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Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Words by Francesco Maria Piave
Three witches foretell a dark
A ruthless wife sees an
opportunity to grasp power.
An evil seed is planted, and a
brave and valiant General spirals
into madness, vengeance and
bloody violence.
Creative Encounters: Macbeth is part of Opera North’s schools’ engagement programme, Creative Encounters, which aims to
empower and enable teachers to take opera into the classroom.
Creative Encounters is kindly supported by The Whitaker Charitable Trust, The Hedley Denton Charitable Trust, and The Charles and
Sykes Trust.
With thanks to the Royal Opera House and Clive Barda for permission to include photographs from their 2011 production of Macbeth.
Macbeth the Opera…5
- What is Opera?...5
- Verdi – The Composer…6
- Piave – The Librettist…7
Key Players…10
- Key Players…10
- Characters Without Voices…11
- The Chorus…11
- Activities…14
The Story of Macbeth…12
- Plot summary…12
- Activities…15
The supernatural, guilt, ambition and oppression:
Key themes in the Opera…16
- Activities…18
Verdi v. Shakespeare…19
- Historical and Political Background…19
- Key Differences…20
- Activities…20
Appendix A: Resources…21
Appendix B: Musical Analysis of Key Themes…33
Other Useful Resources…35
In September 1846 Verdi started work on a project to
turn Shakespeare’s play Macbeth into an opera. The play
tells the story of a General in the Scottish army who is
seduced by the promise of power, and tracks his tragic
fall into madness, treason and bloody violence. Verdi was
seduced by the play’s dramatic plot, its elements of the
supernatural, and the potential for creating a spectacular
theatrical experience. Working with the poet Francesco
Maria Piave from an Italian translation of the play, Verdi
created a four act opera in Italian that was first
performed in Florence in March 1847.
“...This tragedy is one of the
greatest creations of man... If we
can't make something great out of it
let us at least try to do something
out of the ordinary."
Verdi on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, from a letter to
In the following pages you will find out about:
 Verdi’s life and work
 Key characters and themes in the opera
 The historical backgrounds of Shakespeare and Verdi
 How the opera compares to the original play
This resource will also outline a number of Music, Drama
and English activities that can be used with KS3 and KS4
students to explore the opera. These appear throughout
the resource at the end of each chapter. Resources for
the activities are available at the end of the pack, along
with links to suggested further reading.
There is a supplementary appendix where the activities
appear as part of a series of lesson plans in a scheme of
work. The intention is that teachers should adapt these
resources in the way that is most useful and appropriate
for them and their students.
Interesting facts and
discussion points will
appear in these boxes.
Music, Drama and English
Literature activities will
appear in these boxes.
Definitions of key words
appear in these Glossary
What is Opera? 5
Macbeth played by Robert Hayward and Lady Macbeth played by Antonia Cifrone
Opera North 2008 ©Bill Cooper
What is Opera?
The Composer
A composer (literally "one who puts together") is a person who
creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition. This
is a particular challenge in opera as they are often very long,
and music is composed throughout for the singers as well as
the orchestra. The opera is written down in a book of musical
notation known as a score.
The Librettist
The libretto, similar to the script in a piece of theatre or a film
screenplay, is written by a librettist. Some librettos are
completely original, but more often in opera they are adapted
from stories, poems and plays, just as the opera Macbeth has
been adapted from a play by Shakespeare. Normally the words
are written first, and the music is written to match the words.
The composer and librettist form a very important partnership
and work together closely to create a final score that is the
starting point for all of the other artists involved in the
production to work from.
What is Opera?
Opera is a hybrid art form consisting of music, text,
drama, dance and design elements. Why do you
think that this makes it a particularly unique and
exciting genre?
Think about the way that emotion is conveyed
through music.
Think about the impact of opera being sung
Libretto – The text of the opera, like the script in a
film or a play.
Orchestra – The group of instruments (strings,
woodwind, brass, percussion) that play the musical
accompaniment in an opera.
Score – a book of musical notation showing all of the
music of the opera, including the instrumental parts,
chorus and vocal soloists.
Verdi – The Composer 67
Giuseppe Verdi
1813 - 1901
Verdi’s most famous
Nabucco (1842)
Macbeth (1847)
Rigoletto (1851)
Il trovatore (1853)
La traviata (1853)
Un ballo in maschera (1859)
Don Carlos (1867)
Aida (1871)
Otello (1887)
Falstaff (1893)
Verdi – The Composer
The music for the opera Macbeth was written by the Italian
composer Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi was one of Italy’s most
successful opera composers, and had a career that spanned
over sixty years, winning him international fame. He was much
loved by audiences in the nineteenth-century and is still loved
by audiences today. He is considered, alongside Richard
Wagner, as one of the masters of nineteenth-century opera,
and today many of his works are performed in opera houses all
over the world
By the time that Verdi wrote Macbeth he was a prominent
name in Italian musical circles. Macbeth was first performed at
the Teatro Pergola in Florence in 1847. In 1864 he was asked to
revise the opera by the impresario at the Théâtre-Lyrique Paris.
Verdi actually made a complete overhaul of the opera, making
the following changes:
 Adding music for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
in Acts 1 and 3
 Adding a ballet in Act 3
 Changing the endings of Acts 3 and 4
 Dropping Macbeth's aria Mal per me
chem'affidai ("Trusting in the prophecies of Hell") in favour
of an off-stage death for Macbeth
 Adding a triumphant choral ending in Act 4
The revision was first performed in 1865, and is the most
common version of the opera performed today.
Verdi’s breakthrough opera Nabucco includes the
famous chorus of the Hebrew Slaves Va Pensiero which is
hugely popular in Italy, and is considered something of
an unofficial Italian national anthem.
