The lessons from Macbeth

The people in the theater call it The Scottish Play. The people in my English department call it Macdeath.

My actor friends are being traditionally superstitious, hoping to ward off bad luck. My teacher friends are being descriptive, admitting that too often we manage to kill the play before Macbeth commits his first murder.

Killing the play isn't hard at all. Mixing archaic vocabulary, blank verse, historical references, literary devices, and teenagers who dislike reading in general and Shakespeare in particular is a recipe for boredom.

Enjoying the play

Only this year that hasn't happened. By a strange alignment of the planets, the other senior English teachers and I have been teaching Macbeth the same week and have noticed that our students are enjoying the play. Lauren and Curtis and Marian and I often greet each other with comments such as “So, have you killed off Banquo yet?” When one student anxiously asks Curtis if Macbeth will die, he quips,“Well, it is called The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

I think that is so clever that I use it in my own class – but my students are not amused.

“Oh, great, you've ruined it for us now,” they scold.

But they don't stay annoyed long.

When we finish the play, I pair up the students and ask them to decide who is most responsible for the murders – Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or the witches. I call on the first pair of students on the far right row, and they say that the witches are to blame – after all, Macbeth is a war hero minding his own business when the witches tell him he is destined for future glory. I call on the students sitting next to them, and they agree and add that the witches trick Macbeth by giving him misleading information. The next students also argue that the witches are most to blame.

The rest of the room is buzzing, 25 arms undulating in the air to get my attention. They can hardly bear my plodding, methodical way of surveying the class. From the far left corner Denzel catches my eye and mouths, “Please?” I give in and call on him.

“How can you all say that the witches are responsible? Macbeth is the one who picked up a knife and went to Duncan's room. Macbeth is the one who stabbed the guards. He's the one who hired the murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance. No one put a gun to his head and made him do it.”

“But the witches gave him assurances that he was supposed to be the king. If they hadn't told him that, he never would have killed anyone,” Sabrina points out.

Denzel's partner Cam jumps in.

“What ever happened to personal responsibility! Macbeth made a choice!”

Jeremy adds, “He talked himself out of the murder, remember? He said,‘We will proceed no further in this business.' Then he changes his mind when his wife calls him a coward.”

And back and forth they go, civilly but with great passion. Every student wants to talk. Even students who have never raised a hand before join in. At last Logan says, “I believe Macbeth is responsible, and I have an example that relates to all of us.”

The hands go down and the class is very quiet.

Resisting daily temptations

“Every day we are surrounded by temptation,” Logan says, “like when our friends do things that we know are wrong, and we have to decide whether or not to go along. Just because the temptation is there doesn't mean you have to give in to it.”

The class nods, even the half who argued for the witches.

On their test, I include an essay to assess how well they have listened to each other, asking them to prove both points of view with equal support. They do so handily. I feel like I've managed to turn Bad Luck Macdeath into something spectacular.

Only later do I realize that I have been congratulating myself without cause. Lauren figures out the mystery of our Macbeth success – our students had Carol and Joann and Shelley and Kim last year, dynamite junior English teachers who made literature both challenging and fun. I've been riding their coattails.

Connected to today's issues

And I realize something else, too; that I've let a valuable opportunity slip away. While I was so caught up in the euphoria of actually enjoying the play, I should have connected it to the issues of today. Indeed, when I asked my students to name the theme of Macbeth, they didn't hesitate to name several: the perils of greed and ambition, the danger of overconfidence, the inability to truly know or control the future – ideal parallels to the faltering economy, the upcoming elections. Those topics might inspire angry outbursts and uncivil behavior by adults, but my students could have handled that discussion with respect and grace.

And maybe that is the more important lesson after all.