Making Macbeth Memorable

In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.

My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.

I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.

After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.

If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.

I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:

  • Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
  • Conformity by Solomon Asch
  • Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
  • Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
  • Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
  • False memories by Elizabeth Loftus

Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.

And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.

Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.

Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.

P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.

P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?

P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.

P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!

7 thoughts on “Making Macbeth Memorable

  1. I always love reading your posts. My memories may be faulty, so one of my classmates may correct me, but I seem to remember reading MacBeth my senior year with Mrs. Hardy. Did you have Mrs. Hardy?

    You have some very talented students. I love the diorama of the three witches with Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Better Midler. I was fascinated with the witches in MacBeth. The work your students completed reflects what a great teacher you are, one who lets their students’ talents shine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I so much appreciate your response, Ruth. I did have Mrs. Hardy. I remember bonus points and watching The Princess Bride, which probably reveals quite a bit about me as a student and which I try to remind myself when students have more important things on their minds than English. I also wonder if I might have remembered reading Macbeth ten years ago or even twenty. When you make it to those thirty year memories, well, then, crap. And yes! That diorama!!

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  2. That’s one of my favorite bits of Macbeth, too, and what awesome creativity! Granted, I get there’s that need to check knowledge with quizzes or tests, but so often these creative endeavors do wonders in engaging students. I have to ask, though–what about the students who DON’T like creative stuff? There’s always a few of those 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There were memorization and written analysis options as well, which no one chose. 🤷‍♀️ The kids also had the opportunity to diverge from the list with approval. One girl played a happy tune on the ukulele and explained how if the Macbeths lived in an alternate universe, a happy one, there would have been no hurly burly. She developed a spot-on argument (which was part of the assignment—students explained artistic choices made in connection to the drama both in writing to submit and in their presentation to the class). Most of the less visibly artistic students wrote poetry or background stories or letters from one character to another. The list seemed to have a little something for everyone. Second semester also seems to be when students don’t mind taking risks and opening up. Now I’m on the lookout for a similar yet different assignment for the last novel of the year. Thanks for dropping by, Jean Lee!

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