Shakespearean Trump card: teaching ‘Macbeth’.

11 Nov 2016

UNSPECIFIED - DECEMBER 16: Henry VIII Tudor (Greenwich, 1491-London, 1547), 1539-1541, King of England and King of Ireland with his family portrait wearing the outfit worn for his marriage to Anne of Cleves. Painting by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), oil on panel, 88.5 x74.5 cm. Rome, Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Antica Di Palazzo Barberini ( National Art Gallery, Barberini Palace) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

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.

If ever a week was required to emphasise the importance and relevance of teaching Shakespeare and ‘Macbeth’ to young people, this week was one. I set this Sizzling Shakespearean Starter (more of that later!) on Friday.


This led to a fascinating whole class discussion including the following: an insatiable desire for power (beautiful link from Gemma to “vaulting ambition”) ; vanity and narcissism; evaluation of what it means to be a strong man; feminine influence to win over others; desire to rid the world of enemies and all opposition; Scottish links and best of all the supernatural influence. One young man argued passionately that Trump’s “wig” is clearly a metaphorical embodiment of the witches, giving him subliminal guidance throughout his campaign. I nodded sagely in agreement.


Their ideas filled me with some optimism about how the first two weeks of teaching the play have gone. With this in mind (and last week’s rumination on the importance of long term planning and organisation), some thoughts offered on my endeavours to do this magnificent play justice this year.

The students will sit the WJEC Eduqas GCSE next year. In a demanding hour long paper without the text they need to respond to an extract question and then a question on the play as a whole. Challenging enough on its own, but then combined with the fact that there are only seven weeks to cover the play it takes on herculean levels of challenge. Alongside this are the obvious endeavours to inspire a lifelong love of Shakespeare and hours of boring students with endless Inverness related stories and angry Scottish acting (growing up in the lovely Highland village of Carrbridge near Inverness has its educational merits!). My priorities:

Understanding of key themes and language: love, power, ambition, regret – all lofty aspects of the play that students need to grapple with. When each has arisen in the play we have started to dissect and explore the reality of them. The first time we had a waft of Macbeth’s insatiable desire of power, we evaluated what “valuting ambition” really constituted. Students researched ambition as a homework task: what are the merits? What are the dangers? Doing this in isolation before the play begins isn’t as useful in my experience. Now they have a notion of ambition and power as central to the play, however, we are viewing this as a mantra as we investigate the play: what is the impact of ambition? We spend lots of lesson time on the challenging language, lots of whole class discussion and annotation of key extracts in depth. We have lots of conversations about words and meaning, students are now finding this more interesting. Students re-write key extracts in their own words. Nothing fancy, no gimmicks – all deeply immersed in the landscape of the play.

Notion of Shakespeare as performance: Encouraging students to engage with Shakespeare as performance is always a challenge, alongside understanding that the characters are constructions to illustrate key ideas and themes. Most obviously with this I will be dipping in and out of lots of different versions of ‘Macbeth’. Patrick Stewart’s masterful performance is the one I am using the most at this stage. We will focus on the idea of artistic interpretation – how directors present different scenes. Students will also be doing acting of their own (three of my ‘likely lads’ in the role of the witches at the start of the play was entertaining!). The focus of all dialogue in lessons will be on how we think characters might deliver lines in order to convey meaning. Students know that their function is as the audience whenever we are watching scenes, and are addressed accordingly! Shakespeare employs/uses is tallied in each lesson: we are frequently returning to the notion of Shakespeare as master of his world and how his characters behave in the ways he dictates.

Knowledge of the play: This is where the Sizzling Shakespearean Starters come in. This is inspired from Andy Tharby’s memory platforms from the masterful ‘Making every Lesson count’ – in which lessons are started with retrieval practice.  Students will have five key questions about the play so far to respond to in their workbooks as they enter the classroom. Here is Monday’s exploration of Act One:


In this area we are also using classroom dialogue to constantly structurally link throughout the play, returning frequently to the progression of characters. We are building up character profiles in books that capture how characters are beginning to change and develop; investing real time in discussing how relationships are changing and growing. We are trying to move beyond the one dimensional and evaluating each character’s range of emotion. The Macbeth therapy chair was an enjoyable ten minutes – in which we tried to peer into the minds of  Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act One and how it influences his behaviour.

 Use of quotations. Inspired by a range of blogs on learning quotations (this excellent post by Xris  is particularly helpful) I am aiming to look for short and simple examples that students can memorise and learn points for. I have provisionally diluted the play down to forty key quotations: macbeth-in-forty-quotations that I have shared with students. These are then built into the lesson starters and filtered into every lesson. Students will learn key points they can make about each quotation. Students have an entry ticket into lessons by naming a quotation and an exit ticket to give a quotation. All kids of entertaining variations to close lessons: what is the missing word, who says it, what tone is this delivered in, which word would you analyse?

Developing writing about Shakespeare. The reality is I need to make sure students are confident in writing in timed conditions about unseen extracts and the whole play. They have the following stuck in their books to help focus their writing: a language/structure/form help sheet language and 103 key words related to Macbeth: macbeth-key-vocabulary The expectation is that these are imbedded into their writing and dialogue in lessons. Each lesson has a short ten minute blast of writing at least. Then each week they will have at least one thirty minute timed response to initially an extract then the whole play. As we enter week three of the term the schedule is as follows:

Week three: How are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth presented in Act 2, scene 2?

Week four: How is Macbeth presented in Act 3 Scene 4?

Week five: How is Lady Macbeth presented in Act 5, scene 1?

Week six: How is Macbeth presented in the play and what is his significance?

Week seven: How is Lady Macbeth presented in the play and what is her significance?

We will spend ten minutes looking at the extract together then I and the students will write for thirty minutes. That will be the focus for my written feedback that week. The fact I am sitting at the front also deeply engaged in the writing process helps students to take the task seriously. I will also copy my own response, and share with students. While identifying our areas of focus with students, this will be used as an opportunity to talk about the areas I have found difficult – an honest assessment. Students will then repeat one paragraph building in targets discussed. This allows clarity of focus, progressively building on quality of writing, sharing modelled examples and improvements based on feedback. Sounds simple – we will see if it works. This is one students example of this week’s writing development:






Teaching Shakespeare is always hugely exciting but also daunting: the breadth and depth of the challenge is immense. Trump and the events in the political landscape this week, however (“what’s done cannot be undone…we are yet but young in deed”) have  illuminated perfectly for students why we study Shakespeare. Let the challenge continue! Thanks for reading, time for a certain football match. To paraphrase Macduff: “Oh Scotland Scotland, please don’t embarrass us again!”




Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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