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Popular Macbeth Essay Questions

Macbeth: Essay Topics

1) The supernatural plays an important role in Macbeth. To what extent does it motivate Macbeth's actions?

2) Discuss King Duncan and examine what contribution he makes to the play.

3) In constructing Macbeth, Shakespeare dramatically altered historical characters to enhance certain themes. Examine Shakespeare's sources and discuss why he made these radical changes.

4) Is Lady Macbeth more responsible than Macbeth for the murder of King Duncan? Is Lady Macbeth a more evil character than her husband and, if so, why?

5) The sleepwalking scene in Act V is one of the most memorable in all of drama. Relate this scene to the overall play and examine what makes Lady Macbeth's revelation so provoking.

6) Choose two of the minor characters in Macbeth and examine how they contribute to the play's action.

7) The witches tell Banquo that he will be the father of future kings. How does Banquo's reaction reveal his true character?

8) Examine Macbeth's mental deterioration throughout the play.

9) Discuss the speech Macbeth gives upon hearing that his wife is dead in Act V, Scene V. How do his words capture one of the major themes in the drama?


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More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

Research Your Topic

 Macbeth: The Complete Play with Annotations and Commentary
 The Metre of Macbeth: Blank Verse and Rhymed Lines
 Macbeth Character Introduction
 Metaphors in Macbeth (Biblical)

 Soliloquy Analysis: If it were done when 'tis done (1.7.1-29)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Is this a dagger (2.1.33-61)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be thus is nothing (3.1.47-71)
 Soliloquy Analysis: She should have died hereafter (5.5.17-28)

 Explanatory Notes for Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy (1.5)
 The Psychoanalysis of Lady Macbeth (Sleepwalking Scene)
 Lady Macbeth's Suicide
 Is Lady Macbeth's Swoon Real?

 Explanatory Notes for the Witches' Chants (4.1)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)

 A Comparison of Macbeth and Hamlet
 The Effect of Lady Macbeth's Death on Macbeth
 The Curse of Macbeth

 James I and Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth
 Macbeth Q & A
 Aesthetic Examination Questions on Macbeth
 What is Tragic Irony?

 Macbeth Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Quotations from Macbeth (Full)
 Top 10 Quotations from Macbeth

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Shakespeare's Workmanship: Crafting a Sympathetic Macbeth
 Temptation, Sin, Retribution: Lecture Notes on Macbeth
 Untie the winds: Exploring the Witches' Control Over Nature in Macbeth

 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Characteristics of Elizabethan Drama



  • 1

    Macbeth is often cited as a famous example of what the American sociologist Robert Merton called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Discuss how the mechanism of the witches’ prophecy works in terms of its self-fulfillment.

    Suggested Answer

    The question may be approached by examining the psychology behind Macbeth’s character and his relationship with Lady Macbeth (e.g. his easily-tempted character becomes his fate). It may also be fruitful to perform a close reading of the passage around Banquo’s famous lines “If you can look into the seeds of time / And say which grain will grow and which will not, / Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate” (I iii 55-59). An ambitious essay might also consider a comparison to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or another play containing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • 2

    Imagine a staging of Macbeth. Who would play the third murderer who appears unannounced? Who would play the anonymous messenger who warns Lady Macduff about her imminent doom? Why?

    Suggested Answer

    Consider current and past productions of Macbeth. There is a certain logic to staging Macbeth as the third murderer, for example, and Ross as the messenger. How would a different staging change the dynamics of the play?

  • 3

    Some critics have considered the porter scene out of place in an otherwise cruel and compact play. Does it really provide comic really relief? How do you imagine the scene to be staged?

    Suggest Answer

    Compare and contrast a lighter, comic staging to a darker, hellish staging. Here, the issue is simply tone, as the text supports either interpretation. If the porter's comic relief is properly juxtaposed against the violent circumstances, he comes across more as pitiable than a discordant jester.

  • 4

    Macbeth is the one to express doubts over murdering Duncan but it is Lady Macbeth on whom the burden of crime takes its toll. How do the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth develop differently over the course of the play?

