Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Extra Credit Reading: Macbeth

With the recent release of the Folger’s Macbeth DVD Edition, I’m reminded of the wealth of inspiration to be taken from sources outside the play itself. Building a character as complex as Lady Macbeth who “is just known as the epitome of evil, this battleaxe of a possessed demonic dark force woman” (described by Kate Turner Walker in the featurette “Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth”) can be daunting when trying to approach the character in a different way.

Shakespeare’s plays, even the historical ones, are fiction inspired by other sources.  It stands to reason that authors have used his plays as jumping-off points where they are given fresh perspective. The authors explore (and sometimes answer) questions about the characters’ pasts and involvement in the plot.

In the play, Lady Macbeth says: “I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Macbeth, I.vii). What happened to Lady Macbeth’s child? Novels such as the terrifically tense The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert have an answer: the daughter of Lady Macbeth (by her first husband) is raised by wise women (yes those wise women) who live in Birnham Wood before becoming involved in the plot of Macbeth for her own vengeful purposes.

Another interesting aspect of the play is choice and fate. The tangling of prophecy and murderous choice that unravels after Macbeth’s first bloody deed is examined in novels such as Enter Three Witches by Caroline Cooney, Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa Klein, and Banquo’s Son by Tania Roxborogh which explore how characters not in the main plot are still affected by its events.

Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King takes the story back to its historical roots, in a Scotland run by the fiercest warriors, a king whose crown was secured by prowess in battle – not an underhanded stab in the night, and examines what life was like for a warrior’s wife.

Part of understanding the plays is trying to understand the characters within them; stepping into their shoes and imagining the life they lead.  These novels help kick-start imagination, and have a reader (or an actor) asking “What If?”  Where do you get inspiration?


  • Novels like these would make a valuable addition to any classroom library and assignment list. Exposing students to such texts would help them see that a piece of literature rarely (if ever) stands alone. Literature, as well as other arts, are derivative to a certain degree. These more conscious efforts of that show students how to let their imagination branch off from the story and explore beyond what their teacher may expect from them. They also tell students that can be useful and perfectly ethical to borrow ideas and draw inspiration from other authors. What could our role be in showing them how? This type of reading assignment will expand a student’s view of what literature is and can be.

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