Macbeth: Contexts KS4/5

Add to My Resources Remove from My Resources

In these lessons, students will be introduced to the world that Shakespeare lived and wrote in. This will help them to build an informed overview of the social and historical contexts important to the dramatic world. Tasks include: exploring a range of historical sources for Macbeth and asking why Shakespeare made changes; researching James I's view on witchcraft and the controversy surrounding this topic; and revision on how to write about the play in its wider contexts.

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 compare Shakespeare’s play with a historical source and identify and analyse key similarities and differences?

Can I speculate about Shakespeare’s reasons for making the changes he did and explain my ideas clearly?

Key words: context, evidence, Holinshed, historical, literary, source, speculate


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Students should list in pairs any films, TV shows or plays they can think of that retell a story that really happened. Can they identify any ways in which the historical sources were altered in the adaptation, e.g. Chariots of Fire, Erin Brockovich, Calendar Girls, Evita, etc. Take feedback and discuss some of the reasons why such changes are made.


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) A first read

Ask students what they already know or think they know about Shakespeare’s sources for this play and how he adapted them. Students should then quickly read the extracts from Holinshed about the sequence of events and the portrayal of key figures in the story. They should try to make sense of the text and clarify any parts where they are not sure of the meaning. Then ask students to pool their resources and work in pairs. Take feedback about how they found the experience of reading this text.

Finally, ask students about any similarities and differences they have noticed when comparing the historical source with the drama by Shakespeare.


2) Reading closely and making notes

In groups, students read the three extracts from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Students should now annotate the passages, answer the questions and make additional notes in the Student Booklet, comparing Holinshed’s and Shakespeare’s presentation of the story of Macbeth. Students could take an extract per group and feedback their detailed findings. They should ensure that they have provided evidence from both texts to support their points. Remind students that one of the extracts is about King Duffe who lived eighty years earlier. As an extension task, students could research online and read additional extracts from Holinshed’s history.


3) Drawing conclusions

Lead a discussion of students’ findings and move the discussion on to speculation about why Shakespeare might have made these changes. Ensure that students record some of the key points raised in this part of the discussion.


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

How did Shakespeare adapt the historical source material about Duncan and Macbeth and why?

How and why did Shakespeare incorporate source material about King Duffe who had died eighty years previously?


Suggested plenary activity…

What particular reading challenges did the Holinshed text present students with and how did students tackle them? Ask students to compile a list of their best pieces of advice to fellow students on decoding and comprehending this sixteenth century prose text.


Aside: Further Resource


Epilogue: Teacher's Note

Students could produce a short piece of comparative and analytical writing to be assessed for reading and writing.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I consider how magic and witchcraft might have been viewed and understood by audiences in Shakespeare’s time?

Can I present evidence to support my ideas?

Key words: allusion, connotation, historical context, magic, stereotype, witchcraft


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Students view a series of images about witchcraft that conform with some stereotypes today, e.g. black pointy hat, broomstick, cauldron, etc. They should discuss the connotations of these images for modern audiences, and speculate about the connotations of the words ‘witch’ and ‘magic’ during Shakespeare’s time. 


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Killing a King

In Shakespeare’s time, the killing of a king would have been seen as an offence against God’s wishes. As it was against the natural order of things, this act was capable of leading to all kinds of frightening and unnatural events. This activity asks students to look closely at Act 2 Scene 4, lines 1-19 and to identify three weird happenings that the characters have witnessed since King Duncan’s death (e.g. darkness during the daytime, a falcon killed by an owl, Duncan’s horses turning wild and eating each other). List them in the Student Booklet.


2) A historian’s view

Students read the extract from Tracy Borman’s Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts that is in the Student Booklet and answer the quick questions that follow it:

‘But the most famous of all the literary works inspired by witchcraft, winning widespread acclaim in its day and ever since, was Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is deliberately short in length, as James was known to have little patience for sitting through long plays; it is also significant that the occasion of its inaugural performance was a visit by Queen Anne’s brother, the King of Denmark, in 1606, given that it was James’ voyage to his wife’s native land that had prompted his obsession with witchcraft. Shakespeare wove in several references to this voyage in the play, such as when the First Witch claims that she set sail in a sieve, just as one of the North Berwick witches was accused of doing. The line ‘Though his bark cannot be lost,/Yet it shall be tempest tossed almost certainly alluded to James’ near-death experience.

