Introducing Macbeth

The first few lessons on a text – particularly Shakespeare – are crucial. Nowadays the standard modus operandi at GCSE is to start with assessment objectives, pages of (often irrelevant and subsequently forgotten) contextual information and lists of vocabulary or technical terms. Often knowledge organisers are given out before anything else. Groan.

What is it that should be established during the first lessons of Macbeth?

  • Begin by connecting the start of Macbeth with students’ existing knowledge. Plunging straight into I.i and encouraging students to consider what other texts and media experiences this opening triggers.
  • Explore the musicality and signification of the language. I.i provides a concentrated means of encouraging students to consider different ways Shakespeare is performed – especially how voices can alter the significance of words and lines.
  • Grab attention and create expectancy. Successful teaching of Literature involves enabling students to ask questions about the text. It’s teaching students to learn what to pay attention to. At the start of this play: Who are the witches? What is the hurlyburly? Why is the heath so important? Who is Macbeth (and why is he so important?
  • Contextual information. Yes, there is contextual information necessary but this needs a light touch at this point. Students need a brief (graphical) overview of when Shakespeare was writing. As we are starting with the supernatural and witches, a brief mention of James I at this point is needed (which I’ll return to in terms of succession), that they are “wyrd” and connected to Fate. By the end of the lesson, I’d probably also make sure that I’d defined terms like “Elizabethan” and “Jacobean” and that Macbeth is a Jacobean tragedy.
  • Vocabulary. There are over 30 words I want students to know and use in their responses to Macbeth. My plan is to carefully teach them over the course of the term and review them constantly. The vocabulary for the first lesson will be “malevolent” (with its obvious link to the witches).
  • Enabling “buy in” by students through adopting interpretations. By the end of the first lesson, students should have their “own” opinion on why the scene is important.
  • Atmosphere. Bearing in mind my limited control of the classroom environment, attempting to create a sense of atmosphere acoustically using a soundboard is important (thunder, rain, wind, the cackles of the witches).

The second and third lessons should review this learning before moving on to ensuring students know the plot of Macbeth. Years ago I picked up the idea from Rex Gibson’s Teaching Shakespeare, that teaching the plot of a play through 10 quotes and drama-based actions really helped in encouraging engagement and familiarity with the text. I’ve found that it works very effectively. I also supplement this with a prose retelling of the play (Marchete Chute’s retelling is my favourite) and the 30-minute BBC Animated Shakespeare version.

Learning Agenda. I’m going to try out Barbara Bleiman’s advice about adopting a learning agenda rather than a knowledge organiser. I can see the value of knowledge organisers – especially for lower-attaining students but are quite limiting. The Learning Agenda requires some work by me over the next couple of weeks – especially in terms of the key aspects of the text on which students need to focus.

It means that, after three introductory lessons, students would have:

  • knowledge of the basic plot
  • know the names of the characters
  • appreciate the tone/atmosphere of the play
  • have opinions on the text (“buy in”)
  • learned vocabulary to use in responding to the play
  • have some relevant contextual information

After that we would move on to I.ii (after, of course, reviewing learning). One of my primary aims while teaching Macbeth this year is to meticulously structure how I teach key knowledge, vocabulary, quotation-retrieval and writing exam answers in a far more holistic fashion. It’s the only way I can ensure that the study of the play remains fun, intellectually and emotionally stimulating as well as preparing students for answering exam questions.