An Interactive Way to Teach Macbeth using Come Like Shadows

1. Determine your primary goals for the students in teaching this play: do you want your students to end up:

A. knowing the plot?
B. understanding the characters, and their motives?
C. enjoying the play as a whole?
D. identifying the themes, and being able to relate them to the human condition of modern times - and so understanding why the play is relevant to modern readers and audiences?
E. appreciating this play’s language and overall literary beauty?
F. appreciating its effectiveness as a play apart from its strictly literary beauty? (thus exploring the difference between plays and other literary forms, and trying to understand why a writer uses plays instead of novels or other literary forms)
G. understanding how this play reflects the history of the period in which it was written? (interacts with the history curriculum, and brings up the exploration of the use and misuse of art, and what role truth has to play in art)
H. all of the above?

2. Consider some possible strategies:

i) What might work if you want them to know the plot, understand the characters, and enjoy the play, and that’s really all?
ii) What might work if you want them, as well, to appreciate its effectiveness as a stage play, while exploring why the stage play works differently than a novel would, or even a movie. (That is, in your teaching you would be dealing with the different goals of different kinds of artists - poets, novelists, playwrights, directors of stage plays or movies - and the use and misuse of “truth” / “artistic licence” in attaining those goals; leading into the use and misuse of art itself; connecting to the history curriculum.)
iii) What might work if you want them as well as knowing plot and characters and enjoying them, to appreciate the play’s effectiveness as a work of astonishing literary beauty without necessarily dealing with its effectiveness as a stage play? (That is, in your teaching you would concentrate more on symbolism and other literary devices and explore the themes, including their relevance to the students themselves.)
iv) What works if you want them to “get it all”?
v) What definitely doesn’t work?

Of major importance: what is the best way to overcome the “language barrier”? How can you make sure that reading the play isn’t the only thing accomplished by your students? How can you make sure they do read it? Or, decide, does it really matter if they read the play ahead of time, as long as they thoroughly know the plot and characters, and as long as you intend to spend most of your time making them go to the play for answers to your questions?

Some tips that I have found useful in teaching the play:

(a) Think of the play as the heart of your entire English course. It is so rich, you can do this. Teach it somewhere near the end of your course, and “sneak the play in”, without naming it or even referring to it, long before you actually start teaching it. Try, without being too obvious, to provide opportunities for students to interact with some element of the play.

Some ways you can do this:

i) Look for key elements of Macbeth (e.g. thematic, structural, language-based) in other works by other writers that the students are studying in the same course, and concentrate on these common elements, using the same terminology as you will when the students come to study Macbeth.
ii) In creative writing exercises long before you study the play, give short summaries of scenarios that actually occur in Macbeth, but don’t tell them that this is what you are doing. Change the names and times and even the settings. Then, ask the students to write something creative, such as a poem or a short story or even just a bit of dialog between the characters involved. Some possible scenarios:

a) how murder results when a kindly old relative, very healthy, visits her niece who regularly seeks the guidance of a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller (who has always been accurate) tells the niece that she will inherit from this relative within two days. A dialog between the niece and her husband, who really loves money.
b) the ghost of a murdered woman comes to a party hosted by her murderer. A poem or short story or the scene from a play where this takes place.
c) a tyrant named Anilf Hutler asks a prophet if he is safe in his position of tyrannical control, and the prophet tells him the truth, that he is safely in control except if such-and-so (you make it up) happens, and he knows that such-and-so can’t happen so he does something that makes sure it will happen, and so destroys himself. A diary entry by Anilf, the day he knows he has destroyed himself.
d) a powerful Roman noble named Brutus believes above all things in the power of the Roman Emperor and his god-given right to do what he likes. Then Emperor Nelo comes along, a degraded, degrading individual, with no graces at all, whose whims threaten to destroy the Empire. Britus must decide between his beliefs about treason and the needs of his Empire. A dialog between Brutus and his wife.
e) A politician named Jakha in Indonesia is in opposition to the ruling party leader. He leaves the country (and his family) to drum up support in the USA, and his entire family is killed because of his actions. A poem about guilt.

