Digging into Shakespeare’s Scottish Play with a little help from the films–
How do you envision Macbeth? How do you see and understand the characters of
Macbeth or Lady Macbeth or the Witches, say? How do you see Macduff’s contributions
to the play? How can focusing on a particular moment in the play—speech or
scene—allow you to demonstrate your understanding of some critical aspect of
Shakespeare’s work? Or, how can you use multiple references to specific passages and
specific action to support your reading of a particular pattern of images or words or
actions—of some sort of meaningful echoing resonance–in Shakespeare’s play?
The challenge of this project is to find the focal point in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
that will enable you to share your vision and to support that vision through quotation and
explication. I am offering you multiple topics as focal approaches to concentrate your
analysis of something important in the play; that something important may be a character,
a relationship, a crux or problem, a concept or theme—or some combination of those
aspects, most likely.
For example, I am interested in Macbeth’s courage (and lack of courage, at
times), so I might focus my essay on and around Act 5. Scene 8 and the late moment
when his courage falters in the face of the truth of Macduff’s birth and the consequent
further unraveling of Macbeth’s confident reading of the witches’ prophecies; in order to
help you (my reader) to understand what I think that moment really says about Macbeth’s
character and courage, I would need to dig into that moment and to dig into the contexts
that demonstrate his courage and confidence in the earlier parts of the play; finally, I
would—if I haven’t already—clarify how my understanding of Macbeth’s courage,
particularly in this last moment of the play helps me to understand Macbeth’s character in
a larger sense and, perhaps, the theme of courage in a larger sense. But my project would
keep that focal point of Macbeth’s faltering (5.8) in a prominent position.
Or, I am interested very much in Lady Macbeth, her individual character, her
relationship with her husband, and her place in the play as a whole. I would dig into my
sense of this character, weighing her speeches, what she says and does, what she doesn’t
say and do; I would need to find the scene or part of the scene—the moment—to focus on
as my gateway into what I envision about Lady Macbeth’s character and her place in
Or, let’s imagine that I am interested in Justice in Macbeth. What would my focal
point be? What parts of the play help me to understand that theme? How much would I
need to talk about injustice to help you (my reader) understand the actual justice I
envision in the play?
Or, I’m interested in the question of fate and free will, but how shall I focus your
attention? Or, I’m interested in Shakespeare’s use of suspense or . . . . And, perhaps,
thinking about how I would direct a specific scene could be the best way for me to show
you, my reader, how I see the power and influence of the witches . . . .
Or what about a missing scene? (This may be my most favorite approach at the
moment.) I may want to consider the missing scene that would help the play that much
more. Say, what would Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have to say to each other if she
hadn’t died? How would Lady Macbeth explain herself, justify herself, to the new King
Malcolm if she were to survive to the end of the play? What scenes would you like to
see? The witches showing up at the end? Lady Macbeth vs. the witches? Fleance’s
soliloquy about having to run while his father was cut down and his thoughts of the
future? Would he know that Macbeth was at the heart of his father’s murder? Whatever
scene you imagine, I would be expecting both a presentation (dramatization, paraphrase)
of the missing scene and an analytical discussion of the meaning and usefulness of the
scene, from a critical perspective, you understand.
Now, I think the Cambridge edition’s special features can really help you to find
your focus, your entry-point, your pattern—whatever—to really dig into Shakespeare’s
play. In fact, I encourage you to use the extra guidance in the left-hand column of our
Cambridge edition or at the end of specific acts or at the very end of the play to help you.
(You can even quote such helping material directly.)
Also—and this is important—I would want to use my reading and my viewing to
help myself explain what I mean with whatever topic I select. So, using part of one or
more film versions will be an integral part of this assignment.
I think that you can approach this assignment as a reader, as a literary scholar, as
an actor, as a director, or some mix of those roles. Now that the general encouragement
is done, let’s look at the specific directions and topics for this assignment.
Pick one of the following topics treating Shakespeare’s Macbeth and provide
an appropriate essay, 6 pages in length, double-spaced, with 1-1.5” margins. Quote
selectively and for best effect; use the MLA formatting rules for quoting
poetry—follow the original line-endings, for example. (And, if you quote copiously,
subtract Shakespeare’s lines from your page total, please.) You must contribute
beyond what was covered or considered in class discussion. You must use some
reference to one or more film versions of Macbeth, though some will use a lot of the
filmic material and some will use only a little. You may use additional outside
research, but only if you document such research appropriately. I want to know
what you think. Read the “General Reminders” that follow the topics for helpful
If you use any aids to understanding this play, such as films or SparkNotes or
a critical essay or whatever, please declare and document such assistance in a
Postscript to your essay. In any case, include a proper “Works Cited” page.
___1. Dramatize a meaningful scene or a meaningful part of a scene. This topic is meant
to be both creative and analytical. Imagine that you are the director and describe how
you understand and visualize the scene. Explain how the scene will work. Treat the
tone, intent, and delivery as well as the proper physical actions, motions, or gestures.
Also, briefly consider costumes, props, music, or alternative settings. Pay special
attention to the words of the scene (or part of a scene) as you present your vividly
imagined and reasoned blueprint. Explain how your scene fits into the play as a whole or
into our understanding of action and character.. (For example, if you portray Macbeth as
physically weak, how would that fit with the reports of his great martial prowess?)
