Macbeth - Understanding the Text

This GCSE English Literature quiz tests your understanding of William Shakepeare’s Macbeth. This play was written over four hundred years ago and the form of English in which it is written is known as “Early Modern”. Sounds easy to understand, right? You have already noticed, of course, that Shakespeare’s English differs from your own. Sometimes these differences appear in the spelling, sometimes in unfamiliar words, and sometimes in the jokes. It is worth persevering with Early Modern English, however. This is certainly a case where practice helps! Reading slowly, reading sections more than once and reading aloud will all help with comprehension.

Pay close attention to the methods and techniques which have been used to convey meaning, analysing character, setting, plot, theme and dialogue.

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Comprehension of literary texts involves several different levels simultaneously, from basic understanding of plot to a more sophisticated understanding of the themes. Pay attention to events which the audience observes, and those which are only reported. In Macbeth some violent scenes are staged while others are reported by characters. Why might that be?

As when studying other types of fiction, it is a good idea to create a timeline. This will help you to remember the chronology of events and the structure of the play. Although the main events of the play are ordered chronologically, time in Macbeth is rather vague and it is not always clear how much time passes between events. Create act and scene summaries to help your revision of the text.

Take some time to analyse the beginnings and endings of acts and scenes in the play. Consider possible reasons for the play beginning as it does with the witches, rather than with Duncan or on the battlefield with Macbeth. What do we learn in the first scene? What, if anything, do we know about past events? How do we learn about characters? In what way are future events foreshadowed? Undertaking detailed analysis of this sort will boost your knowledge and understanding of the text!

Read the questions below on Macbeth and test your knowledge and understanding of the text.

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  1. How does Duncan, King of Scotland, reward Macbeth's role in the battle against Sweno?
    Macbeth defeats the Thane of Cawdor, who traitorously supported the King of Norway's invasion of Scotland
  2. From whom does Macbeth first learn he shall be the new Thane of Cawdor?
    Because the witches' prophecy proves to be true when Ross informs him of the King's favour, Macbeth more easily believes their prophecy that he shall be also be king
  3. Lady Macbeth learns of the witches' prophecy in a letter from her husband. What does she decide to do in response?
    Lady Macbeth describes her husband as a man who would be content to have achieved his ambitions by foul means, but who does not wish to take the necessary actions
  4. In Act Two, Scene Two, Lady Macbeth says, "My hands are of your colour." Why do the hands of Lady Macbeth come to resemble those of her husband?
    Lady Macbeth reports that she found herself unable to murder the king herself. She is, however, able to look upon his dead body when she returns the daggers to the chamber after Macbeth fails to plant them on the grooms
  5. Malcolm and Donalbain flee Macbeth's home after their father's murder. What is the effect of this action?
    The two sons suspect a plot and flee for their lives, leaving the succession open for Macbeth. Their actions leave them vulnerable to suspicion of plotting against their own father, an idea mentioned later both by Macduff and Lennox
  6. What does Macbeth instruct the murderers to do?
    Macbeth distances himself from the murder of Banquo, ordering the assassination of the man he sees as a rival. For the murderers he chooses men with a grudge against Banquo and whips up their resentment against him
  7. Why does Macbeth see Banquo as a rival?
    In his determination to hold onto the power which he has achieved by treason, Macbeth becomes paranoid, viewing former comrades as enemies and usurpers
  8. How does the prophecy that he shall not be defeated until 'Great Birnam Wood come to high Dunsinane Hill' make Macbeth feel?
    Although he himself made the witches' unlikely prophecy that he should be king come true, Macbeth forgets the lesson that the seemingly impossible can be made to happen. He becomes complacent and believes himself to be invincible
  9. What appears to cause Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking?
    Lady Macbeth reveals her innermost feelings while sleepwalking, both confessing her crimes and betraying her sense that she and Macbeth ought to be above judgement. In her dreams she cannot wash her hands clean of the blood of their victims
  10. How does Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane?
    The attacking army wishes to conceal its size by hiding behind the branches

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