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AS and A Level: Macbeth

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The historical context surrounding 'Macbeth'

  1. 1 Macbeth was written in 1606 when Shakespeare was 42 years old. The acting company who would have performed the play was called the King’s Men and their patron was King James I who had come to the throne in 1603.
  2. 2 Macbeth was probably written to please the King; the setting of the play with specific scenes at Inverness, Scone, Fife and Dunsinane would have appealed to King James, who also ruled over Scotland.
  3. 3 King James had brought unity to Scotland and England when he came to the throne and this is referred to in Macbeth when the English, under Edward, and the Scottish, under Malcolm, are united to overthrow Macbeth.
  4. 4 In Macbeth Shakespeare reinforces the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that the power of the king is something that is granted by God and the murder of a king is a crime against God Himself. This links to King James as he had been threatened by an assassination attempt – the Gunpowder Plot.
  5. 5 To celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, a special medallion was made with the symbol of treachery on it: an image of a flower with a serpent lurking beneath it. There is a reference to this in the play when Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under it”.

The themes of 'Macbeth'

  1. 1 Witchcraft and the supernatural – The play opens with the witches who create an atmosphere of evil and disorder which sets the scene for Macbeth’s downfall. The witches’ prophecies control Macbeth’s actions through his own ambition and lead him to his destruction.
  2. 2 Concealing the truth – Throughout the play many characters put on metaphorical masks to hide their true nature, thoughts or feelings; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hide their true selves, Banquo hides his mistrust of Macbeth, Malcolm pretends he is evil in order to test Macduff.
  3. 3 Ambition – Macbeth was driven by his own and Lady Macbeth’s ambition. They were not satisfied with being of high status as Lord and Lady but wanted more power and were driven on by the witches’ prophecies.
  4. 4 Order and disorder – Throughout the play there are references to unnatural things happening; the natural order of things is changed by the unnatural act of Macbeth killing the King. It starts with the thunder and lightning in the opening scene and then follows with the witches speeches of supernatural acts.
  5. 5 Manhood – Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to unsex her to make her more like a man so that she will have the strength to carry out the murder of Duncan. She also questions Macbeth’s manhood when he is having doubts about killing Duncan.

Macbeth as a tragic figure

  1. 1 At the beginning of the play Macbeth has a position of great importance and comes from a noble background. He is well respected and admired by everyone, especially King Duncan.
  2. 2 Macbeth has a flaw in his character so that his virtues are turned to vices and he begins to lose self-control. The witches tell him that he will become King but he cannot wait for it to happen and so determines his own fate by killing Duncan, which then leads to other murders.
  3. 3 The witches and Lady Macbeth contribute to his downfall, but essentially he brings about his own destruction and ultimate death.
  4. 4 In the inevitable process of Macbeth’s downfall he causes the suffering of innocent people – Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s family and possibly Lady Macbeth.
  5. 5 At the end of the play the audience feels pity for Macbeth because he was originally a good man but was tempted by the idea of kingship and power. If he had responded differently then he might have still achieved greatness.

  • Marked by Teachers essays 10
  1. Marked by a teacher

    It is not only the heros character that feeds into the construction of a tragedy; external events also play a part. Does either one of these components have, in your opinion, an overriding influence on Macbeth, or do they make an equal contr

    4 star(s)

    Also blurred are the lines between what is truly 'good' or 'evil', and if we can truly take any comfort in either of these terms. From the outset of Macbeth, we are told of the power of the eponym on the battlefield, and of the way he 'unseams' enemy soldiers, which immediately signifies his aggression, and hints at the possibility of an 'unseam'd' mind; indeed, Shakespeare uses just that same graphic vocabulary to describe the violence of the act - "unseam'd him from the knave to th'chops" - giving an impression of extreme violence, beyond that which is necessary.

    • Word count: 1795
  2. Marked by a teacher

    Villain or victim? Is Macbeth a victim of external circumstances or a man solely driven by evil?

    4 star(s)

    Angus awakens Macbeth to the idea by telling him of the Thane of Cawdor's downfall and Macbeth's first thought is of the future, 'The greatest is behind.'. This shows Macbeth's eagerness to be King, indeed it is at the forefront of his mind and he seems hurt and amazed when Malcolm is appointed as Duncan's successor '...That is a step On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap', And already his flaw, his relentless ambition is evident. Yet Macbeth's nobility and honour stands in the way of his aspirations.

    • Word count: 1804
  3. Marked by a teacher

    Lady Macbeth character analysis

    3 star(s)

    Just like witches, she wants to control people's lives, especially the life of Macbeth. She works her way through by repeatedly belittling and emasculating him. Lady Macbeth is sly, selfish, and manipulative because she finds an approach to change Macbeth's decision about the regicide by using emotive arguments to refute his logic. At first, Macbeth remains thoughtful: "I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition."