Performance of Va Pensiero at the New York Met 2012:
Timeline of Composers
(1756 – 1791)
(1792 – 1868)
(1797 – 1828)
(1803 – 1869)
(1813 – 1883)
(1833 – 1897)
(1840 – 1893)
(1864 – 1949)
(1882 – 1971)
(1906 - 1975)
(1770 – 1827)
(1797 – 1848)
(1801 - 1835)
(1810 – 1856)
(1813 – 1901)
1858 – 1924)
(1857 – 1934)
(1874 – 1951)
(1885 – 1935)
(1913 – 1976)
Piave – The Librettist 7
Nineteenth-century Italian
Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600,
and Italian opera has continued to be dominant
in the development of the genre until the
present day. Many famous operas in the Italian
language were written by foreign composers
such as Handel, Gluck and Mozart.
The nineteenth century produced some of the
most famous operas that are still performed in
opera houses around the world today. Many of
these were written by native composers,
including Rossini (The Barber of Seville;
Guillaume Tell); Bellini (La Sonnambula; Norma);
Donizetti (L’elisird’amore; Lucia di
Lammermoor); Verdi (Macbeth; La traviata;
Aida); and Puccini (Madame Butterfly; La
Bohème; Tosca). Verdi was writing as part of the
Romantic opera tradition that began in the early
nineteenth century, placing emphasis on
emotions and the imagination.
Francesco Maria Piave – The Librettist
Francesco Maria Piave was Macbeth’s librettist, and worked
closely with Verdi to adapt the original text of Shakespeare’s
play. He was born in Venice in 1810, and worked as a journalist,
translator, poet and stage manager as well as a librettist.
Piave collaborated with Verdi on ten operas over the course of
nearly twenty years, and they enjoyed a close friendship. He
wrote the librettos for two of Verdi’s most renowned operas:
Rigoletto and La traviata.
Verdi was heavily involved in the writing of the librettos for his
operas, and would make suggestions for the content, style,
rhythmic metre and number of lines to be used.
Despite artistic disagreements Verdi and Piave remained close
friends throughout their lives.
Music Activity
Placing Italian Opera
Learners get into teams and each team has their own
distinct 'buzzer' or buzzer sound.
Display five different genres, e.g: Baroque, Romantic
piano music, Italian opera, Jazz, Trip hop, and five
corresponding dates or time periods (displayed in a
random order) e.g. 1600-1750, 1990-2014...
Prepare five different excerpts from each of the five
genres, for instance a bit of Baroque music, Romantic
piano music, Italian opera. For each of the five
rounds of the quiz, each team has the potential to
buzz once and give their answer. The first team to
buzz gives their answer. They have to name the
correct genre of the excerpt and name the correct
date, choosing from the randomly placed information
on the board. If the team does not get both parts
right, another team can buzz. This happens until the
correct answer is given.
Remember: only one attempt per team, per round. If
the right answer is not given for a particular round,
the teacher reveals the answer and no points are
Verdi’s Biography
1813 Verdi born in October in Roncole near Busseto
Musicians and Politics
1813 Wagner born, Leipzig, May 22
FeliceVaresi, baritone, born Calais
1814 Napolean exiled to Elba, April
1815 Napolean defeated at Waterloo, June 18
Giuseppina Strepponi, soprano, born Lodi,
September 8
1817 Begins instruction in music and other subjects
with local priests
1820 Age seven, father buys him a spinet
1822 Age nine, becomes permanent organist at local
church, San Michele
1820 Vittoria Emmanuele II born, Turin, March 14
Carbonari-led Neapolitain revolution forces King
Ferdinand I (Austrian Empire) to promise a
1824 Age eleven, enters upper school in Busseto
1824 Bruckner born, Ansfelden, September 4
1826 Begins composing instrumental and vocal
1827 Beethoven dies, Vienna, March 26.
1831 Moves into the house of his first patron,
Antonio Barezzi. Begins a relationship with Barezzi’s
daughter Margherita.
1828 Schubert dies, Vienna, November 19.
1832 Rejected from the Milan Conservatoire. Begins
private study of composition with Vincenzo Lavigna.
1831 Unsuccessful Carbonari-led revolutions occur in
Bologna, Parma and Modena
Mazzini founds nationalist society, Young Italy
1836 Appointed maestro di musica in Busseto.
Marries Margherita Barezzi. Composes first opera
1835 Bellini dies, Puteaux, September 23
1837 March 26, daughter Virginia is born
1838 July 11, son Icilio Romano is born. August 12,
Virginia dies. Resigns position in Busseto.
1839 February, moves back to Milan. October 22,
Icilio Romano dies. November 17, Oberto (revision of
Rocester) performed, Milan, La Scala.
1840 June, Margherita dies. September 5th,
second opera Un giorno di regno fails, Milan, La
Scala. Verdi temporarily gives up composing.
1842 March 9, Nabucco, Verdi’s third opera,
succeeds famously, Milan, La Scala.
1847 March 14, Macbeth performed, Florence,
Pergola. Lives with the soprano Giuseppina
Strepponi for two years in Paris.
1848 Donizetti dies, Bergamo, November 29
First Italian War of Independence (1848-49)
1849 Returns to Busseto with Strepponi
1851 March 11, Rigoletto performed, Venice, La
Fenice. Moves to farm of Sant’ Agata near Busseto
with Strepponi.
1858 Puccini born, Lucca, December 22 or 23
1859 Second Italian War of Independence
(1859 – 60)
1861 Cavour becomes first prime minister of Italy
Cavour dies
Vittorio EmmanueleII becomes King of united Italy
1865 Revised Macbeth performed, Paris, Lyrique
1867 Rome won from France, becomes capital of
1868 Rossini dies, Passy, November 13
1876 Francesco Maria Piave, librettist, dies, Milan,
March 5
1888 Verdi’s hospital, Villanova sull’Arda, Piacenza,
1896 Begins building the Casa di Riposo
1896 Bruckner dies, Vienna, October 11
1897 November 14, Strepponi dies
1897 Brahms dies, Vienna, April 3
1899 Casa di Riposo opens
1900 December, arranges for his youthful
compositions to be burned after his death
1901 January 21, suffers a stroke
January 27, dies
1900 Puccini, Tosca, Rome, Costanzi, January 14
The Key Players
Macbeth played by Robert Hayward
Opera North 2008 © Bill Cooper
Baritone – Mid-range male voice
Brave, valiant and loyal, Macbeth is a general in the Scottish
Lady Macbeth
Soprano – Highest female voice
Apparently cold, ruthless and manipulative, Lady Macbeth is
the wife of Macbeth.
