Macbeth: Themes KS4/5

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In these lessons, students will engage with the themes and ideas at the heart of the text, including deception, ambition, and guilt. Tasks include: tracking these themes throughout the play, drawing out key quotations; creative writing on Lady Macbeth's sleep walking, in the character of her doctor; and a list of practice exam questions with an emphasis on themes and motifs.

In order to benefit fully from these lesson plans, we recommend you use them in the following order:

If you would like to teach the play in greater detail, use these advanced KS4/5 Lesson Plans. If students are new to the play, we suggest you start with the introductory KS3 Lesson Plans

These lesson plans are available in the Downloads section at the bottom of this page. To download resources, you must be logged in. Sign up for free to access this and other exclusive featuresActivities mentioned in these resources are available in a separate downloadable 'Student Booklet', also at the bottom of this page. The 'Teachers' Guide' download explains how best to use Teach Shakespeare and also contains a bibliography and appendices referencing the resources used throughout.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I identify why the themes of appearance and reality are important and pick out examples from throughout the text?

Can I explain the importance of these examples by placing them in the context of the play as a whole and the overall development of these themes?

Key words: appearance, deception, plot, reality, theme, thought-tracking

 

Prologue: Opening Discussion

Introduce the theme of appearance and reality and display a quiz-show style board numbered 1-25. Students should pick one square and if it reveals a quotation, they should place that quotation in context and talk about how it connects with the theme of appearance and reality. As a class, students should try to make a full line of five quotations across or down the board. But beware, as some squares will have something much more dangerous behind them (pictures of daggers, witches, blood, etc.) Give students a fixed amount of time or a fixed number of attempts to increase the excitement! Some suggested quotations you could use are included in the Asides.

 

Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Tracking the theme

Students should use the mindmap to help them track the theme of ‘appearance and reality’ in the play. Students could be divided into five groups, each taking one Act from the play. They should read through it carefully, looking for evidence before reporting back. Students could also prepare a sheet of evidence that can be made accessible to all their classmates as a revision aid. Students should aim to keep quotations short (under 10 words), and write a brief commentary about how their quotation links to the overall theme.

 

2) Exploring more deeply through drama and creative writing

The following drama activities can support students’ further explorations of this theme:

  • Yes/No game: One student is chosen or volunteers to answer questions. They must answer any questions asked of them by the rest of the class without saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and they should aim to be as inventive as possible. The discussion that follows this game could encourage students to think about how language can be used to get around giving a direct and simple truthful answer. Jessica Swale suggests this activity can work ‘as an effective prelude to playwriting exercises’.
  • Thought tracking: Groups of students create freeze frames from key points in the play. Assign students speaking parts from a particular scene or part of a scene. Within each tableau, each individual student should be ready to come to life and speak if they are shown a card by another student from the audience:
    • the mouth card means that they should say or paraphrase a line they say in the scene (not an aside)
    • the head card means that they should talk about what they are really thinking
    • the heart card means that they should talk about how they are feeling at this moment

 

3) Interpreting and staging key scenes

Assign to groups of students the task of staging a scene where they feel this theme is crucially important, e.g. Act 1 Scene 3, Act 1 Scene 4 or Act 2 Scene 2. Afterwards, reflect as a group and as a whole class on how well the various performances explored the themes of appearance and reality and how this was achieved.

 

 

Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

Why are appearance and reality important themes in the play?

How would I describe the development of these themes throughout the play?

How do these themes link to the other major themes in Macbeth that I have studied?

 

Suggested plenary activity…

Everyone in the class picks out three key moments that they think are particularly crucial when thinking about the themes of appearance and reality. Compare findings.

 

Asides: Further Resources

Quotations you could use in the Prologue activity:

  1. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”
  2. “Are ye fantastical, or that indeed/Which outwardly ye show?”
  3. “…why do you dress me /In borrow’d robes?”
  4. “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face.”
  5. “Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  6. “…look like th’innocent flower,? But be the serpent under it.”
  7. “This castle hath a pleasant seat.”
  8. “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”
  9. “…art thou a dagger of the mind/A false creation”
  10. “If he do bleed,/I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,/For it must seem their guilt.”
  11. “…sleek o’er your rugged looks;/ Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.”
  12. “This is the very painting of your fear.”
  13. “A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the benefits of watching.’’
  14. “…now does he feel his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief.”
  15. “As I did stand my watch upon  the hill,/I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,/The wood began to move.”

 

Epilogue: Teacher's Note

Additional materials about studying the witches can be found in the Text in Performance, Language and Context sections.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I identify why the themes of power and ambition are important and pick out examples from throughout the text?

Can I explain the importance of these examples by placing them in the context of the play as a whole and the overall development of this theme?

