SUBJECTS — Drama; Literature/Literary/Devices: characterization;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Citizenship.

There are several versions of Macbeth on film. TWM recommends the 1979 BBC television release entitled “A Performance of Macbeth”. Set on a simple stage, this movie largely duplicates the experience of seeing the play. The performances by McKellen and Dench are riveting and help students understand the complex issues raised by Shakespeare’s play.

14+; The 1979 BBC version has not been rated by the MPAA but, according to the Internet Movie Database, the film was rated PG by the UK and Australian classification organizations; Drama; 93 minutes; black and white; Available from

Note to Teachers: In the section entitled Beyond Macbeth, TWM shows how to maximize the relevance of Macbeth to the lives and interests of teenagers. To get the most from this Learning Guide, read that section first.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


This play is Shakespeare’s tragedy of the rise and fall of two people corrupted by power and ambition.


Selected Awards:

1980 British Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actress (Judi Dench); Best Television Cameraman; Best Television Lighting.


Featured Actors:

Ian McKellen as Macbeth; Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth; John Bown as Lennox; Susan Dury as 3rd Witch and Lady Macduff; Judith Harte as 2nd Witch and Gentlewoman; Greg Hicks as Donalbain and Seyton; David Howey as Sergeant and 1st Murderer / Doctor; Griffith Jones as Duncan; Marie Kean as 1st Witch; Ian McDiarmid as The Porter and Ross; Bob Peck as Macduff; Duncan Preston as Angus; Roger Rees as Malcolm; Zak Taylor as Fleance and Messenger; and Stephen Warner as Young Macduff.



Phillip Casson.


Showing a film version of the play, either before or after reading the text, will enhance students’ understanding of both the art and the content of Macbeth.


None for “A Performance of Macbeth”. The 1971 version directed by Roman Polanski contains gratuitous violence and is rated R by the MPAA.


Should your child be reading Macbeth in a class in which the teacher does not intend to show a film production of the play, take the time to watch the film with him or her. It will not interfere with the assigned reading and will help your child access what is very often difficult language and imagery.





Prefatory Note: Teachers who assign Shakespeare’s plays have a myriad of intentions, methods, and assignments with which they work. Some are focused on drama, some on historical perspectives and some on the aesthetic qualities of Shakespeare’s contribution to the literary canon. This Guide helps teachers enhance student empathy with the characters and understanding of the play’s thematic topics. It is suggested that teachers looking to supplement classes on Shakespeare’s style and thematic structure review “Looking for Richard“, Al Pacino’s study of how he and his fellow actors created a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

The first step in helping students understand the interplay of the characters in Macbeth is to sensitize students to some of the nuances of acting. To start this process, use TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan entitled Introduction to Acting in Shakespearean Plays using “Stage Beauty”.

Sometimes Shakespeare is difficult for young people because of vocabulary. The following words are important in understanding Macbeth but are also helpful in developing the word recognition needed to access college-level reading. Students should be asked to define these words prior to seeing the film and to note when they occur in the dialogue. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in “A Performance of Macbeth”. Teachers should use whichever style has served their students best in teaching vocabulary.

brandishl rapt; chastise; impede; recompense; repose; pirate; palpable; surfeit; consort; verity; sundry; jocund; blanch; malevolence; abjure; pernicious; sear; judicious; redress; perturbation; upbraid; tarry; clamorous; abhor; and prowess

As in the brief skits suggested in TWM’s Introduction to Acting in Shakespearean Plays using “Stage Beauty”, character and interaction is everything in Macbeth. Before watching the movie, tell students to look carefully at the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The themes in the play are derived almost entirely from these two characters and the interplay between them. Tell students to pay special attention to what happens and what is said when the two interact without others on the stage and when they recite their monologues.

Before showing the film, also point out that the physical movements and facial expressions of the actors are essential elements of Shakespearian plays. Have students note how the actors communicate feeling, even to the raising of an eyebrow. At appropriate points in the performance, turn the sound off and replay favorite monologues or scenes. Ask the class what is communicated through facial expression and body language, rather than through the words being spoken. In “A Performance of Macbeth”, the acting of McKellen and Dench, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, are so strong that students will easily identify the feelings being communicated. The faces and body movement of the three witches help emphasize this point, as does the fine performance of the actor playing The Porter.