In nineteenth-century Italian opera a young heroic male
character, usually the main romantic lead in the story,
would be sung by a tenor; where as an older male, or
perhaps a more sinister character, would be played by a
Macbeth is an interesting case, as it broke the mold by
casting a baritone in the title role. The fact that Macbeth
is played by a baritone reflects the complex nature of his
character, which contains both good and bad.
Bass – Lowest male voice
Courageous, loyal and superstitious, Banquo is a General in the
Scottish army and a close friend of Macbeth.
“Thou art less than Macbeth and yet the greater!
Not so happy and yet by far the happier!
Not king thyself and yet of Kings the father!”
The Witches’ tell Banquo their prophecy, Verdi’s Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 1
Tenor – highest male voice
Patriotic and determined, Macduff is a Scottish nobleman and
the Thane of Fife.
Tenor – highest male voice
A youthful strategist, Malcolm is the son of King Duncan and
the rightful heir to the Scottish throne.
Characters Without Voices | The Chorus 11
Hymn of Victory, Act 4 Scene 3
© ROH / Clive Barda
Characters without Voices
The Chorus
King Duncan (not sung)
King Duncan is the King of Scotland and father of Malcolm.
In Verdi’s operas the chorus often takes on a large and varied
role in the story-telling. This is certainly the case in Macbeth
where Verdi deliberately adapts Shakespeare’s text in order to
develop the role of the chorus.
Fleance (not sung)
Fleance is the son of Banquo.
Chorus of Witches
Verdi’s opera has a chorus of sopranos that is split into three
groups. The witches are the messengers of the spirits, and
make predictions about the future
Chorus – a group of singers who sing together in the
Chorus of Murderers
Soloists – principal singers taking on the main roles in
the opera that perform by themselves, or as part of
small ensembles (groups).
Voice Types – the common categories into which
soloists’ voices fall dependant on their vocal pitch
range (how high or low they can sing).
Female voice types, from highest to lowest:
 Soprano
 Mezzo-soprano
 Alto
Male voice types from highest to lowest:
 Counter-tenor
 Tenor
 Baritone
 Bass
Some operas use children’s voices as soloists or as a
chorus. These are high pitched like sopranos, and are
often called trebles.
The male members of the chorus take on the role of the
murderers that are sent by Macbeth to murder Banquo and
Chorus of Scottish Refugees
Both male and female members of the chorus play Scottish
refugees that are escaping their homeland and fleeing to
The lines sung by the Chorus of Scottish refugees are
inferred from a scene that originally takes place
between Malcolm and Macduff in Shakespeare’s play.
In it they talk of the hardships suffered under the
tyrannical rule of Macbeth. In the opera Verdi and
Piave create this role for the chorus in one of Verdi’s
most famous early choruses at the opening of Act IV.
The Story of Macbeth 12
King Duncan’s murder is discovered, Act 1 Scene 2
Opera North 2008 © Bill Cooper
The Story of Macbeth
Verdi and Piave adapted Shakespeare’s five-act play into a
four-act opera, the standard structure for an Italian opera in
the nineteenth century. The opera follows the plot of the play
closely, but some of the roles and scenes are cut. The following
is a synopsis of the opera.
Opera Synopsis
Act 1
Scene 1:
Macbeth and Banquo, returning home victorious from battle,
happen upon a group of witches. The witches hail Macbeth as
Thane of Glamis (a title which he has by inheritance), Thane of
Cawdor (a title which he does not have), and King of Scotland
“hereafter”. To Banquo they say that his sons will be Kings of
Scotland. The witches vanish, and a messenger from the king
arrives naming Macbeth Thane of Cawdor.
Scene 2:
Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband telling her of
the prophecies that the witches have made. She immediately
plots for her husband to murder King Duncan.
King Duncan arrives at the castle. That night, Macbeth kills him
in his sleep, but afterwards is filled with horror. Lady Macbeth
returns the knife to the King’s room to smear blood on the
guards so that they will be blamed for the murder. Macduff
and Banquo discover the King’s dead body and raise the alarm,
and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feign innocence.
Act 2
Scene 1:
Macbeth is now King of Scotland. He is still troubled by the
witches’ prophesy stating that Banquo will be father to a line of
Kings. He tells Lady Macbeth that in order to prevent this he
will have Banquo and his son killed.
Scene 2:
A gang of murderers are waiting for Banquo and his son to
make their way to a banquet at the castle. Banquo is caught
and killed, but his son Fleance escapes.
Scene 3:
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth receive their guests at a banquet.
A murderer arrives at the door to inform Macbeth of Banquo’s
death and Fleance’s escape. Macbeth sees a vision of Banquo’s
ghost. He raves at the ghost, and the horrified guests believe
that he has gone mad. As Macbeth becomes terrified into
insanity, the guests grow suspicious.
The Story of Macbeth 13
Act 3
Macbeth visits the witches and they conjure up three
apparitions for him to see. They tell him three things:
“Beware Macduff, Thane of Fife!”
“No man born of woman shall harm thee!”
“You shall be proud and invincible
Until Birnam forest marches against thee”.
Macbeth then sees a vision of a line of eight kings, which are
the descendants of Banquo.
Act 4
Scene 1:
Macduff witnesses a group of refugees fleeing Scotland
because of Macbeth’s rule of oppression. He is determined to
avenge the death of his family, who have been killed by
Macbeth. Macduff is joined by King Duncan’s son, Malcolm,
and together they plan to regain the throne of Scotland.
