When the air gets cooler and my preference switches from iced tea to hot, I have an insatiable desire to immerse myself in the story of Macbeth. Maybe my craving comes from the early-falling darkness that demands a tale to follow suit; perhaps it’s the talk of witches and spirits that haunts each October; but just maybe my inclination stems from a classroom tradition I established: the reading and performing of Macbeth every fall.
First, I’ll quickly confess that the playing-out of this tradition is evidence of my evolving philosophy of education. The first year, we rushed through: the students read mostly at
home, I quizzed, and then we did a very brief day of student-planned performances. Perfect! We had “checked” Shakespeare off the list. Onward to the rest of British literature! Of course, this was a sorry excuse for a study of Macbeth.
The second year, I slowed it down a bit: we read the entire play in class, spent a few weeks rehearsing an abridged version, and then performed it for the entire high school during morning classes. The students also submitted five journals reflecting on the experience and themes from the play. But there was something lacking: complete engagement with the text, as the play itself was still an attempt to “get through the material.”
The third year, I must admit, was a highlight of my teaching career thus far. I still failed in many ways: not addressing the needs of every student, not drawing some students into discussion, not giving enough time for rehearsals… but we read it together in class, discussed each act, contemplated particular lines from the play, and then students performed excerpts, memorizing the original language instead of an abridged version. Finally, we were living together in the narrative, reflecting on Shakespeare’s words, recognizing our own souls in the confessions of the characters.
The Scottish play is a frightening narrative, but what’s even more unnerving is when you and most of your students can admit: “I understand Macbeth as a character.” This was a statement much more prevalent in that third year of our tradition, as we journeyed together through Macbeth’s tragedy. If you haven’t read the play, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of Macbeth as a character: he is tempted by a prophecy to take matters into his own hands and consequently kills the king and becomes a tyrant.
Wait—isn’t my goal to lead students in wisdom and virtue? How is it virtuous and wise to say that I can understand—nay, even identify with—Macbeth?
Despite growing up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, and teaching at Christian schools, it took me three years of teaching to realize that traditional Christian rhythms are helpful in leading students to wisdom and virtue: the pattern of daily prayer, the cycle of work and rest during the week and then the Sabbath, and the repetition of repentance and renewal each year during Lent and Easter. By this time in my teaching career, we were practicing the daily prayers at noon with my church history class, contemplating Berry’s Sabbath poetry in my AP Literature class… but I had yet to turn my “lectern into a confessional,” as Josh Gibbs often proposes. Some Christian practices in the classroom are encouraged, even by teachers in progressive education: addressing the marginalized, being hospitable to the stranger, giving to the poor. But the practice of repentance is inherently against the model of progressive education, where the teacher is seen as the ultimate guide and guardian to the students’ education and self-esteem.
Yet the Christian narrative does just that: subverts the worldly institutions and interrupts the secular narrative. In the third year of teaching Macbeth, I had decided that to truly encounter wisdom and virtue in this study, I had some repenting to do: his attempt to control his own fate, his power-hungry, ambitious self—well, that’s me. And some of my students followed in the confession, soon recognizing this downfall of human nature: the desire for power, the grasp for control. Macbeth himself confesses, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition…” and soon after realizes that he must attempt to hide his sin: “False face must hide what false heart doth know.”
After we recognized this downfall of Macbeth (and, if you will, the human race), the unexpected occurred.
Macbeth is considered by most the darkest play that Shakespeare ever composed. But instead of the students agreeing with Macbeth that life “is a tale // told by an idiot, full of sound and fury // signifying nothing”, they recognized this manifesto as an extension of his pride. Suddenly, we could no longer follow Macbeth into insanity, as modern readers often do. Rather, the story itself showed us the way to renewal after repentance.
This redemptive reading of the tragedy is, I suggest, impossible to discern with the modern, nihilistic view of life. And that is why no contemporary production of Macbeth has ever satiated my autumnal cravings. But that’s for another post.