Thursday, March 3, 2011

Macbeth: it grew on me like a fungus.

A blog post just for you, Ms. Bayles!

Ok, so here is the slapdashiest of slapdash lists. The subject: things I've done with Macbeth.

Subheading: This is just a list of what works for me and is not intended to patronize or repeat the obvious, though it will likely do both.

  •  I normally use Macbeth as an excuse to check my horoscope in class. I like this site because instead of reading a paragraph for each sign, it breaks the horoscope down into a bar graph format for quicker comparison.
(The reason I use horoscopes is that it's a good place to lead into a discussion about determination and mysticism. There are so many different takes on what the witches in Macbeth actually represent, whether they are real, how malevolent they are, whether or not they were responsible for the 3rd murderer that allowed Fleance to escape, etc. I use the horoscope idea to play with the suggestion that with or without the witches' prophecies, the decision to act was Macbeth's and his alone. And to check my daily intellect level, 'cause that is totally based on the stars and not my intake of sleep and/or coffee.)

  • If you have a theatre background you likely already know about the bad-luck-to-say-Macbeth-in-the-theatre thing. If not, it's not a bad way to start a lesson. There are lots of examples of Macbeth's curse and its ill effects online. Trivia, you know.
  •  OMG- this is the best rap ever. For Macbeth, I mean. I usually show it to the kids before the 3 apparitions bit, cause they can connect with the mentions of the first 3 acts and then the rest is like pre-reading. And the hook seriously gets stuck in your head. 
  •  I hope it's not patronizing to mention here that I usually bring up the fact that King James was Scottish and so the play was Scottish and that King James was into witches, and so Shakespeare put in witches, and King James published the King James bible during Shakespeare's lifetime and if you look up Psalm 46 and count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word "shake" and then 46 words from the end you get "spear". More trivia, but there are worse things. Are there worse things? Anyway, for me the King James conversation comes up late in the play, after the witches show! show! show! him the 3 visions and he demands the 4th, which is the line of 8 Kings that were likely make up to look like King James. King James!
  • Oh yeah, don't forget to use a map. It's fun to find these places on a map, even if Shakespeare himself never really went there. I find that the smartboard in my classroom comes in handy for this because I can call up a realistic map of Scotland and use pictures of the characters * to move around. I find this makes it easier to explain the minor but potentially confusing details like Scone, Northumberland and Fife.
* Another silly but fun activity is asking students to cast actors of their choosing for the major the roles. Admittedly, the conversation begins with a list of dreamy or hot people, but once the students (and myself) get that their (our) systems, it's a place to start considering the different aspects of Macbeth's character as well as actor range. I usually do this via an online discussion board so that students can post pictures of the actors they are thinking of, as well as search for actors that they don't immediately know the names of.

  • Oh yeah, and this may seem simplistic, but when we get to the Bloody Soldier's speech in Act 1, scene 2 and he gets going about the 'unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps', I always use a sword (I went out and bought a styrofoam one after breaking my meter stick) to kind of highlight the whole 'unseam'd' business. Something about the idea of a smoking bloody sword and a man's guts spilling out from a cut in his belly really seems to get kids sitting on the edge of their seats. Or bolting to the bathroom to throw up, you know, whatever. Engagement!


I always use films with Shakespeare. I'm of the school that likes to approach the play as a play, not just a story, and to me plays were meant to be watched. So much of Shakespeare is lost with the absence of stage direction, blocking, expression, so filmed versions really help to fill that part of the play out.

Normally, I switch between versions as we go, not showing the same scene more than once, with the exception of the Banquet scene with Banquo's ghost. For that scene I show usually 3 different versions, some with the ghost and some without, which is a nice starting point for students to talk about what's more effective.

I remember asking a wiser, more experienced teacher what he thought of that and he told me to can it because then my students would be stuck with that one interpretation in their collective heads forever, instead of what the author intended. So, I show multiple versions to highlight the idea of interpretation. And honestly, I'd rather have something stuck in those heads.

