Some really great discussions with Y11 today about Lady Macbeth – once again they impressed me with some perceptive responses. We began with this activity: I gave some statements and students had to find the quote and here are the ‘answers’:
(We did this in a really interactive way: pupils were given a few moments to find one or two quotes and then moved around the room to fill in the gaps).
After this, we looked at some statements about Lady Macbeth and the scene itself: In this activity, I was trying to draw students’ attention not just to plot but to structure and of course some AO3.
I liked statement 1: by putting her on stage alone, Shakespeare draws our attention to her importance as a character and her remarks about Macbeth contrast with the picture of the brutal warrior that the previous scenes have given us. However there was one hint remember: Macbeth’s “chance may crown me king without a stir” foreshadows LM’s own worries about his “inconstancy”. He thinks he might get to be King without doing anything and LM refers to this in her speech in act 1 scene 5 when she says that Macbeth is “without the illness that should attend” his ambition (in other words, he wants to be king but is not evil enough to do what he needs to do).
Interestingly, we likened Lady Macbeth’s entrance to that of a Hollywood hero/villain: I can think of Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice; Rita Hayward in Gilda, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Grace Kelly in Vertigo, Silva in Skyfall, Arnie in Terminator to name a few and in many ways her appearance is more sudden and dramatic than Macbeth’s – at least we were forewarned about HIS presence, she just jumps into the play. Think of the ways that Shakespeare could have brought her on stage – in a discussion with Macbeth for example as he returns from war. Instead, he decides to have her alone reading Macbeth’s words out loud. Alone on stage, she contrasts with the ‘manly’ episodes that have gone before – execution, battle – but her scheming puts her right up there with the best of the men and anyway she asks to be ‘unsexed’ (her womanly qualities removed) so that she may perform the acts needed to make her husband king. She controls the whole scene and dominates Macbeth when he enters; Shakespeare’s audience would have seen a powerful woman who seems relentless in her pursuit of power and goes against Jacobean ideals of women as nurturing mothers and wives. However, Shakespeare loved his powerful women – to an extent, before he either killed them off or shut them up through marriage. Her presence and aura, alone on stage, is immense and Shakespeare wanted to create just that impression.
Her lot in the play is short – she appears for three scenes at the end of Act 1 and as Harold Bloom says “Shakespeare gets her off stage after Act III, scene IV except for her short return in a state of madness at the start of Act V”. She burns brightly, incandescent for a few scenes and her character threatens to take over the whole play (she eats every scene she is in!) Bloom refers to her as “pure will” and she is that. “Once Lady Macbeth has been removed” writes Harold Bloom “the only real presence is Macbeth”.
What about speaking her husband’s words on stage? Here two voices combine and Shakespeare perhaps is trying to show their unity: they speak with one voice even though that voice is Lady Macbeth’s!
Another great comment made by one of the students was the fact that Lady Macbeth was the bringer of chaos (linking her to Bellona as referred to in act 1 scene 2 – Macbeth as Bellona’s bridegroom remember?) and whose presence brought negative energy to an already doom-laden atmosphere.
Finally, we also liked the last statement. The students spoke fluently about how the scene actually speeds up the action even more. The pace is relentless and LM gives the roundabout a further push to send events spiralling out of control.
By the way, here’s a task we set them along with a sample paragraph.
Here are posters they produced. We do this quite often and I feel that it gives pupils the chance to speculate, to write things that they wouldn’t do in their books or under more formal circumstances. Ten to fifteen minutes, sometimes passing them round, then feedback – they offer great opportunities for pupils to talk about the play, and to THINK about the hard stuff that I keep putting their way.