Thematic Topics in Macbeth

  • Resistance or acquiescence to temptation;
  • Attitudes toward evil;
  • Attitudes toward danger;
  • Hypocrisy;
  • Pursuit of illusions;
  • The risks of ambition;
  • Courage;
  • Fear;
  • Self-doubt;
  • Despair;
  • Relationship with sleep;
  • Hopelessness; and
  • Belief in the supernatural;



As the film is played, take a five-minute break every fifteen minutes or so to allow students to make brief notes on lines or incidents that illustrate any of the thematic topics of the play.

Once the film has been seen and notes taken, students will be able to compare and contrast Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in terms of each of the above categories and they will be able to comment on the craft of acting in communicating the ideas presented by the play. The treatment of sleep is a good example. Macbeth says he has murdered sleep and it is clear that his guilt and self doubt make it impossible for him to get a good night’s sleep. Lady Macbeth is seen sleep-walking, a more aggressive and active symptom of the same sleeplessness that Macbeth faces. Students may determine that Macbeth is the more passive player in the quest for power that begins with the murder of Duncan and that Lady Macbeth works harder to bring the events about, thus the different styles of sleep disorder. The acting, during each bit of dialogue and monologue dealing with sleep convincingly, shows the fatigue and strain associated with sleeplessness.

Students can be divided into groups of three or four to share their notes and help one another with suggestions and details. After about 15 to 30 minutes of group work, select students from each group to share with the class any of the attitudes, values or characteristics that they feel are important in understanding Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The interchange between students should prepare them for the following discussions and assignments.


1. Shakespeare gave no stage direction relating to the witches. What is learned about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth through their reactions to the witches and their prophecy?

Suggested Response:

Macbeth reacts with surprise to the witches, but not in fear. He says, “So foul and fair a day,” words that echo the words of the witches, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” This makes a connection between the evil of the witches and the foreshadowed evil of Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth learns of her husband’s encounter with the witches, she is inspired by their prophecy and urges her husband to believe them, and thus she sides with the forces of evil.


2. What evidence supports the belief that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth love each other?

Suggested Response:

Aside from the affection expressed in the acting, it is evident that genuine love exists between these ambitions and doomed characters. Macbeth addresses his wife as “my dearest love” and she shows herself willing to promote great evil in order to help her husband achieve what they both feel to be his destiny. She is soothing and helpful after Macbeth has killed Duncan.


3. As the play progresses, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to feel guilty for what they have done. How do their behaviors differ in response to this guilt?

Suggested Response:

They both begin to lose their grip on reality. Lady Macbeth falls into despair so deep that she cannot sleep and eventually kills herself; Macbeth, numbed emotionally, is also consumed by guilt and despair, made evident by his soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” yet he continues on his evil course until his death.


4. What challenges to Macbeth’s manhood and Lady Macbeth’s womanliness are made apparent in the play?

Suggested Response:

Lady Macbeth often chides her husband to man up, saying that he is afraid and cowardly. She asks him: “Wouldst thou have that thou esteem’st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would . . . .'” Later she says that when Macbeth had introduced the idea of gaining the throne, “then you were a man…” She tells him ” . . . But screw your courage to the sticking place. . . .” in order to psych him up to the task of murder which she has outlined. She also says she would kill her own children rather than go back on a promise as Macbeth seems to be doing. As for Lady Macbeth, her husband tells her to “Bring forth men-children only; for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males.” Apparently, at this place in the film, which in the play occurs at the end of the first act, Lady Macbeth is the man of the house. In Act 1, Scene 5, she prays to the spirits of evil to “unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direct cruelty.”


5. What characteristics of honor or morality or even self-preservation may have turned this ambitious couple from their doomed course?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Ask the students if their suggestions fit into the way both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have been characterized and as such whether they are at all possible. Macbeth seems to be more sensitive and introspective than the ambitious and proactive Lady Macbeth. “Vaulting ambition” had each of them in its grip. They both seem revolted by the murders and by the end of the play they have been virtually consumed by guilt. It may be difficult to find characteristics, other than the love the Macbeth’s feel for each other, to turn them from their doomed direction.


Ambition and Work/Career

See the questions and assignments in Beyond Macbeth.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


See the questions and assignments in Beyond Macbeth.



(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)


See the questions and assignments in Beyond Macbeth.


