Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil

Created October 12, 2010


The Lesson


Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fiend

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

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 the situation in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Just as the three Weird Sisters predicted, or perhaps precipitated, Macbeth's fondest wishes, his secret dreams of power, have all come true. But so too have his darkest fears.

As the play progresses, Macbeth attempts to quell those fears by means of further bloodshed. Until and unless he can murder all who appear to threaten his ill-gotten crown, he feels himself "cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears" (3.4.24-25). But equanimity and peace of mind are forever lost to him, as the voice that he seems to hear while murdering Duncan has prophesied: "'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'" (2.2.34-35). In an increasingly desperate attempt to regain those gifts that only a good conscience can bestow, Macbeth alters from a man who, at the beginning of the play, is described as noble and brave, who suffers pangs of conscience over the murder he is premeditating, to a violent and ruthless tyrant, the "fiend of Scotland."

Characters whose shifting minds we feel compelled to follow through every twist and turn are a mark of Shakespeare's mature art and one of the reasons he is considered the great innovator in English drama. Giving students the tools to follow those shifts is the purpose of this lesson. Students will use an Internet search engine (or a printed concordance, if online resources are not accessible) to collect instances in the play of these key words: blood, fear, mind, false, and sleep. Students will then organize and analyze the passages in which these key words appear for what they reveal about Macbeth's state of mind and the motives behind his increasing evil.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson, "Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the 'Dagger of the Mind'," in which students read, discuss, and perform a wordless version of the "banquet scene" (3.4) in order to learn how Shakespeare dramatizes fear.

Guiding Questions

Why does Macbeth, who knows that his actions are evil and will be punished, continue to choose evil?

Learning Objectives

  • Use an online search engine (or a printed concordance) to locate passages that highlight Macbeth's response to fear and his descent into evil
  • Use the results of this search to analyze the motives of Macbeth's increasingly desperate and evil actions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Research on Macbeth's choice

Provide students with a context for their research. Begin by sharing with your students the "guiding question" for this lesson, above. Tell them that this question will help to guide the choices they make in their online searches. Also, tell them that the purpose of the research they will be doing will be to come up with plausible answers to this question. Share with them the fact that there is a crucial difference between Macbeth and every other tragic hero in Shakespeare: only Macbeth knows from the start that what he does is unequivocally evil and only Macbeth never, either to himself or others, tries to argue that his actions are somehow justified (see, for example, act 1, scene 7). Why then does he do what he does? To answer "ambition" is not enough. For more on the inadequacy of this answer as an explanation of Macbeth's psychology, see the essay by Ian Johnston, An Introduction to Macbeth. Behind the question of Macbeth's motivations is, of course, the larger and mysterious question of why some human beings, in possession of a sense of right and wrong, choose evil.

Activity 2. Locate key passages that suggest Macbeth's motivations

The following bulleted items provide a step-by-step description of the central activity of this lesson. Students work in small groups to locate key passages that suggest the motivations behind Macbeth's increasingly evil actions and words. A complementary set of instructions for students, providing a simplified version of the steps described below, is available as a downloadable .pdf file.

  • Ask each group to locate the Modified MIT text of Macbeth, prepared by Dr. Michael Best, as well as the MIT text of Macbeth. Each online text offers certain advantages and disadvantages for this exercise. The Modified Text allows you to locate scene and line numbers, but does not allow you to search the entire text as once, as is an option on the MIT text of Macbeth. Once your students get some practice, however, they will find it easy to search both texts. One strategy might be to do a global search of the whole play with the MIT text of Macbeth, then note the relevant act-and-scene numbers, then search those scenes using the Modified Text.
  • If for some reason you and your students are not able to search these online texts, an alternative/backup online option for searching Shakespeare's plays is available from Bartleby.com, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. This electronic concordance offers some distinct advantages, and you and your students may find that you prefer it.
  • For either the Modified Text or MIT text of Macbeth, students should use the "find on page" function on their Internet browser. (In Microsoft Internet Explorer, click "edit," followed by "find on this page.") When the "find" button takes them to a particular spot in the text, they should determine where they are in the play, and discuss whether the surrounding passage reveals anything significant about: 1) Macbeth's state of mind (fearful, angry, etc.); 2) Macbeth's motivations; or 3) the way in which other characters perceive Macbeth and his actions. Again, the crucial guide in deciding whether or not a passage is relevant is the research question; as a group, students need to decide whether or not a particular passage might plausibly help to answer the research question.
  • If the group decides that a passage is significant, the next step is to carefully record the act, scene, and line numbers (this is where the Modified Text, with its line numbers, is most useful). If students have access to a word-processing program (such as MS Word), they can cut and paste relevant passages to create a document. The advantage of this procedure is that it will make it easier later on for the teacher to provide a printed handout or overhead summarizing the findings of all groups.
  • A cautionary example: The power of online searching is obvious, but we sometimes have a tendency to substitute technology for thinking. It is easy to find passages where the word blood appears; in this exercise, students must also think hard to determine whether or not those passages are relevant to the research question. The phrase, "what bloody man is this?", for example, is hardly relevant to the discussion at hand. But such a search will also turn up the following, and very interesting, passage from the end of 3.4.136-138:
    ...I am in blood
    Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
    Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
    Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
    Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