Scene 2:
A Doctor and a servant to Lady Macbeth observe her as she
walks in her sleep. Lady Macbeth raves about the murders of
King Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family, and believes that
her hands will never be washed clean of their blood.
Scene 3:
Macbeth learns that Malcolm, Macduff and an army of Scottish
rebels have joined with the English in order to attack him. He
feels confident that he cannot be harmed because of the
witches’ prophesies.
Macduff and Malcolm use branches from the trees of Birnam
Wood as a disguise to gain ground on Dunsinane castle before
they attack. Macduff challenges Macbeth and reveals that he
was born by caesarean section, and therefore is not born of a
woman. Macbeth acknowledges his fate and is killed. The
armies and the people of Scotland rejoice at the death of
Macbeth. Malcolm as King, and Macduff as hero, together
resolve to restore their country to greatness.
Macbeth and Macduff fight, Act 4 Scene 3
© ROH / Clive Barda
The Key Players - Activities
English Activity:
Drama Activity
Strike a Pose
Look at images of four different actors playing the role
of Macbeth. Consider their appearance and think about
what kind of character he might be.
Potential Resources: Sean Bean on stage; James
McAvoy on stage; Patrick Stewart in TV adaptation;
Simon Keenleyside in Royal Opera House production.
Strike a pose for each quote in the ‘Character Quotes’ box
below to express Lady Macbeth’s character through body
language and facial expressions.
English Activity:
Porter’s Problems
Give each group a ‘problem page’. Try and identify which
character each one is from their problem. You could write
a response to their problem, or write a letter from other
characters e.g. Macbeth, Fleance etc.
English Activity:
Character Quotes
Read through the key quotes below that are spoken by
Lady Macbeth at the beginning of the play. Discuss how
she is represented in the language.
Key Quotes (Act 1 Sc 5):
“Look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t’”
“Fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty.”
“I fear thy nature
It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness”
“Leave all the rest to me.”
The Witches Chorus
© ROH / Clive Barda
Resource: Problem Pages (Resources)
Activities 15
The Story of Macbeth - Activities
English Activity:
Macbeth Tweets
Write out a summary of Macbeth as a tweet –use no
more than 140 characters.
English Activity
Ordering Events
Sort event cards into chronological order. Discuss as a
whole group to ensure that all have the correct order.
Resources: Event Card Sort (Resources)
Drama and Music Activity
In groups create four physical and dramatic, silent
freeze frames to outline the beginning of the opera.
For example:
1. A group of witches gather in a wood exchanging stories.
2. The witches tell Macbeth that he will be King and Banquo that
he will be the father of Kings.
3. Messengers arrive with news that Macbeth has been made
Thane of Cawdor.
4. Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband and becomes
determined to follow her ambitions and help him take the throne.
Develop your freeze frames by adding a vocal
melody, harmony and sound effects to create an
appropriate mood or atmosphere as you transition
from one frame to another. Perform all four freeze
frames in order.
English Activity
Facebook Status
Tell the story of one character through a sequence of
their Facebook statuses, pictures and tags.
English Activity
Reduced Macbeth
Watch the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s 2 minute
Macbeth. Create your own version using your own
words, key quotes or a mixture of both.
Drama Activity
Macbeth Condensed
Each group has a Condensed Act of Macbeth. Read
and rehearse your script, considering how you can
deliver your lines and how you can make it fun and
interesting for your audience (think about
movements that show the status of your character
and what you think their voice might sound like).
Organise a whole class performance of each act in
sequence. Has the performance captured the key
events and relationships in the play? If yes, why? If
not, what do you think is missing? What would you
Resources: Condensed Scripts (Resources); simple
props or costumes e.g. crown, cardboard swords and
daggers, material for capes; cardboard box, roll of tin
foil and scrap material to create your own costumes
and props.
Key Themes18
The Supernatural
The supernatural, relating to elements that exist outside the
‘natural’ world, is a key theme in Macbeth, and Verdi was very
attracted to this aspect of the play. In the opera, witches are
supernatural beings, capable of appearing and vanishing into
thin air, casting spells, making prophecies and summoning
At the centre of the story is a struggle for power, for the
right to rule Scotland, as well as an insight into how the
desire for power can change and corrupt a person.
“Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
The Witches, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1
The Witches have music that varies from wild and coarse to
sublime and solemn. Where we first meet them at the very
beginning of the opera (Chefaceste? Ditesu? “Where hast
thou been? Tell me, pray!” Track 2) the music is wild and fast
paced. In contrast, where we see the witches make their
prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo (Giorno non
vidimaisìfiero e bello! “Fouler and fairer never have broke the
morrow!” Track 3) the orchestra is calm and pianissimo.
Through the music Verdi is showing the two sides of the
witches’ character: at once unruly and vulgar and then
sublime and prophetic.
Performance of The Witches Tre volte miagola la gatta in
fregola at the Gran Teatre del Licieu in 2005:
Another interesting theme that runs throughout the opera is
that of guilt and the different ways in which people react to it.
Macbeth’s guilt is immediate: he is unable to return to the
bedroom of the murdered King, and is distraught by the sight
of blood on his hands. Lady Macbeth acts without guilt to
ensure that their plan is seen through.
“What, will these hands ne'er be
Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1
"But screw your courage to the
And we'll not fail.”
Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7
Lady Macbeth sees the opportunity to grasp power, and
takes advantage of this, persuading her husband to murder
the King. Her determination and cold-bloodedness can be
seen in her first and famous aria that she sings upon hearing
the news that King Duncan will be staying with them as a
guest in the castle that evening (Or tutti, sorgete “Arise
now, all you ministers of hell” Track 10). Accompanied by
driving repeated rhythms in the strings, her vocal line is
confident and triumphant, establishing her as an extremely
powerful character.
