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Temptation, Sin, Retribution: Lecture Notes on Shakespeare's Macbeth

From Macbeth and King Lear, by Jessie K. Curtis.

Lectures 1-5


1. Tragedy is a play of the passions ending in catastrophe.

2. Comedy is a play of feeling or fancy ending in mediation.

3. Historical drama is a view of national life within the pale of authentic history. "A succession of incidents" becomes a "combination of events." Personage is changed to personality. Facts become truths. The past is put into the present.

4. Passion is high-wrought feeling filled and thrilled with thought. It is of the soul and must not be confounded with appetite, which is of the body. Shakespeare deals with passions, never appetites.

The four greatest tragedies of Shakespeare are Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello.

Othello is the most tragic and tender; Hamlet is finest-wrought, the silken threads of thought shimmer over the entire drama; Lear is the most masterly and magnificent; while Macbeth shows more than any other, the power of woman in making or marring the destiny of man.


What the Sistine Madonna was to Raphael, Macbeth was to Shakespeare, that kind of impromptu which comes from perfectly-disciplined powers. It is a specimen of Shakespeare's unelaborated works in their full maturity. — Richard Grant White

Macbeth is done upon a stronger, a more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespeare's plays. — Hazlitt

In the grandeur of tragedy, Macbeth has no parallel except in Prometheus and the furies of the Attic stage. Macbeth, the most awful creation of the poetic mind. — Bucknill

Macbeth is the tragedy of terror, terror in the imaginative presence of wicked temptations and of a fearful career of guilt. — Henry Reed

Lecture 1


Act I

I have tempted the devil and he has come to me. — John Bunyan

Life's business being the terrible choice.
Why comes temptation, but for man to meet
And master and make crouch beneath his foot,
And so be pedestaled in triumph ? — Browning

That which is a necessity to him that struggles, is a choice to him that is willing. — Seneca

1. What is Macbeth's first temptation? Give reasons.
2. What are the weird sisters?
3. How do they compare with the witch of Endor?
4. At what epoch do they appear to Macbeth?
5. How is Duncan's character a temptation to Macbeth?
6. What character contrasts with Macbeth?
7. What is the value of antithesis?
8. Give other examples from Shakespeare.
9. Give examples in art.
10. What is the danger from antithesis? Give examples.
11. What person speaks to save Macbeth?
12. What thought comes to save him?
13. What historical character believed in the same power?
14. What qualities of Duncan seem likely to save Macbeth?
15. What action of Duncan's?
16. Compare Macbeth's soliloquy with Hamlet's.
17. If fear of future punishment could save a soul, would Macbeth have been saved?
18. Who causes the final fall of Macbeth?
19. What means are last used to bring Macbeth to do the deed?
20. Do Shakespeare's women show this quality elsewhere?

21. Is this quality to be cultivated?
22. Contrast the lives of Lord and Lady Macbeth.
23. Contrast their characters.
24. What feelings are placed foremost with Lady Macbeth?
25. What feelings are outraged?
26. Which is the stronger character in this act?
27. In what respect is the marriage of Macbeth's an ideal?
28. In what respect is it not an ideal?
29. Give a quotation from Shakespeare that would make a true marriage.
30. Is this play true to Scottish character and scenery?
31. Have we any reason for supposing that Shakespeare visited Scotland?
32. Does Shakespeare make character change with latitude?
33. Give examples.
34. What touch of beauty relieves the luridness of this act?
35. What feeling influences the reader in Act I?
36. Where do we leave Macbeth in Act I?
37. With what quotation from Dante could we end Act I?
38. What is left to interest the reader?

Lecture 2


Act 2

The curious crime, the fine
Felicity and flower of wickedness. — Browning

The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall. — Bacoti

Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen
Fallen, from his high estate. — Dryden

1. How is the time of day a portent of coming events?
2. Is concealment the sole reason why most murders are committed in the dark?
3. What speech of Banquo's becomes further temptation to Macbeth?
4. What does it show in Banquo?
5. Where are witches in this act?
6. How does the analytical and imaginative mind of Macbeth show itself?
7. Does the dagger suggest confidence or terror, temptation or retribution?
8. How does sin in Act 2 differ from sin in Act I?
9. What accompaniments to the murder?
10. Has history any parallel to this?
11. Give a similar example from Hawthorne.
12. Show the pathos in this act.
13. Is it art to thus relieve crime?
14. Why does Lady Macbeth need to take wine?
15. How does its effect show her nature?
16. How does Lady Macbeth show her womanliness?
17. How far off is Duncan's room?
18. Why does Macbeth bring away the daggers?
19. What after effect from Lady Macbeth's carrying back the daggers?
20. What does the knocking at the gate personify?
21. Is the porter's soliloquy appropriate to this act?
22. Where does Macbeth first show his hypocrisy?
23. Is this natural to him?
24. Why does he describe the dead Duncan so minutely?
25. Which is the most far seeing, Lord or Lady Macbeth?
26. Is this a difference of sex or character?
27. How does the murder of the grooms contrast with the murder of Duncan?
28. What change of character has been wrought by crime?
29. Why does Lady Macbeth faint?
30. Is physical sleep the only meaning to Macbeth's words on sleep?
31. What symbolism in the horses of Duncan eating each other?
32. How does Banquo proclaim his innocence?
33. Is he wholly innocent?
34. How do Lord and Lady Macbeth each meet the world?
35. How does Donald show his suspicion of the murderer?
36. Why is the old man introduced into the last scene?
37. How do some rank Act 2?
38. What feeling is awakened by Act 2?

