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10 things to know when studying Shakespeare's Macbeth

Monday 8th, August 2022

Jess Laven

Jess Laven graduated in 2020 with an ATAR of 96.60. In this article, Jess runs through 10 top tips for success when studying Shakespeare's Macbeth. Check out ATAR Notes' Text Guide for Macbeth here. đź“š

It is possible that you’ll study Shakespeare’s Macbeth during your high school career, particularly for an English exam. You’re probably having regicidal thoughts at the mere mention of Shakespeare, let alone Macbeth, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

In 2020, I managed to achieve full marks on my external English exam, which was based on Macbeth. I’ve compiled my top 10 tips for studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth that will help you to ace your external English exam without a trace of blood on your hands.

1. Read both the original and translated versions

My school’s copies of Macbeth had a translated version of the script alongside the original Shakespearean version. Full translations are also available for free online.

I recommend reading both versions. You need to be familiar with the original play since this is what you’ll be assessed on; however, reading more than 17,000 words that you don’t understand isn’t productive by itself.

In the original script, Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts to unsex her. While it’s important to know how she phrases this infamous quote, reading the modern version will allow you to understand the meaning behind the words. In this instance, Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits that assist murderous thoughts to make her less like a woman and more like a man.

2. Read the script more than once

In Year 12, my peers and I read the original Shakespearean version of Macbeth as a class. In addition to this, I took it upon myself to read the translated version twice, including once on the weekend before my Monday exam to ensure it was fresh in my memory.

It is unlikely that you will fully understand Macbeth after reading the play only once, so reading it a second and potentially a third time is crucial. Doing so is also useful when it comes to compiling quotes, which I will elaborate on shortly.

When I read the translated version, I would consistently refer to the original version, which was conveniently right next to the translation in my copy of the play. This is important because you need to remember and quote the language Shakespeare used in his original play.

3. Don't watch a movie adaption as a substitute for reading the play

If you’re thinking of watching one of the movie adaptions as a substitute for reading the play, think again. While such movies may give you a better understanding of some aspects of Macbeth, they are all significantly different from the original play.

If you choose to watch any Macbeth movie adaptions, ensure that it is to complement the knowledge you gain from reading the play. Also, be careful not to confuse the movies with the play because some inconsistencies could cause you to get your facts wrong in your exam. 

4. Don't call Macbeth a book

Sometimes it’s the little things. My Year 12 English teacher couldn’t stress enough that Macbeth is not a book. In actual fact, Macbeth is a play, and the 17,000 words I mentioned earlier make up the script. 

When you refer to Macbeth, whether it be in your essay writing, verbally or otherwise, always refer to it as a play or text. This will show that you truly understand the context in which Macbeth came to be.  

5. Underline Macbeth when referring to the play

Since “Macbeth” is both the title of the play and a character within the play, you need to differentiate between these in your writing to provide clarity. Therefore, whenever you refer to the play in your writing, always underline “Macbeth,” as has been done throughout this article. The reason why you shouldn’t use italics is that this won’t be an option when you’re handwriting an external exam.

6. Practise writing Macbeth essays

I have no doubt that you’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” While you should keep in mind that “perfect” is as real as Macbeth’s hallucinations (nonexistent), the message behind these words holds true: you should regularly write analytical essays to help you improve your essay writing skills. Since this is a progressive exercise, you should practise writing Macbeth essays well in advance of your exam to allow time for you to improve. You should also practise writing with pen and paper in exam conditions to reflect the environment you’ll be in for your exam.

Research Macbeth essay questions or ask your teacher for a list and then start writing. Seek feedback from your teacher to help you identify where you need to improve. This will help you to write a well-structured and grammatically and factually accurate essay that showcases your knowledge and, ultimately, responds to the essay prompt. There is no better way to test your knowledge of a topic than to explain it to others, whether it be in essay or spoken form.

7. Do your own research

Hopefully, your teacher will provide you with lots of resources and insight that will give you a strong understanding of the play; however, you should do your own research too. This will give you more ideas about the quotes you should memorise and how you can analyse them. Since the number of quotes available to you during the exam will be limited to your memory, it’s important to know how to spin quotes so you can use them in a range of ways for a range of prompts.

8. Compile a list of quotes to memorise

I compiled a list of more than 60 quotes and noted down the basic meaning of each quote, as well as what themes each quote related to and how. Recording themes like this will help you to make sure you have a broad range of quotes and an in-depth understanding of how each quote can be analysed to suit a range of possible essay prompts.

I wrote my list of quotes in chronological order – the order that they appeared in the play – to help me remember the act and scene numbers. While remembering the quotes themselves is more important than remembering the acts and scenes they came from, this is still worth doing to showcase your knowledge.

The scripts you read may express act and scene numbers as Roman numerals, but you can write them in our everyday numerical form. If you are writing Act 4, Scene 2, you would write these numbers in brackets with a full stop between them, as follows: (4.2).

If you are a visual person, finding a small picture that represents each quote may be a memory strategy you would like to try. For example, for Lady Macbeth’s well-known quote, “Look like th' innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t,” you could have an image of a flower or a snake.

9. Focus on the Elizabethan Era

Macbeth was written in the Elizabethan era. The language you use and the way you analyse the play should reflect this fact.

For example, when analysing Macbeth’s themes, such as gender, femininity or masculinity, do not do so with a modern lens. We may see Lady Macbeth’s dominance and ambition as a testament to the strength of women from a contemporary perspective. Nevertheless, in the Elizabethan era, her behaviour would have been considered unnatural.

Similarly, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship is unique for the Elizabethan era, which is evident when we compare it to that of Macduff and Lady Macduff. In that time, such relationships would be loving and mutually respectful, but, unnatural as she is, Lady Macbeth holds power over Macbeth. This allows her to influence their plans for regicide and acts as the initial catalyst for Macbeth’s downfall.

In terms of language use, there are words we use today that don’t reflect the context of the play. For instance, when Macbeth killed King Duncan, he committed regicide, not murder. This is because regicide specifically refers to the act of killing a king or queen, while murder is broader.

Familiarise yourself with the Elizabethan era and the language that reflects the time and the characters’ royal status.

10. Access ATAR Notes' resources

I used the ATAR Notes Text Guide on Macbeth to help me understand the play and identify and analyse important quotes. I also attended ATAR Notes’ free English lecture during their annual September lecture series. I recommend taking advantage of resources such as these to give you the edge in your English exam.

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