    Suggested Answer

    Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can be considered to have switched characters, in a broad sense, over the course of the play. Lady Macbeth goes from proclaiming “unsex me here” to “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (I v 39; V i 42-43), Macbeth becomes more resolute and tyrannical as the play progresses. And yet Lady Macbeth also shows a morsel of humanity early on in the play. After she has intoxicated Duncan’s two guards, she remarks: “I laid their daggers ready; / He could not miss’em. Had he [Duncan] not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (II ii 11-13). The question lies in the judgment of whether a coherent psychological picture underlies the two characters, or whether they serve to illustrate some more or less formulaic “meaning.”

  • 5

    Perform a close reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy beginning “She should have died hereafter” and ending “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V v 17-27). Why does Macbeth believe that Lady Macbeth should have died on a future date? What does he think lies in the future? What does this say about his character?

    Suggested Answer

    There are many possible interpretations of the passage—in particular of his comment about Lady Macbeth’s death. One answer will draw on Macbeth’s lines immediately preceding the soliloquy in question. In the past, he claims, a sound such as Lady Macbeth’s shriek of death would have shocked him deeply, but at present he has become unmoved and apathetic. Macbeth still seems to believe that the future holds peace for his reign. At the same time, he seems to have already accepted Lady Macbeth’s death as inevitable. What does this calm acceptance say about how his character has changed?

  • 6

    What is the significance of Macbeth’s vision of the dagger and of Banquo’s ghost in the play?

    Suggested Answer

    Macbeth’s visions seem to be indicative of his guilty conscience. At the same time, they also seem to interact with the supernatural order that the witches have brought about - the three apparitions and their specific prophecies. It would also be interesting to consider different stagings of such visions.

  • 7

    Discuss the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff in Act V Scene iii. Is Malcolm really testing Macduff—and if so, why does he do it? What is the dramatic significance of the testing?

    Suggested Answer

    The scene immediately proceeds the murder of Lady Macduff and Macduff’s son. Given the dramatic irony that Macduff has yet to hear the news, the scene seems to heighten the sense of cruelty that pervades the play. It may also be worthwhile to consider a counterfactual alternative: what would have happened if Macduff had responded differently? Could he have responded differently?

  • 8

    Discuss the dramatic conclusion of Macbeth. The resolution to the problems presented by the later prophecies relies on a play of words. Macduff was not technically “born” of a woman, so to speak, and Birnam Wood only “comes” to Dunsinane Hill in a manner of speaking. For a play as grave as Macbeth, does not such a resolution seem strangely lacking in gravity?

    Suggested Answer

    The resolution of the play may attest to the power of words. The plot of the play—in all its terrible events of regicide and murders—are after all driven by nothing but a few words uttered by three weird sisters. These same words, of course, are powerful enough to overthrow a kingdom twice.

  • 9

    Why can Macbeth not bring himself to pronounce one “Amen” when Duncan’s guards say “God bless us” on their deathbeds (II ii 26-27)? Does this paint a coherent psychological picture? If not, what dramatic purpose does the scene serve?

    Suggested Answer

    Although Macbeth does not always act rationally, he is by no means an unintelligent character. On the contrary, his famous soliloquy beginning “She should have died hereafter” in Act V Scene v is testament to his perceptive worldview—if not his poetic sensibility. His inability to pronounce “Amen” may attest to the fact that he finds such a pronouncement overwhelmingly hypocritical.

  • 10

    The account of Duncan and Macbeth differs significantly between Macbeth and its primary source, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Compare the two accounts and discuss the effects of Shakespeare’s changes.

    Suggested Answer

    In Holinshed's account, Macbeth is a ruthless and valiant leader who rules competently after killing Duncan, whereas Duncan is portrayed as a young and soft-willed man. Shakespeare draws out certain aspects of the two characters in order to create a stronger sense of polarity. Whereas Duncan is made out to be a venerable and kindly older king, Macbeth is transformed into an indecisive and troubled young man who cannot possibly rule well.

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