Informal assessments can be made by checking the quality of notes and by paying close attention to the level of participation achieved by each student.

Formal assessments can be derived from the following essay prompts:


1. Write a formal essay on the manner by which Lady Macbeth chides her husband to murder. Use what she says as well as her manner of presenting her arguments to Macbeth that embolden him to act.


2. Write a formal essay in which you describe the feelings Lady Macbeth and Macbeth express about one another and illustrate how these feelings change as the play progresses.


3. Compare and contrast attitudes toward murder, fear and courage expressed by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Support your assertions with direct reference to the film.


4. Write an opinion piece in which you argue whether or not Macbeth could have carried out the crimes he committed without the support of Lady Macbeth. Consider which of the two characters is the stronger.


5. Write a dialogue that might be probable given the context of circumstances in which one or the other, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, change their minds and stop the ambitious slide toward criminality.


6. Write an opinion piece in support of your position on the love that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth share. Consider whether this relationship is based on love and mutual respect or on ambition and the desire for power.


7. Write a critique of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in terms of the values that they seem to lack.


8. Write an evaluation of how staging and lighting emphasize the characteristics of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.


9. Discuss the use of blood, daggers and witches as they affect both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and lead toward changes in their attitudes and feelings.


Beyond Macbeth

Since ambition and guilt are the factors that lead Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to doom, it is important that students fully understand these two aspects of character and the profound effects they may have on their own lives.


Ambition: Pose the following questions to the class: Is a basketball player who loves the game and plays for both the thrill of the sport and the fun of competition more enjoyable to watch, or more popular among the fans, than the player who seems to care most about his or her statistics and salary? Would a patient prefer a sugeon who had a natural drive to be a healer over one who desired the status in society of being a doctor? Would a voter prefer a candidate whose desire for public office was based upon the benefits to society that the person holding that office could bring over a candidate who sought the office merely to increase his or her own power? Or, is it true that in each of the examples given, the individual will usually have, in varying degrees, both sets of desires: that a great basketball player will want to play ball and will care to some extent about stats and salary; that a doctor interested in healing will also be concerned with power and status in society; that a candidate for political office will in varying degrees enjoy exercising the power of the office and also doing what is required to better society.


Students should be encouraged to reflect upon the origin and effects of ambition as they read literature and watch films. Students can answer the following questions in class discussion or in essays:


(1) How should society deal with its citizens who are ambitious?


(2) How should each person deal with his or her own ambitions?

Suggested Response:

The following points should be covered in any discussion or essay.

As to the first question, societies that prosper are those that learn to harness the ambitions of their citizens to the public good and to control ambition so that any harm to society caused by ambition is limited.

As to the second question, the same is true on a personal basis, ambition to do something good leads to satisfaction; ambition, solely for the sake of power, status, or money, leads to a success that is hollow and unsatisfying; the Macbeths are a case in point.


Guilt: Guilt is an important characteristic about which Shakespeare has much to say in Macbeth. It is a human feeling well known to young people and is a part of how they interact in their relationships; they know well how to “guilt trip” one another and often accuse parents and teachers of “guilt tripping” them. Students should be encouraged to reflect on the social power of guilt to achieve conformity and on how it may be a considerable force in their own lives. Might any of them select a college or a career out of feelings of guilt in regards to the desires of their parents? Do any of them remain in relationships out of feelings of guilt about hurting a friend? To avoid the pitfalls of guilt, an individual must be clear about his or her personal values before choices are made that may be motivated by guilt or that could possibly engender guilt later on. They must learn the difference between guilt and regret and, most importantly, they need to learn how to overcome guilt once they fall into its grip. They should be encouraged to reflect on how the fear of feeling guilty can put people in touch with their own core values and prevent actions that people will regret later on. Students can find the power of guilt in their own lives, in the lives of those around them, and in literature and film. They should be encouraged to think about guilt as a forceful human characteristic. Suggested essay topics are:


(1) describe a circumstance in which guilt played a role in an important decision made by you or by someone that you know; did guilt help that person make the decision that was right for him or her; and

(2) describe a situation in which a person made an important decision and felt guilty about it later; describing what the consequences were of that guilty feeling.


It’s always a good idea for students to read the original text of the play, so long as they are skilled enough or given sufficient support to understand Shakespeare’s language and imagery.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay with assistance from James Frieden.

It was published on December 31, 2009.

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