For Pupils · literature · Macbeth · Shakespeare · Teaching Ideas

Y11 Return to Macbeth – Act 5 Scenes 2 and 3

Last week, we returned to Macbeth and decided to read some key scenes from act 5 for two reasons: firstly, we didn’t do this enough justice first time round (we ran out of time) and secondly it’s a good way to revise the play because we are constantly thinking back to how these scenes link to other parts of the play. I’ve put the slides from the lessons here to remind you of what we did (or didn’t do!) (lessons are here  in dropbox as well)

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It’s easy to overlook these scenes, but they reveal a lot about the differences between Malcolm’s army and Macbeth’s scattered remains of one. They also offer us a chance to see Shakespeare’s skill in structuring the play, juxtaposing as he does contrasting scenes to create dramatic and ironic effect.

These scenes follow on, of course, from Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in act 5 scene 1: it is as if her own psychological decay acts as a precursor to the rapid unravelling of the fabric of Macbeth’s physical and spiritual hold on power. The motifs of disease and decay that have appeared throughout the play are reinforced in act 5 scene1 – Lady Macbeth’s diseased mind is linked by the Doctor to ‘a great perturbation in nature’, a connection which reminds us again of the disturbance to the natural order and the disruption of the great chain of being which the Macbeths have incurred through their murder of Duncan. Lady Macbeth’s imaginary washing of her hands, her references to the ‘damned spot’, her unclean hands all suggest physical dirt and disease. I referred to the idea of abjection in my last post on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (here) and I believe that this can be applied to Lady Macbeth here. The blood symbolises her unclean and impure deeds whilst a phantasmagoria of dark memories inhabit her nightmares It is as if her body (and mind) are now an epicentre of all the evil that has occurred .  The Doctor explicitly comments on how this ‘disease is beyond my practice’: he is referring to her mental condition, not her bodily one. We discussed in earlier lessons how Shakespeare’s women were both strong and independent but also eventually contained by death or marriage. Here, Lady Macbeth is punished for her ambition in several ways: she is excluded from Macbeth’s vicinity (they don’t appear together after act 3 scene4 ); she is driven mad with guilt; and finally, she kills herself. The play follows her trajectory from ‘honoured hostess’ in 1.6 (Duncan’s description of her) to Malcolm’s reference to her as a ‘fiend-like queen’ in the final speech of the play.

Women’s bodies are often referred to as sites of temptation (for men) and also the potential for disease. That Lady Macbeth’s body has become diseased is therefore no surprise. Her diseased body and mind are now a physical manifestation of the disease of Scotland. Perhaps this is also why her disease is beyond the Doctor’s practice. In his final speech in the scene, the Doctor makes other references to dirt and disease: ‘foul whisperings’;  ‘breed unnatural troubles’ (which reminds me of Lady Macbeth’s earlier references to her children and what she would do with them); ‘infected’, ‘discharge’. Shakespeare has invested the language of the doctor with disease: his very words are infected. This motif of disease will continue in the next scenes.

We looked closely at a couple of extracts from scene 2. Here are the screen shots.

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In the first one, the groups made some interesting observations about how ‘sticking on his hands’ reminds us a lot of the recurring motif of hands in the play (act 2 scene 2 in addition to act 5 scene 1). Also, the simile used by Angus to describe how Macbeth’s power has diminished also suggests a sickness.

In the next extract, this image of disease is particularly striking:


Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 16.34.04

Caithness suggests that Malcolm’s army will cure the sickness. They are the medicine, Macbeth is the weal : this could be a mark perhaps left by a wound but the word also derives from ‘wheal’ which links to suppurations or wounds which discharge pus! In another metaphor, Lennox compares Macbeth to ‘weeds’ which threaten to choke the beauty of Scotland.

AO3 point here: it is interesting that Malcolm leads an army consisting of English and Scottish soldiers to defeat evil. Although Malcolm’s actions might be seen as treacherous (Macbeth is king after all), we must remember that Malcolm is the designated heir to the throne. Macbeth doesn’t represent Scotland here – he represents evil and disease. Performed to James 1st, a Scottish king of England and heir to Banquo, Shakespeare is reminding his audience of the importance of unity: together, Scotland and England will succeed!

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Moving on to scene 3, we read this and discussed the turbulent emotions of Macbeth in this scene and identified four key moments to look at.Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 16.34.55

Macbeth’s bombast in the orange speech is tempered by his later speeches. However it is interesting once again to see how Shakespeare uses the references to disease and decay. In the blue speech, he asks the doctor to cure Lady Macbeth’s mind: the irony is that the Doctor has already admitted that this is beyond his practice – instead, he says ‘the patient must administer to himself’ – suggesting that perhaps love, care, the sharing of troubles might ease her suffering. But of course Lady Macbeth and Macbeth haven’t spoken together since act 3 scene 4. Further irony is evident in the final speech. Macbeth looks to the doctor to offer a cure for the Scotland’s sickness, not realising (or does he – is he testing the doctor?) that it is he, Macbeth, that is the disease.

So we can look at the two scenes as contrasting in many ways. Although I have focussed on disease here, there are other binary oppositions we might use to think about how Shakespeare structures them. See below:

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We didn’t get round to this final activity, which is why I’m putting it here. Comparing the two extracts – Macbeth in scene 3 and Angus in scene 2 – to see how they present Macbeth’s hold on power. Here are the slides:

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And here’s an example of an analytical response. Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 16.34.37

Finally, here’s a template to help you analyse any extract:

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