Ah, Macbeth. It’s one of the darkest, evilest, most disturbing stories in classical literature. Not even the beauty of Shakespeare’s language can brighten the “deep and black desires” of the Scottish Play. It’s also a standard inclusion in our current Communications III curriculum. And it represents a bit of a Waterloo for me–it’s a Shakespearean text that I really struggle with teaching.
Normally, my approach to Shakespeare is as gung-ho as it gets. I love the language. I love the stories. I love everything about the experience of reading Shakespeare. This passion usually translates into teaching success. But last year, as I began Macbeth with my junior students, I found myself fighting to keep my students engaged in the text. By the end, only a few stragglers came away with something intelligent to say about the play, and many even lacked a basic comprehension of the story, despite the fact that we read almost all of it together in class. So what the heck went wrong?
Here’s the thing. Macbeth is really, really hard to teach to high school students. For one, almost every character is a male in the military, and many of their names sound the same. This sets us up for trouble understanding right from the get-go. But it’s more than that. The most effective way of teaching Shakespeare to young people in my experience is helping the students to make connections between their own lives and the realities of the characters. In other plays by the Bard like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those connections are easily accessible–have you ever been in love? Been jealous? Been grieving? Been convinced that you needed to change your identity? Been out past curfew to meet someone you weren’t supposed to meet? All these adolescent realities are reflected in many of Shakespeare’s works. But who on Earth can connect with Macbeth? At first, sure–the lure of a prize, of leadership, and respect–those are things that students understand. But they can’t accept the depth to with Macbeth is willing to step into blood as the play escalates into increasing violence. The moment MacB arranges to off his own friend Banquo and Banquo’s young son, the kids tune out. Struggling through the language isn’t worth it for a jerk like Macbeth. They don’t understand his endless military lust, and they don’t really care what happens to him. When you really think about it, can you blame them?
This year, I knew that having students see Shakespeare in themselves wasn’t going to work with Macbeth. But I still had to teach it. So why not alter the purpose for reading the text? Rather than using it to understand human experience, why not use it as a pathway for analyzing ideas? Why not use it as a tool rather than a tale? This was the concept that guided the new approach, which was to create a synthesis writing unit where Macbeth was a key, shared text. My teaching team and I saw a greater amount of success with this new approach, which reminded me that the purposes for reading classical texts do not always have to be classicist in nature. Key components of the revamped unit are detailed below.
USING SHAKESPEARE AS A SPRINGBOARD TO SYNTHESIS
1. Let students know the intended purpose and methodology for reading the text up front. At the beginning of the unit, I explained the difference between the Shakespeare reading experience of Romeo and Juliet, which our students read during freshman year, and this Macbeth unit. I explained that we were looking for the big ideas and themes within the work, rather than reading to decode the nuances of Shakespearean language. (These are two good, but very different purposes.)
2. Read it backwards–film first. It’s okay to provide the story ahead of time, when students are being expected to work with Shakespeare in a concept-based way. I provided my students with basic information and character profiles, the Sparknotes video summary and my own narration of the story. We then viewed the 2010 (Patrick Stewart) film version of Macbeth, with subtitles. I also provided a film guide that broke each scene down into modern, accessible language. [Here’s my day three, for your reference.] In a sense, they read the whole thing in the process of experiencing the performance, as the work was originally intended by its author.
3. Define and introduce the big ideas. While viewing the film, students were encouraged to note and discuss times when five key ideas appeared in the play: Honor, Masculinity, Control, Fate, and Ambition. These ideas were consistently returned to and reinforced, whenever possible via brief discussions about current events where these concepts are in play.
4. Help students revisit the “not to be missed!” segments of the original text, and skip the rest. I know. It feels like cheating, but hear me out. In this scenario, the purpose for reading the text is not to decode Shakespeare’s every word. The purpose is to examine what statements the story makes about big ideas. So, we focused on reading just a selection of key scenes: the witches’ prophecies, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,” Lady Macbeth’s coercion of her husband, the dagger scene, “Full of scorpions is my mind,” the banquet scene, “Out, damned spot!”, and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” During this process, I provided reading strategies for difficult, unfamiliar text, a skill that certainly translates beyond Shakespeare. This way, they got to experience the authentic language in a limited way that still left time for the rest of our unit!
5. Encourage personal discussion/reactions to the big ideas of the text. I came up with a set of starter questions to help students with this–questions like “Do the ends justify the means?” We had discussions about these questions and then compared our own perspectives with the perspective that Shakespeare presents via Macbeth. This is the perfect set-up to working with synthesis.
6. Demonstrate the creation of a thematic statement surrounding one of the five big ideas. I coached my students to use the question list as a starting point to generate an idea-based statement which they could choose to defend, attack, or qualify. They claimed their statements and stances via postcards that we displayed on the wall. (Pictured at the top of this post. Click to make it big!)
7. Students start researching and moving on to other sources, including but no longer limited to this single text. This moves into the planning and composition of a synthesis essay. Here’s where we went from there…
My biggest takeaway after a second, much more successful try at teaching Macbeth this year is this: any kid can read any text and talk about it intelligently. They just need the proper support. Supporting students so that they can understand and think about a difficult text isn’t “cheating.” It’s teaching. As long as the challenge is coming from somewhere, it’s all good. This isn’t to say that there’s no value to struggling through a full Shakespearean play. In fact, that’s one of my FAVORITE things to do with students… but it’s not the only way, and perhaps it’s best to leave the classical, all-in, every-word method of studying Shakespeare to plays where the main character isn’t utterly, consistently despicable.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just be sitting here awaiting the inevitable retribution for writing this post from the Macbeth curse. Wish me luck! 🙂