    Students need to determine whether or not this passage says anything important about the motives behind Macbeth's actions. The first thing to be determined is what does Macbeth mean by this metaphor of "wading in blood"? What does it mean to say that an action must be performed before it can be thought about carefully ("scann'd")? Students need to bear in mind the context of the passage: what is happening at this point in the play? When he utters the words quoted above, how does Macbeth's situation differ from the situation he faces just before killing Duncan? Before killing Banquo? If Banquo is dead, and Fleance, for now at least, not a threat, why can't Macbeth relax and enjoy being king? What compels Macbeth continue his path of terror?

  • When they have finished searching the entire play, groups should select just three key passages from their results. This will involve discussing just how each passage contributes to answering the research question; a passage is considered important if it offers a crucial insight into the workings of Macbeth's psychology and his motives for evil. Accompanying their written record of each passage, groups should record reasons why that passage is significant and what it reveals about Macbeth's motives. Students should be prepared to offer reasons in a whole-class discussion for their particular selections.
Activity 3. Collate work of research groups

As a class, collate the work of the research groups. There are several ways you might do this. On the board, you could create a timeline of Macbeth's descent into evil, going through the play scene-by-scene and asking whether any of the student groups had found relevant passages in a particular scene. If students have produced electronic documents, they could exchange those documents so that each group had a copy of every other groups' documents. Each group would then be assigned a particular section of the play: their job would be to cut-and-paste passages in the order that they appeared in their section of the play. The various collations by groups could then be combined as a single master document containing a record of Macbeth's descent into evil.

Activity 4. Analyze and discuss the results of research

Analyze and discuss the results of your research:

  • Give students time, either in or out of class, to read the collated results of the group searches. As a class, discuss what these results contribute to an understanding of the research question: Why does Macbeth, who knows that his actions are evil and will be punished, choose evil? Suggest to students that the answer to the question may not be the same at every point in the play. The motivations for Macbeth's murder of Duncan may not be the same as the motivations for his subsequent acts of violence. The results of their work in small groups will reveal some of the shifting motives for evil in Macbeth.

  • If your class has also studied the complementary prequel to this lesson,"Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the 'Dagger of the Mind'," conclude class discussion by returning to some of the images and metaphors you examined in the "banquet scene" of Act 3, scene 4. Discuss how these images are repeated throughout the play. What conclusions can you draw about the relationship between Macbeth's fear and his subsequent actions?

Extending The Lesson

  • A follow-up writing assignment is a good way to extend and reinforce the discoveries made by groups and the class as a whole. One option would be to ask students to formulate a thesis backed up by evidence in response to the research/guiding question of this lesson. You could also have students focus their attention on a single word, formulating a thesis about how Shakespeare's use of the word reveals something about the motives of Macbeth's descent into evil. But you might want to allow for more flexibility in the assignment, because as students investigate the permutations of words like sleep, they may make discoveries that lead in slightly different directions. The important thing to stress, however the assignment is formulated, is that students should have: 1) a main point that is a statement (not a question); 2) evidence that supports that statement. From the collated class document and from additional searches they can now do with online or print concordances, they should find ample material to support their main point.
  • There are some things the Internet does extraordinarily well. One of those things is to perform quick searches of very long texts. This lesson has focused on Macbeth, but of course you can use this as a model for searching all kinds of texts found online. There are two things that students who use this powerful technology need to keep in mind: 1) you need a direction, a guiding/research question; 2) you need to analyze your results and be selective.
  • 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. While 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.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 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
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Textual analysis