All the leaders of the English judiciary would have been present at this important state occasion, and this was exactly the sort of play that would inspire them with the same witch hunting fervour as their royal master. The drama centred around Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who murdered King Duncan to seize the throne of Scotland after three witches prophesied Macbeth’s succession. Whether the witches thus caused the overthrow of the natural succession, or merely brought out Macbeth’s inherent evil, was left to the audience’s imagination. Either way, the play both confirmed and introduced new elements to the stereotypical view of a witch, with her spells and familiars. It also spawned two of the most quoted lines in English literary history:

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Macbeth instilled fear in those watching that witchcraft was not just a satanic confederacy, but a conspiracy against the state. The latter notion was all too readily accepted in England at this time because the play was performed just a few short months after one of the most notorious conspiracies in history.’

Students could then independently carry out some research on the context of the play, examining the following areas:

  • Catholicism and Protestantism
  • King James’ personal interest in witchcraft
  • His book Daemonologie published in 1599
  • The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

Students should aim to comment on the importance of their research in shedding light on the text of the play itself. The next activity takes students through this process of exploring the text in context in more detail.


3) The text in context

Students could re-read Act 1 Scene 1 and Act 1 Scene 3 lines 1-37.  First of all, students should look for any clues that fit with the stereotypical image of a witch that was discussed earlier. Take some quick feedback. Then, as you model one or two examples, students should annotate the text (in the Student Booklet) to show how contextual information can support interpretation of the text itself, e.g.

  • references to ‘Paddock’ and ‘Graymalkin’ - ideas of Witches’ familiars’
  • the meaning of archaic vocabulary, e.g. ‘ronyon’, ‘mounched’
  • the mystical significance of the number three
  • allusions to King James’ travels that prompted his interest in witchcraft
  • King James’ writings on the subject of witchcraft




Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

How has greater knowledge and understanding about context enhanced my understanding of the play Macbeth?

In what other areas and aspects of the play has knowledge of context enhanced my understanding?


Suggested plenary activity…

Students could each select one short quotation from the play where their knowledge of historical and social context has supported them in their quest for meaning, and share examples with one another.


Aside: Further Resourc

  • The Gunpowder Plot is the name given to the plan devised by a group of Catholic plotters in 1605 to blow up the King and both houses of Parliament, and put a Catholic on the throne. The plan was foiled by the government intelligence service and the conspirators were put on trial and executed.


Epilogue: Teacher's Note

These materials are designed to build on the KS3 Historical and Social Context lessons.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I comment on a range of interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth?

Can I analyse some of the factors that influence how literary works are interpreted in different contexts?

Key words: cinematography, contemporary, context, culture, interpretation, intertextuality, musical score, parallel, relevant, topical, visual arts


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Introduce today’s lesson by sampling one or more versions of Macbeth that put a very modern twist on the play, e.g. graphic novels; Macbeth told in Lego; Macbeth Simpsons-style. Ask students to comment and give their feedback on

  1. how faithful it is to the play
  2. who this might appeal to
  3. their own verdict on this particular retelling.


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Paintings

Turn the classroom into a Macbeth-inspired gallery. Use paintings such as those by Zoffany, Redon, Reynolds, Fuseli, etc. First, students could tour the pictures and make notes on their initial impressions of each image:

  • the part of the play it depicts
  • any ideas about artist/date
  • their opinion of the image

Then students should work in small groups and become experts specialising in one picture. They are going to be preparing tour guide notes on cue cards; one member of their group should then use these when giving a brief talk about their picture for the forthcoming exhibition. Give students a fixed amount of time to research their image, prepare their cue cards and rehearse the talk. Then open the 'exhibition' and hear from each group in turn, as the class move from picture to picture. 


2) A recent interpretation

Watch or find out more about a recent version of Macbeth e.g. the 2015 film starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Discuss what makes this version of interest to modern audiences, e.g.

  • has the setting been updated?
  • are particular themes emphasised or parallels drawn with current issues?
  • what about the look and feel of this version in terms of cinematography, the musical score, special effects, etc.?


3) Quiz: What’s the connection?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and has entered our language and culture in all sorts of ways. Ask students if they can spot the connection between Macbeth and the following: 

  • There will be blood (movie)
  • Something Wicked (movie)
  • Harry Potter ‘Double Trouble’ song
  • Tomorrow and Tomorrow (sci-fi novel)
  •  Blackadder III (‘Lead on Macduff’ scene)
  •  Is this a dagger? (exhibition)
  • ‘Stand not upon the order of your going’ (newspaper headline, Daniel Hannan)
  • ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ (song)
  • Wyrd Sisters (novel)
  • From a Jack to a King (rock musical)

What do students notice about the aspects of Macbeth that are particularly well-known and iconic?


