STUDY QUESTIONS ON MACBETH
1. Analyze the contexts, comparisons, and qualities mentioned in the Captain's report of Macbeth's defeat of Macdonwald (1.2.8-23), Macbeth's and Banquo's courage (1.2.35-40), and Ross's account of Macbeth's defeat of Norway and "that most disloyal traitor/ The Thane of Cawdor" (1.2.52). What kinds of service, relationships, and values seem to be emphasized and endorsed? Sean McEvoy suggests that Macbeth dramatizes the "contradictions that lie within the feudal society of medieval Scotland . . . .a cult of masculine military prowess . . . is in conflict with . . . one of steadfast loyalty" (Shakespeare: The Basics ).
2. What significant parallels do you find between these witches' scenes (1.1, 1.3, 4.1) and other events or characters (e.g., 1.2.67, 1.3.36, 1.5.53)? How might, in Carolyn Merchant's words, the representation of women and witches further the "control and the maintenance of the social order and women's place within it? Consider Terry Eagleton's contention that the witches are the "heroines" of Macbeth; they are the play's repressed unconscious who, by "releasing ambitious thoughts in Macbeth, expose a reverence for hierarchical social order for what it is, as the pious self-deception of a society based on routine oppression and incessant warfare." Speculate as well upon Peter Stallybrass's argument that witchcraft is used as a form of "ideological closure with Macbeth, a returning of the disputed ground of politics to the undisputed ground of Nature." Karin Coddon asks, are the witches "agents or effects of disorder?" How do these observations affect your response?
3. Review Macbeth's internal debate over the witches' "supernatural soliciting," his preoccupation with "horrible imaginings" (1.3.129ff.), his "black and deep desires" (1.4.51), and his extended meditation on the prospect of murdering Duncan (1.7.1-28). How does he attempt to articulate and resolve upon a course of action and reconcile himself to it?
4. Macbeth (1.4.25) responds to Duncan's praise by comparing a subject's duty to his king as that expected of children and servants. Explore the play's treatment of filial duty, kinship relations, and politics. Is the murder of Duncan not only a regicide but a patricide? matricide? infanticide?
5. Historian Michael Hawkins states that there were perhaps four types of political relationship available to Shakespeare in portraying Macbeth's eleventh-century Scotland: (1) pre-feudal politics based on blood and kinship relations; (2) feudal relations still based on personal obligation but no longer confined to familial ties; (3) enhanced position of king who may still have strong feudal ties or be moving to lessen the monarch's contractual (feudal) obligations; (4) growth of institutional politics with actual monarch recognized as distinct from his/her office, and the growth of bureaucracy to administer fiscal, judicial, and military policies. Do you see one or more of these forms of organization functioning in Macbeth, creating problems of rule, authority?
6. As in the history plays, the issues of justifying rebellion against a monarch and one's right to usurp the throne are crucial to this play. What is the significance of Macdonwald's and Cawdor's treason, and Duncan's usurped life/position? Does Macbeth eventually lose his crown because he is a criminal usurper who is also damned by his deeds, or because he is a poor dissembler, a hesitant Machiavellian? What is the function of spectacular punishment--does it prevent further rebellion?
7. The play is replete with sexual and gender conflicts and contradictions. For example, Macdonwald is associated with whorish Fortune (1.2.15), Lady Macbeth needs to "unsex" herself (1.5.39), she and Macbeth discuss what it means to be a "man" (1.7.49), Duncan seems partially a maternal nourisher (1.4.28) of Macbeth or his dead body a "new Gorgon" (2.3.68), with Macbeth moving toward the sleeping king with "Tarquin's ravishing strides" (2.1.55), and Macduff turns out to be "none of woman born" (5.8). The play also seems particularly preoccupied with the possibility, in Janet Adelman's view, of all-male families. Try to make sense of such problematic representations.
8. Analyze Lady Macbeth's character, situation, and methods (e.g., 1.5, 1.7, 2.2, 3.2, 3.4, 5.1). Note her devotion to Macbeth, her threats of violence, her reluctance to kill Duncan, her inability to see Macbeth's visions, her willingness to smear the grooms with blood and her ease in washing up, her growing isolation and madness--what might such behavior have to do with Renaissance attitudes towards women, towards the roles of wife and mother? Is she responsible for Duncan's death?
9. Why the porter scene (2.3)?
10. How important is Banquo's character (e.g., 1.3.118-24, 3.1.1-18, 3.4 as ghost)? Evaluate his politics and morals.
11. "I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition" (1.7.25-27). What are Macbeth's motives, and how fully does he understand or express them? What happens to his sensibility in the latter parts of the play (e.g., 5.5.9-27, 40-50)? Is Macbeth a heroic figure? tragic? Consider this line: "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" (2.2.71).
12. What do you think of Macduff? In fleeing to England he leaves his family unguarded, and he seems remarkably tolerant of Malcolm's feigned vices (4.1-4.3). Yet he finally kills Macbeth, declaring that Malcolm is king and the "time is free" (5.8). What values/prospects/problems does his character present? Consider too his wife's and son's conversation, especially the son's comments on "liars and swearers" (4.2.56-57).
13. Consider Malcolm's character closely, especially in the scene where he pretends to be dissolute, full of vice and appetite (4.3). What does he reveal about himself here? What kind of king will be become? Are his lies justified?
14. In Basilikon Doron King James portrays the lawful, divinely ordained good king as utterly antithetical to a usurping tyrant. As Alan Sinfield observes, both Elizabeth and James sought to sustain royal power and to suppress dissidents by relying upon a near absolutist ideology and the monarch's divine right. Consider Macbeth as a play interested in such issues, particularly the threat of a split between legitimacy and actual power, and the problem of distinguishing between absolutism and tyranny. In short, what distinguishes Macbeth's rule from that of many legitimate monarchs? Is this a play about politics, sexuality, or evil?
15. Compare the English Doctor (4.3.142) to the Scottish Doctor (5.3.39ff.). What are their views on what ails individuals and the State?
16. As usual, read the Norton headnote to the play. What do you find particularly helpful or thought-provoking in Greenblatt's introduction to Macbeth (2555-63). For example, what does Greenblatt suggest in stating that Scotland's "sickness cannot be isolated in a conspiracy of witches" (2561)?
17. Note McEvoy's succinct comments on Macbeth (Shakespeare: The Basics, Second Edition ), including this: "In the feudal Scotland of Macbeth violence is the means by which power is achieved and held; but the value system by which the nobles claim to live says that loyalty and faithfulness are what keeps the political order intact and functioning. . . There is . . . a cult of masculine military prowess--that is in conflict with the [the value accorded to] steadfast loyality. . . . This contradiction within feudal society is what divides and destroys Macbeth" (219).
18. Aside from the articles and book chapters listed, for example, in the Norton edition's bibliography, in McEvoy, and in the several collections of essays on library reserve for this class (e.g. Macbeth: Critical Essays, Macbeth: New Casebooks, and Macbeth: Texts and Contexts), a very helpful starting point is to read Stephen Regan's chapter (3) in Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Kiernan Ryan, The Open University Press, 2000, pp. 81-123).