My AP students and I are finishing up our study of Macbeth. When I first introduced the play, a couple of my students groaned, “Oh god, Shakespeare. Really?” They’re seniors, and the class is AP Literature, so they really should have seen him coming. But still honestly I was a little annoyed and maybe even hurt. Not like Shakespeare? That’s like commenting to your Biology teacher that you don’t believe in evolution. Um, but, it’s foundational to the study?!
But my loyalty is to the kids not the literature, so I asked them what would make them want to read Macbeth. They responded that they wanted our study to be “relevant,” “understandable,” and “fun.” Game on.
We began by watching the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan, creator and producer of the enormously popular series, admitted in a BBC interview that he and his writers had been drawing inspiration from Macbeth throughout the series. In their discussion blog that night, students discussed how Walter White’s cancer diagnosis from his doctor might be analogous to the prophecy Macbeth receives from the three witches, leading both of them to “break bad.”
They also considered the Abraham Lincoln quote I saw the day before on a sign at a garage repair shop.
One student insightfully commented, “We will all deal with adversity at one point in time in our lives, but not all of us will face the challenge of power.”
We also listened to an interview with Laura Bates, an English professor at Indiana State University, who, for more than 25 years, has been teaching Shakespeare to prisoners, first at an Illinois county jail and now at a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute. The prisoners, she shared, understand Shakespeare’s tragedies at a depth that many of us cannot reach: the gang violence in Romeo and Juliet, the murderous jealousy in Othello, the manipulating woman in Macbeth that spurs him on.
The prisoners have no access to Spark Notes, but they do have inquisitive minds and, well, time. With the help of Professor Bates, one of the prisoners, serving a life sentence, has actually written a high school learning guide for sixteen of Shakespeare’s play. One of her students, Leonard McQuay, locked alone in a segregated cell, explained what he’d gained by reading plays written 400 years ago: “In so many different characters, you see the small elements of racism, you see the small elements of hate, you see the small elements of money hungriness. Those are the same pitfalls that we find ourselves getting into that sends us to prison … I found out how much we’re alike as human beings. At the end of the day, when we start looking more at how we are alike than we’re different, we can really come together and do some humane things and make some peace in the world.” And this from a man who will live the rest of his life behind bars! That night on their discussion blog having read Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan, students wrestled with the question, “Is Macbeth redeemable?” Their responses to one another were reflective and nuanced, shaped I think by considering Professor Bate’s work.
Shakespeare does not hand you the answers to life. As the critic Roland Barthes said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” The unit ends next week after the students present their own interpretations of different scenes they’ve chosen from the play. Each will “strut and fret his hour upon the stage, and then (be) heard no more.” I hope, though, that something of this experience remains and that they’ll be more open to the possibilities of learning in unpredictable places.