Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What are the setting and stage directions in Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth and how do they support the actors in creating an ominous mood for the play?

The setting for the first scene in Macbeth is an unspecified outdoor location, "open ground," which in Scotland likely means moors or fields. The stage directions call for thunder and lightning, which in itself is designed to tap into basic human fears and create an unsettling feeling; the open space combined with a storm creates additional vulnerability. The characters in the scene are witches, meeting to talk about a battle. Neither of these elements, witches or war, carry positive connotations in most literary traditions. The final line of the scene calls for the witches to "hover through the fog and filthy air." Closing the scene in this way provides an image of reduced visibility, things hidden, and a sense of being unclean.

What makes Macbeth's and Banquo's deeds in battle so noteworthy and honorable in Act 1, Scene 2?

Macbeth and Banquo continue to fight the battle, even when the odds are inconceivably stacked against them. Macdonwald's forces outnumber the king's, but Macbeth takes the time and trouble to locate Macdonwald and ultimately kills him. When the Norwegian king sends reinforcements and fresh supplies, the captain who later tells the story to Duncan thinks the Scots are surely defeated, but Macbeth and Banquo double their efforts. Ross backs up the story, saying the Norwegian forces had raised their banners at Fife; he calls it a "dismal conflict." Nonetheless, Macbeth forces the victory and demands Norway compensate Scotland for the battle before he will allow the Norwegians to bury their men.

Why does Duncan immediately decide to make Macbeth Thane of Cawdor in Act 1, Scene 2 of Macbeth?

Macbeth defeated the treacherous Thane of Cawdor in battle, which makes Cawdor's title and lands available. Still, Duncan could have easily assigned the title and lands to someone else. In fact, it becomes clear in Scenes 3 and 4 that Macbeth does not expect to automatically receive Cawdor's title. Duncan makes his decision based on Macbeth's valiant efforts on the battlefield and apparent loyalty to his king. This is one of Shakespeare's most significant examples of situational irony in the play. Although neither Duncan nor Macbeth would question Macbeth's loyalty at this moment, Duncan is about to replace one traitor (Cawdor) with someone who will develop into a much more dangerous traitor—Macbeth.

What evidence of the witches' malicious nature appears in their conversation with one another in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth?

The First Witch describes a recent encounter with a sailor's wife who refused to share some chestnuts she was eating and tried to chase the witch away. The witches then conspire to subject the woman's husband to sleepless nights and days; they also place a curse on his ship, which is on a return voyage from Aleppo. The First Witch shows the others the severed thumb of a ship's navigator lost on a voyage, which presumably will figure into their curse on the sailor.

What is the full meaning of the witches' prophecy about Banquo in Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3?

The witches call Banquo "lesser than Macbeth, and greater." This line means that Banquo will not achieve the same rank as Macbeth but will achieve a greater legacy than his friend. However, the second line of the prophecy is the most telling for both men's futures. The witches call Banquo "not so happy, yet much happier." Banquo does meet an unhappy end, murdered while horseback riding, but his life has been reasonably happy. Unlike Macbeth, he has little anxiety about things he has done, and in death he is respected by his fellow noblemen. Macbeth's successes give him hope for his own children, but he is not obsessive about it. By contrast, Macbeth is racked with guilt after he kills Duncan, commits additional murders out of anxiety and ambition, and sees his marriage weaken before his wife descends into madness and kills herself. In addition, Macbeth becomes despised by his countrymen and will be known as a villain throughout history. In contrast, Banquo's quick death while out riding with his son is unhappy but far better than Macbeth's fate.

Describe Macbeth's immediate thoughts about becoming king after he is awarded Cawdor's title in Act 1, Scene 3.

Once he becomes Thane of Cawdor, the thought of murder does cross his mind. He calls this thought a "horrid image that doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs." He also says the idea of murder is "against the use of nature." He knows that taking action against Duncan would upset the natural order, and he resists the idea of it. He also reflects that he might become king purely by chance without doing anything. He knows he could take action to make his purported destiny come true, but he hesitates to do so. Loyalty and honor still influence his character at this point.

In Act 1, Scene 4, describe the contrast between Macbeth's first and last speeches.

Macbeth's first speech in the scene is a false declaration of his loyalty and love for Duncan. He says he expects no reward for his service to the king—that doing his duty is payment enough. At the end of the scene, he speaks to himself about the hurdles between himself and the crown, realizing that the prince (Malcolm) is his only obstacle if Duncan is out of the way. He hopes the others will not see these dark thoughts of betrayal. He also is trying to separate his desires from the traitorous actions he plans; he knows he will have to commit murder but would prefer not to acknowledge it to himself. This disconnect is alluded to in the closing lines: "The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see." Macbeth wishes to close his own eyes to the terrible deed he remains determined to do.

Based on Act 1, Scene 5 of Macbeth, describe what Lady Macbeth and the witches have in common.

Both Lady Macbeth and the witches reject typical standards for womanhood. The witches exert power and live outside the bonds of marriage and family, which would have been the expectation of society at the time. They also reject feminine appearance; for instance, Banquo observes whiskers on their chins when he first meets them. It is likely that Lady Macbeth has a feminine appearance, as nothing masculine is mentioned about her looks. She is married but childless—in contrast to feudal society's expectation for her to produce an heir. Lastly, she calls upon the spirits in much the same way the witches do, to assist her in carrying out plans to kill Duncan.

Why does Lady Macbeth believe her sex is a hindrance to her plans in Act 1, Scene 5 of Macbeth?

Lady Macbeth makes clear her belief that to be kind is to be weak, as she worries her husband is too kind to kill Duncan. She equates kindness with milk and thinks that Macbeth is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness." To her, both milk and kindness are substances women produce; she demands the spirits take her milk away and replace it with bitterness so she can do what she believes she must. Her comments to Macbeth in this scene and later make it equally clear that she believes strength and ruthlessness are masculine traits and that those are the ones she and her husband must harness to carry out their plot.

Explain why Lady Macbeth greeting the king is so important that the event gets its own scene in Act 1, Scene 6 of Macbeth.

Hospitality, custom, and respect for rank are all cornerstones of the feudal system that provides the backdrop of Macbeth. In this society, noblemen are expected to provide food, drink, and merriment to guests; in fact, these are customs that carry over today. When someone hosts visitors in the modern world, the basic expectation of good hosts is that they feed and provide safe shelter to their guests. Emphasizing this expectation of the social contract by isolating it in a single scene sets up the betrayal that follows as even more despicable. The Macbeths don't just murder a king—they murder a king while he is a guest under their own roof, breaking the most basic promise of hospitality along with their oath of fealty to the monarch. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony here, as Duncan does not know what the audience does—that Lady Macbeth has already plotted his murder, even as she professes gratitude for the honors Duncan has given them.

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