Book Review

Review: Macbeth

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.

* The numbers correspond to the Western Australian Curriculum for English, 2017

2 thoughts on “Review: Macbeth”

  1. Whether one loathes or loves Shakespeare is often due to the way in which they were taught it i.e. the amount of engagement given from their teacher. I think teachers often make the mistake of teaching Shakespeare the same way they would a novel, which is detrimental due to the language and the actuality of his writing being plays.

    I had a Shakespeare professor in college who would have us read the plays aloud in class and then base the lesson of sort of translating them, if you will, and asking us to write reflections; at the end of these classroom readings, we would watch a performance and I felt that would tie it all together.

    I agree that the language is difficult for a lot of students these days, not that it hasn’t been in the past, but , as you said, engagement can really make the difference in a student’s experience and I think that to study the original text within a curriculum that emphasizes reader engagement is the best course. Great review and I really enjoyed your classroom recommendations!


  2. It definitely is all about engagement. My college professors would just hold 90-minute lectures in which we would listen to their analysis of each word. One of them had the tendency to say things such as, this is just like the ‘Merchant of Venice, which you all, of course, have read’. It really disengaged me even more as I did not read any Shakespeare if I did not have to.

    I really like how your college professor tied it all together. It is something I can consider as Shakespeare plays are often performed. Thank you for sharing!


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