Soprano Anna Netrebko performs Vienit’afretto…Or,
Oppression is the prolonged cruel or unjust treatment of a
person or a group of people through the abuse of power and
authority. In Macbeth the people of Scotland become
oppressed by the savage rule of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
"Country stricken by the oppressor,
No more a mother to her children,
But a grave,
Now, her every son a slave,
We are gathered here to die.”
Chorus of Scottish Refugees, Verdi’s Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1
In Act 2 Lady Macbeth is in control, as she attempts to cover
up Macbeth’s guilt singing a brindisi (drinking song) (Si come
ilcalice “A toast I give you” Track 25). Here her vocal line is
much lighter and detached, showing her ability to cast aside
any sense of guilt that she is feeling.
The theme of oppression is perhaps more apparent in the
opera than in the play because Verdi wrote a chorus for the
Scottish refugees. The chorus (Patria oppressa! “Oppressed
country” Track 36) that comes at the beginning of Act 4 is one
of the most famous of Verdi’s choruses, with arresting brass
chords and timpani rolls, evoking the iron fist that rules the
country without sympathy for its people.
Soprano Maria Guleghina performing Si come ilcalice… as Lady
Macbeth, with Renato Bruson as Macbeth:
Performance of Patria Oppressa at the Gran Teatre del Liceu
in 2005:
Key Themes 17
Macbeth is crowned King of Scotland, Act 1 Scene 2
© ROH / Clive Barda
Antonia Cifrone as Lady Macbeth
Opera North 2008 © Bill Cooper
Activities 18
Key Themes - Activities
Music Activity
Drama Activities
Draw What You Hear
Listen to the opening of Act 1 Scene 1 Che Faceste? (Track
1) and draw what you hear (mood, texture, style, colours
shading) moving across the paper over time.
Link your responses to technical musical terms and devices
e.g. rhythm, metre, repetition, melody, tremolo, staccato,
legato, arpeggio etc.
What mood does the music convey? Can you spot any
characteristics of the style?
Ask one member of the group a series of questions.
They must respond in character.
Chat Show
Have a host and three characters from the play –
the host will need to interview each character
about their actions, and encourage them to debate
with each other.
One person is the psychiatrist, the other a
character. The character sits down on the
psychiatrists’ couch to discuss their issues and
potential solutions.
English Activity
Theme Card Sort
In groups of four, sit in a circle. Shuffle and deal out the
pack of cards. Each player has four cards in their hand, and
the aim is to collect all four relating to the same theme.
You can do this by placing down unwanted cards on your
left. The player to the left then picks up this card, as well
as setting down one of their own cards at the same time.
This continues until the first player to collect all four cards
shouts ‘THEME!’. The player then allows the other players
to inspect their cards to check that they have won.
Court Case
Put Macbeth on ‘trial’ with a judge, jury and
witnesses. You could include evidence like the
bloody daggers and accounts from the castle
Resources: Theme Card Sort (Resources)
English Activity
“O full of scorpions is my mind, dearest
wife!” (Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 2)
Draw a picture to represent this quote, considering what Macbeth is feeling at
this mid-way point. Use the quote as a starting point for a piece of writing:
Macbeth’s diary entry; a letter from Lady Macbeth to a friend; a letter from a
servant at the castle to a friend describing the strange goings-on…
Verdi v. Shakespeare 19
Historical and Political Background
Both Shakespeare and Verdi were working in
turbulent times: Shakespeare at the beginning of the
reign of a new monarch of England, that threatened
to change the nation’s religion from Protestant to
Catholic; Verdi during the time of the two wars of
independence that were fought to gain Italy
independence from the Austrian empire.
Engraving of William Shakespeare
Verdi v. Shakespeare
Verdi greatly admired the work of Shakespeare, feeling that his
plays were ideal for adaptation to the opera stage, and was
keen to stick closely to the original. Verdi’s opera follows the
same plot as Shakespeare’s play, although there are many
changes to the language, structure and character roles that
were made based on the need to adapt the material for a new
art form and to fit the generic conventions for nineteenth
century Italian opera. For example, Verdi and Piave reduced
the overall amount of text, and adapted the metre in order to
set the text to music.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth at some point between
1603 and 1607. It was the first play he wrote for the
new King of England, James I, who ascended to the
throne in 1603 following the death of Elizabeth I. In
Macbeth, Shakespeare honours the new King by
turning to Scotland, to the history of the Stuarts, the
King’s family line, and to the eventual restoration of
stability to a country by a new monarch.
Verdi had to adapt and update his opera as it
travelled around Italy (not yet a unified country); in
Palermo they would not allow regicide to be
portrayed on the stage, and in the Papal States of
Rome they would not hear of having anything
supernatural, so the witches became gypsies.
Portrait of King James I
Painted by John de Critz c.1605
The modern reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre in Southwark on the Southbank of the
River Thames in London.
Verdi v. Shakespeare 20
Aria – a song or an air. In opera an aria is a song sung
by one of the soloists.
Brindisi– a toast or dinking song, common in operas
by Verdi (e.g. La traviata)
Chorus of Witches
Three Witches
4 Acts
(most of Shakespeare’s Act IV
is absent from the opera)
Chorus of Scottish Refugees
5 Acts
No Refugees
No Donalbain
Character of Donalbain
Pianissimo – an instruction to play very softly.
King Duncan has no sung
lines: his arrival is indicated by
an off-stage march
King Duncan a key character
with spoken lines
Regicide – the deliberate killing of a monarch.
Detached/ Legato – instructions on how to play or
sing notes. Detached means separated, legato means
Metre – in poetry and music, the pattern of stressed
and unstressed syllables or notes.
Rolls – A way of sustaining the sound on a percussion
instrument through very fast repetition of a sound.
Verdi v. Shakespeare - Activities
English Activity:
English Activity:
What happens in Verdi’s
In pairs, write down as many key plot points from the
opera as you remember. Focus in particular on key
differences between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and
Verdi’s version.
