• Macbeth: Post-Transmission Activity

Macbeth—Guilty as Charged?

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Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? The discussion offers an opportunity to apply the notes on students’ My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the visual design of the Met production—in short, to see themselves as Macbeth experts.

For some audience members, Macbeth can be such a smoothly integrated experience that a central theme of the opera goes unnoticed: the conflict between free will and predetermination. We see plotting, planning, and manipulation undertaken by Lady Macbeth and, to a lesser extent, by her husband. We witness the crimes they commit. Toward the end of the opera, as their enemies coalesce and take up arms, we hear reference to those crimes and to their guilt. It may seem obvious that, as the chorus proclaims, Macbeth is “a usurper,” and that it’s Macduff who liberated Scotland.

But what about the witches? From Macbeth’s point of view, he might have argued, all he did was act out a prophecy. Everything the witches predicted came true. Were Macbeth and his wife only agents of a predetermined fate?

The conflict between predetermination and free will is a longstanding debate of beliefs among theologians and philosophers.
For your students, it may come down to this:

  • Was Macbeth really guilty?
  • Was he manipulated by his wife?
  • Were his actions controlled by fate, as predicted by the
    witches?
  • Did he have any choice in the matter?
  • Was justice done to Macbeth, or was he just acting out a part,
    “signifying nothing”?

Why not have your students stage a debate on Macbeth’s responsibility and guilt? Evidence can be gathered from the opera. Arguments can be fashioned, including alternative ways
to understand each turn of the story. Different characters’ points of view can be taken into account. A guide to the formalities of staging a debate can be found online at http://tinyurl.com/2dru23 (in a document prepared for student use by the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan public schools). But your students may enjoy writing their own rules, including time limits, a code of fairness, and a system for judging the winner.

By conducting a debate, students can engage with the issues raised by Macbeth, practice flexible, critical thinking, and sharpen their skills of persuasion and logical argument.

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