"Nearly all men can stand adversity,

but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

- Abraham Lincoln


Link to the e-text of the play.

(Adapted from “Study Topics for Macbeth” by Michael Flachmann, California State University, Bakersfield, and Shakespeare: From Page to Stage by Michael Flachmann)

Historical Background:

The play was written between 1603 and 1606.

Source material came from Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland, from which Shakespeare took artistic liberties. Most notably, Macbeth’s legitimate claim to the throne and his decade of good rule between the murders of Duncan and Banquo are omitted.

King James I (Scottish), came to power in 1603 after Queen Elizabeth’s death. Shakespeare commemorates James’s national heritage in The Scottish Play, dealing with events from his native Scotland. The play also celebrates James’s intense interest in witchcraft and magic (Demonology, 1597) and his insomnia.

The play contains numerous references to the notorious “Gunpowder Plot”-- a conspiracy by Catholic sympathizers to blow up the Parliament building and all the heads of state on November 5, 1605 (Guy Fawkes Day). A Presbyterian, James was unsympathetic to the Catholic cause. He allowed his own mother (Mary, Queen of Scots) to be executed in 1587.


A historical tragedy, Macbeth depicts events from 1040-1057 in Scotland. The play may also be considered a supernatural drama and a morality play, depending on the characterization of the witches, for example. The relative guilt or innocence of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth depends in part on the characterization of the witches: the more supernatural they are, the less control the Macbeths have over their own actions. It investigates the role of fate in our lives, asking the question “How much control do we have over our own actions?

Balanced and Symmetrical Structure:

The play begins and ends with a battle and the death of a treacherous Thane. At the center we find a failed meal hosted by the newly crowned Macbeth.

Important Thematic Features:

Opposites, Antithesis, and Paradox

  • dark/light; sin/grace; salvation/damnation; angel/devil; fair/foul;

Fate v. Freewill

  • Is the universe of Macbeth a deterministic one?
  • -o what extent are characters victims of supernatural influence?


  • intentional ambiguity with intent to mislead

Violence and Graphic Content

  • over 100 references to death or blood


  • Adam/Eve; sexual inversion

Clarity of Vision

  • seeing and controlling the future; witchcraft; powers of darkness


  • What drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? What role does fate play in the characters' ambition?

“The Scottish Play”

Among actors, the play has the reputation of being cursed; most actors, in fact, will never utter the name of the play, referring to it simply as The Scottish Play. Among the documented disasters associated with the production of the play include:

    • A boy who played Lady Macbeth dropped dead during the very first performance
    • No fewer than three actors playing Macbeth in the same week at London's Old Vic in 1934 had to be replaced
    • Even a reviewer who panned the play passed away suddenly after a night of drumming and chanting by African drummers performing in Orson Welles' Haitian version of the play - drummers who believed the reviewer was “evil.”

Literature Circle Roles

Below are the basic roles each group member will take during our study of Macbeth. Group members will rotate responsibilities. so that each member will be responsible for each job 3 times.

1. Question Stems

The group member responsible for developing Question Stems will use the question stems handouts (link 1 and link 2) to create a set of free response questions and answers for each assigned reading. Make sure you work closely with the text by embedding quotations to support your answers.

2. Literary Devices

The group member responsible for identifying Literary Devices will record important passages/sections that use figurative language and will note the function of each instance for each assigned reading. Make sure you work closely with the text by embedding quotations to support your answers.

3. Thematic Connections

The group member responsible for creating Thematic Connections will compose thematic statements, identify important passages/sections that help develop the themes, and explain how those themes are dealt with in the play. Make sure you work closely with the text by embedding quotations to support your answers.

Reading Schedule

    1. Act I, Scenes 1-3 (pages 21-32)
    2. Act I, Scenes 4-7 (pages 32-42)
    3. Act II, Scenes 1-3 (pages 43-56)
    4. Act II, Scene 4- Act III, Scene 2 (pages 56-67)
    5. Act III, Scenes 3-6 (pages 68-80)
    6. Act IV, Scenes 1-2 (pages 81-92)
    7. Act IV, Scene 3 (pages 93-104)
    8. Act V, Scenes 1-6 (pages 104-116)
    9. Act V, Scenes 7-8 (pages 116-122)

Act I

Three versions of Act I, scene 1