(iii) If at all possible, take the students to see more than one live stage production long before the play is studied. (Evenings are good for this.) None of the plays have to be Macbeth, but it would be great if Macbeth could be one. The main thing is to make students aware of the limitations and power of live theatre, and most students will never have seen even one live play. Have them write a poem or short story based on the plays they see, or even about one scene in the plays. Or, have them write how they think a movie director might have handled the plot differently. (If the play is Shakespearean, make sure the students understand the basic plot before they see the play.)
(iv) Without actually saying you’re preparing the students to study Macbeth, have them watch two separate videos over the course of the two months prior to beginning to study Macbeth. Because the play is so short, it’ll take no more than two to three classroom periods to view each video, whether you are semestered or not. Show each video in back-to-back periods, but separate the two videos by at least four weeks. I recommend that you start with the 1957 movie Throne of Blood directed by Akira Kurosawa (in Japanese with English subtitles: probably the best version of Macbeth ever filmed.) Have them write in their journals an emotional “reaction” piece to this movie which you will tell them ahead of time will count towards their creative writing mark in the course. About six weeks later, because of “language difficulties”, give them a short summary of the plot of the movie they are about to see, and then show them in back-to-back periods the 1971 Roman Polanski version of Macbeth. In their journals have them write a comparison of their feelings about this movie as compared to Throne of Blood that they saw earlier. (Their journals will remind them.) Again, you should tell them that this piece of creative writing will “count”. Whether you follow up on that is up to you.
(v) While studying the play Macbeth, begin a project which all students will be graded on. Beforehand, choose your favourite soliloquies in the play, making them all about the same length, or having two short ones equalling one long one. Have the students pick one of the long soliloquies, or two shorter ones. They must then do two things. First, they must rewrite into the best 20th century English they can manage, the soliloquy chosen, without losing any of the images or ideas of the original; after their rewrite, they must write a short essay on which of the two versions of the soliloquy he/she prefers and why. This part will be graded by you as a writing exercise and as a comprehension exercise. Second, they must memorize and deliver their own chosen soliloquy (ies). Accuracy counts, but so does emotive power. This part should be graded by everyone in the class, as well as yourself. This will encourage the students to discover Shakespeare’s language as something that is both understandable and wonderful.

(b). Long before starting to study the play Macbeth, have the students read a novel in which the play Macbeth has a prominent role. Some possibles are my own (Welwyn Wilton Katz’s) contemporary novel Come Like Shadows in which young adults (ages 16, 20) are the protagonists. Another is Ngaio Marsh’s easily accessible murder mystery Light Thickens. The third that I know of is Dorothy Dunnett’s very long and complex historical novel for adults, King Hereafter. Whichever novel you choose, it should be made part of the course, and not optional outside reading, because you can use this novel in so many ways to prepare the students for studying the actual play Macbeth. A short plot summary of the play Macbeth can be provided before the novel is assigned for reading, though if you choose Come Like Shadows this should not be necessary. Do not tell the students that this novel is to prepare them to study Macbeth. Treat it as a novel study in its own right.

Here is why you might choose to use Come Like Shadows to introduce some of the themes and ideas that are extremely important to the play Macbeth, (again without ever mentioning that this is what you are doing.)

1. Come Like Shadows is written in modern language about contemporary teens and so is non-threatening. It was “literary” enough to be nominated for a major literary award in Canada and another in the United States.
2. It has enough suspense that most high school students who have read it really liked the book, especially once they’ve finished the first two chapters.
3. I have packed this novel full of the same themes and questions that are important to study in the play Macbeth.
4. As well I’ve included much of the plot of the play Macbeth, the history of the play, Shakespeare himself as a character, and the real Macbeth, in addition to my take on the “curse” on the play, and information about producing professional live theatre. By dealing with all these things first in an “easy” novel, students cannot help but find the play Macbeth easier.

Here is how I used Come Like Shadows to help teach Macbeth in grade nine and grade ten English classes. These are not rules, though I’ve written them as if they are. They are just things that worked.

First, make sure the students have a chance to read Come Like Shadows. Read aloud the first two chapters (this won’t take more than one semestered class). After that, the students will probably not object to reading it outside of class. Allow them about three weeks to finish reading the book. AFTER the time is up that you have alloted for them to read the novel (time in which you are teaching poetry or short stories or whatever), don’t give a test on the contents of the novel. Instead, ask the students to write short (5-7 page) essays (using quotes to support what they say in the essay) on two or three of the topics that follow this paragraph. (They get bonus marks if they do three essays.) There are fourteen topics; you might find others you prefer, but I advise you to stick to fourteen, and you should make sure that each topic will be covered by at least two people. Then, while having something written to mark, (isn’t marking fun???) you can devote about seven classes (if they are the longer semester system classes; about 10 of the shorter classes) to student presentations, which can be assessed by the other students and you together as the presentations unfold. In these student presentations, which will cover two topics a day, each of the people who wrote essays on the topics will present a short (strictly timed, five-minute) oral precis of their discoveries about that topic and then, when all the presentations on that topic have been given, the students presenting on the topic will lead a discussion on the topic with the class as a whole, taking up the remaining class-time (about 45 minutes in total) devoted to each topic. In this way, in only 8 semestered classes, plus perhaps one more to summarize what has been learned, and some time recalling things when you come to the study of Macbeth, you can cover all of Come Like Shadows, and at the same time, make all the students familiar with themes and ideas that will come up again in Macbeth.