    • Word count: 504
  4. Marked by a teacher

    Kingship in Macbeth

    3 star(s)

    He is described as a sainted king by Macduff in Act 4 scene 3. Duncan places a lot of trust upon his soldiers and they are very loyal as we see in the bleeding captain fighting against mercenaries and Macbeth says himself his loyalty and service to Duncan is sufficient for his reward and also says ''he hath honoured him of late'' and the essence of Duncan's good nature creates doubts in Macbeth with regards to the murder and Lady Macbeth has also experienced this kindness, a large diamond received for been a good hostess.

    • Word count: 1047
  5. Marked by a teacher

    Discuss the soliloquy in Act III, i. How does Shakespeare convey the change in Macbeth since the soliloquy in Act I, vii?

    3 star(s)

    In this soliloquy, he is yet, "th'innocent flower" and moreover, he displays his judiciousness as a brave warrior by contemplating the consequences of murdering the King: something Lady Macbeth does not bother to do in her attempt to convert her husband into a sinister character. In addition, Shakespeare uses euphemism to give the impression that Macbeth is keeping the murder covert by avoiding using the actual word, 'murder'. Instead, he uses words such as "this blow" and "the deed" to camouflage the murder, even from his own conscience because it is so dreadful.

    • Word count: 1441
  6. Marked by a teacher

    How does Shakespeare characterize the witches?

    3 star(s)

    Some people thought that the witches were devils, appearing as hags. Devils, as was thought, could not predict the future, but they could make specific prophecies, having a greater knowledge of people's ways, than people themselves. In this view the devils adopt the form of hags to scare Banquo and Macbeth, yet at the same time to encourage them to believe in the existence of supernatural power. However, this display of extraordinary power should have caused the two men to distrust them, and to ignore their prophecies.

    • Word count: 2783
  7. Marked by a teacher

    Is Macbeth a Hero or a Butcher?

    3 star(s)

    A 'butcher', in this context, is someone who kills people cruelly without feeling guilt or remorse - something which Macbeth is a clear example of. Macbeth's actions at the start of the play are already depicted as barbaric. When the Captain describes the battle between Macbeth and the rebel Macdonwald, he claims that Macbeth split Macdonwald open "from the nave to the chops." This is clearly a gruesome way of killing someone. While a Jacobean audience may not have found this too revolting, a modern audience would certainly find Macbeth's actions unacceptable.

    • Word count: 1018
  8. Marked by a teacher

    How does Shakespeare present Macbeth in a way that allows us to feel sympathy for him?

    3 star(s)

    However it is Malcolms perspective which is only an opinion from the outside, which he has every reason to believe that Macbeth is a butcher as he has killed Malcolms family. However, we have a different opinion to Malcolm because we have a different view about Macbeth as we have an insight into what he is thinking through his soliloquies. There are many points in the play where Shakespeare creates sympathy for Macbeth. I felt that most sympathy was created in scene 5.

    • Word count: 1180

Conclusion analysis

Good conclusions usually refer back to the question or title and address it directly - for example by using key words from the title.
How well do you think these conclusions address the title or question? Answering these questions should help you find out.

  1. Do they use key words from the title or question?
  2. Do they answer the question directly?
  3. Can you work out the question or title just by reading the conclusion?
  • Explore the ways that witchcraft is presented in ''Macbeth'' and compare the way we may wish to present it today

    "In conclusion to this we can see that the witches knew what would happen once they had given the prophecies to Macbeth, however, they did not tell him what to do, therefore he acted out of his own intention and for his own personal benefit. This shows us that human nature, if provoked, can be destructive and can destroy that around us and should in all honesty be more feared than witchcraft itself. Even though, people in modern times are not frightened of witches and magic, it all comes back to hunger for power and money and that is how Macbeth came to become a murderous, over-ambitious man, because he feared that he would not become rich and powerful. So even though we are not still afraid of witches, we still kill for money and power, and this is an issue carried through from the 16th century and before, to today."

  • To What Extent Do Feel That Roman Polanski's Interpretation Of The Witches Is In Keeping With Shakespeare's Text?

    "After comparing and contrasting Roman Polanski's film version of Mac Beth to that of the original text. I have come to the conclusion that in Polanski interpretation he has indeed kept very much in line with the text. Polanski has added an even more cathartic feeling to the end of the play than already exists by using the fight scene, which shows that even though Mac Beth knows he is defeated and is going to die he does not surrender and fights like a true hero to the death. The changes he made to his film furthered the excellence that the play already possesses and they were very innovative and creative."

  • What is the role of the Witches and to what extent are they responsible for Macbeth's tragic end.

    "Knowing the information that Macbeth did the deed himself I have drawn the conclusion that because he was pressured into doing the murder I would say that he is the least responsible for his tragic end. I would say that Lady Macbeth is the next least responsible but she did not do the deed however she really pushed Macbeth to do it. The most responsible would be the witches as they first put the idea in his head and then say that he is invincible to all "woman born"."

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