Key words: allegiance, ambition, divine right of kings, heir, hierarchy, legitimacy, power, sovereign, status, succession, theme, tyrant

 

Prologue: Opening Discussion

Ask students to complete a vocabulary exercise matching the following words with definitions:

power – the ability to do something or direct what others do

sovereign – a supreme ruler

heir – a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another person when that person dies

tyrant – a cruel and oppressive ruler

ambition – desire and determination to be successful

succession – the process of inheriting a title, office or property

legitimacy - lawfulness

the divine right of kings – the idea that the monarch’s right to rule comes directly from will of God

allegiance – the loyalty of a subject to his or her ruler

dynasty – a sequence of rulers from the same family

Then ask students to choose a word and write one or two sentences about Macbeth using that word. Students should share their sentences with their partners. The partner awards:

  • 1 point for correct use of the word in a sentence
  • another 1 point for using the word in reference to Macbeth, and 
  • up to another 2 points for including a short and relevant quotation

 

Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Tracking the theme

Students should use the mindmap to help them track the theme of ‘power’ in the play. Students could be divided into five groups, each taking one Act from the play. They should read through it carefully, looking for evidence before reporting back. Students could also prepare a sheet of evidence that can be made accessible to all their classmates as a revision aid. Students should aim to keep quotations short (under 10 words), and write a brief commentary about how their quotation links to the overall theme.

 

 

2) Exploring more deeply through drama

The following drama activities can support students’ explorations of this theme. Students could reflect on their experiences of these exercises in the Student Booklet.

  • The King says…This is basically a version of Simon Says that will help students to listen carefully and to respond physically to some but not all of the instructions. The actions could be appropriate for a king’s armies/subjects/servants, e.g. stand to attention, bow deeply, beg for forgiveness. You could even differentiate between the kinds of things ‘King Duncan says’ and the things that ‘King Macbeth says’, obeying only one and not the other and then switching.
  • Pauper to prince: Students build a cumulative freeze frame indicating relative status from pauper to prince. Encourage attention to body language, eye contact, etc. and ask each new student to think about how their pose builds on the one before it. Finally, ask students to think about how the status of the highest status actors could be undermined, e.g. pulling a face behind their backs, pretending to direct them in a play, putting a gun to their head.

 

3) Interpreting and staging key scenes

Assign to groups of students the task of staging a scene where they feel this theme is crucially important, e.g. Act 1 Scene 4 or Act 5 Scene 9. Afterwards, reflect as a group and as a whole class on how well the various performances explored the themes of power and ambition and how this was achieved.

 

Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

Why is power an important theme in the play?

How would I describe the development of this theme throughout the play?

How does this theme link to the other major themes in Macbeth that I have studied?

 

Suggested plenary activity…

Everyone in the class picks out three key moments that they think are particularly important to bear in mind when thinking about the theme of power. Compare findings.

 

Asides: Further Resources

 

  • Students could research the ideas of the Renaissance diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, and compare them with some of the ideas about power and politics in Macbeth.

 

Epilogue: Teacher's Note

Additional ideas about exploring the concepts of power and status - including some rehearsal room approaches to try out - can be found within the Key Stage 3 materials.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I identify why the themes of family and succession are important and pick out examples from throughout the text?

Can I explain the importance of these examples by placing them in the context of the play as a whole and the overall development of this theme?

Key words: descendants, divine right of kings, dynasty, family, heir, succession, theme

 

Prologue: Opening Discussion

Display the five quotations/images connected with the themes of family and succession. (The quotations are featured in the Student Booklet.) What’s the connection?

  • “how tender ‘tis to love the babe that sucks me” quotation (Lady Macbeth)
  • “all my little chickens” quotation (Macduff)
  • picture of apparition of a child carrying a tree
  • “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” quotation
  • an image of Banquo and Fleance

Draw out from students’ feedback some of the ideas and issues to help them connect the clues, such as family, children, mothers and fathers, birth, descendants, succession, the divine right of kings, blood, dynasties, the future. Students could record them in a mindmap. A key idea with this theme is for students to think about families in a political as well as personal way. You could draw parallels with the current Royal Family to illustrate this point. 

 

Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Tracking the theme

Students should use the mindmap to help them track the themes of ‘family and succession’ in the play. Students could be divided into five groups, each taking one Act from the play. They should read through it carefully, looking for evidence before reporting back. Students could also prepare a sheet of evidence that can be made accessible to all their classmates as a revision aid. Students should aim to keep quotations short (under 10 words), and write a brief commentary about how their quotation links to the overall theme.

 

 

 

2) Exploring more deeply through drama

The following drama activities can support students’ explorations of this theme. Students could reflect on their experiences of these exercises in the Student Booklet.

  • Wolf and sheep: one student is the wolf, one the sheep and the rest of the class hold hands and create a protective ‘fold’, who must move as one to protect the sheep in their care