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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.

The modern is faced with the general proposition that, regardless of any conscious thought or action on his part, he or she will only ever be a meaningless part of a short-lived existence. The world around him or her is only temporarily and accidentally upgraded from primal confusion, and can and will collapse at any time through entropy.

Stars are huge balls of radioactive gas, history is a series of episodes without significance (but in some interpretations mirroring evolution), life is a complex chemical combination and no more. Any doubt about the reality of all this is seen as delusory -wavering from a grim truth prompted by psychological factors- and the proper response to this delusion is to ‘confront’ it and get back to hard, empty reality.

Writers in the last hundred years, since this view became more and more predominant, have written against this backdrop of thinking, which is why so many modern works are very bleak in nature, often conveying the message that life is ultimately meaningless and empty and that any sense that we see in it is fundamentally ironic.

Shakespeare can be the gateway to a totally different way of looking at the world.

The Mediaeval world view was very much based on a firm belief that God was very real. All that we know as Reality was seen beginning in a condition of close communion with God and with that state of existence found around God called Heaven. The world moved away from that condition due to individual choice and aberration, until we had the terrible world of tragedy and pain, war and upset, which mediaeval people found all around them. But in their view, because God was all-loving, humanity generally was returning to its original condition provided that each individual accepted the natural order of things and understood and welcomed God (as Jesus Christ) back into their lives. In their view, Order was at the heart of everything and Disorder was an illusion that only arose because we had chosen to turn away from God.

The expectation of the individual in this world view was that, provided he or she acknowledged and accepted forgiveness for the original aberration of which he or she was a part (something that there was a continual encouragement to do), he or she would be part of an immortal and eternal transcendence. The world was a degraded image of the higher condition to which it was possible to return. Stars and planets were immortal and unchanging entities which had an influence on us, history was a series of episodes leading back to direct connection with God, life was a complex plan of divinely created and motivated impulses. The reason that humanity suffered was because we were out of step with this Divine Plan because of our original sin.

Any doubt about the reality of all this was seen as Temptation, a wavering from an absolute truth prompted by abortive impulses, and the proper response was to pray for faith and to return to accepting God as the stable point around which all of this was built.

Writers of the time wrote with all this in mind, which is why so many Mediaeval works are very structured with happy endings, and in the stories evil and the darker side of life is seen as inferior to God, to be overcome by faith.

This view of reality had developed over many hundreds of years since the birth of Christ. Authors of the Middle Ages such as Chaucer drew on it all the time. By the time we get to Shakespeare’s time (late 16th century), things were starting to change a little. In 1572, a star exploded in the heavens above them, and people the world over were forced to begin to reinterpret the entire universe as a result -the sky was no longer perfect and unchanging, forces were at work which the new scientific method of investigation and analysis would be able to explain, while the Church, failing to keep pace with this and with new ideas that were spreading across Europe, gradually began to break up. Shakespeare’s work captures some of that break up, but still has its feet firmly planted in an older world.

Whether or not we now consider that the ideas that grew up in mediaeval times are ‘true’ or not, this background is important. Unless an audience -or a group of teenagers in a class- have some idea of how differently Shakespeare and his predecessors looked at the world, they will miss at least some of the dramatic power and meaning that earlier works of literature have to offer, including Macbeth. And it is interesting to see how the fiction of today also reflects the agreed-upon (but not necessarily absolutely true) picture of the universe around us accepted by contemporaries.

All this might be considered too much for the average teenage group to deal with, and certainly makes a school timetable groan. But the reward is the possibility of freedom to look at the whole world differently. And it’s clear from actual experiment that teenage students won’t easily grasp Macbeth without at least a glimpse of this backdrop.

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