Here are the topics I used:

1) How ambition causes disaster in Come Like Shadows. Who is ambitious in the novel? What do these ambitious people want? Why does it cause disaster? (Later, you can discuss the same questions in Macbeth.)

2) The images of light and darkness in Come Like Shadows. Is light always associated with good and darkness with evil? What is good and evil in this novel? In life? (Later, you can ask the same questions about Macbeth.)

3) The use of sleep and dreams in Come Like Shadows. (Later you can compare to Shakespeare’s use of sleep / waking sleep / inability to sleep / dreams / and the “life’s but a walking shadow” speech in Macbeth.)

4) How Kinny, Lucas, Jeneva, and the young unnamed girl in the first chapter of Come Like Shadows are used used by others for their own reasons; did the various characters allow this to happen to them, and if so, what need did it satisfy in them? What is the role of personal responsibility in the disasters that result from the person being used by others? (a universal question, could be asked of anyone in Nazi Germany, for instance…) (Later you can compare to how Macbeth allows himself to be used by the witches and by his ambitious wife, and how Malcolm allows himself to be used by England to provide a spearhead to invade Scotland, both eventually causing disaster - to Macbeth in the play, and to Scotland in real history after Malcolm.)

5) The use of violence in Come Like Shadows. Is it justified? Why or why not? When is violence not justifiable in literature? (Later, compare to Macbeth, which has more references to “blood” than any other play in the English language.)

6) The meaning of courage: e.g. in Come Like Shadows, who is courageous (and why): Jeneva, Kinny, Lucas, my real Macbeth, Dana Sloe? (Later, when you study Macbeth, you can ask the students if the character Macbeth is courageous, and why or why not.)

7) The deliberate falsification of history (“truth”) in Come Like Shadows, as revealed about Shakespeare, as is done by Jeneva, as perhaps is done by Welwyn Wilton Katz. When is lying to tell the truth justified in art? (I’d say only if it is done, as in writing fiction, to help the artist discover a bigger truth, but you may have your own ideas). When is it justified to mess with someone else’s art? (Here I’d refer you to the recent stage production of Henry V at Stratford, set in the First World War, just so you don’t say “never!”) Who decides what is justified in art? (Later, a great exam question or essay question would be to explore the falsification of truth in both Come Like Shadows and Macbeth).

8) Are the three “sisters” in Come Like Shadows purely evil? Are they living well according to their own set of values? What is their background in mythology? (Have the students check out the “White Goddess” of Robert Graves and other mythographers: the early maiden-mother-crone fertility goddess who is also the goddess of death and rebirth.) Are the three sisters in Come Like Shadows so foreign and apart from traditional modern religions that our concepts of evil and good don’t apply to them at all? (What is good? What is evil?) Are the three sisters responsible for the disasters that occur in Come Like Shadows? If not, who is? (Later, compare these three weird sisters to the three wyrd sisters in Macbeth.)

9) The mirror in Come Like Shadows, and all the ideas it represents (the mirror as an entrapper or prison, as renewing agent, as a time-stopper, as a cursing agent, as reflector of what one wants to see or doesn’t want to see as opposed to “truth”, as magical agent, as enduring functionally unaltered while all those outside of it undergo change, as a summoner, etc.) (Later when you are studying Macbeth, you can talk about some or all these ideas: entrapment, prisons such as those Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make for themselves, cursing agents (witches, Lady M.’s “baby-speech”, Macbeth’s own curses that he makes, etc.) time-stoppers, the mirror as a magical agent, and how nature “mirrors” the chaos and darkness in Macbeth’s soul; as well as the role of the actual mirror showing all those kingly descendants of Banquo in Act 4 Scene 1 (the source of the title of my novel) in cementing Macbeth’s decisions (I always ask students why, when he knows he can never have what he really wants, which is to be the father of a lineage of kings, he goes on with his murders.) “Compare and contrast the use of mirrors and mirroring in Come Like Shadows and Macbeth” is a good exam or final essay question.)

