Teacher of Languages, Sadia Shafquat, reflects on the possibilities of pupils' classroom dialogue around Shakespeare's play Macbeth in facilitating meaningful learning experiences at school. The article features some quotations from the play, a video snippet of the play enacted at Shakespeare's Globe theatre, and a host of snippets from older senior school pupils' speech, extracted from transcripts of recorded classroom dialogue between pupils across two final sessions of their progamme of study.
"I can’t wait for today’s class - he’s going to die! He just *needs* to now – or he has to turn back!" she exclaims as she passes me on the stairs on her way to class, finding no context or explanation necessary for the outburst. ‘He’ is the tragic hero of ‘the Scottish play’ - Shakespeare’s seminal portrayal of the implosive-destructive nature of guilt in the human being - and the excited student is one of seven others waiting for a final discussion of why she is quite so frustrated with the ‘horrifyingly human’ tragic hero.
Our encounter with Macbeth, spanning just over four months, has certainly left an impression. By far the most lasting of impressions has been made – upon me as a teacher, no less - by the energy of students’ authentic dialogues as they interacted with the text and each other. Experiencing the play through their refreshing and reflective talk is entirely incomparable to the experience of interacting with the text alone, as I had previously done to prepare for its teaching on the GCSE syllabus. It is sometimes said that it is too difficult for young readers and audiences today to access Shakespeare’s language for meaning, but here it has been no deterrent (not even, surprisingly, in the less-confident and less-regular readers) for these students’ very personal engagement with the drama. Their intimate contact with the play has seen some degree of disquiet and exasperation; a natural response to tracking a noble character’s gradual descent into the depths of darkness. Yet, in spite of some of the plainly chilling themes of the play, our sessions have maintained a surprisingly uplifting mood, rendered such by the fervour of students in dialogue about something they deemed important: the vices and virtues, choices and errors that make human beings.
From the onset, students have been quick to recognise that Shakespeare’s word-craft in this stunning study of the human psyche allowed them access to the nuanced inner struggles and deliberations of characters, with one student saying: "it’s like we’re right in their head. You don’t normally get to see what’s really going in someone’s head, or their heart...it’s difficult to see this in real life". What this permitted for students is practice in close observation of character. Without any exception, students excelled in this exercise, identifying potentially praiseworthy traits, pulls to the lower self, errors in judgement and points of opportunity for redemption quite precisely. Yet an entirely unplanned outcome has also came about through our discursive inquiry into the text. A space seems to have opened up for students to practise how to feel appropriately – disgust where needed, frustration where needed, empathy where needed, indignation where needed, sorrow where needed and relief where needed. To observe this range of emotion unfolding from our adolescent students as suitable per context has been immensely encouraging. This is particular so given how scarcely we find such a natural skill amongst adults today and, moreover, given the rarity of a connection between academic study at secondary school and the practice of feeling anything. It is easy to study a text by identifying all the right names, themes and techniques for the purpose of comprehension, whilst being entirely unmoved by the terror and the beauty of what is conveyed. For me, the joy of the experience has emerged from an appreciation that amidst the pressures of targets, time constraints of exam-preparation, tactical thinking about collecting quotations, and the chore of churning out essays, it is possible for students to find study meaningful to their personal journeys of character.
Pitfalls of character
As we navigated the play in hourly sessions per week, discussions tackled the differences between healthy and uncontrolled ambition, and the roots of greed, where students unanimously agreed upon its repellent stench. Whilst recognising the ease with which greed can take over a person, our students have been adamant that it was madness to give into it. Following discussions on the subject, student S wrote in an essay:
"Upon the disappearance of the witches, Banquo contemplates the absurdity of what they have just witnessed of the witches’ prophecies as he ponders, ‘have we eaten on the insane root that takes reason prisoner?’ Could this also be a question we could ask of Macbeth? Have greed and ambition - wicked character traits - completely removed logic and reason from Macbeth? He surely has ‘eaten on the insane root’ for he decides to take a course of action that will rob him of his virtue."
Together, students have also reflected on the fleeting nature of high reputation and power, with one student saying: "it can turn completely upside down in a minute like we see with Macbeth’s so why do we spend so much time obsessing over it?" They have concluded, in discussions on the constancy of some temptation in human life, that a person’s ability to either withstand or succumb to manipulation is of more significance than the changing sources of temptation - "the whisperings will always be there in some way; it’s up to you how much you’re going to listen…you can’t blame the thing...it’s actually you, you can chose. You have to keep pushing it away." Students have grappled, moreover, with Macbeth’s self-evaluation that so steeped he is in wrongdoing, turning back is more difficult for him than simply carrying along his admittedly self-torturous path. In response, they have passionately argued for an ever-open door to turning things around. One student sought reassurance in a particular session that it was a false trap to lose hope in redemption, whilst another reassured that no matter how far-gone one might find themselves, saying: "for us we can always turn back no matter that you’ve done, you just have to turn to God and start again, and it’s all clean."
