Hospitality in the Classroom: On Xenia, Open House, and Parents as Guests

I am thrilled to welcome the first guest post on Dappled Studies. Margaret is a fellow student with me in the Houston Baptist University MLA program, and we’ve shared countless discussions about Arthurian legend, poetry, and teaching. I am grateful that she has chosen to write about on oft-overlooked group when it comes to hospitality in the classroom: parents! 

How fitting that Allison should invite me to write a guest post as she features “Hospitality in the Classroom” on her beautiful blog. She has graciously welcomed me in to her space to share some thoughts, and in doing so has allowed me to ponder and pull together a few truths that have helped shaped my approach to providing a classroom that seeks to be a source of light to students and parents alike.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher from as early as fifth grade when much to the chagrin of my four siblings, I created my own schoolroom in the basement of our home. As soon as summer vacation began, I wanted to “play school” and set up my mini blackboard with stacks of colored chalk ready for clean strokes of cursive. I loved writing on the blackboard! My siblings thought I was out of my mind: “Who does school in summer?” they proclaimed, as they ran for their lives before I could assign them a seat in my classroom.

Eventually, when I did indeed become a teacher, it was very important to me to create a classroom environment that was both welcoming and safe, much like the one my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Schick created. Everyone was loved in her room, even Kevin W. who to no avail she patiently trained all year to organize his messy desk. My desire as a teacher was to also extend hospitality to parents. Early on in the school year, I would get the opportunity to meet them in an evening we all know well, called Open House. Don’t you just love that name?

Open House is often a time of first impressions, and I wanted the parents to know that I would always be open and available for questions or concerns about their child’s time in my class. What I’d like to share are some thoughts about hospitality and in particular about parents as guests in the classroom.

When thinking about hospitality, my mind travels to ancient Greek mythology and the practice of xenia. It can be traced to the god Zeus who was called Zeus Xenios when he assumed the role of protecting travelers. Knowing that Zeus was acting as guardian induced the Greeks to show hospitality to strangers. It was also wise to honor a stranger in the event he was a god in disguise, for great reward might be gifted if he or she were treated properly.

The practice of the guest-host relationship became a ritual for the Greeks and required the host to offer something to eat or drink, and perhaps a bath if needed. The host would make the guest as comfortable as possible and not ask any questions until these needs were met. A departing gift by the host was also in order as a sign that the visit was successful and that the guest was honored. The guest was required to be grateful and respectful and not be a burden to the host.

 

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The Phaeacians welcome Odysseus 

The Odyssey is full of examples of xenia. The extraordinary patience of Telemachus as he serves the suitors who are seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage is proof that he did not wish to displease Zeus and suffer the consequences. The suitors, on the other hand were ungracious guests, eating and drinking in excess and threatening to kill Telemachus. Their irreverent behavior would eventually lead to their demise. My favorite example of xenia in the Odyssey is the kindness of the swineherd, Eumaeus towards Odysseus whom he doesn’t recognize as his former master, but as a travel worn stranger. In a touching display of hospitality, Eumaeus offers his own cloak to keep Odysseus warm at night. The shared courtesy required of xenia speaks to me in regards to how I treat parents as guests in and beyond the classroom.

Firstly, I see the relationship of guest and host as a type of partnership. I am partnering with parents to cultivate virtue and engage the minds of their children. This requires me to have the right perspective in regards to my role. I should not elevate myself above the level of a servant, for in serving properly I am able to provide a gift to the parents: at the end of the year, their child should show signs of growth and maturity

Secondly, the relationship of guest and host requires sacrifice on the part of the host. As a

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Eumaeus and Odysseus

teacher, I need to be willing to anticipate the needs of parents in regards to their child. Some parents need more reassurance about their child’s performance than others. I need to not see their frequent emails or phone calls as an imposition, but as an opportunity to build trust and even instill peace. Eumaeus gave Odysseus his own bed and cloak to ensure a restful sleep.

