Macbeth: Prose Retelling

To a certain extent it’s difficult to read a Shakespeare text with a class in the same way that you’d read anything else. The archaic and rich language can confound children even if they watch a live performance or film version.

I’ve found that students approach the text if time is spent at the start (after teaching the initial scene) securing understanding of the plot and characters before reading the play. Doing the following is effective:

  • outline the bare-bones of the entire play in 10 steps, each with a quote that students say aloud while miming an action;
  • reading a modern prose re-telling of the play;
  • reinforcing the names and roles of the characters;
  • viewing the short BBC Animated Shakespeare version of Macbeth.

Over the years I’ve tried out all sorts of prose retellings: the Lambs’, Leon Garfield’s, brief summaries… The only writer I’ve found that not only re-tells the story but – appropriately – includes the original text is Marchette Chute. Chute was an American biographer working in the middle of the 20th century. Her Stories from Shakespeare helpfully includes all the plays, retold in a straightforward manner that captures the essence of the plot. Chute narrative voice frequently intrudes to point out an important moment in the play or to remind the reader of a beautiful use of language. There’s a sense of joyful enthusiasm about the plays which is conveyed to the reader.

Here’s the opening of Macbeth:

Macbeth is one of the greatest of the tragedies, swift as night and dark as spilt blood, with death and battle and witchcraft bound together in wonderful poetry to tell the story of a man and woman who destroyed themselves. Macbeth and his wife wanted the throne of Scotland, and they took it. But the act forced them into a murderer’s world of sleepless torment, always struggling to find safety and always sinking deeper in their own terror.