Lecture 3


Act 3

Proverbs 5:22. 2 Timothy 3:13. In the greatness of his folly he shall go astray.

All that is human must retrograde if it do not advance. — Gibbon

Lord of himself, that heritage of woe. — Byron

Then do men's lives become one vast disease. — Sophocles

Give ample room and verge enough,
The characters of hell to trace. — Gray

He who is bent on evil can never want occasion. — Publius Syrus

Tremble thou wretch,
Thou hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipped of justice. — Shakespeare

1. Give three reasons Macbeth would have for the murder of Banquo.
2. Does Lady Macbeth have any influence in this murder?
3. What kind of people does Macbeth summon around him?
4. Why does Macbeth not commit these murders with his own hand?
5. Why do we have three murderers when only two were engaged?
6. Give the two theories about the third murderer?
7. What characteristic of Macbeth's is shown in this?
8. What is Lady Macbeth's part in scene 2?
9. Has her nature changed?
10. What are the ghosts in scene 4?
11. Have we had any suggestion that Banquo's ghost would be there?
12. How does Lady Macbeth treat her husband in this scene?
13. On whom has Macbeth come to depend?
14. What is his attitude toward his wife?
15. Why are they so seldom together?
16. What element of Macbeth's nature has been destroyed by crime?
17. What sentence from Macbeth in Act 3 similar to one in Act I?
18. How has its meaning changed?
19. How do Lord and Lady Macbeth differ from each other in their relations to the world at this time?
20. Give the reasons for this?
21. What is the state of Macbeth's mind?
22. Why are the witches seen under the rule of Hecate? Why chided by her?
23. How have the witches changed?
24. Why do they always appear grander in the presence of Macbeth?
25. Is it the nature of evil to change with time?
26. Does evil change its aspect with different people?
27. Give arguments for and against Middleton's hand in depicting some of these witch scenes?
28. What is the condition of the kingdom in Act 3?
29. Who is responsible for this?
30. Does crime simply curse the criminal?
31. Why should Lennox be suspicious of Macbeth?
32. What feeling influences the reader in Act 3?

Lecture 4


Act 4

No man of woman born,
Coward or brave, can shun his destiny. — Bryant's Iliad

No man has learned any thing rightly, until he learns that every day is doomsday. — Emerson

Seek not to know tomorrow's doom. — Congreve's Horace

Fate steals along with silent thread,
Found oftenest in what least we dread.

1. What changes have the witches undergone since Act I?
2. What apparitions have taken their place and what do they each signify?
3. What do the eight kings represent?
4. What effect have all these on Macbeth?
5. Who takes Banquo's place in the play?
6. How do these characters differ?
7. How does Macduff's marriage differ from Macbeth's?
8. What moral purpose is served by these contrasting marriages?
9. Why does Malcolm give such a false picture of himself?
10. How does he differ from his father?
11. Which is the stronger influence in life, an inheritance from a parent, or the example of a parent?
12. How does the murder of Macduff's family cause the overthrow of Macbeth?
13. What law of evil is illustrated in this? Give examples from history, from other dramas.
14. What elements of character not found in Act I does Macbeth show in Acts 3 and 4?
15. What enhances this characteristic?
16. Does Macbeth show remorse?
17. What is the course of destiny in this play?
18. How do destiny and doom join in this act? 19. What opposite qualities in Macbeth and Hamlet result in the downfall of each?
20. How do the witches of Shakespeare differ from the oracles of the heathen world?
21. Why is the king of England, curing diseases, by a touch, introduced?
22. How does evil in Shakespeare differ from evil in Milton and in Dante?
23. How is evil pictured in Gothe?
24. What is Emerson's idea of evil?
25. What is Hawthorne's view of evil?
26. What is Shakespeare's idea of evil?
27. How does it differ from the Greek drama?
28. Give cause of Macbeth's temptation?
29. Give cause of Macbeth's doom?
30. What feeling influences the reader in Act 4?

