in thunder, lightning, and in rain

I’ve just started teaching Macbeth for the sixty billionth time. Okay, the fifty billionth time. Well, actually it’s the twenty-third time, but the point is that in the course of a teaching career there are some texts that come up over and over again. People think this must get tedious. My standard reply is to remind them of all the Maths teachers, teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem and quadratic equations year in year out, or the biologists with photosynthesis, or the French department conjugating present tense verbs: now that’s what tedious is. With Macbeth, at least you’ve got some blood and guts involved.

There are some parts of Macbeth that are fantastic to teach. I’ve just got to the end of Act One Scene Three with my Year Tens, and we’ve been focusing on how Shakespeare builds up a sense of Macbeth in our minds before we even meet him. There’s that tantalising mention by the witches in Act One Scene One: what do they want with him, exactly? And then there’s the account of his prowess in battle by the wounded captain in the next scene, telling us of his sword that smokes with bloody execution and of how he killed the treacherous Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chaps. Scotland has been invaded by Norway, and a number of Scottish thanes have betrayed their king: in fighting against them, Macbeth is cast as not only brave and ruthless, but also loyal. So, we’ve got mixed messages about him. It’s not surprising, then, that he reacts to the witches in the way he does. He starts, and seems afraid. It takes him a while to find his voice. And when he finds out that he is indeed going to become Thane of Cawdor, his mind starts to work overtime. On Friday, we looked at his aside in Act One Scene Three, where Shakespeare explores the thoughts that are beginning to take shape:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen. —
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Look at the quibbling in this speech. He doesn’t know whether the witches’ words are good or bad. If they’re bad, why have they brought him something good? If they’re good, why are they making him think of something so awful that he can’t even name it, so terrible that it makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end? Nothing is but what is not; fair is foul and foul is fair. This is a man whose world is about to be turned upside-down, who is contemplating something that goes against everything his identity has been built on.

Macbeth also introduces students to the idea that you need to know something about the context of a work of literature in order to inhabit its imaginative world. There are the obvious things that students can research – beliefs about witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, the Divine Right of Kings, and the status of women – but I also like to show them images of Hell from the ‘doom paintings’ that decorated the walls of medieval churches, to show them that Hell was something that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen as very real and utterly terrifying, and therefore to underline just what Macbeth faces as a result of killing Duncan. There’s a fantastic example in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Chaldon in Surrey. It dates back to the thirteenth century, and depicts the seven deadly sins and the weighing of souls. In one image, the condemned are thrown into a boiling cauldron, with leering demons poking them with giant forks: in another, some poor unfortunate is suspended by his ears while his nether regions are roasted over an open fire. Imagine sitting in church every Sunday, looking at pictures of flame-grilled genitals and eternal torture: that’s what Macbeth has in store for him. The other thing I like to get them to do is to find out when Macbeth was first performed, and then to find out the date of the Gunpowder Plot. Why would James I have been so keen on a play that points out the evils of regicide? You can see the students putting the dates together. Oh.

Doom mural at St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon (Source: Peter Trimming at Geograph Britain and Ireland; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

The main problem I have with Macbeth is that it jumps the shark. There are the brilliant early scenes with Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, the breakdown of his relationship with his wife (look at how he tells her, just before the murder of Banquo, to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, and contrast it with how much he needed her earlier in the play). There’s the chaos unleashed in Scotland, the banquet scene, and Macbeth’s return to the witches. And then there’s that tedious conversation between Malcolm and Macduff, and the unravelling of the second set of prophecies. And it’s all a bit rubbish. I remember sitting in a Year Eleven lesson when I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and thinking, ‘is that it?’ Some verbal quibbling about a C-section, and a group of men cutting down branches? Compared with the end of King Lear, it seems contrived, a bit of a trick. You’d tell him to go back and have another go, if you were his beta reader.

I expect you know that Fleance, in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, was played by Keith Chegwin, later of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and, after several years in the wilderness, the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle. Did you know, though, that Paul Farley wrote a poem about Chegwin’s role? It’s here, at the Poetry Society website. The most atmospheric Macbeth I’ve ever seen: the production in the crypt of the Norman church of St Peter in the East in Oxford, now the library of St Edmund Hall. It was December 1991, the end of my first term, and there were actual bats flapping around. And my favourite Macbeth-related moment: back in 2017, when we were driving up to Orkney, we passed through Birnam, and a group of forestry workers were cutting down trees.

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