 

 

Finally, like Telemachus and Penelope sometimes you get some not so thoughtful guests. While in my experience this is rare, there are those times when as a teacher you may experience a disgruntled parent. Oftentimes these people like to invite folks to their misery party, and eventually other parents in the classroom get an invitation. As a host, I realize that I may not always please everyone all of the time, and in these cases I will need to exercise extreme patience and also let those in authority in on the situation. While the analogy gets a bit precarious here–eventually Odysseus took care of the suitors!

 

Margaret White currently mentors in the fullsizeoutput_744rhetoric class at The Covenant Preparatory School in Kingwood, Texas. She is a few short weeks away from completing her Master of Liberal Arts at Houston Baptist University, and looks forward to teaching full time again in the fall. She lives in Houston with her husband Robert, and they have four adult children, including a lovely daughter-in-law. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Our Unruly Affections

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

From the Book of Common Prayer 

This prayer was part of Sunday’s service, and it won’t leave my memory. If you skipped over it to read my words, go back and read it closely.

The liturgical calendar, like nature, works in cycles: Advent comes in winter, Lent coincides with the approach of Spring, and ordinary time sets in each summer. And our weekly practices work this way, too, as we labor for six days then worship and rest on the seventh. Part of the idea behind Sabbath Tuesdays is to make these cycles of life even smaller. Just as we get in the habit each year of looking forward to Easter, and the weekly rhythm of celebrating the resurrection each Sunday, these reminders should come also in our daily pauses and practices.

The prayer above, meant for the fifth Sunday of Lent, reminds me what Lent and Sundays and daily disciplines are for—re-ordering our hearts away from the “unruly wills and affections of sinners” and towards “where true joys are to be found.” Perhaps the season of Lent focuses on this re-ordering more than other seasons; it is, in fact, one of the main reasons to fast. But Lent is not the only place that God brings into order our unruly hearts. This yearly practice becomes one echoed each Sunday as we again confess and break bread together; this weekly practice becomes daily as we turn to God in prayer, asking Him to continue the re-ordering process. Even in the midst of the “swift and varied changes of the world,” this new order becomes a refuge of cyclical constancy, forever reminding us of what should be.

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Reading for Rainy Spring Days

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It seems that some books are seasonal. It doesn’t feel right to pick up Macbeth in March, or A Christmas Carol in the summer, or Right Ho, Jeeves during finals week. So here are some suggestions for those rainy spring days (for us Houstonites, those days come pretty often).

A Novel

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. There’s something refreshing about Austen’s writing—maybe it’s her snarky social satire, her playful characters, or the fact that she writes comedies that end in a marriage. Her writing, in short, sounds like spring. I chose Mansfield Park because it’s a lesser-read but more mature novel of Austen’s. The 1999 film is also a classic!

Short Stories

Any Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be read on sunny days, so a rainy day is perfect to pick up these classic mystery stories. You may say that mysteries are best read in the fall, but spring is often reminiscent, and I remember reading Sherlock Holmes stories with my twin brother on lazy spring afternoons, when playing outside meant getting covered in pollen, so we picked the indoors instead.

Non-Fiction

Confessions by Augustine. If you haven’t read this yet, run to the bookstore. Confessions is the amazing story of Augustine’s spiritual journey. It is full of repentance and renewal—two spring themes, as spring corresponds with both the confession season of Lent and the renewal and re-birth at Easter. Reading Augustine’s story will give you insight, too, to your own spiritual health. Don’t ask me how it works—but Augustine’s straightforwardness is revitalizing.

Poetry

Wendell Berry. If you know me well, you probably knew this was coming. Berry’s This Day collection is grouped by year and then organized by date written within that year. So each year progresses from an early Sunday in the year, when spring is just emerging, to a late Sunday, when autumn comes in full force. His ability to describe nature is remarkable, and he still lives on his farm in Kentucky. I’ll leave you with a short excerpt:

At the woods’ edge, suddenly

the air around him was perfumed

with the scent of wild plum flowers.

