Shakespeare in focus: Kings and succession

Home learning focus

To learn about attitudes towards leadership and to discuss this theme in relation to Macbeth.

This lesson will feature examples from Macbeth.

This lesson includes:

  • two videos
  • two activities

Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company


Watch this short clip about the inner conflict at the centre of Macbeth.

In the scene featured, Macbeth has just met with three witches who have told him he will become king. However, there is already a king on the throne, and Macbeth is one of his trusted soldiers.

Macbeth's inner conflict - should he kill the King?

In this scene, Macbeth is delivering a soliloquy. This is when a character speaks directly to the audience and cannot be heard by other characters. Soliloquies usually allow characters to say what they are thinking, or to lay out a plan, and can show us a lot about their mindset.

Watch the following clip to see how RSC actor Jonathan Slinger approaches this critical speech in the play, where Macbeth is considering the possibility and implications of murdering the King.

Macbeth debates the murder of King Duncan.

Useful context

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, after years of uncertainty about who would take over the throne. As she had no children, it was her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, who became king. His first years as king were difficult, and in 1605 several conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, tried to kill him in the failed Gunpowder Plot. This showed that the threat of the king being killed was a very real possibility.

In the months after this, Shakespeare wrote a play about the murder of a Scottish king, by a once loyal soldier - Macbeth.

At this time, there was a strong belief in the 'divine right of kings.' This meant that the monarch was seen to be God’s representative on earth and was blessed with the power to heal his people.

As part of this they also believed in the 'great chain of being', which was a hierarchy that starts with God and the angels at the top. The hierarchy included all living things. As part of this chain, they believed the monarch was closest to God, with nobility beneath them and servants and peasants below them. Macbeth shows what happens when that chain, and the order of society, is disrupted and a king is killed by someone lower than him.


Activity 1

Read the soliloquy from Macbeth below. Note each of the words Macbeth uses that suggest violent action, e.g. 'assassination' and 'blow.'

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well

It were done quickly: if the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice

To our own lips. He's here in double trust;

First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,

Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,

Who should against his murderer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off;

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

And falls on the other.

Macbeth, played here by Christopher Eccleston, thinks about killing King Duncan. Richard Davenport (c) RSC.

Try answering these questions about the speech:

  • Macbeth describes the murder done ‘well’ in the first five lines. What is he hoping will happen?
  • He goes on to talk about his ‘judgement’ and thinks about the reasons he shouldn’t kill Duncan. What are these?
  • He finally makes a decision. What is it and what reason does he give?

If you’re able to move around while reading the speech, you could have a go at this:

Find a room where you can close a door. Stand at a distance from the door with the speech in front of you. Imagine that stepping through the door constitutes killing Duncan. Read the speech aloud, moving closer to the door when you think Macbeth is closer to going through with it; further away when he feels like rejecting the idea. How often are you moving back and forth?

Top tip!

When Shakespeare writes in verse, notice how many syllables are in one word. ‘Assassination’ stands out in this speech because it's so long.

Activity 2

Shortly after Macbeth has murdered King Duncan, nobleman Ross gives a speech to both Macbeth and Lennox (a fellow Scottish nobleman). The audience know that the murder has taken place, but Ross is unaware.

Read his speech below.

The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,

Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,

And prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion and confused events

New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird

Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth

Was feverous and did shake.

Ross, from the 2011 RSC production of Macbeth. Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

Try and identify one example of each of the following in the speech:

  • assonance - a repeated vowel sound
  • sibilance - a repeated ‘s’ sound
  • personification - an animal or object given human characteristics

Write a short explanation of how these techniques are used to create an impression of disorder.

Now, using a piece of paper or notebook, create an image of the scene Ross describes, picturing the world after Duncan’s murder. You could do this as a collage or a drawing of the scene. Try to include the images that Ross uses in this short speech.

Where next?

In this lesson you have explored the theme of kings and succession in Macbeth and what happens when succession is disrupted.

There are other useful pages that will help you to explore themes in Shakespeare:

Please note: Bitesize revision guides are split by exam board - to check if there is a specific version of a guide for your board, choose your subject and then exam board here.

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