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William Shakespeare's


William Shakespeare


Themes, Motifs & Symbols in Macbeth

Symbols, etc.
The corrupting power of unchecked ambition
Weather (nature's reflection of God)
The relationship between masculinity and cruelty
The concept of prophecy (Does what is prophesied occur because it was predicted or because of the manner in which people respond to the prophecy?)
Light / Dark
The difference between leadership and tyranny
Hallucinations (the results of a guilty conscience)
The role of the tragic hero & the hero's tragic flaw
Gender / Masculinity




Author Biography

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.  There are few remaining records concerning Shakespeare’s life, therefore little is known about his childhood.  His writing demonstrates that he received a quality education in Latin, history and the arts.

 In 1582, when he was 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway.  Together they had three children, the oldest, Susanna, was born in 1583, fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith, followed in 1585.

 It is not known exactly when Shakespeare moved to London and began working in the theater, but gradually he become successful as both an actor and playwright.  Queen Elizabeth I, who had ruled over England since before Shakespeare’s birth, died in 1603 and King James I ascended to the throne.  Shakespeare’s theatrical company was taken under the patronage[1] of the new king and renamed the King’s Company (previously the company had been known first as the Earl of Derby’s and then as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men).  The King’s Company was the most successful theatrical company of its time.  Shakespeare’s company played at two different theaters, the Globe and the Blackfriars.

Shakespeare retired from theatre work in 1610 and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon from London.  Three years later, in 1613, the Globe Theater burned down and Shakespeare lost a great deal of money, although he was still quite wealthy.  Shakespeare died three years later on April 23, 1616.

 Macbeth, the last of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (the others are Hamlet, King Lear, and Othelle,) was probably written in 1606 or 1607.  Macbeth is considered by most scholars to be Shakespeare’s darkest work; exploring human evil though the lens of Macbeth’s murderous rise to power.  Shakespeare included a supernatural dimension to this play by including witches and Hecate, the goddess of Chaos, as characters within the drama. 

A pivotal character in the play is Lady Macbeth, the power hungry wife of the Scottish nobleman Macbeth, and her descent into insomnia and madness.  The title character, Macbeth himself, is a tragic hero, a person of high rank and esteemed personal quality who, because of a fatal weakness or tragic flaw (in this case, ambition for power) becomes involved in a series of events that lead to his eventual downfall and destruction.  Both characters exhibit the frailty of human beings, starting as solid citizens and become corrupted by their own desires for power.  The human qualities of this couple allow the audience to feel for the Macbeths’ even as they delve into the world of witchcraft and crime.

Study Guide Questions

Act I

1. What is the point of the first scene literally and in reference to the

    whole play?

2. What does Duncan call Macbeth when he hears Macbeth has defeated


3. Who is sentenced to death?

4. What do the witches predict in I.iii for Macbeth? For Banquo?

5. What news does Ross bring Macbeth?

6. Banquo, like Macbeth, is surprised that the witches have predicted

   Macbeth's new title.  He is, however, leery. What does he say about the

   motives of the "instruments of darkness"?

7. Malcolm describes Cawdor's last moments before execution. What is

    Duncan's reply?

8. Macbeth says, "Stars, hide your fires, Let not light see my black and

    deep desires." What are Macbeth's desires?

9. After Lady Macbeth reads the letter, what does she tell us is her

    opinion of Macbeth, and how does she plan to help him?

10. What is Lady Macbeth's "prayer" to the spirits after she learns

      Duncan is coming"?

11. What advice does Lady Macbeth give Macbeth when he arrives


12. What are Macbeth's arguments to himself against killing Duncan?

13. What arguments does Lady Macbeth use to convince Macbeth to

      commit the murder?

14. What is Lady Macbeth's plan?


Act II

1. What is Macbeth's lie to Banquo about the witches' predictions?

2. What is the signal Lady Macbeth is to give Macbeth to let him know

    that she has taken care of the guards (grooms)?

3. What excuse does Lady Macbeth give for not killing Duncan herself?

4. After Macbeth kills Duncan, he goes to Lady Macbeth and is

    concerned about not being able to say "Amen." What is her advice to


5. Then, Macbeth is worried about hearing a voice saying, "Macbeth

    does murder sleep."  What does Lady Macbeth then tell him to do?

6. Why won't Macbeth take the daggers back to the scene of the crime?

7. Who was knocking?

8. What three things does drinking provoke?

9. How does Lennox describe the night, and what is Macbeth's response?

10. What did Macduff discover?

11. Macduff says, "Oh, gentle lady, 'Tis not for you to hear what I can

      speak. The repetition, in a woman's ear, Would murder as it fell."

      What is ironic about this?

12. What excuse or explanation did Macbeth give for killing the guards  

      (grooms)? What is his real reason?

13. Why do Malcolm and Donalbain leave?

14. Why does Ross not believe Malcolm and Donalbain were responsible

      for Duncan's murder?



1. Why does Macbeth want Banquo and Fleance dead?

2. What is Macbeth's plan for killing Banquo and Fleance? Does it work?

3. Macbeth says, "The worm that's fled Hath nature that in time will

    venom breed, No teeth for the present." What does that mean?

4. Who (what) did Macbeth see at the banquet table?

5. How does Lady Macbeth cover for Macbeth at the banquet? What

    excuses does she give for his wild talk?

6. Who else was missing from the banquet table (besides Banquo)?

7. Macbeth says, "I am in blood Stepped in so far that should I wade no

    more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er." What does he mean?

8. What does Hecate want the witches to do?

9. What does Lennox think about Macbeth, Fleance, and Duncan's sons?


Act IV

1. Witch 2 says, "By the pricking of my thumb, Something wicked this

    way comes." Who comes?

2. What is Macbeth's attitude towards the witches this time?

3. What four things did the witches show Macbeth? What does each

    show/say? What is Macbeth's reaction?

4. Macbeth says (about the witches), "Infected be the air whereon they

    ride, And damned all those that trust them!" What is Macbeth, in

    effect, saying about himself?

5. Where is Macduff?

6. Why does Macbeth have Macduff's family and servants killed?

7. Why does Lady Macduff's son say liars and swearers are fools?

8. Malcolm says, "Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

    Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, Yet grace must

     still look so." What does that mean?

9. Macduff says, "Oh, Scotland, Scotland!" Why?

10. What news does Ross bring to Macduff?


Act V

1. What do the doctor and gentlewoman see Lady Macbeth doing? What

    do they decide to do about it?

2. What does Macbeth want the doctor to do for his wife?

3. What trick does Malcolm use to hide the number of men in his army?

4. Malcolm says, "And none serve with him but constrained things

    Whose hearts are absent, too." What does that mean?

5. What is Macbeth's reaction to Lady Macbeth's death?

6. What is Macbeth's reaction to the news that Birnam Wood is moving?

7. Who first fights Macbeth? What happens?

8. Macbeth says to Macduff, "But get thee back, my soul is too much

    charged With blood of thine already." To what is he referring?

9. When does Macbeth know he's in trouble?

10. How does Macbeth die?

11. Who will be King of Scotland?