The whitened trees were accompanied

by several redbuds also in bloom,

equally beautiful, and both

together more beautiful than either

alone. Nothing in the long winter

prepared him to imagine this, a moment

in a thousand years never old.

Wendell Berry, 2011

Mysteries, Monasticism, and Podcasts 3.17.17

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  1. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Great vacation reading, right? This is one of Dickens’s longest works, and one of the first mystery novels. Before Sherlock Holmes, there was Inspector Bucket. Dickens’s skill in characterization is perhaps at its height in this novel, and his descriptions of London are some of the most memorable in English literature. He begins the story by describing fog in London: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping…Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.” And you, the reader, will remain in a fog for much of the text, as this story of mystery unfolds slowly with episodes of mad women, ghosts, a boy from the slums, and a woman from the richest family in England. If you like mysteries and social satire, this is worth the read.
  1. Q podcasts. Q usually produces some thoughtful podcasts, and I wasn’t disappointed by the two I listened to this week. “Activism,” released on February 9, is a refreshing look at the value and pitfalls of social activism, especially in light of recent events. “Transgenderism,” released on January 12, is a topic that needs to be thought about by the church. This podcast is a helpful introduction to transgenderism and possible responses of Christians.
  1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish. I would love to say that I had the time to re-read this entire book, but I didn’t. The first time I read Conrad, I went to my professor and asked him, “Why has no one made me read this before?” But this mention is not about the book itself—it’s about a recent version that came out with artwork that goes with EVERY PAGE. Matt Kish, who has also illustrated Moby Dick, wrote a foreword to the version that includes his illustration, and it’s this that I read and that has been on my mind ever since.The artwork isn’t even my favorite style–but the thought process behind each piece is astounding. If you like Heart of Darkness, or have never read it, you might consider this version (artwork not recommended for under age 17, as the book itself has some gory descriptions that are sometimes reproduced).
  1. This article by James K.A. Smith. I’ve been following the discussion surrounding Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which was recently published. I have yet to read it, but this article is an interesting criticism of Dreher. I’ll be seeing both authors speak this summer at the Society for Classical Learning (panel discussion, please??), so I’m following the back story as much as possible. Even if you’re not familiar with Smith or Dreher, this article asks some valuable questions about the role of the church in today’s society.

Sabbath Tuesday: Confessions about Lent

 

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Lent is a period of 40 days before the Easter celebration, in which the church traditionally fasts in remembrance and reflection of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The central images of the season are the desert, dust, and ashes, as Christians remember their mortality, sinful nature, and dependence on God. Though it is a darker season than Advent, it is a journey that has a bright destination: the Easter feast that celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and humanity’s salvation from death and sin. 

I’ve never understood fasting. I easily get light-headed from hunger, I see food as an important factor in relationships, and not eating means not dancing, so fasting doesn’t add up in most cases. But Lent is just that: a season of fasting, created for the act of fasting. And suddenly I’m thrust into a practice of the church that humbles me and challenges me, and Lent becomes a season of change.

Over the past few years, as my interest in the church calendar has increased, I have dabbled in Lenten practices—praying the divine hours three times a day, fasting from a particular habit, contemplating pieces of art—but I’ve failed a full commitment to the season. There are many resources that can help you define goals for Lent, but those will only take you so far. Here’s what I’ve learned in my few years of thinking about—and attempting—Lent.

Lent is meant to be practiced in community.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to my liturgically-drawn soul to be in a church community this year that is digging deep into Lent. I’m already anticipating the altered sanctuary as the colors change from green to purple, the focus on lamentation and confession, and the imposition of ashes that will take place tomorrow night.

Even if you’re not in a church that practices the season of Lent, find fellow believers that share in your desire to walk through this time of fasting and confession with you. Not only do you need people to be praying for you and encouraging you on your journey, but you need a community of believers to discover together both the darkness and the beauty of this season. I tried doing it alone in the past, and regret it.

Lent requires a plan.

