Shakespearean literature is the worst nightmare of most secondary school students and I was one of them. Whenever a teacher or professor told me that we would analyse one of Shakespeare’s works, I already said I hated the text without even looking at it. My fear for Shakespearean text did not stop me from getting my English Language and Culture degree of which one of the compulsory units was called Shakespeare’s world. I thought then and there, I was done with Shakespeare, but once you start a Graduate Diploma in Education and major in English, Shakespeare is following everywhere. As it is often expected of English teachers to be very familiar with Shakespeare’s works, I decided to buy a play of him months ago. Naturally, I put off reading it as other books were more appealing to me, but one of the students I tutor actually has to analyse Macbeth next term and so I decided to open the play and read the book.
In all honesty, it was not that bad. I even reached a moment in which I wanted to keep reading as I wanted to know how the play ended. Now, I can proudly say I finished a Shakespeare and did not hate it. Also, I did finish it, which to me is a first as I used a lot of Sparknotes during my degree.
I still feel it is hard to read. It took me a whole degree to finally be able to figure out the main events of each scene by myself. There is so much knowledge of the language that has been lost and definitely is not known to secondary school students that make these texts off-putting to many of them. Students struggle with the word order, word meaning and just plays in general. I understand that Shakespeare is seen as the greatest writer of all time by many, but do we really need to suffocate 15/16 year olds with his texts?
Nevertheless, Macbeth has great intertextuality (ACELT1774*). The Weird Sisters have their roots in European Mythologies and even the character Macbeth was taken from The Chronicles and based on the 11th-century king of Scotland. Harry Potter-film fans will also find that the song the choir sung in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ (Act 4, Scene 1)) was directly taken from this play. Thus, you could have your students research the sources Shakespeare used for his inspiration, but also writers that have used Macbeth as their inspiration.
Additionally, Shakespeare’s works show the huge change between Early Modern English and Modern English (ACELA1563*). You could have your students look up the etymology of words and research the change of meaning of the word over the centuries. Additionally, you could have your students find out the rules regarding verbs as Shakespeare did use different suffixes for first, second and third person. Finally, you could also have students look into syntax as in Shakespearean English the word order was not fixed yet.
When reading a Shakespeare play, students can look at various conventions and techniques. Not only will the play have generic conventions, but also narrative conventions (such as characterisation, setting, plot etc.) and contain a lot of different poetic techniques. This does add to the complexion of analysing Shakespeare plays and might be very challenging for students, especially, if they are allowed to only work with the original text. In this case, I would advise my students to use modern day translations to gain a better understanding of the meaning of the text. The plot of the text is fairly simple to understand once the difficulty of the language has been taken away.
In short, there are many things that you could do with Macbeth and other works of Shakespeare. However, many students struggle with the original texts. Considering that words and syntax have changed over the centuries, we can wonder whether it is useful to push the students through these texts in their original form. As a teacher, you can use Macbeth to study the differences between the varieties of English, study the intertextuality or just analyse the play through its conventions and techniques. I just feel we really need to think about how we teach these texts to keep students engaged as I never liked them before due to teachers and professors who did not try to engage me in these texts.