The Simplicity of a Difficult Text

In my last post I argued that while easier texts often seem more accessible, a difficult text can be more empowering because of how it challenges students. Below I write about how teacher and students can meet the challenge of Macbeth by recognizing it as a surprisingly simple story. 

The other day I was meeting with a student to help him prepare for an in-class essay on masculinity in Macbeth. We talked a lot about how Macbeth behaves both in the lead-up to killing Duncan and after he becomes king. The student had a good grasp on the character–how he changes over the course of the play, how he compares with other characters. But then, before leaving, he remarked that the play had a lot of unnecessary characters. He took a moment, counting on his fingers, and told me that there are really only six important characters in the play. “Only six?” I asked. “I don’t even think there’s that many. Listen to this.” I went on:

There once was a great warrior who served his king in war. In return, the king honored him above other men. But he was not satisfied. He desired the crown for himself, and so he killed his king and ascended the throne. However, where the old king had been gentle, wise, and loved by those around him, this new king ruled as a tyrant. His followers turned on him. They set the old king’s son on the throne and put the tyrant’s head on a pike. Thus order was restored.

This sounds more like a fable or folk tale than a Shakespearean tragedy. A child could understand it, and except for the detail about Macbeth’s head on a pike, I might tell it to my five-year-old daughter. But if I did, I would expect a few questions: Why wasn’t the man satisfied? Why did he stop being a loyal subject? What is a tyrant? Why did his followers turn on him? Why (how?) was order restored? Though the little story above may prompt these questions, it does little to help us answer them. Shakespeare’s text, on the other hand, includes a multitude of details that can help us work through the questions:

  • The witches tell Macbeth he will be king, and Lady Macbeth spurs him on to kill the king. These characters and Macbeth’s interactions with them help us make sense of Macbeth’s change from a good servant to a regicide usurper and the complicated mix of ambition and ambivalence in his character.
  • Banquo suspects the witches of evil intent and tells Macbeth as much. This more cautious response contrasts to and highlights Macbeth’s awakened ambition, inner turmoil, and strange passivity. (In other words, Banquo is a foil to Macbeth.)
  • The king’s feeling of betrayal after the first Thane of Cawdor (a man in whom he placed his trust) makes us question the wisdom of his lavish praise of Macbeth (the new Thane of Cawdor). Such naïveté complicates the picture of this “good” king and, perhaps by extension, our ideas of tyranny and order.

All the details above and most of the other details in the play can be related to the little folk-tale version–amplifying, elaborating, or complicating it; filling in empty spaces to answer questions or squeezing into cracks to open up new ones. Some details are easier to work with than others,* and not all are equally rewarding when it comes to time spent figuring them out. But in the end, relating particular details to the basic structure of the play is a manageable way to figure out what the play is saying about questions like: “What makes a good king?” or “How does a good man become a bad man?”

Or the question my student was dealing with: “What kind of masculinity does Macbeth exhibit?” There are so many examples and details to look at for this question, and the class not only read the book but watched several clips from Rupert Goold’s 2010 Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart. In the movie, Macbeth is a Stalin figure who becomes a tyrant-dictator of a totalitarian state, complete with larger-than-life posters of Macbeth, surveillance of citizens, and purges of political “enemies.” In his insightful discussion of Macbeth’s actions as king, this student wrote:

He fears losing his throne, so he kills more and more people who are considered to be threats by Macbeth. This is totally wrong for a monarch, especially a usurper. Once he gets the throne, he should give mercy to Duncan’s liegemen to test them, instead of killing them. From here to the end of the play, Macbeth is just a physically strong man and totally a coward mentally.

I love how this student has picked up on a pattern of details (present in the play, amplified in the movie) and used them to support his conclusion: physical strength, obviously associated with masculinity, accompanies cowardice. There’s more to masculinity than being a strong man.

The goal here is getting students to work with details. Too often students are overwhelmed by details that don’t seem particularly significant to them–but do to the teacher. If students approach specific details with a sense of the basic story, then–even if they don’t quite understand them–they are able to work with them.

*Character and action are generally easier. Metaphors and patterns of imagery are harder. To some extent, students can self-select the kind of details they will work with.


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