AQA · English · For Pupils · literature · Macbeth · Shakespeare · Teaching Ideas

Y11 Macbeth – lessons from Oct 3rd


Here are some of the slides we’ll be using:


This week, we’ll be looking at masculinity in the play. What is it to be a man? We’ll also be looking at act 3 scene 2 and how this is another pivotal moment in the play: when the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begins to change.

So what does masculinity mean in the play? Duncan’s first words in the play are “what bloody man is that?” so there is an explicit link made between men and violence. Duncan admires his soldiers for their scars of battle; however it also foreshadows the recurring motif of blood in the play and might also be ironic in that Duncan too becomes a ‘bloody’ man…

The link between men and violence is continued in 1.2 with Macbeth being praised for his exploits on the battle field. However, his brutality is also underlined as the captain reports Macbeth’s ‘unseaming’ of his enemy. Harold Bloom suggests that this is unique in its brutality in Shakespeare (there have been some dismemberings, beheading, hangings and other unpleasant demises, but not an ‘unseaming’) and so men are also capable of extreme barbarism and monstrosity.

But Macbeth is also a proleptic individual: plagued by conscience, guilt, forever weighing up the pros and cons of every deed. In this way he is like Hamlet – the supreme procrastinator. The difference? Hamlet wasn’t married to Lady Macbeth…

But not all men are violent, ambitious and scheming. Banquo of course is held up as the moral centre of the play. Although he too suffers ‘heavy burdens’ and even perhaps contemplates what the witches have promised him, he is able to ‘restrain’ any temptation and adhere to his principles, losing no honour. Of course, as Banquo is an ancestor of James 1st, Shakespeare needs to show Banquo in a good light but there is one thing to consider: Banquo knew of the prophecy, he suspected Macbeth – so why didn’t he say anything to the others? Is Banquo guilty in his silence?

Banquo is Macbeth’s double in the play: they enter the play together and have much in common – feted by Duncan, they receive their prophecies at the same time. Banquo is lesser than Macbeth but greater – not King but a superior being because of his morality. As in all stories of ‘doubles’ – Poe’s William Wilson, Jekyll and Hyde amongst others – the doppelganger must be destroyed for the other to survive. This is why Banquo must die.

And of course there is Lady Macbeth’s version of masculinity. Macbeth is only a man if he conforms to her demands. He objects – he does all that he dare to be a man (a warrior, a husband, a loyal subject) and to do what she wants him to is beyond humanity. It is monstrous – an acceptance of the evil within us. But he does comply and he does descend into more barbaric slaughter.

And what about masculinity and fertility? Is Macbeth less of a man than Banquo because he has no children? He bemoans the fact that the witches have but a barren sceptre in his hand and fruitless crown on his head. He is to all intents and purposes sterile, impotent man whilst Banquo is father to a line of kings that spreads out to the crack of doom.

And is being a man also about making the right decisions? About putting pragmatism before idealism? Malcolm and Donalbain both flee Scotland after the death of their father. Should they have stayed and sought vengeance immediately? Was their exile a sign of cowardice? If they had stayed, there were ‘daggers in men’s smiles’: they couldn’t trust anyone and they too might have been murdered in their sleep. Instead, vengeance, as they say, is a dish best served cold and so their decision to leave Scotland and regroup in the end pays dividends.

Act 3 scene 2

This is an important scene for it describes the point when we see a divergence between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Up until now, she has been privy to his thoughts and even, as we know, directed his actions. However, he is now King and with great power comes great responsibility – although with Macbeth it’s responsibility to himself. His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’ and he needs to be safe in his kingship. He hires two murderers to do his dirty work on the pretext that he and Banquo share common friends and he doesn’t want them to think ill of him!

Except his wife knows nothing about it!

At the beginning of the scene, she even needs to ask the servant for permission to speak to her husband – oh, how times have changed. Her language at the beginning of the scene is suggestive once more of achievement without pleasure. “Nought’s had, all’s spent/Where our desire is got without content”. Is this another oblique reference to their infertility? Desire on the one hand means that they have achieved their goal – that of the crown – but cannot enjoy it. But desire might also refer to a fruitless passion; their physical, sexual desires bring no content – no children perhaps? Several critics have explored the sexual references in Lady Macbeth’s lines and there is some agreement that she sees the lack of joy they’ve got from being King and Queen as a sort of metaphor for sexual desire without offspring which, to a contemporary audience, might also be seen as unnatural.

We’ll also look at the ways in which Macbeth’s closing speech (lines 45 – 56) echo Lady Macbeth’s raven speech in 1.5. It seems that the transfer of power (and evil) is complete. I love this scene and it embodies what one critic calls “the metaphysic of evil” (G.Wilson Knight). His references to animals and insects in this scene – snakes, scorpions, bats, beetles a little earlier, then rooks, crows – “night’s black agents” – reinforce an atmosphere of evil. Darkness, filth, dirt – it feels like you’re on the soil, in the ground. The speech reinforces the sense that the powers of darkness have taken over – day is ‘scarf[ed]’ up; ‘light thickens’ as if it has become some sort of primordial soup. Anything good about the day is dying – ‘droop and drowse’. Superb. I’m not sure even Poe wrote anything this thick with evil…

Here are some of the slides we will be using for act 3 scene 2 and the full PPT is here:



The next activity makes  great link to paper 1 question 4. On this slide, I’ve put a range of statements about the scene:



The slide above is pretty much the same question framework you will find on Lang paper 1 q4.

Finally, we will be comparing Macbeth’s speech in 3.2 with Lady Macbeth’s raven speech in 1.5




11A1 – don’t forget when analysing these to drill down into word level.

Here are some ‘starter’ sentences you can use

  • In both speeches, there is an overwhelming presence of evil…
  • There is a sense of authority present in both speeches …
  • Images of the supernatural abound in both extracts ….
  • The similarities between the two speeches suggest that….. However …….

I’m really interested in seeing how you make comparisons between the two. It’s a good skill to see patterns throughout the play.

Mr Hanson (and thanks to Miss Jones for inspired input!)

All Macbeth resources are available here:

We’ve split them up now into individual lessons so it’s not so unwieldy…

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