Lecture 5


Act 5

Matthew 7:2.

Lost, I am lost, my fates have doomed my death. — Ford

And sitting on her throne sublime.
The vials of her wrath with justice stored. — Percival

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small,
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness
grinds he all. — Fredrick von Logau

Which way shall I fly,
Infinite wrath and infinite despair,
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell. — Milton

1. What change is shown in Lady Macbeth?
2. Give causes for this in her character and her life.
3. In this change what quality of the brain is left in full force?
4. With what soul quality is this connected?
5. With what does the continual washing of the hands contrast in act 2?
6. What suggestion have we had of this sleep-walking scene?
7. Has Macbeth's sleep been affected by his crime ?
8. Why has Shakespeare not given us the steps of change in Lady Macbeth?
9. Which is the stronger force in her nature, soul or intellect?
10. Has Lady Macbeth egoism by nature?
11. Has she this quality in Act 5? Give reasons.
12. How does Lady Macbeth differ from Clytemnestra?
13. How from Jezebel?
14. What suggests the physical appearance of Lady Macbeth?
15. How are Shakespeare's women usually pictured? Give exceptions.
16. How is Lady Macbeth a tribute to womanhood?
17. Give the two different theories about Lady Macbeth?
18. How have Lord and Lady Macbeth transferred their characteristics since Act I?
19. What moral lesson is to be learned from this?
20. In what respect is Macbeth like Faust?
21. What saves Faust for a higher destiny?
22. In what respect is Macbeth greater as a moral lesson?
23. What speech shows Macbeth an infidel?
24. What is the cause of this infidelity?
25. When fate fooled him, what characteristics did Macbeth show?
26. How much goodness was left in Macbeth after his crime?
27. Wherein is Macbeth superior to Lady Macbeth in his death ?
28. Which calls forth the greater sympathy in Act 5?
29. What is the feeling excited by this Act?

General questions

1. In which act does action culminate? Why?
2. In which act does interest culminate? Why?
3. Which is the most powerful act in this play?
4. What holds one's interest throughout?
5. What moral lessons are learned from Macbeth?
6. What makes the plot of Macbeth?
7. How does it differ from Ben Johnson's plot? See Lowell on Shakespeare.
8. Are Shakespeare's characters individuals or classes? See Coleridge.
9. Had Lady Macbeth been true to right, what kind of a poem would Macbeth have been?
10. Why has Shakespeare never written such a poem?
11. How does the evil in Macbeth contrast with the evil in Richard 3?
12 How does the evil in Macbeth compare with the evil in Iago?
13 How much of Calvinistic theology enters into the Macbeth drama?
14 How much into the Greek drama?
15 How is Macbeth superior to Faust or to the Magic Skin?

Topics for papers

Each paper to be applied to Macbeth.

1. Effect of conscience on character.
2. Effect of imagination on conscience.
3. Effect of superstition on character.
4. Effect of superstition on conscience.
5. Conscience perverted by pride.
6. Conscience perverted by gratified ambition.
7. Temptation destroying prudence.
8. Ambition in woman as wife.
9. Influence of marriage on character.
10. Is a perfect marriage a loss of personality?
11. "The lost law of Eden" in marriage.
12. The peril of wicked associations.
13. The peril of opportunity.
14. The power of the imagination.
15. The use of the imagination.
16. The difference between religion and morality.
17. Religion that is superstition ending in infidelity.
18. Infidelity ending in remorse.
19. A sensual heaven an actual hell.
20. Brooding over evil.
21. Sin its own punishment.
22. The distinction between remorse and repentance.
23. "Nemesis the artistic attitude of justice."
24. The knocking at the gate.
25. Macbeth as a Celt.
26. The personators of Macbeth.
27. The personators of Lady Macbeth.
28. Irony in literature.
29. Superstition in literature.
30. The modern parallels of Macbeth.

References for Lectures 1-5

Fletcher, G. Criticism and acting of Macbeth (see Western mag. 41: I.)
Irving, Henry. The third murderer in Macbeth; answer to A.JP. Paton in Notes and queries (see 19th cent, i: 327-30).
Kemble, Fannie. Characters in Macbeth (Macmillan 16: 76-82).
Lady Macbeth (see Eclectic mag. 70: 481-88).
O'Neil, Moira. Macbeth as the Celtic type (see Blackwood's mag. 150: 376-83).
Paton, A. P. Was Macbeth the third murderer of Banquo? (see Notes and queries, 4th ser. 4: 211; 412-14).

How to cite this article:
Curtis, Jessie K. Macbeth and King Lear. University of the State of New York Extension Department, Syllabus 18 Jan. 1893. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2011. < >.


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