"Only Vaulting Ambition": Marital Discourse between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (1.4.55-60-7)

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SWBAT analyze the argument Macbeth has with himself and with Lady Macbeth about whether or not to kill Duncan.

Big Idea

Conflict in literature articulates arguments we can analyze and construct.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Time Frame and Context

This lesson continues the lesson "Lesser Than Macbeth but Greater" in which we began studying Act I of Macbeth. Students have their parts but they need time to review and practice. Consequently, I begin the lesson by reminding students of their parts and giving them time (10 minutes) to regroup and rehearse.Today, we need students to perform the following:

  • 1.4. 55-60 (Macbeth)
  • 1.5.1-86 (Lady Macbeth, Messenger, Macbeth)
  • 1.7.1-28 (Macbeth performed by two students)
  • 1.7.29-96 (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth)

Today many of the students in the class have a specific part for which they are responsible. I keep track of this because the student roles and responsibilities change with each lesson. Dividing the act as I have done is one way to expedite the unit for teachers who have limited time, as I do under a trimester system. 

Because I want to emphasize both the conflict between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and Macbeth's internal conflict, I have a student summarize rather than perform 1.6.

As with all the Shakespeare lessons in my course, I use the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, which are now available online as digital texts, so check them out and see how easy they are to use for both students and teachers: Folger Digital Macbeth.mp4.

Macbeth's Dark and Deep Desires

5 minutes
Remind students that Macbeth has just met w/ Duncan and learned that the king has named his son Malcolm his heir by naming Malcolm The Prince of Cumberland. In fact, a good question to begin the lesson is "What has Macbeth learned in his meeting w/ Duncan in 1.4.40-49?" The teacher can then guide students to the information they need to understand Macbeth's aside that follows.
The student responsible for Macbeth's lines in 1.4.35-60 begins by presenting these lines.
The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.55-60)

After the presentation, I ask students some questions:
Me: What is Macbeth's concern?
Student: He's worried about Duncan saying Malcolm will be his heir to the throne.
Me: Who is Malcolm?
Student: Duncan's son.
Me: Why is that a concern for Macbeth?
Student: The witches predicted Macbeth will be king so he has to find a way to make that happen.
Me: Tell me what the rest of the lines mean.
Student: Macbeth says he'll pretend to act one way but be thinking evil thoughts. 
Next, I direct students' attention to Duncan's line that says he'll make Malcolm king. That's 1.4.43-45. I read the line. 
I ask, "How does Duncan characterize the treasonous Prince of Cawdor?" 
A student responds: "He says, "He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust." 
I say, "Yes. Duncan says he trusted the Prince of Cawdor and that he died honorably. Who knows what line refers to that?"
A student reads the line: 'Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
Next, I ask students to characterize Banquo at the end of the scene.
Someone responds: "Duncan says Banquo is 'true' and 'worthy.'"
I say, "That's right. How does this contrast to Macbeth?"
A student says, "Macbeth is beginning to trust the witches and is thinking about how he'll be king." 
I say, "Yes, we're beginning to see a change in Macbeth while Banquo remains loyal and true to Duncan."

Lady Macbeth Receives Macbeth's Letter (1.5)

15 minutes

The group assigned to 1.5 presents next. When students present in groups, I remind them to think about entrances and exits and to consider to whom each character is presenting. 

Some of the students are still getting use to having props available to them. When the group begins to present w/out props, I give Lady Macbeth a piece of paper to use as the letter she's reading. 

The group has some difficulty deciding how to show the Macbeth's relationship to one another, and I suggest they can solve some of those concerns with costuming because costuming suggests that they are pretending to be someone else other than themselves.

They do, however, hit their marks with the entrances and exits. This is important because the audience needs to get the sense that Lady Macbeth is alone with her thoughts before Macbeth arrives and that the messenger is gone when they discuss their plans. 

After the scene presentation, I ask the group: "What is important for us to remember about this scene."

The group takes turns explaining that Lady Macbeth receives a letter from Macbeth, that she worries Macbeth is too kind to do what it will take for him to become king, that Lady Macbeth summons spirits to make her more like a man."

Additionally, we discuss Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth to look innocent but to plot to kill Duncan "like a serpent" inside. 

I also asked students what Lady Macbeth means when she says, "unsex me here." 

Someone responds, "She wants to be like a man." 