  • The Sam Worthington version is full of potential and is a good enough looking film, but it cuts a lot of text out and every visit from the witches (3 schoolgirls in this version) results in an out and out orgy. Titilating, definely; appropriate for 15 years olds, less so. Past my comfort zone anyway. There's one neat detail with the "Is this a dagger" bit where he grabs at a shadow and it's a fern or something, but it's pretty short lived. I guess it's alright though for highlight context and seeing how long it takes for someone to say, "Hey, that's the guy from Avatar!" Simple pleasures.
  • The Roman Polanski version: naked witches; a real life example of the curse; a banquet scene that is at once disturbing and clear, and a final battle scene that never fails to get laughs, but does a good job illustrating what fighting in armor was probably really like. Incidentally, I also use that final battle scene to point out to students how prevalent cuts are in modern action sequences. But I'd never show the film from beginning to end.
  • The Trevor Nunn movie, or as I like to call it, the you-probably-had-to-be-there version. It's always a pleasure to watch Shakespearean Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, but this film is not a film, it's a play on screen. You'd think that would be exactly what I was looking for, but I truly feel that this film works best for people who are familiar with the play already, as in, teachers. Or actors, I suppose. Don't get me wrong, there are a few treats: the drool in the banquet scene, Judi Dench's ear piercing wail in the sleepwalking scene, and I actually find the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff in this film pretty endearing. But overall, I would never show this film from beginning to end.
  • Just discovered the Patrick Stewart film, which is actually stored in its entirety online. I think this is a filmed version of the Broadway production, and the fact that I'm totally a Star Trek the Next Generation geek has nothing to do with the fact that this is my favourite one. But I think Picard, I mean Stewart, brings a kind of worn desperation to the role that I haven't seen before, as well as a wicked moustache. The parts with the witches in this one are a little different though, but not sexualized, and that's how I interpret the play personally. (As in, if I have to watch one more witch scream 'Double! Double!' in orgasmic delight, I'm switching to Romeo and Juliet- and I mean it this time.)
  • There's another version with Nichol Willamson version of Hamlet that I've only ever seen clips of on YouTube. From the little of it I've seen, it's a decent version: I've shown both the banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene.
Other stuff
  • Lady Macbeth's "Out Damn Spot" bit, by this point in the play I find students are getting into the routine of watching the film (as in, heads down and napping) so I try to show this speech from a different perspective by showing a clip from Verdi's opera. I used to show this one, because of the captions. That made sense back when I worked in a French Immersion school. It may also help that I'm an opera fan.
  • Anyway, there are trillions of ways to teach Macbeth. I know one teacher who actually hosts a banquet with his students for the banquet scene (Marshall, are you out there?), though I'm not sure if he invites a ghost or how that works. Sounds fun though.
  • Something I tried once when I was student teaching was reserving Fridays for performance days. We'd rearrange the desks into an Elizabethan theatre shape, and kids would draw cards to see who would be groundlings, who would be nobles and who would be royalty. Royalty got comfy chairs to sit in, and (for a while) we played the game that whenever a royal would stand up, so did everyone else, a la Hallelujah Chorus. For obvious reasons, this game did not last. But they still got the best seats; nobles got to sit at desks towards the back and groundlings had to sit in chairs, or on the floor, depending on what we were doing. Anyway, these performances would range in goodness (and relevance) from students reciting lines like rap songs, showing pictures of images in the language, performing scenes that were transported to different settings, etc. 

So, these are all activity suggestions, not really teaching suggestions, if you know what I mean. I could (and likely will) (and sometimes do) (k, often do) wax poetic about the thematic poignancy, relevance, horror and thrill of what Macbeth has to offer, but not today. I will tell you this though: every time I teach Macbeth, I never fail to quote Laura Ingalls Wilder: "Ambition is a good servant but a bad master." The beauty of that quote is that it works for any theme, really. Another reason to read Little House on the Prairie, as if we needed one.

Last, I think it may be worth mentioning that for the first few years of teaching, I hated Macbeth. Hated it. Hated. But it grew on me, it did. Like a fungus. Or a rash.


  1. Another film that I use after teaching is Scotland, PA. It is a modern take on the storyline, porting the play to a fast-food restaurant in the 1970s. Instead of witches, we have hippies (Andy Dick!). And, as an added bonus, Christopher Walken plays a vegetarian MacDuff. Pure dark comeday, pure genius. It is an interesting alternative to a 400 year old play, and the kids actually seem to like (after the third day...first day is always a bit weird). Disclaimer: lots of foul language and tons of alcohol/drug use. Definitely preview before showing.

  2. I am finalizing my Macbeth unit now... will be incorporating some of your ideas for sure. Thank you so much for providing me with some inspiration! I hope I get the same fungal infection you have!