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Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Act 5, Scene 3 of Macbeth, why is the doctor eager to get as far away from Dunsinane as possible?

The doctor knows that Lady Macbeth is beyond his help, as her condition is not a physical illness. The hallucinations that are wearing her down are not something he can treat. What the doctor has seen of her has led him to understand that she and her husband have done terrible things. They may still be dangerous, particularly if they realize what he has learned from observing and listening to Lady Macbeth. He also knows the opposing troops are coming and is not keen to be there in the midst of the coming battle. Once he can take his leave of the castle, he has no intention of ever coming back.

If Macbeth knows the English army has come in Act 5, Scene 4, why is it important for them to conceal their numbers?

Because Macbeth knows the army is on its way to Dunsinane, concealing the number of their troops is the only element of surprise left to the thanes and the English forces. Thus, their camouflage has a practical purpose. In addition, this particular camouflage serves a psychological purpose. While Malcolm does not know of the witches' prophecy about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill, he has to realize that the sight of a forest moving—seemingly under its own power—will also intimidate Macbeth more than the sight of soldiers marching. Seeing the advance of this strange group may unnerve Macbeth's soldiers as well, particularly because their hearts are not into serving Macbeth.

In Act 5, Scene 5, when Macbeth is informed of his wife's death, how does his response signify his sadness?

Macbeth's horrific actions have made him numb to death. Yet Lady Macbeth's passing moves him. His regret is that she has died now. With the battle about to commence, he has no time to mourn her properly. Had her death come after the battle, he says, "there would have been a time for such a word"—in other words, time for grieving. Because she has guided his actions previously, he may now fear that, without her presence, he will not be able to lead his troops to victory. The remainder of his melancholy speech about life's meaning, or lack thereof, indicates that he thinks her loss was a waste.

In Act 5, Scene 5, how does Macbeth's view of the coming battle change once he learns Birnam Wood is moving?

At the start of the scene, Macbeth still believes implicitly that Birnam Wood can never make its way to Dunisnane Hill and that the castle is therefore safe. His resolve holds firm; the castle's fortifications should withstand the soldiers' assault. He believes starvation and disease will defeat his enemy without the two sides coming face to face. When he hears that—against all odds—the prophesy about a moving wood is coming true, his resolve crumbles. Now in a panic, he seems to welcome the prospect of meeting death with his armor on.

What emotions drive Macduff in Act 5, Scene 7 and what does his comment about Macbeth's troops signify?

The military goal of this battle is to defeat Macbeth, punish him for Duncan's murder, and place Malcolm on the throne. Macduff, however, considers Macbeth's hired soldiers not worth his time. If they are the only opponents he encounters, his sword will remain in its sheathe, and he will fight no one. In this battle, Macduff's agenda is far more personal. His aim is to find and kill Macbeth to avenge the murders of his wife and child. That is the only thing he want out of this battle, and he worries that someone else may have reached and slain Macbeth before he locates him in the chaos. In that case, he is sure his family's ghosts will haunt him forever.

Explain what Macbeth means in Act 5, Scene 8 when he says he will not die on his own sword.

He makes reference to an ancient custom of soldiers committing suicide by falling on their own swords to preserve their honor and escape the disgrace of surrender. Here, Shakespeare makes a biblical allusion to this form of suicide (the death of Saul—1 Samuel 31: 4–6), as well as to his own play Julius Caesar (Act 5, Scene 5). In addition to the literal meaning of the phrase, it may infer individuals making amends by taking responsibility for dishonest or wicked deeds they have committed. Macbeth has no intention of falling on his sword, as he thinks fate may still be working in his favor and that he can thus escape unscathed. His idea of honor is to keep fighting.

When they meet in Act 5, Scene 8, why does Macbeth tell Macduff about the prophecy that he cannot be harmed by "one of woman born"?

Macbeth still clings to this prophesy as his guarantee of survival. He relates it to Macduff in an attempt to intimidate him and convince him to give up the fight. Not only is Macbeth unafraid, he does not wish to harm Macduff, as he already feels burdened with having killed the thane's family. Macduff responds with the truth about his own birth. He was not born in the usual way, but was ripped from his mother's womb. This revelation strips away Macbeth's belief in the prediction and leaves him vulnerable. He wants to get out of the fight, but it is too late.

What does it mean to yield on the battlefield and why won't Macbeth do this while fighting Macduff in Act 5, Scene 8?

By medieval battle custom, a fighter can save his own life by yielding—surrendering—to his opponent. This can be done if an opponent issues a challenge to yield, as Macduff does here, or during a temporary lull in the battle. Because the sign that a fighter is yielding would be the throwing down of weapons, it would certainly be an unwise move in the midst of combat. Macbeth refuses to yield because he does not want to give Macduff the satisfaction of beating him this way, and Macbeth sees no honor in bowing down to Malcolm. He would rather die in the fight than give up.

In Act 5, Scene 8, how does Macbeth end up even worse off than the traitorous rebel, the Thane of Cawdor?

Unlike the Thane of Cawdor, who rebelled against King Duncan, Macbeth refuses to yield to Macduff, to confess his crimes, or to repent for his actions. His unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Malcolm, the rightful king, leads to the desecration of his body after death; his head is put on display for the world to see, and his name is cursed by those who know him. In contrast, Cawdor has an honorable death and burial for resuming allegiance to King Duncan before his execution. Thus, Macbeth, an honorable man and hero at the time of Cawdor's death, has now fallen lower than the traitor whose title he inherited.

Compare and contrast the characters of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and Ophelia in Hamlet, including Shakespeare's depiction of their madness and suicide.

Violent death is a prime cause of each character's descent into madness. In Lady Macbeth's case, it is the murder of Duncan and others that burdens her with guilt, leading to insanity. Ophelia is driven mad by the murder of her father, Polonius, who is killed by Hamlet, her lover. Both characters live in patriarchal environments, and Shakespeare depicts them as limited to a degree by their sex. Although bold and controlling in the early part of the play, Lady Macbeth still believes she must be "unsexed" (stripped of her feminine qualities) in order to plan Duncan's murder. Ophelia's life is constrained by her father, who expects her to be passive and obedient, unlike her brother, Laertes. Ophelia is portrayed as naïve and weak, rarely exerting free will, though she does so in the depths of her madness—committing suicide by allowing herself to drown. Lady Macbeth's suicide is mentioned but not described in the play. Whether she perpetrates the act in a fit of madness or out of a need to atone for her wrongs, her suicide is the final assertion of the control and power she enjoyed in earlier days.

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