Connected debates have also risen over the difference between one error and the making of a wrongdoer: at what point does a person’s wrong action begin to define him? Following an especially powered debate, students began to bring up alternative scenarios, citing examples of a person who has lied on one or two occasions and a person who we would call a liar; or a person who has been angry on occasion and someone we would called an angry person. One student expresses her grappling with this question, saying "The label is not nice….no one wants to be called a liar ‘cos that’s like saying it’s who you are…but if we lie, aren’t we liars? And we’re saying Macbeth’s first murder makes him what he is – it’s what sets it all off." This question has continued to prove uncomfortable, with some students arguing that murder is not comparable to lying or shouting, and others defended the occasional little lie ‘if it does not harm anyone’, adamant that it does not warrant the identity of a liar. Yet others have been less convinced, with student S proposing that "we just don’t want to think about ourselves in that way, but we do kind of become the thing we do". Macbeth, they noted, is repulsed by the idea of being branded a murderer and a tyrant even at the end of it all when he has a long series of grave sins to his name. Unsettling as it was for some, the debate ultimately rested upon a consensus that in the least there is something that has to be said of the danger of becoming normalised to something ill and here student S asks again: "if it starts to become normal to you, it is easy to do it again and then how do you know it’s not becoming part of you?"
Students have especially been struck by the conclusion made by the physician who is called to treat Lady Macbeth towards the end of the play and concludes that ‘unnatural deeds breed unnatural trouble’. In a discussion around this scene, students reasoned that the psychologically damaging effects of committing grave sin take place because "basically we are actually messing ourselves up by doing these things’ - their reflection reminds of the oft-repeated prayer of forgiveness from the Noble Qur'an: ‘our Lord we have wronged ourselves’. Students responded in disbelief to Macbeth’s plea for the physician to quickly (and for a great reward) treat his wife’s ‘mind diseased’, erase ‘a rooted sorrow’, wipe out ‘the written troubles of the brain’ and ‘cleanse the bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart’. One student, N, scoffed, saying ‘as if it was so easy - how’s the doctor going to do all this? She needs a psychiatrist!’, echoing the response of the physician who simply says that only she can bring the cure to herself, as he seeks to flee from the eerie madness of the Macbeths’ home. Another student added to this saying "she also so seriously needs God – there’s no other way!", again echoing the physician’s final verdict: ‘More needs she the divine than the physician. God, God forgive us all!’ If at all possible, the cure for the Macbeths, our students mused, would begin in the path of redemption through God and this can be noted in the fact that Macbeth worries he can no longer bring himself to say ‘Amen’ when he hears a prayer.
What is the tragedy; who really is Macbeth?
The conclusion of our sessions brings out all unresolved wrangling of character and tragedy; it seems to trigger a thrill amidst exasperation in the students. In the play, the rightful heir, Malcolm, raises support from England and returns to Scotland to overthrow Macbeth. As the army reaches him, Macbeth is finally slain by his kinsman Macduff, alongside whom he had bravely fought together with nobility for their country at the beginning of the play. In our classroom, there are moments of silence following this point of the play, then two students burst into spontaneous claps whilst others simply stare ahead. One of the clappers says: "I really don’t know why I’m clapping - it just feels like a relief - like he’s finally stopped". Others continue to maintain silence, until student S says: "I don’t know what I feel. You don’t feel happy and you can’t feel sorry for him because he’s done these awful things but you do kind of feel just sad generally…for us...like what we can become." Is that what makes the tragedy? The tragedy is ‘definitely not his dying’ students conclude; with student M proposing that "dying is probably the best thing that could happen to him now". We marvel at what has just been said - as if that itself is the tragedy - for an apparently noble and valiant man loved and admired by his kinsmen to descend to a point where death by his kinsman is now "the best thing that could happen to him". But there is also something about the connection between us the audience-readers and this disgraced character, which seems to make the tragedy, as students keenly bring out in this portion of classroom dialogue:
Part of the difficulty in putting a precise finger on the relatability of Macbeth (he isn’t of course constructed as completely relatable) comes from students’ struggle with fully defining his character. This, I feel, is something greatly reassuring and is a testament to their retention of their natural skills of feeling appropriately. The sheer horror of Macbeth’s journey portrayed in beautifully sorrowful poetry and tension-packed drama warrants a level of disruption to our comprehension; it cannot be readily categorised. Even when descriptive phrases, crucial plot points and their corresponding quotations have been extracted, tabled and categorised in class, there is still a sense of something missing and students remain dissatisfied with what they can safely call Macbeth. It would be far easier if he could be boxed as a character who had completely lost his humanity as a result of the acts he had committed, but the students identify that he retains this until the end where, upon receiving news of his wife’s death in a penultimate scene, he is instantly aware of the meaningless of the path he has taken.
