in Drama, English Literature, Shakespeare

Below, I’ll go through some key approaches to help you understand Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” – at any level – to help you get past the fear of reading the text, into the part where you can enjoy it and find it interesting.

Everyone knows Shakespeare is hard to read. It’s a fact that puts most people off trying his stories, which is a real shame because they’re so great! It might also be something you struggle with at school or university, which you feel is stopping you from achieving the higher grades that you’re aiming for.


Thanks for reading! If you’re really stuck and need lots of help with Macbeth, you can see our complete course here (for KS3, GCSE/IGCSE and A-Level).

This course includes: 

  • A full set of video lessons on each key element of the text: summary, themes, setting, characters, context, attitudes, analysis of key quotes, essay questions, essay examples
  • Downloadable documents for each video lesson 
  • A range of example B-A* grade essays, both at GCSE and A-Level with teacher comments and mark scheme feedback
  • A bonus Macbeth workbook designed to guide you through each scene of the play

HOW TO UNDERSTAND JACOBEAN LANGUAGE 

Personally, I find that the language barrier is the thing that puts students off the most when it comes to enjoying Shakespeare. It is confusing at first! I remember trying to read his plays when I was around 11-14 years old and getting so stuck on almost every word, and it’s a very off-putting feeling that makes you lost and confused. Over time, you get used to it and it becomes just like reading any modern story – but you have to build up slowly to get to that point. There are several ways to get around this problem, and I will detail them for you here below:

  • Read and memorise a summary of the play. This book will start with a summary – read this before you jump into the play itself! 
  • Learn the story first, then read the text. Reading literature is not the same as normal reading; you don’t have to read it as you would a normal book. His plays aren’t even supposed to be read like that – they’re meant to be performed! 
  • Read aloud. This is so important – it’ll make a lot more sense to you than if you read it in your head. If you have a group of friends and you’re studying together, you could all assign yourself characters or roles and read that way too – it makes it much more fun. 
  • Don’t read random scenes, go through the story in order so that it makes sense to you. It’s a shame because a lot of schools teach Shakespeare in a disjointed way, choosing passages to analyse at random – most of the time, this is just confusing for a student to keep up with and it doesn’t help you understand the overall shape and progression of the story. So, make sure you understand the whole story first, then you can start on the scene analysis. 
  • Read a parallel text – there are versions of the play available online that have the original language down one side of the page, and a modern translation down the other – read the original and if you find yourself getting stuck, have a look at what it says on the modern side. Be really careful not to confuse the two and accidentally quote from the modern language! 
  • Use the Scrbbly Macbeth Workbook to take you through the play. This is a book we created that’s full of small questions and tasks that help you expand your comprehension of the scenes, and it provides a vocabulary list for each scene too to help you out before you begin.
  • Learn some key Shakespearean words before you start. I’ll give you a list of the main ones below! 
Macbeth Act One Scene Three, Print James Stow, After Richard Westall. British Museum J,29.49, source Wikimedia Commons

SHAKESPEAREAN LANGUAGE TERMS 

  • Anon: soon
  • Alarum’d: called or summoned to action
  • Art: are
  • Aught: anything
  • Ay: yes
  • Base: lower-class, unworthy, illegitimate
  • Beldams: hags 
  • Blasted: desolate, empty, barren 
  • Brave: handsome, well-dressed, confident, outstanding
  • Chaps: jaws 
  • Dost: do
  • Doth: does
  • Dudgeon: handle 
  • Dunnest: darkest 
  • ‘Ere: before
  • Fair: beautiful, good, just 
  • Hast: have
  • Hark: listen
  • Hence: from now on
  • Hie: to hurry
  • Hither: towards here
  • Ill: bad, unskillful, inadequate, evil
  • Mark: to notice, to pay attention to
  • Nay: no 
  • Thee: you
  • Thine or thy: your
  • Thither: towards there
  • Thou: you
  • ’tis: it is
  • ’twas: it was
  • Wast: were
  • Whence: from where
  • Wherefore: why
  • Will: desire, intention
  • Yea: even

SHAKESPEAREAN CONTRACTIONS 

Another thing that I notice my students struggling with is when Shakespeare uses contractions. A contraction is when a word or group of words are shortened together, to speed up the sound and make it more informal or chatty: e.g. ‘It’s’ instead of ‘It is’. Shakespeare uses them a lot – sometimes to sound informal, but at other times to fit the metre of his lines (because he writes his characters’ lines in poetry most of the time, so they have to fit a regular pattern). Here are some contractions from Macbeth: 

“Look not like th’inhabitants o’th’Earth” – Banquo says this about the witches – he means that they don’t look like they live on Earth. The full line, uncontracted, would be ‘Look not like the inhabitants of the Earth’. 

“Look Like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under ‘t” – Lady Macbeth tries to get Macbeth to pretend to be good and welcoming, yet scheme and plot underneath this guise. The full line, uncontracted, would be “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it”. 

With contractions, it’s best to read them as if you’re just reading the full word. That way, the line will make a lot more sense to you. 


Thanks for reading! If you’re really stuck and need lots of help with Macbeth, you can see our complete course here (for KS3, GCSE/IGCSE and A-Level).

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