I ask, "Who do we think about with that scene?"

A student answers, "The witches." 

Me: "Why is that important?"

Student: "The witches have beards like men, and Lady Macbeth is saying she wants to be more like a man.

I tell students to think about the Bearded Women presentation and what that shows us about the audiences' perception of emasculated women. 

*Possible discussion questions and answers follow: Macbeth 1.5 Discussion Questions and Answers.docx. However, whenever possible, allow students to observe and comment on what they notice from the scene and use the questions for discussion and not as a worksheet-type assignment! 


If It Were Done When Tis Done: Macbeth's Internal Conflict

20 minutes

Each student in the class receives a copy of the Macbeth’s Internal Argument handout. This both allows the presenters to mark their scripts and the rest of the class to make notes about this important scene. I've also included an annotated version of Macbeth’s Internal Argument Annotated and Divided for Two Presenters.docx. This version is divided to show each of the two presenters' parts. 

The Presentation and Discussion:

The two students assigned to Macbeth's soliloquy present next. Before their presentation, I had spoken to them about thinking about this speech as an argument Macbeth has with himself. 

They have decided to use a prop, a "thinking hat," to show Macbeth's internal conflict. 

Their presentation showed Macbeth's alternating thought process, and as they presented, one student read one thought, ending at a hard stop (a period, an exclamation point, a question, or a semicolon). The student presenting had possession of the hat and passed it to the next student to show Macbeth's mental state. 

After the presentation, we moved to a discussion of the soliloquy as argument: Teacher Notes show Macbeth's argument for killing Duncan, along with his reasons, and the argument against killing Duncan and the reasons he gives. 

During the discussion, students correctly named Macbeth's one reason for killing Duncan: ambition.

Additionally, they named Macbeth's reasons against killing Duncan: Duncan is a good king, Duncan is Macbeth's guest, others will be upset about Duncan's death and want revenge, Macbeth is Duncan't kinsman, Duncan trusts Macbeth. One student said Macbeth shouldn't kill Duncan because of "karma"!


"Look Like the Innocent Flower": Lady Macbeth Lays a Plan

20 minutes

The last group to present is the 1.7.29-96. Two girls played the parts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Prior to their scene (during preparations) they asked if they could cut the lines in which Lady Macbeth talks about bashing the baby's head in the ground. I suggested that they need to think about what those lines say about Lady Macbeth and what she wants before cutting. I told them that if I were playing Lady Macbeth, I'd keep the lines. They decided to keep them. 

The group presented and the class almost immediately began commenting: "She's evil" and other variations on that theme as they responded to the scene. The Macbeth 1.7.29-96 Discussion Questions and Answers.docx offers possible discussion questions and answers similar to those generated during the class I describe in this section.

I asked: "At the beginning of the scene, what decision about killing Duncan has Macbeth made?"

A student responded: "To kill Duncan."

I asked again: "At the beginning, when he first comes in?"

That clarified my question and a student said, "No. At first he says 'We will proceed no further in this business,' meaning he won't kill Duncan."

I asked, "What happens?"

Students offered several comments:

  • "Lady Macbeth changes his mind."
  • "Lady Macbeth tells him he has to kill Duncan to show he's a man."
  • "Lady Macbeth says he can't wait to be king. He has to do something to guarantee he'll be king." 

I asked, "What's Lady Macbeth's plan?"

A student summarized the plan: "She says she'll get the guards drunk so they'll pass out and that Macbeth can then go kill Duncan." 

I asked, "What is Macbeth's reaction to this plan?"

A student says, "He tells Lady Macbeth to only have male babies because she is so manly herself."

As a final note, I reread Lady Macbeth's lines in 1.7.61-67 and ask the class: "How badly does Lady Macbeth want to be queen, and how badly does she want Macbeth to be king?"

At first I get a blank stare. Then a student says, "She's willing to kill her child by bashing its head in the ground so that she can be queen." 

Someone responds: "Does Macbeth have kids?" 

I say, "Yes. Look at the line where Lady Macbeth says, 'I have given suck and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.' She's saying that she knows what it's like to nurse a baby but that she's willing to kill it rather than be a coward like Macbeth and not fulfill his commitment to kill Duncan." 

A student asked, "Isn't that called infanticide?" 

"Yes, and it's something we read about in the news too often and what Lady Macbeth is willing to do to get what she wants."