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For more information, please see full course syllabus of AP English Literature & Composition
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  • First Things First
    • This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
    • These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
    • Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
  • Public Service Announcement
    • A lot of people (actors, especially) think this play is cursed. So if lightning strikes your computer while you’re watching, don’t blame me! (I’m kidding, of course. But as a favor to me, don’t make fun of theatre people who believe in the curse. It’s just mean.)
  • Background
    • Written 1603—1607, after James’ accession to the throne.
    • Taken from Holinshed, and perhaps a bit from Antony and Cleopatra
    • Shakespeare removed Banquo’s guilt in the death of Duncan
    • Extra witch scenes added later?
    • First published in 1623
  • Setting
    • Medieval Scotland
    • Ireland and Norway recently defeated
    • Macbeth’s and Banquo’s stars on the rise
    • Witches abroad
  • Major Characters
    • Macbeth—Thane of Glamis, later Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland
    • Lady Macbeth—Terrifying and ambitious wife of Macbeth
    • Duncan—good king of Scotland
    • Malcolm and Donalblain—sons of Duncan
    • Banquo—Friend of Macbeth, general, and putative ancestor of James I of England
    • Fleance—Son of Banquo
    • Macduff—Thane of Fife, friend of Macbeth (at first)
    • Lady Macduff—Wife of Macduff
    • Witches—Three witches
    • Siward—English general
    • Hecate—Queen of witches, goddess of witchcraft (not in the original, we think)
    • Ross, Lennox, Angus, Menteith, Caithness – Scottish Thanes
  • Plot
    • Macbeth’s and Banquo’s victories
    • The witches’ prophecy: Thane of Cawdor, King of Scotland, father of kings
    • The prophecy fulfilled
    • Lady Macbeth’s encouragement
    • The murder of Duncan
    • Malcolm and Donalblain flee
    • Banquo killed, Fleance escapes
    • The feast
      • Banquo’s ghost
      • Macbeth’s meltdown
      • The natives grow restless
    • Witches redux
      • New prophecies: Macduff, unnatural birth, Birnam Wood to Dunsinane
    • Move against Macduff
      • Family killed
      • Macduff and Malcolm
    • Lady Macbeth’s madness and suicide
    • Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane
    • Macbeth vs. Macduff
    • Prophecies fulfilled
    • Macbeth dies, Duncan becomes king
  • Themes
    • Ambition → Corruption
    • Cruelty and Gender
    • King vs. Tyrant
    • Predicting the Future (Don’t)
    • Yay for the Stuarts!
  • Major Passages
    • “The raven himself is hoarse
      That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
      Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
      That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here …”

      -Act I, Scene 5, 36-52

    • “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
      It were done quickly …”

      -Act I, Scene 7, 1-28

    • “… What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
      Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
      Clean from my hand? …”

      -Act II, Scene 2, 55-61

    • “Out, damned spot; out, I say..…”

      -Act V, Scene 1, 30-34

    • “I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in it.”

      -Act V, Scene 1, 122

    • “She should have died hereafter.
      There would have been a time for such a word.
      Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
      Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
      To the last syllable of recorded time. …”

      -Act V, Scene 5, 16-27

  • Jumping-Off Points
    • How does the idea of prophecy play out in this story? Can the witches be trusted? Whose side are they on?
    • This play contains five kings or kinglike figures—Duncan, Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm. How are they alike? How are they different?
    • Who is the hero of this play? Who is the villain? Do they change roles at any point? Do they change back?
    • Is Macbeth a villainous figure, a tragic one, or some combination of the two?
    • Some critics believe Macbethis a misogynistic play for its portrayal of gender, especially women. Do you agree or disagree? (Either will work.)
    • What role does blood play in the story? How does it move the plot? How does it reveal character?
    • Why do some key events take place offstage? Is Shakespeare trying to limit the violence (including the use of drawn swords in front of a paranoid king), or accomplish something else?
    • People have argued over the morality of Macbethpractically since it premiered. Is Macbetha moral play? Does it have a good or just conclusion? Does it celebrate evil? Examine the moral interpretation of this story.
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
    • Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …


Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.

  • Intro 0:00
  • First Things First 0:10
  • Public Service Announcement 0:44
  • Lesson Overview 1:18
  • Background 1:54
  • Setting 4:20
  • Major Characters 4:52
    • Macbeth
    • Lady Macbeth
    • Duncan
    • Malcom and Donalblain
    • Banquo
    • Fleance
    • Macduff
    • Lady Macduff
    • Witches
    • Siward
    • Hecate
    • Ross, Lennox, Angus, Menteith, Caithness
  • Plot 6:45
    • Macbeth's and Manquo's victories
    • The witches' prophecy
    • Prophecy fulfilled
    • Lady Macbeth's encouragement
    • The murder of Duncan
    • Malcom and Donalblain flee
    • Banquo killed, Fleance excapes
    • The feast
    • Witches redux
    • Move against Macduff
    • Lady Macbeth's madness and suicide
    • Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane
    • Macbeth vs. Macduff
    • Prophecies fulfilled
    • Macbeth dies, Malcolm becomes king
  • Themes 13:47
  • Major Passages 17:19
    • Act I, scene 5, 36-52
    • Act I, scene 7, 1-28
    • Act II, scene 2, 55-61
    • Act V, scene 1, 30-34
    • Act V, scene 5, 16-27
  • Jumping-off Points 19:55
    • How does the idea of prophecy play out?
    • How are the five kings in the play alike and different?
    • Who is the hero of the play?
    • Is Macbeth villainous or tragic? Or both?
    • Is this play misogynistic?
    • What role does blood play in the story?
    • Key events offstage
    • Is Macbeth a moral play?
    • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare