Of course, I received multiple links to the NY Times“Macbeth Mashup“from fellow English teachers, and yes, I thought that Claire Needell Hollander wrote a very funny piece. Yes, I believe students should be exposed to Shakespeare regularly, with or without the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But, Macbeth for seventh and eighth graders? No! That is just wrong. Wrong on theme, wrong for content, and very wrong for 11 and 12 year olds.
Hollander began her feature article making a great point about classroom dynamics:
“We say the classroom, as if an ideal classroom exists that somehow resembles every other classroom in America. In reality, every classroom has its own dynamic, and every class I’ve ever taught looks different from every other class. Perhaps more important, they also sound different.”
She is right. A chemistry of personalities creates a different dynamic in every classroom. The age of those personalities is also a factor. As I read the piece, however, I grew more and more frustrated. Macbeth features witches, warfare, murder, and, like most Shakespeare plays, sexual language. The word “blood” is repeated 41 times over the course of the play. Even the play itself is cursed; actors will not say the name of the play in the theatre. Many critics consider this Shakespeare’s “darkest play”.
Hollander herself questioned the appropriateness of this play for middle school students. She writes:
“The kids have copies of the play with a modern English version on one side, but this isn’t easy either.”
“Tears of hilarity. Maybe middle school is too young for “Macbeth.”
Maybe? Definitely! So, why choose Macbeth?
Apparently, Hollander was attempting to satisfy a recommendation for archaic language for the secondary level in the English Language Arts Common Core. This is explained in Appendix A Language Conventionality and Clarity:
Texts that rely on literal, clear, contemporary, and conversational language tend to be easier to read than texts that rely on figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic, or otherwise unfamiliar language (such as general academic and domain-specific vocabulary).
In other words, the CCSS state that students should be exposed to complex diction, and the CCSS has made specific recommendations for grade 8 including:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1869)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyerby Mark Twain (1876)
- “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1915)
Hollander could consider the how the wording in CCSS Reading Standard 8 should guide her in selecting material for her combined seventh and eighth graders:
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
So many students come to high school without the necessary content to understand many of Shakespeare’s allusions. Perhaps the students know little about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; why not Malory’s Morte d’Arthur? Or understanding the Pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses would be helpful; why not Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology? Beowulf is usually taught in grade 10; the opening begins, “He was spawned in that slime, /Conceived by a pair of those monsters born/ Of Cain, murderous creatures banished/ By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel’s death” (Raffel). Student should know this Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Students must come to high school prepared with the content needed to understand increasingly complex texts.
So why choose Macbeth? In fact, why choose Shakespeare at all? Ultimately, by not considering the recommendations of the CCSS to saturate students with the grade appropriate texts in our rich literary tradition, Hollander leaves them ill-prepared for Shakespeare at the high school level, when they are more mature to appreciate his themes.
So please, leave Macbeth, with his nihlism, his “...tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” for older students. Please leave Lady Macbeth with “…the smell of the blood still” where “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, and leave Macbeth for high school. Besides, if Hollander is trying to meet the recommendations of the Common Core, she should leave Macbeth where the Common Core placed it, as a complex texts for 9th and 10th grades. The noisy mashup of Macbeth will still be crude and rowdy and demanding; but the students will be older, and these few additional years of maturity are necessary for dark tragedy in “the Scottish play”.