top of page

Teaching 'Macbeth'

In the early 2000s, while teaching English Literature to a group of 14 year olds, I performed an experiment in two parts. Firstly, using glossaries and an appropriate dictionary, I had them look up, define and master the definitions of every word in the first couple of scenes of Macbeth. I wanted to see if words -the lack of understanding of them, the challenge of them- were the main barrier between the student and Shakespeare. Then I went on to look at the images being used.

Teachers of Shakespeare will recognise that certain things occur when the ’S’ word is mentioned in front of a class of teenagers: some of the class will remain neutral, but a significant proportion of them will groan, as though they are about to endure some kind of torment. This happens even when the individual students involved have had no prior experience of Shakespeare at all. It is as though there is a student, or perhaps even a cultural ‘grapevine’ along which warnings are transmitted outside the environment of school: ‘Beware Shakespeare -he’s awful!’ I’m sure a scientific study could be done about this to reveal who it is that passes this along and which students in particular are receptive to it.

The point is that the groan is one of exasperation, not rebellion as such. While the teenagers in front of the hapless teacher may well wish they were doing something else, they go along with the study of the Bard grudgingly and prepare themselves to endure an almost physical pain, or so it seems. Most of them seem to recognise that there is some kind of value to be had in Shakespeare, but it comes with the promise of so much burdensome work that they aren’t keen to get at it. I was curious to discover the source of this sad expectation. Was it simply the language? Or was something else involved?

In Macbeth, the first unusual word is probably ‘hurly-burly’ -not entirely unused today, but uncommon. Then we get to ‘ere’and ‘anon’, by which time someone has usually raised the question ‘Why doesn’t he write in normal English?’ Mostly ignoring temptations to explain Shakespeare’s position at the cusp of what we call Modern English, and his amazing contribution to it, I pressed ahead with the exercise to simply address the words.

‘Exeunt’ comes up as the exit of the group of witches. At this point, a few of the class have perked up a tiny degree of interest, heavily disguised as disdain, for the first scene: ‘Fog and filthy air’ promises some kind of grittiness at least. But the task of looking up words continued, with ‘alarum’, ‘sergeant’ and ‘attendants’ coming up next.

Here is where quibbles with syntax arose. Why does Shakespeare have Duncan say

He can report

As seemeth from his plight , of the revolt

The newest state

rather than ‘He can report, as seemeth from his plight, the newest state of the revolt’ and make it easier to grasp? But clearing up the word ‘revolt’ was the focus of this particular experiment, along with ‘hardy’, ‘’Gainst’, and even ‘captivity’. ‘Hail’, ‘broil’ and ‘spent’ quickly followed.

And then you as a teacher have to try to ignore the sergeant’s image of the two spent swimmers who do ‘choke their art’, and the ‘multiplying villainies of nature’ that ‘swarm’ upon MacDonald, and instead concentrate on defining the much more obscure ‘kerns and gallowglasses’ as well as ‘fortune’, ‘wretched’, ‘quarrel’, ‘rebel’s whore’ and so on. By now, with any class that is half-decent as mine was, there is a kind of interest developing simply from the definitions of the words, which themselves lead the student into colourful realms.

But ‘all’s too weak’, as the play says: yes, the word-defining pricks up some ears and itself paints a picture of what is going on, but even the sergeant’s vibrant description of events doesn’t quite convert the disinterested student into an enthusiast on its own:

For brave Macbeth -well he deserves that name-

Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel

Which smoked with bloody execution,

Like valour’s minion carved out his passage

Till he faced the slave;

Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,

And fix’d his head upon our battlements.

In short, though we persisted with the looking up of words right until the end of the second scene, it became apparent that the words alone were not the answer. And a great deal of time had been spent looking them up, carefully defining them and making sure that everyone really ‘got’ them. What this first part of the experiment did, though, quite clearly, was calm people down. The reaction to the rest of the play was altered: instead of fiery resistance or protest, there was a reluctant acceptance that something was going on in the play which was at least partly comprehensible. It was also clear that the general vocabulary level of teenage students was much lower than even a non-Shakespearian lesson might have allowed for, with words like ‘hardy’ and ‘revolt’ drawing blanks. But so far, so good: vocabulary growth and tranquility had been approached.

A teacher of Shakespeare is thankful for these small mercies. In the second part of the experiment, explaining the images, things came to life a bit more. Now that there were fewer problems with the words as such, the images became easier to grasp: the spent swimmers, the multiplying villainies, the ‘smoking’ sword, Macbeth as ‘valour’s minion’, and the rebel being ‘unseam’d’ from ‘the nave to the chaps’ now possessed real flavour and colour, rather than being pocked with blanks and question marks. But at this point another thing became obvious: Shakespearian images draw upon a whole philosophic background which has simply vanished from our own experience as adults, let alone the experience of an average teenager today.

Ideas like ‘fortune’ behaving like a ‘rebel’s whore’ required an entire background explanation of Fortune as more than just something in the title of a once-popular television quiz show; the fact that a sword would visibly ‘smoke’ on being withdrawn from a hot body it had stabbed was totally foreign even to the avid biologists in the class; and as for images to do with the nature of the world and the cosmos, they were completely foreign. When the sergeant explains the turn of events on the battlefield using philosophical idioms which would have been commonplace at the time, the contemporary teenager is lost:

Sergeant: As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection

Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,

So from that spring whence comfort seem’d to come

Discomfort swells.

The reference to falconry and the Great Chain of Being is more than obscure:

Sergeant: Aye;

As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion.

And as for the mention of Golgotha, students were not even aware of the basic Biblical story behind it, let alone its power as an image.

So by the time that the end of the second scene is reached, the experiment had two sound conclusions: words played a part in ‘bridging’ Shakespeare to a teenage public, but they were not the whole answer. Images, rich throughout the play as well as in these two scenes, needed to be brought to life, but depended upon a background of concepts and other stories that were completely foreign.

Within the confines of a normal curriculum and school timetable, getting the product of students having a real affinity for Shakespeare seems impossible, given these factors. Instead, the option might be for a ‘controlled burst’ of the Bard, focusing attention on a scene or two before broadly covering the plot of the play, hoping that one or two key points might sink in for the minority. That’s understandable -but such a waste. Because opening up teenage students to Shakespeare can also lead them into an even larger realm.

If teenagers -or any other readers or viewers of Shakespeare- are ever going to really grasp what Shakespeare or any writer of his time or in the several hundred years before his time was trying to communicate, it is important to understand that centuries ago people in general, and thinkers and artists in particular, looked at the world around them quite differently to the way we view things now. Having some idea of how the world looked to them, we can begin to appreciate what their concerns were and why they wrote as they did -and, very importantly, we can begin to see why what they had to say is still powerful today.

To do so we have to confront some unpalatable facts about the kind of culture teenagres are growing up in currently.

In the Twenty-first Century, the ‘accepted’ view amongst intellectuals or policy-makers is that God probably does not exist. The universe begins, so the general idea goes, in material chaos, a ‘Big Bang’ explosion of all the matter and energy that will ever exist, which then, by a series of accidents, evolves into more and more complex living forms. In the future, so this theory of the world goes, everything will eventually decay back into chaos through a natural breakdown of order. At the centre of things is Disorder, and Order is an illusion stemming from chaotic accident. <