Shakespeare in focus: Kings and leadership

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; one of Shakespeare's most intense and often performed plays.

The tragic play follows the progress of the title character as he becomes increasingly powerful, using any means to get what he wants - even murder! However, power comes at a price and by the end of the play, Macbeth's world falls apart around him.

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?

The characters in Macbeth deal with lots of difficult discussions and questions. One of the most famous scenes is a soliloquy in which Macbeth debates with himself about the possibility and implications of murdering the King. Soliloquies usually allow characters to express their private thoughts or lay out plans.

Watch the following clip to see how RSC actor Jonathan Slinger approaches this important speech in the play.

Macbeth debates the murder of King Duncan.

Useful context

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. 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 people, 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 King or Queen was seen to be God’s representative on Earth and was blessed with the power to heal his/her people.

As part of this they also believed in the great chain of being, which was a hierarchy (a system in which members are ordered by status or authority) that starts with God and the angels at the top. The hierarchy included all living things. As part of this chain, they believed the King or Queen was closest to God, with nobles 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. Write down each of the words Macbeth uses that suggest violent action, e.g. 'assassination' and 'blow'. Can you find more than six?

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? Look for an adjective in the second line to help you.
  • What is Macbeth hoping as he describes the assassination (the killing of Duncan) as the ‘be-all and end all here’?

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 you are Macbeth and stepping through the door means you are going to kill 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, Ross gives a speech to his fellow noblemen Macbeth and Lennox. 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 find one example of the two techniques below:

  • In the first half of the speech look for sibilance - a repeated ‘s’ sound.
  • In the second half of the speech look for personification - an animal or object given human characteristics.

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.

Add the examples of sibilance and personification you have found to your drawing or collage as labels.

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:

There's more to learn

More lessons for Year 8 and S2
More from KS3 English
11 - 14 English Literature
Duncan is dead - RSC
Shakespeare: Text Detectives - Live Lesson
Shakespeare Learning Zone
Home learning with the RSC