And “not eating any chocolate” isn’t it. I’ve realized through trial and error that if my Lenten sacrifices are merely a dieting plan to lose those last five pounds, then I’ve made it into a season that supports my own desires, rather than one that recognizes the power of self-denial.

The Book of Common Prayer invites believers into the three common practices of Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Health is the goal of Lent, but not a shallow health that is merely concerned with the physical—a spiritual health, which is closely connected to our physical state, is the aim.

Lent is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

The early church practiced a fast a few days before Easter to mourn the crucifixion of Christ before celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, this extended to a forty day fast—an obvious reflection on other forty day fasts in the Bible, but particularly a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. If you think about Christ’s own fasting and temptation in the desert, and the challenges he faced there, Lent is a way for the church to participate in that. This wilderness of the soul, of facing our own demons, of discovering our inability to overcome and Christ’s power—these are the underlying assumptions of the season.

Have you ever wondered why fasting is particularly related to food? Because it is a common human need. Physical fasting is not to say that the body is not important, but fasting does reflect our spiritual need for God, just as we have a physical need for nutrition. More to come on this later, but as you consider how you might participate in this season, realize that the long-standing tradition in Scripture and the church of fasting from food has a particular value.

 

Here are some questions to reflect on as we begin this season:

  • Do I have a community, large or small, that will walk through this season with me?
  • Is there a fast that I can commit to in order to deepen my experience?
    • (a day of fasting a week? a particular type of food? a certain meal?)
  • Is there a habit that leads me away from Christ instead of towards, and needs to be broken?
    • (this is where “fasting” from other items—social media, shopping, etc. comes in)
  • In what ways can I deepen my prayer life during this season to practice self-examination and grow closer to God?

 

 

Hospitality in the Classroom: Teacher as Host

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I was in a new city, a new country, a new house—and that first day of class, Dr. Bennett welcomed his students with a pot of tea in the front room as the morning sun made its way through the bay window. We barely knew one another, except for a few short days of touring Oxford together upon arrival. After those first romantic moments of excitement, we were left to settle into our rooms and start classes and live in a foreign place for the next five months.

But I’ll never forget that tea pot that Dr. Bennett brought out on the first day of class. About eight of us sat around a table with our C.S. Lewis texts, not quite sure how to discuss with one another in such a new and strange place, but Dr. Bennett understood a simple truth: before we could offer hospitality and understanding to Lewis and his work, we first had to commune with one another.

Maybe it was because we were in an old Victorian house, in the front sitting room, or maybe it was because our professor knew the power of hospitality in a strange place, but that experience forever changed my view of teachers. Teachers, rather than being mere imparters of knowledge or guides in the land of learning, are hosts.

The teacher has the ownership of the classroom. Even if you’d like to think of your class as “student-centered,” it only becomes so at the word of the teacher. The teacher has the sole right to change the layout of the classroom, to make the rules about what can and cannot be consumed during class, and to decide what is to be offered to the “guests.”

Why go to the trouble of comparing the role of a teacher with the role of a host? Why not just discuss what a teacher is? It turns out that teachers function within an assumed role, a pre-conceived metaphor. The most common may be a coach, then a babysitter, and then a drill sergeant. And it also turns out that these underlying notions of our role deeply affects pedagogy.

There are several reasons for my affinity for this particular metaphor. The first is simply because I love food, and hosting is often joined with feasting. Secondly, the terms “host” and “guest” tend to humanize and bring personality to the student/teacher relationship. Lastly, “be hospitable” is a common command in Scripture, and we are called to this task for friends, strangers, and enemies (I think that covers all possible students?). There is also the sad reality that for most of us, students are travellers that will move on from our classrooms after a short period of time, and we have the privilege of hosting them for a few brief months.

So with this metaphor in mind, I’d like to suggest four responsibilities of a host.