A Blinded, Flawed Human
The class dialogue around how Macbeth can be fully understood then reaches a peak when one student, a doodler in class, has a moment of inspiration:
Here, the time constraints and pressures of targets finally have to take precedence, keeping us from deeper examination of this interpretation, for the subject of battling with the self is far too extensive. But not before students bring up the scene prior to Macbeth’s death by the end of the play where he can’t seem to bring himself to even say his own name. They imagine how the line ‘My name is Macbeth’ which he reluctantly comes to say would be delivered. One student proposes it would be said: "unfeelingly….emptily…like he has nothing to say….because who even is he anymore, you can tell he doesn’t know". Another student shakes her head in response: "imagine being too frightened to say your name….that’s proper tragic." They come to an agreement here that the play is really a kind of terrible warning for the outcomes of succumbing to lower character traits because, as one student puts it, "it puts you off…even if you had any kind of ideas of greed and bad ambition…this totally puts you off it, going through the play it’s like those thoughts just go out." Her reflections here may echo the idea of catharsis - a kind of purgation in the audience which Aristotle suggests is the purpose of dramatic and poetic tragedy.
Practice in character
Our students’ sincere unity upon the idea that no human being wishes to reach a state where he is afraid of what he has become, has meant an emerging realisation in them that choices of character and deed are choices of justice or injustice to ourselves. Choosing the pull of ‘the light’ that raises character over the pull of ‘the dark force’, is really in our interest such that we can be at ease with the natural self – rather than at odds with even the utterance of our name. And it is always, as these students have vehemently maintained and never wavered from, a choice. This is no small consensus for these adolescent students to have reached in the course of a four-month classroom study for the prescribed purpose of GCSE examination. Moreover, it seems that, to varying degrees, they have developed an understanding of the implications of such a realisation for their own choices. The power of Shakespeare’s craft in Macbeth of course makes it very easy for discussions of character to come to the fore. It is almost as if his craft has been designed to challenge simple understandings of human disposition (or, as the scholar Martin Lings notes, it is as if the craft itself is not so much designed as it is inspiration in what it means to be human). However, it is the group discussion around the text which appears to have facilitated for our students to think through their natural responses whilst in dialogue with each other. It is a skill they have become more apt at with practice, such that by the end of our course - as in the transcripts above - they have begun to listen to and build upon others’ responses as a tool to iron out their own thinking. And it is a tool which seems to lead to better stimulated, adjusted and clarified thought and emotion, even with a complex subject matter in this instance. It is this which appears to have allowed for an encounter with a dark-themed play to be an experience that is restorative rather than dismal. Our encounters with the fundamental questions of human character in the study of Macbeth have, in this way, also been an opportunity to practise better character in the classroom in engagement with each other. Like their dialogues around the tragedy of Macbeth, this practise of building better character is certainly not a project completed, but is nonetheless a heartening reminder of the possibilities of meaningful study in the classroom.
Further Reading & Exploration:
Martin Lings: Lings, M. The Secret of Shakespeare: His Greatest Plays Seen in the Light of Sacred Art. Archetype.
Dialogue about Literary Texts
At Deenway, studying texts through dialogue involves using inquiry questions to stimulate students' interest, thinking and reflection about the text they are reading. As discussion gets underway, meanings in the text are unravelled through students' listening to others, expanding on their own and others' ideas, building new ideas together and evaluating the strength of ideas. You can read a little more about the various practices of 'Dialogic Teaching' here: https://www.englishandmedia.co.uk/blog/the-case-for-dialogic-learning .
At Junior School and the first year of Senior School, pupils learn how to study literary texts in inteaction with each other by way of discussion circles in the Shared Inquiry method. Pupils learn and practice Shared Inquiry using Junior Great Books; you can read more about Shared Inquiry and the Great Books Foundation here: https://www.greatbooks.org/nonprofit-organization/what-is-shared-inquiry/. As they progress through the Senior School, pupils continue to engage with literary texts in advancing complexity. They prepare selected texts for what we call 'seminar', where together with a teacher and their peers they engage in inquiry-based group discussion about these texts.