Macbeth: Context KS3 | Playing Shakespeare

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Explore the role(s) of women in this production of Macbeth

Learning Objectives

  • Recall the female characters from the play and their main features
  • Explain how this production presents these female characters  (using production photography)
  • Illustrate the differences between the text and the production
  • Use contextual knowledge to analyse the reason/s for these differences


Metacognition focus!
Cognitive strategies: How do you feel about ‘context’? What do you think counts as ‘context’?

Activate prior knowledge: what do you know about how women’s roles were played in Shakespeare’s time?

In Macbeth, gender roles are explored and also disrupted. In the production you saw at Shakespeare’s Globe, this was given extra emphasis as several roles normally played by men were played by female actors.

Have students work in groups of three. Ask: How many female characters are there in Macbeth? [Answer: Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, the witches, Hecate] Ignoring Hecate, they should write each character’s name into the centre of a separate A3 sheet of paper. On the left of each name/page, they should add notes about each characters’ main features: their appearance; how they act towards others; how others react to/think about them.

Next, have each student select one character to focus on. On the right hand side of the page, they should add notes about how this production presented this female character. Think about: their costume (including colours and textures); their hair and make up; their body language/movement/use of gestures; their interaction with other characters (use production photography). After 2 minutes, they should swap characters, and see what else they can add. Repeat this again, until they end up with the character that they started with.

Students should then form a group with everyone else that has the same character as them (i.e. one group for: Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, the witches). In these larger groups, students should discuss the similarities and differences between the main features suggested by the text versus what they saw in the production. Students should then return to their original group of 3 and explain their findings to the group (as the ‘expert’ on that character).

Pose the question to the class:

  • What surprised you about these female characters when you saw them in the play? Why? Try to link this to the text.
  • How did the presentation of these characters support / disrupt stereotypes linked to women?
  • How does this presentation differ from what we know about how these characters would have been played in Shakespeare’s time?
  • Focusing on the differences between the text and the production: why do you think the Director made these decisions about the presentation of these female characters?
    • Extend their thinking: what is happening in our world today that might have influenced these decisions? How does our context shape this?

Perhaps the most significant difference regarding the female characters between the text and the production was the character of Ross, who was a female (and played by a female actor). Create a new A3 sheet for Ross, identifying what we learn about the character from the text, versus that way they were presented within the play. (Prompt them to recall: ruffle skirt, wearing of lipstick, curtseying, use production photography.)

Display these questions that groups should discuss and add annotations to their ‘Ross’ page on:

  1. What difference does it make having a female Ross as one of Duncan’s party (instead of it being all male, as in the text)?
  2. Compare the way that Ross was shown in the production to that of Lady Macduff. Who is more powerful? Who do you respect more? Why?
  3. Compare the way that Ross was shown in the production to that of Lady Macbeth. Who is more powerful? Who do you respect more? Why?
  4. Are there any characters in books/films that this production’s Ross reminds you of? What is their role in the book/film?

Groups should present back to the class on the overall question: Why do you think the Director made the decision to make Ross a female character?

Think about the scene where Lady Macbeth warns Lady Macduff about her immanent attack. Consider whether this scene had a different feeling because it was a woman giving the message to another woman, rather than a male messenger.

Think about the way that the witches were introduced and how they interacted with each other, here and across the play. Why do you think the Director showed them as scavengers? What might this suggest about them?

Discuss any other things you noticed about how the position of women was shown in the production you saw. 


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