helps him overcome any previous doubts (Act III, Scene 2).

Q: If tragedy portrays, like a funeral, our human ambivalence about the middle space between death and life, how is that ambivalence and middle or liminal space portrayed in this play? What scenes and lines seem particularly to deal with ambivalence towards death?

A: The play utilizes many ways of dealing with this issue, including the images of ghosts creatures that cannot find peace or are called from their eternal sleep by the witches. Shakespeare also touches upon the problem in Macbeths famous soliloquy To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, where Macbeth speaks about dusty death and uses the image of the candle that goes out, doubting in this way the very existence of the afterlife (Act V, Scene 5). Another image that is connected with the space between life and death is sleep. Early in the play Lady Macbeth compares sleep to death (Act I, Scene 7, lines 78-79). Duncan is killed in his sleep. Macbeth knows no sleep. Lady Macbeth starts walking in her sleep trying to wash blood off her hands. Sleep becomes the space between life and death, which you can enter peacefully only when your conscience is clear.

Q: In the play there is a lot of discussion about what it is to be a man, or to be a woman. What are the definitions the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth give to being a man or woman? Is it remarkable that they have no children? Yet Lady Macbeth says she knows what it is like to give suck to a baby. Any ideas? Macbeth might be considered a tragedy of two characters: both he and his wife. Notice the different phases of strength and weakness; when is Lady Macbeth stronger than Macbeth, and when is she weaker?

A: Gender roles are subverted in this tragedy: Macbeth depends on his wife for better judgement, and Lady Macbeth is more ambitious and decisive than he is. This couple breaks the natural order of things and this is why they are punished with having no children. Lady Macbeth defines a man as a creature capable of cruel and bloody acts (When you durst do it, then you were a man; // And to be more than what you were, you would // Be so much more the man Act I, Scene 7, lines 56-58) and this is what she is. When she says I have given suck, and know // How tender tis to love the babe that milks me (Act I, Scene 7, lines 62-63), she might as well mean that she has brought Macbeth up and taught him to be a man like her own son. She sees a woman as a weak, fearful, indecisive human being: O, these flaws and starts, // Impostors to true fear, would well become // A womans story at a winters fire, // Authorized by her grandam (Act III, Scene 4, lines 76-79) and implicitly compares Macbeth to a woman. Lady Macbeth is initially stronger than her husband, especially in the scene where she rushes to the room with the dead Kings body to return the bloodstained daggers to the sleeping guards. But toward the end of the play she loses her mind and commits suicide, which shows her weakness, while Macbeth finds the strength to fight to his very death. This ending restores the natural order and gives the viewer at least a ray of hope.

Q: There is a great deal of dramatic irony in the play. What lines, actions or scenes display irony? There is, of course, a particularly great deal of verbal irony in the play. What statements are most ironic (that is, which statements are fulfilled in unexpected ways, or are the reverse of what happens)? How does this irony affect the viewer / reader?

A: Shakespeare is famous for his juxtaposing tragic and comic elements in his tragedies, which he also masterfully does in Macbeth. There is a lot of dramatic irony in it. For example, the witches greet Macbeth with his new title of which he does not know yet (Act I, Scene 3), or King Duncan praises Macbeth and his wife as good hosts (Act I, Scene 6) while the audience already knows about the couples intentions. Scene 4 of Act I is also a vivid example of dramatic irony. Verbal irony is ingeniously employed in such remarks as, for instance, Macbeths Twas a rough night (Act II, Scene 3, line 36) when Macbeth is speaking about the murder of the King while Lennox thinks they are discussing the abnormal weather phenomena, or when Macbeth refers to Banquo as our chief guest (Act 3, Scene 1, line 11) meaning that this very guest is to be taken special care of that is, murdered. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses irony to highlight the tragic absurdity of life which is not built according to the natural order of things. It also helps accentuate the problem of free will and predestination because the viewer is always in the know about what is happening behind the characters backs. In this way Shakespeare also manages to establish a better contact with the audience. In addition, his dark humor helps ease the tension for a moment to build up the pressure again with a new force.

Q: The play is a drama and as such depends a great deal on presentation. What are the best dramatic elements in the play (what might leave the greatest impression on the audience)? How would you present the play in terms of staging, actor types, lighting, special effects, expression in acting? What about the dagger and Banquos ghost? Do you show ghosts?

A: To my mind, the most spectacular dramatic elements of the play are the following: the scene of Macbeths encounter with the witches, the scene with the imaginary dagger, the arrival of Banquos ghost, Lady Macbeths madness, Macbeths final duel with Macduff where he learns that he has been deceived by the witches. If I were to stage this tragedy, I would cover the stage with a thin layer of water lit with red light it would look like blood and the constant splashing sound would create a haunting effect. I would definitely show ghosts as this would make the action more dynamic. I wo...

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