“Macbeth”: Banquo’s ghost

This week, after watching a clip of Act 3 Scene 4 of “Macbeth”, I asked my Year 11 class an impromptu question:

Why does Macbeth see Banquo’s ghost, and not Duncan’s or Macdonwald’s?

It turned out to be one of the most successful questions I had asked this very quiet and diligent group of students. Apart from prompting discussion, it required them to retrieve knowledge from earlier in the course and make links to the scene in question, as well as to analyse, justify, and evaluate. They needed to use the vocabulary I have been explicitly teaching them to articulate their ideas and tentative/assertive language where appropriate, as well as the skill of forming a logical argument that we have been working on recently. The additional benefit of the discussion was that it helped to dispel some of the students’ anxieties around their mocks; yes, it would be lovely if they could quote sections of the play verbatim (and this particular class will learn their quotations), but we realised that what actually matters is the depth of their analysis – and a symbol (rather than a lengthy quotation) could be used to prompt this.

Whilst the fact that my students’ ideas made for a good discussion, when talking to them about this I was very conscious of the need to push them further through questioning and to support them to shape these ideas into an argument. One of this group’s misconceptions is that they need to write down everything they know about a text when they are writing an essay – actually, they need to evaluate and curate their ideas, judiciously selecting points that will benefit their overall argument. I have indicated some of the questions I asked with in bold. Many of these questions involved pressing students to be more specific (vagueness is one of my bugbears!), whilst others were prompting them to explain with greater detail and fluency.

They came up with some fabulous ideas:

  • This is a battle for power between Macbeth and Banquo – since Act 1 Scene 3, they have been pitted against one another as they receive very similar prophecies. – Be specific, what were the prophecies, and how did Macbeth and Banquo respond to them? Does Banquo engage in this “battle for power”, or is it one-sided? Why do you think the witches gave them similar prophecies?
  • Banquo’s ghost takes Macbeth’s seat, indicating that the witches’ prophecies regarding his sons will come true. – So, what do you think the symbolism of the seat is exactly – be precise? Do you think the witches have predicted this or caused this to happen? Where is your evidence for that?
  • Macbeth and Banquo are character foils, and the juxtaposition of them in this scene reminds us of the path of integrity Macbeth should have taken. – How exactly are they character foils? Why would Shakespeare juxtapose them in this way? Why was Banquo a significant character in relation to King James? Is there another side to Banquo – for example, is there any evidence that he is tempted by the witches’ prophecies?
  • Macbeth was emotionally closer to Banquo, his comrade in arms, than he was to his king. Therefore the guilt is magnified. – Where is your evidence for this? Does Macbeth feel true guilt, or is his distress actually a fear of consequences (remember 1.7)? What does the change in MO suggest about Macbeth’s changing character? How does this link to the concept of power and ambition?
  • Macbeth saw Duncan’s body and perhaps dreams of this (when he is able to get some sleep), whereas he didn’t see Banquo’s body – therefore his imagination creates it. – Why do you think Macbeth didn’t murder Banquo himself? How do we know Banquo’s ghost is a production from the “heat oppressed brain” – what if it is “real” or the witches sent this as a vision?
  • Macbeth made the decision to murder Banquo independently (in contrast to the justified killing of the traitor Macdonwald and the slaughter of Duncan which Macbeth was – arguably – manipulated into committing) and so must take full responsibility for this. – Why did he make this decision independently? Tell me more about how you know the killing of Macdonwald was justified? Was Macbeth manipulated into committing Duncan’s murder – isn’t there another side to this argument?
  • Banquo’s ghost causes the banquet to end in chaos, thus perhaps hastening Macbeth’s downfall as the guests lose faith in their new king’s state of mind and ability to rule. – So are we saying that the supernatural is still in control of Macbeth’s destiny – tell me how you justify that?

Twitter has provided me with some more suggestions:

  • Macbeth reminded Banquo to “fail not our feast” and Banquo promised to attend; this is a fulfilment of that conversation.
  • Macbeth conjures up Banquo’s ghost by saying “would he were here”; his deception is justly rewarded.
  • As Macbeth did not kill Banquo himself, the ghost is a reminder of his increasing emasculation, cowardice, and loss of nobility.

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