Advice: Pick a scene that will allow you to demonstrate your intelligence, your
imagination, and your skill with words. I’d probably pick a scene that would allow me to
dig into an assessment of character, of action, or of the writer’s skill. Whichever scene
or portion of a scene you select, you must dig into the most important lines.
Also, as part of your presentation, refer to one or two film versions of your chosen
scene to help make your vision clearer to me, your reader. I would expect your vision to
differ from any of the film versions we have watched, of course.
___2. Provide a close reading of an individual meaningful passage. Pick a meaningful
passage of about 40-60 lines (neither too short nor too long for a full, concise yet
developed, intelligent treatment), and then explain what occurs around that passage, in
that passage, and because of that passage. Present us with a careful reading of that
particular passage with very specific attention given to the message (what’s said and
meant), the language (diction, imagery), the tone (connotation, emotion), and the effect
(immediate, eventual). Present the necessary context concisely and appropriately.
Also, use one or more film versions to help us to understand your analysis of the
meaningful passage more fully. You may want to point out how a specific filmic
performance matches the intonations and imagery that you envision or you may want to
contrast such a performance to make your analysis clearer.
Any scenes we have dissected closely in class are off-limits, of course.
___3. Identify and explicate a meaningful pattern. Any repetition of a word, an image,
or an occurrence may form a pattern. Choose an element with 3 or more such repetitions;
then, identify the pattern, describe its presentation or development (including possible
contradictory aspects), and suggest an interpretation of the pattern—what the pattern
means and how it contributes to the meaning and effect of the play. That is, after naming
and showing us the pattern, suggest how paying attention to it contributes to our
experience with this play. In the course of presenting and explaining such a pattern, I
would expect to see the most important passages examined carefully and in detail. Also,
ideally, you would refer to one or more film versions that present your chosen pattern in a
particularly good way.
Potential patterns in Macbeth include manliness, clothing, milk, sleep, visibility,
light & dark, nature, growth, signs, birds, among others. I suggest you track down
something that you have noticed, perhaps, or that the Cambridge edition has called
attention to rather than turning to any outside sources.
___4. Imagine, Present, and Analyze a meaningful “Missing Scene”. For this topic, you
would need to imagine a missing scene that would help us to understand Shakespeare’s
play. You may not just conjure up any scene, but you would have to name and describe a
scene that fits with and also adds to Shakespeare’s original. You would need to present
the missing scene through specific speeches or through detailed paraphrase. You would
also need to argue for the fitness and the meaning of that missing scene in relation to the
play as a whole. Again, see my opening remarks for suggestions of possible scenes.
Whatever scene you imagine, I would be expecting both a presentation (dramatization,
paraphrase) of the missing scene and an analytical discussion of the meaning and
usefulness of the scene, from a critical perspective, you understand. At least one third of
your essay should be that scene, fully imagined and described; at least half of your essay
should be the analysis that supports your argument regarding what the missing scene
offers the audience.
Also, it may be more difficult to bring in one or more films to help you to present
your “missing scene,” though the Fassbender Macbeth offers an example in the opening
funeral of a child. Find a way to bring film into your presentation, at least a little.
(Here’s one example: If I want to direct our attention to the issue of love and
devotion in Macbeth, I might offer a dialogue between Macbeth the Lady Macbeth from
late in the play that would fit into the arc of character, that puts the theme of love into
action and into speech after horrible deeds and before Lady Macbeth’s full onset of
___5. Construct a topic of your own? Possibly, but only with my permission. I will
allow this option (1) if you present a clear plan to me in advance and (2) if I agree that the
topic is appropriate. I will not accept essays on other topics than the ones listed above if
you do not follow these criteria. If you want to pursue this option, I will probably need
to see something—the plan, a strong thesis, an outline, or a draft—something in writing
before I say “yes.”
First, remember to select a scene, a passage, a pattern, a character, or a set of
characters that will challenge and reward us both; degree of difficulty will mater even as
clarity of expression and of explanation matters. Recall that “significance” is a matter of
judgment and persuasion; if you cannot articulate whey we should spend 4-5 pages on
your selection, then you should select differently.
Second, you are writing for an audience that has read the play. You must remind
your reader of significant details that support your points; you do NOT need to remind
me of general facts about William Shakespeare and so forth. Get right to work.
Third, the topics demand that YOU look closely at the text. I’d rather see how
well you read and think than see how well others read and think. Read carefully and
cohesively. The evidence is there; find what works for you.
Fourth, as always, I will reward essays that hold my attention. I expect
correctness in terms of grammar, spelling, references, and spacing.
Fifth, please refer to acts, scenes, and lines in the following manner: 5.3.20-25.
(That’s the proper way to refer to Act 5, scene 3, lines 20-25. Don’t waste space by
writing it all out.
Sixth, beware the trap of plot summary. Sometimes we need to recall the events
leading up to a speech or a decision or an action, but we don’t want to lose control of our
argument. Avoiding mere plot summary is important, so remind your reader (me) of the
facts that matter, of the events that matter, of the speeches that matter in a manner that
helps me to see step by step how such remindings support your argument and your