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

What kind of impact has Macbeth had on our culture and language today?

How have directors, actors, etc. sought to make Macbeth relevant and contemporary?

What is it about Macbeth that resonates with audiences today?


Suggested plenary activity…

Introduce the homework task (described in the Epilogue), and give students some thinking time to scribble down their initial ideas. 


Asides: Further Resources

  • In the Key Stage 3 Historical and Social Context Lesson Plans, it was suggested that students could view a YouTube clip of Kate Tempest as part of a broader discussion on the relevance and value of reading and studying Shakespeare today. To continue this discussion, students could view this clip of comedian, writer and musician Tim Minchin talking about what Shakespeare means to him:


Epilogue: Teacher's Note

As a homework task, students could be given the opportunity to think in a creative and wide-ranging way about interpreting Macbeth in the 21st century. Ask them to create or design something inspired by Macbeth; this could be an item of clothing or jewellery, a poem or song, a comic strip, Lego scene, or an advert.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I write about the context of Macbeth in a way that enhances audiences’ understanding and enjoyment of the play?

Key words: audience, background, context, cultural, historical, literary, programme, purpose, social


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Show students a range of theatre programmes for them to browse and borrow ideas from. Students should make notes on the contents of programmes. What are the essential items a programme should include? What else is sometimes included?


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Theatre programmes

Having looked closely at a number of programmes, explain to students what their assessment task will be: to produce their own programme for a production of Macbeth at the Globe. Ensure that students are clear about the audience and purpose for their programme. Encourage students to think about this as broadly as possible, acknowledging that a programme has a range of purposes: to inform audiences about who is acting in the play, etc.; to explain the context and perhaps the production history of the play; to be an attractive souvenir for audiences (importance of cover, photographs, etc.)


2) Look closely at an article/essay from a Globe programme

Model a close reading of one article from a Globe programme that gives readers valuable insights into an aspect of the play’s context. 


3) Writing your own programme notes

Students should now draft their own programme for a production of Macbeth at the Globe. Provide students with a list of minimum contents, but students can choose to include other elements to enhance their finished piece of writing for assessment. Alternatively, students could collaborate to produce one entire programme as small groups or as a whole class.

Contents could include:

  • a piece about the history of the Globe theatre
  • an interview with a member of the backstage team
  • a piece comparing the historical sources with Shakespeare’s dramatic version of events
  • a timeline of historical events from around the time the play was written
  • a collage of images and ideas that provide insights into the setting and artistic vision for this particular production
  • a cast list and rehearsal images
  • a piece about James I and witchcraft
  • a retrospective piece about some different productions of Macbeth
  • an opinion piece by the director about why this play still resonates with audiences today


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

Why do people buy theatre programmes?

What should a theatre programme include?  


Suggested plenary activity…

Students should exchange work in progress and peer assess drafts using the success criteria.


Aside: Further Resource

  • With this and many other activities in these materials, particularly Text in Performance ones, students could also make links to their local theatres. Perhaps they could visit the theatre to find out more about programmes and publicity, the theatre’s history and archives, front of house and box office as well as many other aspects such as the auditorium, technical features of the theatre ‘behind the scenes’, stage management, etc. 


Epilogue: Teacher's Note

Students’ programme notes for Macbeth can be assessed for reading and writing. 

Key Questions for Students:

Can I make references to context in my essays that support and enhance my interpretation of the text?

Key words: context, essay, interpretation, relevant, text


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Ask students to prepare a quickfire factual quiz about the context of Macbeth, e.g. Who was the king or queen of England at the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth? 


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Writing about context in essays

Students should look back through their planning for the various tasks from the task banks that are featured throughout these materials, and identify for each plan up to three pieces of contextual information that:

  • have a clear LINK to the text they are studying
  • be RELEVANT to the question they are answering and/or the point they’re making
  • HELP them understand and interpret the text


2) Building your own interpretation informed by context

The Student Booklet contains a page of activities that will help students integrate perceptive comments about context into their written work about Macbeth.


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

Self/peer assessment task reviewing relevance or otherwise of points made in relation to context.


Aside: Further Resource

  • The extent to which placing the text in its historical and social context is expected of students will depend on the curriculum and syllabus being studied and the weighting of assessment objectives against particular skill areas.


Epilogue: Teacher's Note

A full list of Macbeth tasks can also be found in the Student Booklet.


Want to download these resources and more? Log in or sign up to Teach Shakespeare.


Log in or sign up to add your own notes.