1) A host welcomes

My parents are masters of hospitality. I loved when people came to our home when I was a child—I fondly remember the smell of lemon-scented Pine Sol, freshly melted queso, and brewed sweet tea as the prelude to these events. The door was not to be knocked: my parents would rush to open the door as soon as they saw a car pull into the driveway, waving and greeting before our guests had time to get out of the car. Y’all might call this overdone southern hospitality, but for them, it was the only way.

In the classroom, how does this responsibility affect the role of the teacher? I’m sure you’ve seen the viral videos of teachers who have individual handshakes with each student, and that’s not a bad thing—but welcoming goes much deeper than shaking hands with somebody. Is the host prepared for the arrival? Or dreading it when the bell rings? Is the host assessing the needs of the guests? Or focused on his or her own agenda? Does the host actively greet the guests as people, or shrug them off as mere students?

2) A host introduces

Perhaps when you think of hosts, you remember that the narrator of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a host. It is he who suggests the friendly competition of telling the best tale, and it is he who makes a group of friends out of strangers. If you consider the responsibility of a host during an event or dinner party, you’ll realize that a large part of his or her job is to facilitate new relationships among the guests.

Who might be the stranger in the classroom? Is it a new student? Perhaps we are introducing our guests to a new idea, a new author, or a new concept. What will we say about the item we are introducing? How can we best facilitate relationships within the classroom in order to teach them how to welcome others? Who would we like for them to meet?

3) A host provides

I’ve been reading through David Copperfield, and there’s a delightful scene when David obtains his first private dwelling and hosts his first dinner party. It is completely overdone, with food enough for a dozen when he’s only hosting four, and enough rounds of toasts that he ends up regretting the night drunk. Soon after, he hosts another party, but has learned his lesson: hosting is not about extravagance, it is about providing for the needs of the guests. In this second dinner party, he even goes as far as providing lavender water for his female guest, and near the end of the evening, the guests participate in finishing the dinner preparation.

What might students–in this metaphor, guests–physically need? What might our guests intellectually need? Spiritually need? Are we as teachers anticipating these needs? Do we provide only out of a desire to impress?

4) A host serves

Of course, one of the central images we know of a host is the Lord washing his disciples’ feet. Though he performed this task as a servant, as there was none there, this act connected the job of the host at the Passover meal (breaking the bread, pouring the wine, leading prayer) with the job of the lowest servant. Christ showed us that the leader is to be one who serves, not glorifies himself.jesus-washing-feet-of-disciples.jpg

Are our classrooms places of service, or of self-glorification? Do we stoop to do the dirty work at times, or do we always demand that those below us do it? Do we approach our task with humility and patience (think of being patient with a student like Peter!), or do we teach from a position of pride and mastery?

 

I have failed to act as a gracious host many times to my students (and discovered these moments mostly through examen), but being explicit and considerate of how I think of my role as a teacher has shaped my classroom, my curriculum, and the interactions with my guests. And it all started with a simple pot of tea.

How to Practice Examen

One of the most fruitful times in my teaching career was practicing daily examen during Lent in 2015. The day would end (and that could be anywhere from 3:40 to 6:00), and to my habit—or obsession—of cleaning off my desk before going home, I added the habit of reflecting on my day at school.

Examen is a practice found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you Google it, or talk to those who practice it, you’ll find countless variations—but it all comes down to this one simple act: reviewing your day in prayerful reflection. Some practice it weekly or monthly, others practice it daily, and others pray through Examen during particular seasons, like Lent.

I’ve found examen particularly helpful in terms of vocation. In addition to the general reflection of God’s presence in your day, I like to ask questions that address my own roles: Was the Holy Spirit welcome in my classroom today? Did I take opportunities that were placed in front of me to participate in God’s work? Did I treat my students as children of God?

Setting aside this much time at the end of long day can be daunting, but even doing this once a week is helpful. However, practicing examen daily  can be a great way to re-focus your spiritual life during a particular liturgical season—like Lent, which begins in week!