True or False?
Look through the true and false card set and decide if
each one is true or false. Be ready to share your reasons
and justifications with the rest of the group.
Resources: True or False Card Set
Music Activity
Compose your own opera
English Activity:
Write a review of the opera for your school blog. You
can use the planning grid to help you plan your review
before writing it out in full.
You could record your review as a podcast (using a
programme such as audacity) or as a video.
Resources: Review Planning Grid (Resources)
Return to the vocal music that you created for each of
the four freeze frames. Fine-tune your musical ideas:
can you include more musical devices? Can you make
it more in keeping with Verdi's style? Can you develop
it musically? Can you play around with the timings?
Perhaps it can be done in slow motion. Perhaps the
freeze-frames can become smoother or be removed
all together?
You might want to pick one or two musical genres to
incorporate in your music.
Resources: instruments, recording equipment
Resources 21
Ordering Events Card Sort
Macbeth has Banquo
Lady Macbeth has gone
mad and kills herself.
Macbeth murders King
Duncan but brings the
daggers back with him.
Lady Macbeth takes the
daggers back to the
scene of the crime and
smears King Duncan’s
guards with blood.
An attack is led on
Macbeth’s castle by
Macduff and Malcolm.
The soldiers cut down
trees in Birnam Wood
and march towards
Macbeth and Banquo
meet the witches for the
first time.
Macbeth sees Banquo’s
Macduff reveals that he
was not born naturally.
Macbeth has Macduff’s
wife and children
Lady Macbeth reads a
letter from her husband
telling her about the
witches’ prophecy.
Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth decide to kill
King Duncan.
Macbeth is killed.
Macbeth becomes King
of Scotland.
Resources 22
Condensed script: ACT I
A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come.
All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
(To Banquo) Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
Enter LADY MACBETH, reading a letter
LADY MACBETH: Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness.
My dearest love, Duncan comes here to-night.
LADY MACBETH: Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't.
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly.
MACBETH thinks…
We will proceed no further in this business. If we should fail?
LADY MACBETH: We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.
MACBETH: I am settled.
Resources 23
Condensed script: ACT2
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
(A bell rings)
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
I have done the deed.
LADY MACBETH: Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.
I'll go no more.
LADY MACBETH: Give me the daggers.
Awake, awake!
Ring the alarum-bell. Murder and treason!
Banquo and Donalbain! Malcolm! awake!
What will you do? I'll to England.
To Ireland, I.
Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons,
Are stol'n away and fled; which puts upon them
Suspicion of the deed. The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth.
Resources 24
Condensed script: ACT3
Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
I fear thou play'dst most foully for't.
Enter MACBETH, as king, LADY MACBETH, as queen, Lords, Ladies, and Attendants
Here's our chief guest.To-night we hold a solemn supper sir,
And I'll request your presence. Ride you this afternoon?
Goes Fleance with you? (BANQUO nods)
Exit all except MACBETH
To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus.--Our fears in Banquo stick deep
Enter two Murderers
Both of you know Banquo was your enemy.
Murderers exit
LADY MACBETH: How now, my lord!
We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it:
LADY MACBETH: Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.
O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!
Thou know'st that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives.
LADY MACBETH: What's to be done?
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.
A banquet . Enter Lords, and Attendants. First Murderer creeps in.
First Murderer: My lord, his throat is cut; that I did for him. Fleance is 'scaped. (Exits)
The GHOST OF BANQUO enters, and sits in MACBETH's place
Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!
Resources 25
Condensed script: ACT 4
Thunder. Enter the three Witches
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
First Apparition: Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;
Second Apparition: None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.
Third Apparition: Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Macduff is fled to England.
The castle of Macduff I will surprise;
Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o' the sword his wife, his babes.
See, who comes here?
ROSS enters
Stands Scotland where it did?
Your castle is surprised; your wife and babe savagely slaughter'd.
Be comforted:
Let's make us medicines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief
Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.
Resources 26
Condensed script: Act 5
Enter LADY MACBETH, with a taper
LADY MACBETH:Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!
Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
Enter MACBETH and Attendants
There is ten thousand--Soldiers, sir.
The English force, so please you.
I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.
Wherefore was that cry?
The queen, my lord, is dead.
Enter a Messenger
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.
That lies like truth: 'Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane:' and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane.
Enter MACDUFF, soldiers and MALCOLM
Turn, hell-hound, turn! (They fight)
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd.
MACBETH and MACDUFF exit fighting. Re-enter MACDUFF, with MACBETH's head
(To MALCOLM) Hail, King of Scotland!
Resources 27
Dear Porter,
Dear Porter,
My best mate has gone crazy. He’s
recently got an excellent promotion,
but he doesn’t seem to be happy, and
is grumpy and suspicious whenever I
talk to him. He is making friends with
some shady people, and I’m worried
that he might be turning against me.
What shall I do?
I’ve lost everything. My wife and
children have been murdered and I
know who did it. They are in a
position of great power, but this is
unforgivable. I am going to take
serious action, but I am concerned
for the consequences for my
country. Please help.
Dear Porter,
Dear Porter,
I encouraged someone to do
something really bad, and now I feel
TERRIBLE. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat and
I keep washing my hands—but they
never get any cleaner. I’ve got
everything I ever wanted, but I’m
feeling awful. Please help—I feel like I
might do something drastic.
I’m in a sticky situation—my father
was murdered and he was really
powerful. I was set to get his power
when he died, but I had to leave the
country with my younger brother as
I feared for my life. I want to return
to my country, but I am scared.
Please help.
