Some more notes on teaching “Macbeth”: First, don’t worry—my next post won’t be about this play. And second, though Shakespeare and his language are often seen as “high and mighty,” in so many ways “Macbeth” can shatter this illusion for inexperienced students. I’d say that’s for better, because I’m in favor of making all literature more accessible. However, teaching “Macbeth” can lead to awkward classroom moments, because the play is one of Shakespeare’s crudest. For example, in Act 2, Scene 3, there is a long, crude joke. A drunken porter, in reply to a question, explains the three things that late night drinking can provoke:
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; It sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him and it disheartens him…
We read this passage in class on Thursday. Out of about twenty students, exactly one turned red faced and started laughing, and the joke—which is much longer than the excerpt here—went over everyone else’s heads. If students aren’t paying attention and/or are not getting into Shakespeare, AND if you figure they can be mature about it, this can be a teaching moment. Nothing grabs student attention, after all, like something risqué in a text (and believe me, with Shakespeare almost always required reading, regardless of the school, there are always risqué things to highlight). But if you have student attention, and/or if you don’t have a mature class, well… discussing a passage like this could be a nightmare.
Yesterday Leah and I attended a party with teachers from other schools, and two friends had just taught this passage in the last week. We compared notes on how it went, and also talked about how passages like these are a good way to see if students are understanding Shakespeare’s words. We also talked about how to get students to discuss passages like this in a way that doesn’t lead you to losing classroom control (it is hard!). But in any case, if you’ve never read Shakespeare, or if you only know his works through their “difficult” reputation, perhaps you should give “Macbeth” a try. I think it is the easiest play to both teach and understand, and with jokes like, well, now you’re interested, right?
–Jeff and Leah