Click the links below for three ways to practice examen: a general examen, an examen specifically for teachers, and another specifically for students. Examen should be done at the end of the day, and for teachers, I think it is most helpful to practice it at the end of the work day while still in your classroom.

examen for everyone                  examen for students                examen for teachers

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Memory, the Great Books, and Lady Gaga 2.17.17

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  1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I read this once in high school, but revisiting it as an adult has proven to be rewarding. One of my graduate courses is a seminar on Dickens and his work, so we’re getting acquainted. I fell in love with his comedic Pickwick Papers, and this later work has some of the same charm but with more depth. If you’re interested in the act of memory, and how it shapes our future, then this is a good read. Or if you want to laugh, but still explore themes such as death, innocence, and memory, pick this up! It’s long, but it will keep your interest.

  1. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

My other graduate course is called Structures of Poetry, and we’re slowly working through this text. I appreciate my professor’s idea of “living” with a text over a long period of time (a semester), and I’m slowly warming up to Wordsworth’s autobiographical account. The best part is reading David Copperfield at the same time, as both texts are experiments in memory. Wordsworth writes about “spots of time,” or moments of epiphany in his past, as he catches glimpses of beauty and the sublime in nature.

  1. The Gospel According to Lady Gaga by Richard Beck

There are several reasons I am interested in this post: 1) the SuperBowl was in Houston!; 2) Lady Gaga came to my church on SuperBowl Sunday—and no, I didn’t see her, because she was at the early early service, and no, most people didn’t recognize her, and no, I’m not familiar with her current faith status; and 3) the author is a professor from my alma mater. Those may not be YOUR reasons for reading this article, but I highly recommend taking a few moments to look at it! This is an insightful and provocative look into Lady Gaga’s career and fans.

  1. What To Say When Your Students Hate a Classic Book by Joshua Gibbs

Obviously a great post to read if you are a teacher or student, and Josh Gibbs does a delightful job of defending the idea of Great Books. But this post also encourages other questions to be asked—for those of you who care about education—that are just as important: is education about entertaining students? Should we make them read challenging texts? What is valuable about an education in literature? If you are a teacher, or student, or parent, or human being (I think that covers everyone),  these underlying questions of education are important to consider.

 

 

Sabbath Tuesday: A Reflection on Marriage [and some punny valentines]

I obviously have to follow the Valentine’s Day trend and say something about love. Actually, Will and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day, as it makes Will angry that so many are “manipulated by Hallmark to further participate in our consumerist culture,” according to him (I generally agree). And he’s too hipster to buy me flowers on the day you’re supposed to buy people flowers, so he surprises me on random days instead.

We celebrated our fourth anniversary about six weeks ago with a bike ride on the Galveston beach in freezing 45-degree weather, where our relationship was defined in the simple act of me trying to ride through the McDonald’s drive thru on my bike, but being unable to because I didn’t have my wallet with me, and Will refusing to condescend to such a level (“It’s illegal!!”).

There’s a line in an Andrew Peterson song that has deepened my views on marriage this past year. In “My One Safe Place,” Peterson sings:

I know that you’re broken, too,

But you are a sacrament that God has spoken through.

 I’ve heard over and over again the comparison between marriage and Christ and the church, but that line made me realize that is exactly what we’ve been experiencing in our own marriage over the past four years: each other’s brokenness, love, sacrifice, and faithfulness. Will and I loved each other when we walked down that aisle together in celebration four years ago, but I’m not sure I understood the depth of love that two human beings could experience together.

Marriage is a microcosm of the triune love, a small way for us to experience just how deep Christ’s love for us can be, for us to know the power of forgiveness and faithfulness and sacrifice. I’ve credited the renewal in my spiritual life to many things—praying daily prayers, reading Hopkins, teaching high school students… but the gift of marriage is one of the many reasons I have a better understanding of God today.

I’m forcing Will to celebrate with me this year, because I surprised him with movie tickets to Lego Batman, so suddenly he sees Valentine’s Day as a valid excuse for a date night. Here’s to love, Hallmark holidays, and the joys of marriage.