Resources 28
Themes Card Game (Quote taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
‘that is a step
On which I must
fall down, or else
‘Glamis thou art,
and Cawdor, and
shalt be
What thou art
‘for mine own
All causes shall
give way’
‘If you can look
into the seeds of
‘What are these,
So withered and so wild
And say which
in their attire,
grain will grow
That look not like
and which will
Speak then to me’
‘Come, you
That tend on
mortal thoughts’
‘Double, double,
toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and
cauldron bubble’
‘So foul and fair a day I
have not seen’
‘Your face, my
thane, is as a
book where men
May read strange
‘False face must
hide what the
false heart doth
‘art thou but
A dagger of the
mind, a false
‘Let not light see my
black and deep desires’
‘look like the
innocent flower,
but be the
serpent under’t’
‘A little water
clears us of this
‘What, will these
hands ne’er be
‘I have no spur
To prick the sides of
my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition’
Resources 29
KS3 Differences Worksheet
Plot (and order of events)
Verdi’s Macbeth
Shakespeare’s Macbeth
characters are presented)
Other differences:
E.g. Language
KS4 Differences Worksheet
Plot (and order of
characters are
Other differences:
E.g. Language
Verdi’s Macbeth
Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Effect on the audience
Resources 30
True or false student worksheet
Verdi uses more than 3
witches in his version of
Verdi’s Macbeth is
performed in Gaelic (a
language of Scotland).
Verdi’s Macbeth first
premiered in London in
the early 1600s.
Verdi keeps all of
Shakespeare’s characters
in his version.
When Verdi wrote
Macbeth he had only
read it in Italian
Verdi said this about
Shakespeare: "He is one
of my favourite poets. I
have had him in my hands
from my earliest youth.”
Verdi was born in 1813
and died in 1901.
Verdi’s Macbeth first
premiered in 1847 in
Florence, Italy.
Duncan is a silent
character in both
Shakespeare’s Macbeth
and Verdi’s Macbeth.
Resources 31
True or false teacher worksheet
Verdi uses more than 3
witches in his version of
Verdi keeps all of
Shakespeare’s characters
in his version.
FALSE, keys characters
are left out, including
Donalbain (Duncan’s son).
Verdi was born in 1813
and died in 1901.
Verdi’s Macbeth is
performed in Gaelic (a
language of Scotland).
Verdi’s Macbeth first
premiered in London in
the early 1600s.
FALSE, it is performed in
FALSE, Shakespeare’s
Macbeth was first
performed in London in
the early 1600s.
When Verdi wrote
Macbeth he had only
read it in Italian
Verdi said this about
Shakespeare: "He is one
of my favourite poets. I
have had him in my hands
from my earliest youth.”
Verdi’s Macbeth first
premiered in 1847 in
Florence, Italy.
Duncan is a silent
character in both
Shakespeare’s Macbeth
and Verdi’s Macbeth.
FALSE, Duncan is silent in
the opera but speaks in
Shakespeare’s play.
Resources 32
Review planning sheet
What you saw, where you
saw and why you saw it.
What did you think about it
before you had seen it?
Give a short summary of the
Key moment
What was your favourite
scene of the production and
What did you think about
the characters and
performers? Who was your
favourite and why? Who
was your least favourite and
Set and costumes
Describe the set and style of
the costumes. Did they add
to the effect of the
performance? How?
Did you enjoy the music in
the opera? How did the
music create atmosphere
and what atmosphere did it
create at key moments?
Final thoughts
Give your overall opinion of
the performance. Was it
what you expected? Would
you recommend it? What
type of person would you
recommend it to? Would
you like to see another
How many stars would you give this production?
Musical Analyses of Key Themes 33
Musical Analysis of Key Themes
The Supernatural
The music that Verdi wrote for these moments is varied and
full of contrast. The Witches have music that varies from wild
and coarse to sublime and solemn. Where we first meet them
at the very beginning of the opera (Chefaceste? Ditesu?
“Where hast thou been? Tell me, pray!” Track 2) we meet
them alone in their own environment. The music is wild and
fast paced, with low-pitched tremolando rumblings in the
strings contrasting with high pitched woodwind flourishes and
raucous chords in the brass. The vocal line is staccato, moving
by step with sudden large leaps, and with short snatched
syllables uttered in simple rhythms that creates the effect of
cackling and gossiping. In contrast, where we see the witches
make their prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo (Giorno non
vidimaisìfiero e bello! “Fouler and fairer never have broke the
morrow!” Track 3) the orchestra is calm and pianissimo, with
regal trumpets doubling a legato vocal line that moves through
an arpeggio with distinctive and stately dotted rhythms.
Through the music Verdi is showing the two sides of the
witches’ character: at once unruly and vulgar and then sublime
and prophetic.
You can listen out for a similar contrast in Act 3. At the
beginning of the act we see the witches casting spells in a dark
cavern, which is taken from Shakespeare’s famous Act 4 Scene
1 where the witches utter the chant:
“Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
(Tre volte miagola la gatta in fregola “Thrice in misery the
brinded cat hath mewed” Track 30).
The orchestral introduction, this time in 6/8, is again wild and
raucous, with crashes in the cymbals, sinister driving rhythms
in the brass and fast rising scalic passages in the strings
creating an unsettled and sinister mood (the contrasting piano
lyrical oboe line here is first heard at the very opening of the
opera). The vocal line of the witches is fast and repetitive,
perfect to create the effect of chanting, again moving largely by
steps with sudden leaps and throbbing appoggiaturas. Yet
where the witches invoke the spirits to answer Macbeth, their
vocal line is again characterised by stately arpeggios and
dotted rhythms (Finchèappelli “Until I hail” Track 32).
The vocal lines of the three apparitions themselves,
accompanied by sustained woodwind and brass chords, take
on these solemn dotted rhythms, but remain on one pitch
before rising gradually by step, creating a sense of foreboding
and anxiety. The music of the apparition of the line of eight
kings is instrumental only, with simple triplet arpeggios in the
oboe, bassoon and clarinet, similar to the triplets heard in the
off-stage band heralding the arrival of King Duncan in Act 1.
Here again the music creating these fantastic yet supernatural
apparitions is solemn, stately and sublime, and of great
contrast to Macbeth’s.
