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Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What worries Macbeth about the prophecy pertaining to Banquo in Act 3, Scene 2?

Macbeth fears Banquo or his children will overthrow or murder him just as he murdered Duncan in order to take the crown. He feels he can't relax or have peace while this threat looms over him. Although he does not yet have any children, he wants any that he might have in the future to have the opportunity to carry on his legacy. Therefore he acts to try to stop the prophesy about Banquo from coming true, just as he acted to make his own prophecy happen. While he was successful in making his own prophecy a reality, he fails when he tries to contradict Banquo's prophecy.

When the murderers kill Banquo and Fleance escapes in Macbeth Act 3, Scene 3, why does one of them say "we have lost [the] best half of our affair"?

This line emphasizes that Fleance was the real target of their murder attempt because he is the one who will carry on Banquo's legacy; Fleance will either become king someday or have children who will become king. Macbeth has emphasized to them that Fleance's death is as important to him as the death of Banquo. Killing Banquo is not enough. The witches have predicted that he will not become king anyway. His death, of course, prevents him having any more sons, but to stop the royal legacy prophesied by the witches it is crucial that Fleance must die.

Describe how Lady Macbeth fulfills a traditionally feminine role at the banquet in Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4.

Lady Macbeth plays hostess to the assembled noblemen at the feast. Her role here is to be charming and help her guests have a good time. She also shows full loyalty to her husband in public, even as he appears to having a mental breakdown before everyone's eyes. She chides his behavior in private, but never within earshot of the other lords. However, she does not seem entirely comfortable with this role, as her excuses sound weak and forced when she attempts to cover for Macbeth. She becomes flustered trying to talk Macbeth out of his panic and get him to behave calmly.

What is the significance of Banquo's ghost appearing at the banquet in Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4?

Like the dagger in Act 2, Banquo's ghost may be real or a hallucination. Macbeth does not express or feel any guilt about having Banquo murdered, which could indicate Banquo's ghost is the real thing. Obviously, the ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth's guilt, and it also emphasizes the fact that Macbeth cannot escape from the things he has done. His deeds will haunt him, literally. The ghost appears at the banquet specifically, though, because Banquo promised he would be there before he went out riding that afternoon. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were both determined Banquo should promise to attend the feast, and so he does.

When she meets with the witches in Act 3, Scene 5, what does Hecate say that reveals her true plan regarding Macbeth?

Hecate says she will create a magical illusion that will cause Macbeth to "spurn fate, scorn death, and bear/His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear." Her plan is to use Macbeth's own weaknesses, his ambition, and his arrogance, against him to cause him to abandon his good sense. By showing him only a portion of his destiny, she will, paradoxically, move him to exert his own will in an attempt to make that destiny come to pass. His exertions will move him toward his destiny—even though his true fate is something completely different from the one he had envisioned.

Explain what Lennox tells another lord he thinks Macbeth would do to Malcolm, Donalbain, and Fleance if he captured them in Act 3, Scene 6.

Lennox says if Macbeth had "Duncan's sons under his key/(As, an 't please heaven, he shall not) they should/find/What 'twere to kill a father; so should Fleance." In his hope Macbeth will not capture the sons Lennox reveals his belief that they are innocent. At the same time he believes Macbeth would definitely pin the murders on the sons and punish them for it. He also implies that Macbeth would almost certainly issue a death sentence, but it would likely be a torturous death, as might befit a man actually guilty of killing his father. This image of Macbeth issuing gruesome punishment enhances his new image as a tyrant.

As the witches prepare to meet Macbeth again in Act 4, Scene 1, what is the significance of the long list of ingredients going into the witches' cauldron?

The witches concoct their potion, which will give rise to Macbeth's visions, from rancid and poisonous substances and parts of generally reviled animals, for example venom from a toad, eye of newt, bat wool, snake tongues, and hemlock. They add a little racism and murder to their stew with body parts from Jews, Turks, and Tartars, and top it off with the finger of a baby strangled at birth by its prostitute mother. This listing underlines just how sinister the witches are as it leads to speculation about how they got their hands on some of these items. It also underlines how nothing that comes out of this cauldron for Macbeth could possibly be good for him, although he does not know this until it is too late to change his course.

In Act 4, Scene 1, why is Macbeth's decision to attack Macduff's family after he meets with the witches a paradoxical choice?

Macbeth has come to the witches for instruction about his destiny, which he gains through the appearance of three apparitions. His way of embracing what he learns about his destiny is to say "From this moment/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand." He now believes that any decision he makes must be acted on immediately before he changes his mind. In other words his response to learning about his destiny is to begin exercising his free will in the most aggressive ways possible, starting with ordering the assault on Macduff's castle and the slaughter of his family and servants.

What purpose does it serve in the narrative to introduce Lady Macduff and her son in Macbeth Act 4, Scene 2, only to kill them off immediately?

Lady Macduff and her son engage in witty banter with one another even though the topic—Macduff's absence and possible death—is somewhat dark. The two of them make an impression as a clever family with affection for one another. Macduff's son, in particular, offers some profound insights about how the world is pitched in favor of "the liars and swearers" because they outnumber the honest men. In saying this, the boy seems to predict his own death moments later. Also, by allowing these characters some development, their killing becomes even more senseless and shows Macbeth as even more of a monster.

Contrast Lady Macduff with Lady Macbeth based on Macbeth Act 1, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 2.

Lady Macduff is clearly angry and irritated with her husband for leaving her unprotected, but even as she asks her son what he will do without a father, her tone lacks the bitterness of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macduff does not question her husband's manhood, though she does question his love for his family. Her interaction with her son appears mildly playful and she calls him "poor monkey," which seems affectionate. In contrast, Lady Macbeth has outwardly rejected the prospect of having children if motherhood might make her soft. When confronted with her killers Lady Macduff puts up the womanly defense that she has done no harm. Though this is true she knows that people who do no harm die all the time. Lady Macbeth could not honestly say she has done no harm and would be unlikely to put forth a defense that could be described as womanly.

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