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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
English professor Virginia Vaughan and her students delve into the intricacies of Shakespeare's characters from the perspectives of race and gender.

Meet the researchers: Close read everything

Interview with Stacie Swoboda
English major Stacie Swoboda '01 has been living with Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth for six months, researching and analyzing the character's role in the play Macbeth for her senior honors thesis. In this interview, she discussed how she conducted her research.

How do you start your research process?

The first step is coming up with a question (thesis) as a jumping off point. You think about what you want to write about, what you might want to say and then narrow down your question to something manageable. In my case, I knew I wanted to write about Shakespeare. Then I said: I need to break it down; I'll write about the play Macbeth. The character I was most interested in was Lady Macbeth, so I decided to concentrate on her. As I began reading the play over again, I noticed a lot of parallels and contrasts between Lady Macbeth and her husband and between herself and the other women in the play. She's one of Shakespeare's most complex and violent characters, a mix of violence and complete femininity. I decided I wanted to figure out why she completely devoted herself to her cause, a cause that destroyed her.

What do you do next, read the play a hundred times?

First you do have to read the play over and over again. I've probably read it about 20 times. Then I went on a hunt for information. I went to the library to an online journal database called JSTOR and found a number of articles about Lady Macbeth. I also looked at books on characterization and particularly how actresses and actors have played Lady Macbeth. And once I collected everything, I started reading. That's probably the toughest part.

How do you organize all that information?

Ultimately, you have to close read everything. But first, I skimmed everything for mentions of Lady Macbeth and highlighted those so I could see how useful each article or book would be. How many times was she mentioned? Then, I grouped the material by category. I was very systematic about it. I had piles of papers everywhere in my room with little post-it notes on them. The categories I came up with were:

  • history of the mistreatment of women
  • Lady Macbeth and mental sickness
  • the ways actors and actresses played Lady Macbeth
  • blood
  • Macbeth himself

What did you do next?

I came up with sections for the paper, some of which were based on the categories I created. After that, I started writing. The paper ended up having three sections. It begins with a basic history of women. I found a lot on the mistreatment of women at that time and figured that would provide a good segue into why she might have committed murder. The next section is an analysis of the play itself. I analyzed Lady Macbeth's "unsex me" monologue and her monologue about dashing her child's brains out (see below for both). I took those two speeches and basically ripped them apart, using the blood, Macbeth, and mental sickness sections of the research and wove that into my analysis. My final section is a comparison of different actresses who have played Lady Macbeth and the effectiveness of their different styles. 

What thesis did you end up with?

My basic idea was that Lady Macbeth decided to lose her femininity in order to help her husband Macbeth become king. She failed because she forgot to replace that femininity with something else. She has this wonderful "unsex me" speech but then she doesn't replace her femininity with anything else--she just stops at "I don't want to be a woman." So once Macbeth grew stronger, he left her behind and she jumped off the bridge!

How long has this process taken?

I spent the first semester researching my topic and writing a first draft. I have the rest of this semester to rewrite and polish the paper. I'm working with my advisor, Virginia Vaughan, who will critique the paper and provide the feedback I need to finish it.

From Act I Scene 5
Lady Macbeth:The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, your murthering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"

From Act I Scene 7
Lady Macbeth: What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I  would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this

 

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Stacie Swoboda
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