When we first meet Macbeth, he is surprised and unsettled
that the witches refer to him as both the Thane of Cawdor and
King of Scotland, but does not yet want to take matters into his
own hands in Act 1 Scene 1:
“No, I’ll do nothing! For chance may crown me,
Chance may bring me to the throne without a blow!”
However, when Lady Macbeth sees the opportunity she quickly
and consciously grabs onto it, persuading her husband to
murder the King and take power for himself. Her determination
and cold-bloodedness can be seen in her first and famous aria
that she sings upon hearing the news that King Duncan will be
staying with them as a guest in the castle that evening (Or
tutti, sorgete “Arise now, all you ministers of hell” Track 10).
Accompanied by driving repeated rhythms in the strings, her
vocal line is confident and triumphant, characterised by leaps
and dotted rhythms, and interspersed by passages of gleeful
coloratura (perhaps the vocal flexibility here is suggestive of
the flexibility and cunning she will use to manipulate Macbeth).
Her opening aria establishes Lady Macbeth as an extremely
powerful character.
Macbeth’s guilt manifests itself publically, as can be seen by his
reaction to the visions of Banquo’s ghost that he sees at the
banquet in Act 2. Macbeth, his wife and the banquet guests
(played by the chorus) are made suspicious by what they
overhear him say. Again here Lady Macbeth is in control, and
attempts to cover things up by toasting the guests and singing
a brindisi (drinking song) (Si come ilcalice “A toast I give you”
Track 25). Here her vocal line is much lighter and detached,
peppered with trills and acciaccaturas that present a frivolous,
innocent and fun loving character to the guests of the banquet,
quite in contrast to the private ambition and power that we
have seen in O tutti, sorgete. Lady Macbeth is still able to
publically cover-up any sense of guilt that she is feeling, and is
outwardly much more in control than her husband.
Musical Analyses of Key Themes 34
Yet as time passes, and Macbeth becomes progressively more
caught up and committed to his path of destruction, we see
that the guilty conscience has inwardly eaten away at Lady
Macbeth. One of her most famous arias comes in Act 4 Scene
2, taken from Shakespeare’s famous sleepwalking sequence in
Act 5 Scene 1, where the doctor and Lady Macbeth’s attendant
witness her talking in her sleep (Vegliammoinvan due notti “In
vain two nights of vigil” Track 8). Musically this is another
complete contrast, as we see the inner workings of Lady
Macbeth’s mind. The strings, marked ppp and
leggerissimo(very light) play in two-part counterpoint (a
musical idea first heard in the orchestral prelude) that is both
tentative and unsettling. When Lady Macbeth sings, her vocal
line shares some musical ideas with her first aria O tutti,
sorgete: a repeated driving rhythm in the strings, short rising
phrases characterised by dotted rhythms. Yet here Lady
Macbeth has none of the same confidence and sense of
triumph, and her phrases are questioning, searching, unsettled
by the minor key and chromaticism in the orchestra. However,
even at the end she displays the full flexibility and power of her
voice, with long lyrical phrases and a wide range of pitch that
increases as she falls deeper into despair.
The theme of oppression is perhaps apparent in the opera than
in the play because Verdi wrote a chorus for the Scottish
refugees. The chorus (Patria oppressa! “Oppressed country”
Track 36) that comes at the beginning of Act 4 is one of the
most famous of Verdi’s early choruses. It creates a role for the
oppressed Scottish people that do not appear in the play, in
which they are only spoken about by Macduff and Malcolm in
Act 4 Scene 3. Verdi certainly would have wanted to create a
role for the chorus, as this was an established convention in
nineteenth century Italian opera, but it also interesting to
consider that Verdi believed his own country to be oppressed
under the rule of the Austrian Empire prior to Italy’s unification
in 1861. Perhaps Verdi saw a parallel between the fate of his
own people and the fate of the Scottish in Macbeth.
The music of the chorus begins with foreboding brass chords
and timpani rolls, evoking the iron fist that rules the country
without sympathy for its people. The chorus begins with all of
the voices singing in unison, a community of people that share
the same fate, and the slow tempo and relentless movement in
the orchestral accompaniment tells of their exhaustion and
suffering. The powerful effect of hearing a full chorus of voices
singing the together is extremely moving, making this chorus a
powerful statement about the reality and devastation caused
by those that will abuse their power of authority over others.
Acciaccaturas – an ‘extra’ note struck just before the
main notes and then immediately released.
Appoggiaturas – a non-harmony note that falls (or
rises) by step to a neighbouring harmony note.
Arpeggios – a chord performed spread out i.e. the
notes are played one after rather than
Chromaticism – the use of notes that lie outside the
key of a piece
Coloratura – an agile, florid style of singing featuring
fast moving musical passages
Counterpoint – the combination of two or more
Dotted Rhythms – pairs of notes with unequal
lengths e.g. dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver
Legato – an instruction to perform notes smoothly
Leggerissimo – an instruction to play very lightly
ppp – triple piano, indicating that you should play
extremely softly
Scalic – a musical passage rising or falling by step
Sustained – a note that is struck and sounds for a
length of time
Staccato – an instruction to perform notes detached
Tremolando – the rapid repetition of a note on a
string instrument achieved by bowing quickly back
and forth
Trill – also called a ‘shake’, indicating a very fast
alternation of the written note and the note above it
Triplet – a group of three notes of equal length
Unison – more than one part playing or singing the
same note or group of notes
Other Useful Resources 35
Other Useful Resources
BBC Radio 3 Podcast: Opera Guides – Verdi’s Macbeth
Pacific Opera Victoria:
Metropolitan Opera:
Synopsis of Macbeth:
For Macbeth GCSE Bitesize:
For a translation of the libretto:
For in-depth discussion of musical content in relation to the witches, p235/236 onwards:
History of Italian Opera:
Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ‘Macbeth’:
Royal Shakespeare Company Website:
Some useful websites about Verdi: