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Macbeth - Themes

This GCSE English Literature quiz is about the themes of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like other works of literature, the play contains multiple themes, ranging from the subtle to the very obvious. It can be misleading to discuss a single theme in isolation, since individual themes interact with one another. Themes are developed through those various elements of literature with which you are already familiar, including setting, character, plot and dialogue. Pay close attention to any concepts and ideas which you notice recurring throughout the text; these are its dominant themes.

One way to analyse a text is to pay attention to the development of ideas from its beginning to its end. It is also helpful to consider whether (or how) your own views change over the course of the text. Do your views after reading correspond to the views you held at the beginning of the text? If your views have changed, can you identify the point at which this change began to occur?

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Authors convey meaning to the audience through the themes of a text. Whenever a text challenges you, the author has successfully encouraged you to engage with one or more of its themes. It is important to remember that you do not have to share the same view as other readers, even your teacher. Your response to a text will be deeply personal, which is inevitable when you consider that you bring your own thoughts, beliefs and experiences into contact with the text as you read.

Macbeth deals with themes of ambition, deceit, appearance versus reality, fate and fortune, treason and guilt. As with any text, these themes are interrelated. Do any themes seem to be associated with a single character? Why or why not?

Read the questions below and test your knowledge of the themes of Macbeth.

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  1. Of what is Macbeth as guilty as the previous Thane of Cawdor?
    The Thane of Cawdor fights alongside the invading Sweno, King of Norway, an act of treason against his own king. By plotting to murder Duncan, the new Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, is also guilty of treason
  2. Macbeth is introduced to the audience as a valiant warrior, for which Duncan rewards him with the title, Thane of Cawdor. Which of the following responses to this honour does Macbeth share with his Lady?
    Macbeth refers to the honour shown to him by the King as one of the "preludes to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme". He looks forward already to what he understands as the witches' promise to him. Lady Macbeth responds to his letter with determination to encourage him to grasp the crown
  3. Which of the following quotations does NOT imply that women are less violent, or valiant, than men?
    Lady Macbeth is determined to show herself to be unlike other women. The female sex is associated with nurture, rather than with death, so she asks to be "unsexed". Macbeth praises her as unlike other women and more fit to bear sons than daughters. Her inability to kill Duncan is due not to her gender, but to the similarity between patricide (killing one's father) and regicide (killing one's king)
  4. How do the witches' prophecies affect the outcome of events in the play?
    When one of the witches remarks "Something wicked this way comes", she recognises the evil in Macbeth's character. Macbeth and his Lady are ambitious and happy to use betrayal and violence to achieve their goals, yet the prophecies also propel their actions
  5. Besides Duncan, who is presented as a model of good kingship in the play?
    Edward, King of England (and later known as the Confessor), possesses powers given him by God as a sign that he is the rightful king. He heals people through touch; Malcolm holds idealised views of kingship, referring to Edward as "full of grace" and describing his throne as one about which "sundry blessings hang". Macbeth, by contrast, is a tyrant who uses power for his own purposes
  6. The witches take credit for....
    The witch who wishes to punish a woman through cursing her husband's voyage to Aleppo can only cause tempests and acknowledges the limits to her power by stating that "his bark cannot be lost". Supernatural powers are shown to be limited in the play
  7. Macduff's wife compares herself to which of the following?
    Macduff's wife is "natural" in wanting to protect her children as the powerless wren defends her nest from the owl. She thus presents a contrast to the "unnatural" Lady Macbeth, who boasts that she would smash her child's skull if she had vowed to do so and who asks metaphorically that she might produce poison rather than milk
  8. Macbeth begins and ends in war. In Act One, Scene One, the witches discuss the events of the battlefield and in Act Five, Scene Nine, Malcolm is presented with Macbeth's head. Which of the following lines from his final monologue does NOT refer to the violent events of the play?
    The play ends with Malcolm promising wise rule in place of the tyranny and murder of Macbeth, whose violence is shown in his own actions and in those of his queen
  9. Which of the following is correct?
    The play distinguishes between guilt and judgement. Lady Macbeth suffers psychologically from her guilt even while believing that as Queen she is safe from human judgement. Other characters wrongly attribute guilt to the sons of the king, judging their flight as an admission of guilt. Do you think Macbeth is judged by the end of the play? Who judges him?
  10. "Away and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what false heart doth know." What is meant by "false" in these lines?
    The heart and the face tell different stories: the "false" heart betrays the one to whom it should be loyal and the "false" face shows love and friendship rather than the violent and murderous intentions of the heart

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