10) “Comic relief” in Come Like Shadows. Is there any? If there is no comedy in Come Like Shadows, what provides relief from the constant terror of impending doom? (Hint: How does the switching of point of view between Kinny and Lucas provide relief?) (Later, you can explore the porter scene in Macbeth and ask if comic relief is its only purpose. You can also talk about “point of view” in a play as compared to a novel such as Come Like Shadows. Students are amazed to learn that there is no “official” point of view in a play, that is, no way to generalize “whose head” the audience is in.)

11) Nationalism in Come Like Shadows as expressed through Jeneva, through Kinny, through Lucas, and through the character of Macbeth himself (the Macbeth who is inside the mirror). Does nationalism show itself to be a good quality or a bad one? Where do nationalist ideals take priority over personal responsibility in Come Like Shadows? Is personal responsibility more important anywhere in the novel than nationalism, and if so when? Is the recourse to evil for nationalistic reasons ever justified? Is there anything that can be identified as a kind of treason in Come Like Shadows? Is recourse to treason, to prevent or overturn evil, ever acceptable? How does the division of nations reflect itself in the division of personalities in Come Like Shadows? (Later, in studying Macbeth, you will ask the students about English nationalism and beliefs compared to Scottish nationalism and beliefs at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, at the time the play is supposed to take place, and in the present day. You can also bring in the concept of treason, and draw comparisons between the treason of the First and Second Thane of Cawdor, as well as Macduff’s actual treason.)

12) The theme of equivocation (explain it as Shakespeare meant it in the play: viz: lying by telling the truth; or its opposite, telling the truth by lying) as explored in Come Like Shadows. What truths in Come Like Shadows do people interpret as lies? What outright lies or deceptions appear in Come Like Shadows? What might be Jeneva’s definition of “truth”? What might be Dana’s? Who is the “true” Macbeth”: the one we see in the first scene of the novel, the one Lucas sees in the mirror, the one who speaks from the mirror at the end, the one Shakespeare wrote for his play, or none of these at all? (Later on, the same questions can be applied to Macbeth. A great exam or essay question is: Compare and contrast the use of truth, lying and equivocation in Come Like Shadows and Macbeth.)

13) The meaning of guilt. e.g. In Come Like Shadows, who is guilty of Alec’s death, and why: Dana, her sister (Mrs. Maugham, the “mother figure” of the three sisters), Kinny, Jeneva, or the actor who kills him by accident? Who is guilty of Macbeth’s imprisonment in the mirror, and why? Who is guilty of Dana’s power over Kinny, and why does Lucas feel he is responsible? Who is guilty for making the mirror have power over Lucas, and why does Kinny think she is? (This important issue, about the nature of guilt, will come up in the play later, with both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with Banquo (why didn’t he tell what he suspected?), with Macduff (why did he leave his family unprotected, and how much of his diatribe against Macbeth is due to his own unexpressed feelings of guilt?), and with Malcolm (why does he wait so long to come to Scotland’s aid? Do his self-accusations made to Macduff, which are so hard to explain to students, have any basis in truth - and if they do, what is Shakespeare hinting at? - or perhaps in feelings of guilt?)

14) The relationship of guilt to repentance and lack of repentance in Come Like Shadows, particularly as it applies to Kinny, Lucas, and Dana. Does guilt require an act of redemption, for the guilt to be undone? Can guilt be undone? (Later, you can consider this same question with regard to the play Macbeth, particularly in the scene where Macbeth, believing himself to be immune to Macduff and therefore impossible to kill, tells Macduff to go away and not fight him, saying his soul is too much “charged with blood of thine already”. You can ask if this is an act of redemption, and if it undoes any of the evil that Macbeth has committed.)

A great way to pull most of your English course together at the end is to have a “trial by judge and jury”. What I did was to put the Macbeth of the play on trial: “Macbeth is charged with being so evil he can no longer be considered part of the human race.” (Recall that Macduff says “Not in the legions of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d in evils to top Macbeth.”)