 

MY FAVORITES THIS YEAR
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Out, damned spot: Lady Macbeth’s Diagnosis as Cure

When I was leading my seniors in a close reading and production of Macbeth, their reaction to a particular character was first disgust and, later, enchantment. This character was none other than Lady Macbeth. As we read the first half of the play, students repeatedly characterized her as the “devil on Macbeth’s shoulder” in their writing responses, giving her the hefty load of single-handedly carrying the plot.

It is somewhat true—Lady Macbeth, within several lines of meeting her for the first time, is praying to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…”, so that she can rid herself of feminine tenderness, replacing it “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” It is Lady Macbeth who convinces Macbeth to murder their king by questioning Macbeth’s very manhood. It is Lady Macbeth who calls Macbeth foolish for saying that his blood-covered hands are a sorry sight. And it is Lady Macbeth who seems to have no hesitations about their evil designs, as Macbeth himself continues to search for reassurances of his plan by summoning the witches, and reports that his mind is “full of scorpions.” Even as Macbeth appears to be going crazy as he sees Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth moves forward with the banquet as if they have done no wrong.

But I have never seen my students so captivated by a Shakespearean scene than the moment that Lady Macbeth appears sleep-walking in sight of her servant and a doctor near the end of the play. The one character that they had quickly dismissed and blamed for the entire play suddenly captured their attention, and they watched as closely as the doctor who is attempting to diagnose Lady Macbeth’s disease.

Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene echoes the night of Duncan’s death, when she was resolved to commit the murder of the king, praying that she be relieved from the “passage of remorse.” And it does seem that throughout the play she is free from guilt, unlike Macbeth himself. But Macbeth’s concern of his bloody hands (“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”) transfers to Lady Macbeth in the last act as she sleep-walks, attempting to scrub her hands clean. Likewise, Macbeth’s fear that he has “murdered sleep” foretells Lady Macbeth’s inability to rest as she wanders the castle nightly, trying to clean her hands that will “ne’er be clean.” Her sleepless guilt is even more striking when taken in light of Macbeth’s description of sleep the night of Duncan’s murder:

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher of life’s feast.screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

Flannery O’Connor once said that every good villain is one that we can relate to. I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have agreed. This “devil on the shoulder” of Macbeth becomes the very picture of remorse. In one of the shortest scenes of the play, Lady Macbeth suddenly captures our feelings of guilt: “Yet here’s a spot… Out, damned spot, out, I say!” And though the audience knows what crimes haunt her, she lives in that damned night of the past every time she sleep walks, as she goes to bed at the cue of a knock—the same end of that dark night of Duncan’s death.

I imagine that the scene captivates audiences for several reasons: the oddness of sleep-walking, a character that we thought less than human suddenly tormented by her former sins, but most importantly, her expression of the inner guilt that each of us have felt at one time or another.

The most recent remake of Macbeth cuts this scene short, and leaves out two of its major characters—the ever-watchful servant and doctor. Without the servant and doctor, the audience is left to themselves to make what they will out of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking monologue. But Shakespeare does something beautiful here with the presence of the doctor, who quickly realizes that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is “beyond his practice.” His diagnosis may be the wisest words in all the play: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

M.H. Abrams, in his book Natural Supernaturalism, calls attention to our use of physiological terms to describe our moral well-being. He points out that the “reigning diagnosis of our own age of anxiety [is] the claim that man, who was once well, is now ill.” Since these terms are so common in our own age, perhaps it can be difficult to see Lady Macbeth as anything but a victim of madness—but Lady Macbeth and her prophetic doctor show us otherwise: her malaise is due to the guilt that engulfed her the night of Duncan’s murder.

Lady Macbeth’s character works on us in mysterious ways; first we see her as a devil that sits on the shoulder of her tragic husband, and then suddenly she appears to us as a mirror of our own guilt, of which only the Divine will heal. Perhaps we would all benefit from the doctor’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth’s ills:

“More needs she the divine than the physician.

God, God forgive us all.”

See Part 1 of the Macbeth series.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series.