Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the "Dagger of the Mind"

Created October 12, 2010


The Lesson


Shakespeare's Macbeth: Dagger

Macbeth encountering Banquo's ghost. A study by 18th century artist George Romney for his depiction of the "banquet scene."

Credit: Courtesy of Folger

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain

In his novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis chronicles an island where all dreams come true. Sounds wonderful, right? But think about it a moment. All dreams. Our fondest wishes, but also our most terrifying fears. On this island, we would meet every shadowy thing we ever imagined to be lurking in the darkness, every terrifying image we ever tried to thrust from our mind.

This is Macbeth's situation. Just as the three Weird Sisters predicted, or perhaps precipitated, his fondest wishes, his secret dreams of power, have all come true. But so too have his darkest fears. In the course of the play, we see Macbeth struggling against those phantoms, struggling to master or eradicate his own fears. "I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears" (3.4.24-25), he laments to the men he has hired to murder Banquo. He has won the crown, but his mind is poisoned, his tranquillity lost. He cannot enjoy his triumph, cannot rest, cannot sleep.

Shakespeare's preeminence as a dramatist rests in part on his capacity to create vivid metaphors and images that embody simple and powerful human emotions. This lesson is designed to help students understand how Shakespeare's language dramatizes one such emotion: fear. Students will work in small groups to perform the so-called "banquet scene," in which the newly-crowned Macbeth, while entertaining the lords of Scotland, encounters a ghost only he can see. The twist here is that while there will be opportunities for students to analyze Shakespeare's language, the performance itself will be done without words. The wordless performance means that students will need to develop physical equivalents for the clues to Macbeth's state of mind that are embedded in Shakespeare's poetry.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a prequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson, "Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil". The second lesson takes a broader look at fear in the play, exploring how fear becomes not just merely the result of Macbeth's actions, but a cause of his increasingly desperate and evil actions. While the activities in the present lesson center around students' performance of one scene, in "Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil" students use a search engine to locate and analyze key passages throughout the play that suggest the motives of Macbeth's precipitous descent into evil.

Guiding Questions

Why is Macbeth, whom we know to be brave and ruthless in battle, so afraid? How does Shakespeare dramatize Macbeth's fear?

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze how Shakespearean metaphors, imagery, and another dramatic cues reveal Macbeth's response to fear
  • Perform without words a scene dramatizing Macbeth's response to fear

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson, as well as the complementary EDSITEment lesson, "Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil," will refer to the online text of Macbeth developed by Dr. Michael Best. This text is identical to the standard online MIT version, but adds line numbers that are keyed to match those in the Signet Classic Shakespeare. (Standard online editions of most of Shakespeare's works, including Macbeth, are available from the MIT Shakespeare Homepage, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet.)
  • Two affordable and dependable paperback editions of Macbeth, including critical introductions and explanatory notes, are the Signet Classic Shakespeare Series edition and the Folger Shakespeare Library edition (published by Simon & Schuster's Washington Square Press). The latter is especially helpful for students, because notes and explanatory materials are on the facing page rather than at the back of the book.
  • Neither this lesson plan, nor the complementary EDSITEment lesson, "Shakepeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil," require you to first teach historical context. However, a bit of history can help students make sense of some of the more puzzling aspects of Macbeth's behavior. Specifically, why is it that Macbeth, whom we are told is fierce and bloody and ruthless in battle, becomes completely unhinged by the murder of Duncan? (A similar question could be asked about Lady Macbeth.) At least part of the answer lies in the fact that regicide was considered a special kind of murder in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not an ordinary killing but a uniquely heinous act that violates the entire natural order. Dire consequences must follow the killing of a king, particularly a "good" king such as Duncan. The mental deterioration of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can be better understood in this light. In part to demonstrate the special enormity of the crime of regicide, Shakespeare alters the historical record.
  • Shakespeare's use of historical sources in Macbeth is shaped by contemporary concerns about succession and legitimacy, fear of rebellion, and the playwright's deep horror of the crime of killing a king. For more on these subjects, especially the issue of regicide, see the online essay by Amanda Mabillard, "Sources for Macbeth", from Shakespeare Online, a link from Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet. Mabillard shows how Shakespeare altered his sources to make the historical Duncan look better and Macbeth worse: "Shakespeare's alterations function to convey the sentiment echoed in many of his works - that there is a divine right of kings, and that to usurp the throne is a nefarious crime against all of humanity."
  • For a more general introduction to Macbeth, see the Macbeth Page, a link from Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet. BBC History contains additional background on the historic Macbeth. For a more scholarly experience of the historical sources of Macbeth, see the resources listed for that play at Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet, such as a passage on the historical Macbeth from Holinshed's Chronicles, excerpted from the complete text available at The Furness Shakespeare Library; also on the Furness site, you can view a series of woodcuts and excerpts related to Macbeth drawn from the Chronicles.
  • Recommended as critical background for the approach to Macbeth's psychology taken in this lesson (as well as in the complementary sequel to this lesson, "Shakepeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil") is the online lecture by Ian Johnston, An Introduction to Macbeth. For further critical works on Macbeth, see the resources listed on Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet.
  • Additional lesson plans for teaching Macbeth are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching Shakespeare, a site produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Summarize student responses for when they have felt fear and horror

As an opening assignment, ask students to think about times when they have felt fear and horror. What are some of the physical symptoms of fear and panic? What does the face of a fearful person look like? What are some of the various facial expressions of fear? What is the body language of a person who is feeling fear? How does extreme fear affect the mind? How does it affect what we see or hear? How do we master fear? (You might want to assign this opening exercise as a journal assignment: students will then have time to reflect on the feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations associated with fear.) Summarize student responses on the board so that the class will have a record when they begin to work in performance groups. Tell students they are going to be performing a scene in which a normally brave man has a terrifying vision, a vision that no one else around him can see.

Activity 2. Read act 3, scene 4

Print out copies of act 3, scene 4, from the online text of Macbeth developed by Dr. Michael Best (see "Preparing to teach the lesson," above). Students will need their own copies of the text to write on in the activities that follow. Before you read the scene aloud as a class, ask students to pay particular attention to the entrances and exits of the ghost. Can they tell, from his words, when and where Macbeth first sees the ghost? Ask students to write their comments and reactions in the margins of their copy as you read through the scene, and to make notes by passages in which Shakespeare uses imagery, metaphor, and simile to reveal aspects of Macbeth's psychology (for definitions and brief discussions of metaphor, simile, and other rhetorical figures and literary terms, see the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web: the Tropes). Look, for example, at such animal images as "rugged Russian bear," "arm'd rhinoceros," and "Hyrcan tiger." What does it tell us about Macbeth's state of mind that his speech is filled with images of beasts? What feelings and impressions do these and other images convey?

Activity 3. Discuss the central elements of the scene

Once you have read through the scene as a class, ask students whether there were any passages or events they did not understand. Discuss the central elements of the scene, establishing the meanings of any difficult words or passages. Ask students questions about whether or not they think that Macbeth actually sees a ghost, or whether the ghost is just a metaphor for something that is inside him--like the "dagger of the mind" referred to in the quote at the top of this lesson plan (2.1.36-39). Discuss Macbeth's response to the ghost, or to the phantom produced by his own mind. How do students imagine him looking and behaving? What are his expressions, his body language, at various points in the scene? What difference does it make that Macbeth, as Shakespeare tells us the very beginning of the play, is no coward? (You might want to share with them a passage from the first act in which a wounded soldier describes how "brave Macbeth" has ruthlessly dealt with the Scottish traitor, Macdonawald (1.2.16-23). The point here is that what the "banquet scene" depicts is the spectacle of an otherwise brave man confronting a terrifying vision, as is implicit in Macbeth's declaration to the ghost that "what man dare, I dare" (99). Ask students what difference to performance this understanding of Macbeth's nature might make (as a hint, you might ask them to consider the impression conveyed by the illustration of Macbeth that accompanies this lesson plan, above left).

Activity 4. Write down emotions and behavior of characters

Next, ask students to work through the details of the scene on their own, writing down the emotions and behavior of characters at various points in the drama. Remind them of the symptoms and signs of fear that you brainstormed previously, and have them try to match these to corresponding passages in the scene. Ask them to think about how they might direct the scene. What difference would it make to their direction if they wanted to show that there is, in fact, no ghost other than the phantom produced in Macbeth's mind? What does the banquet room look like? Where do the murderers stand when they speak with Macbeth? Where is Lady Macbeth in relation to her husband? If they decide to show it, where does the ghost appear--on its own, or sitting between other characters? If they opt for an invisible ghost, in which direction will Macbeth be looking? (Also, what do the other characters do when they see Macbeth looking in a particular direction?)

Activity 5. Perform a wordless version of act 2, scene 4--the "banquet scene"

After giving students time to read and reflect on their own, divide the class into several performance groups (three is perhaps ideal; fewer groups will be easier to manage, and the "banquet scene" affords many roles for extras). Tell the groups that they will each be responsible for performing a wordless version of act 2, scene 4. The rules are no props and no speaking: all the emotion and action must be conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, body language and movement. Tell them that they can condense or otherwise adapt the scene as is appropriate for a wordless performance. Give students ample time to discuss their performance, and provide them with whatever guidance is appropriate in terms of assigning parts, arranging a performance space in the classroom, designating one student as the "director" of the group, and so on. As the groups are working our their performance, encourage students to think creatively about how Macbeth's psychological state might be visually realized; for example, some students could, through movement, describe the terrible thoughts and visions that torment Macbeth (the metaphorical images of beasts, for example) then they could abruptly vanish into the wings of the classroom "stage."

Activity 6. Note differences among groups' interpretation

Have each group perform their version of the scene. Remind students that they are to perform through gesture, expression, and movement only. Before the performances, ask students to note any differences among the different groups' interpretation.

Activity 7. Discuss each group's solution and interpretation

As a class, discuss how each group solved the basic question of how to dramatize the psychology of fear without using words. How did they interpret Macbeth's vision of Banquo: as a "real" ghost or as a metaphor for his inner turmoil? What did they choose to make visible and what did they choose to convey through gesture and expression? How did the other characters look? How did Lady Macbeth respond? Was she angry, embarrassed, horrified, or all of these things? What words--metaphors, images, constantly repeated words and phrases--gave them clues as to Macbeth's state of mind? Analyzing the language Shakespeare uses to reveal Macbeth's response to fear will prepare students tackle the activities described in the EDSITEment lesson plan, ""Shakepeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil."

Extending The Lesson

  • Students now have some experience in making decisions about performance values. Some may have ideas about how they would stage the play. Their awareness of these issues offers an opportunity to introduce some of the basics of Shakespeare's stage and stagecraft. For background, visit "Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre," the website of the New Globe Theatre, an exacting reconstruction in London of the playhouse Shakespeare's company constructed in December 1598. (At the Mr. William Shakespeare on the Internet homepage, click "Theatre" in the left margin, then scroll down and click on "Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre.")
  • As you talk about the larger sources of fear and evil in this play, your class will eventually need to come to grips with the three witches. Who or what are they? Are they embodiments of evil or, as some have suggested, projections and manifestations of Macbeth's own deepest wishes and fears? To learn more about witches and witchcraft in the seventeenth-century, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed site, Witchcraft in a Salem Village. Whle most of the archived materials are from late-seventeenth-century America, but the colonists conceptions about witches are inherited from English traditions that would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his patron, King James I, who was deeply interested in the subject.


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Analysis
  • Critical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Synthesis