I divided the students into several groups: the prosecution (two students, at least one of whom I chose because he/she was a really careful and conscientious English student: the prosecution’s task was to prepare questions for the witnesses, citing Macbeth’s actions from the play, with the intent to prove that Macbeth is so evil he is no longer part of the human race by the end of the play); the defense (two students, ditto, only with the intent to prove that though evil, Macbeth showed some shreds of humanity even near the end of the play); and character witnesses to answer the prosecution’s and defense’s questions, which would be kept secret until the trial date. I chose sixteen students who would be earplugged during the trial until it was their turn to answer the prosecution’s and the defense’s questions regarding what they thought of the actions of the Macbeth of the play, and why they thought it. Each student would answer the questions not as themselves, but as if they were characters in either Come Like Shadows or the play Macbeth.

I told them individually quite some time in advance of the trial whose viewpoint each would present in answering the questions of the prosecution and the defense about the actions and character of Macbeth in the play: Jeneva, Dana, Kinny, Lucas, Mrs. Maugham, the Come Like Shadow’s character Macbeth, and the “bit” characters from the novel, Adam and Christine; or Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, the doctor, Banquo, Seyton, Duncan, Malcolm, and the porter. This allowed them time to study the character each was going to have to “act out”, and to imagine what this character might think about what he or she might be told (by the prosecution and defense) that Macbeth did throughout the play.

I kept order in the “court” with a hammer as gavel, as if I were the judge, though that was all I did as “judge”. All but two of the remaining students went into the jury box. The two non-jurors wrote reports on the trial. One of them pretended that he or she was a reporter writing about the events of the trial as the trial went on. The other was to represent the judge, in that he or she had to give a final summation and charge to the jury. All the time the trial was going on, he or she was making notes in order to be able to give that summation and charge (see later.)

At the end of the trial, the student who was “judge” read his/her charge to the jury (I allowed some time alone for quiet thought ahead of time.) The jury was then ordered to take the judge’s comments into account, and was sequestered to come up with a verdict of guilty as charged, meaning that the Macbeth of the play was so evil he truly was guilty of being no longer human; or innocent of the charge, which meant that, while the Macbeth of the play was definitely evil, he was not totally inhuman; or unproven, which meant not that the jury was undecided, but that the jury believed neither the prosecution nor the defense had proved its case.

I required complete unanimity of the jury, rather than a majority. (They had to look up which legal systems have the judge to make a charge to the jury, which require unanimity in the jury, and which allow a verdict of unproven. This provided a curriculum crossover with law/history and reinforced the topic of nationalism.) While the jury was sequestered (usually overnight and some time into the next class), the reporter read out his/her account of the trial, and after this the rest of the class all wrote down their own individual decisions (as themselves, this time) on whether the Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play was guilty as charged, innocent, or whether the charge had been unproven; with their reasons for their personal decisions written down in decent English. Since the jury would usually not be back by then, I would have the students who were not on the jury read out their own judgments, and sometimes debate them, until the jury came back.

(I warn you that you can never be certain what the verdict will be ahead of time. It depends so much on how well the students understand the characters they’ve been assigned to “act out”, and how effective they are as actors in answering the questions as their assigned character would likely have answered them, and whether their characters are “sympathetic” to the jury, or not. It also depends on how carefully the concept of guilt and redemption has been explored by the class beforehand.)

It is best if you invite the principal or vice principal and a few parents to come in and observe the trial, and to tell the students about this ahead of time. The students are then aware that they are performing, and they work harder to prepare for the trial.

This trial of the character Macbeth is a much more effective way to get the students to interact with the play Macbeth than anything else I’ve ever discovered. I think it would be impossible to ask an ordinary high school English class to produce Macbeth themselves in the time allowed during the semester system, or even in a whole year course. (To act in a production of the play would perhaps be the only better interaction with the play that they could have.) In any case, the trial as I’ve described it is within the abilities even of Grade nine students, and it is extremely involving to the students, as well as being a wonderful learning experience. It pulls together Come Like Shadows and Macbeth in a very interesting way, teaches the students about acting, and makes them learn a little bit about various legal systems and the responsibilities of ordinary people to make decisions of great importance. It reveals a great deal about why students are expected to study Shakespeare, and indeed English literature, at all.

©All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all website content (except comments by others) copyright Welwyn Wilton Katz. Educators need not purchase a license for use, if already covered by Access Copyright permission.

Return to the Home Page

Return to the Teachers' Guides page

[Beowulf] [Out of The Dark] [Time Ghost] [Come Like Shadows] [Whalesinger] [The Third Magic] [False Face] [Sun God, Moon Witch] [Witchery Hill] [The Prophecy of Tau Ridoo]