In this lesson, students will consider the different ways that directors and actors interpret scenes in a play, as perception and interpretation usually vary with different artists. Few students likely look at a literary text as nuanced or having possible meanings other than those discussed in class, and this lesson will encourage them to recognize the many ways that different people can interpret important texts.
Shakespeare left very few clues regarding how he intended his texts to be interpreted. Most scenes seem straightforward, and when a new director takes on the task of piecing together a Shakespearean drama, most of the key scenes in the play are usually presented in a manner similar to the interpretations made by other directors before him or her. However, sometimes directors and actors make subtle changes to simple aspects of a scene that open a character up to new interpretations or create a nuanced subtext in the scene.
One such instance of the effect of differing interpretations is exemplified in Jon Finch’s and Patrick Stewart’s performances in Act 4, scene 1, of Macbeth.
Get the worksheets for this lesson (plus much more!) in the printed SparkTeach guide for Macbeth.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth directed by Rupert Goold, PBS, 2010
Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski, Columbia Pictures, 1971
1. Students will identify and understand the key elements in Act 4, scene 1, of Macbeth.
2. Students will recognize the different ways that Macbeth’s interaction with the witches in Act 4, scene 1, is interpreted by the actors Jon Finch and Patrick Stewart.
3. Students will engage in critical analysis of the complexities of a scene in a film.
4. Students will consider how setting, tone, symbolism, and dramatic expression can be used to create subtle meaning that dramatizes a film.
5. Students will write a well-developed essay characterizing the strategies two directors and two actors use to portray Macbeth’s interaction with the witches.
This activity is designed to be completed after students have read Act 4, scene 1, of Macbeth.
1. Review and discuss Act 4, scene 1, with the class. While doing so, focus on Macbeth’s interaction with the witches. Ask students to consider Macbeth’s demeanor and actions.
2. Have students take notes regarding their interpretation of the scene. Ask: How do you imagine Macbeth behaves when facing the witches? How do you imagine his behavior when he is presented with the prophecies? How might he behave when he sees the final prophecy? Ask volunteers to provide different perspectives. Remind students to consider that Macbeth’s behavior may be interpreted in different ways.
3. Pass out the worksheet Macbeth and the Witches.
4. Show the class the traditional interpretation of the scene presented in Roman Polanski’s film.
5. Have students fill out the first column of the chart on the worksheet, identifying and describing how the devices listed on the worksheet are presented in Polanski’s film.
6. Discuss the scene and details they filled in on the worksheet with the class, focusing on the way that Jon Finch portrays Macbeth’s interaction with the witches. Be sure to discuss who has control in the scene. In this scene, Macbeth is depicted as regal and demanding; he ironically believes that he has power and control over the witches, while it is suggested that they are manipulating him.
7. Now watch Rupert Goold’s version of the same scene.
8. Have students fill out the second column of the chart on the worksheet, identifying and describing how the devices listed are presented in the film.
9. Discuss the scene and details they filled in on the worksheet with the class. The focus should be on the way that Patrick Stewart portrays Macbeth’s interaction with the witches. One of the key differences between the two scenes corresponds to Macbeth’s attitude. In this scene, Macbeth is presented as nervous and as clearly afraid of the witches, although he tries to cover up his fear. The power dynamic between the two parties is clear: The witches are in control.
10. Have students discuss the differences between the two scenes in small groups, and then discuss as a class.
11. Review the writing prompt on the worksheet and discuss expectations outlined in the rubric: After watching Roman Polanski’s and Rupert Goold’s interpretations of Act 4, scene 1, of Macbeth, analyze how the two depictions of the scene use different strategies to characterize the interaction between Macbeth and the witches. Your response must consider such elements as setting, characterization, camera angles and lighting, symbolism, and dramatic expression.
12. Students will write a well-developed comparative analysis responding to the prompt.
Have students work in pairs to complete the worksheets. Have students choose one or two devices to write about for their comparative essay
Have students watch a third film adaptation of the same scene from Macbeth, such as the 2015 film directed by Justin Kurzel. Then instruct students to include this scene in their comparisons.