Despite his age, Macbeth remains relevant in the 21st century.
Since 1906 there have been at least 17 film and television productions of ShakespeareMacbeth, each featuring the greatest directors and actors of the era.
The fact that director Joel Coen delivered another cinematic version of Macbeth reinforces the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s themes and their place in our high school classrooms, as these 16th-century themes continue to inform our understanding of the world of 2022.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Macbeth still resonates in 2022. After all, this is a version of a tale so often told about a ruthlessly ambitious man devoid of any moral or ethical foundation who is not moved by the decency or integrity of those who surround her, and who obtains the highest office in the earth for no other reason than the power she brings against her detractors and perceived enemies.
The moral responsibilities of leadership are inevitably sacrificed on the altar of self-interest.
These are the themes that lead Macbethrelevance in the 21st century and the modern classroom.
Shakespeare’s enduring worldview, with all of its quirks and weaknesses, humor and tragedy, has always been more effectively represented by a movie than by words on a page. Macbeth is not a book but a script that must be interpreted through performance, and has always been a gift for imaginative directors and actors.
Coen’s interpretation, described by one reviewer as “littered with schemers gripped by misguided ambitions,” will resonate with discerning CNN children today with its obvious and tempting 21st century political parallels.
Under the imaginative direction of Coen, Macbeth emerges in this latest iteration as a modern parable at the right time, starring Denzel Washington in the lead role, with Frances McDormand (of Coen’s Fargo) as Macbeth’s equally ambitious wife.
This version, like every other film release, raises important questions about how we teach Shakespeare in today’s busy school days.
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in their entirety in one sitting for a predominantly illiterate audience of the 1600s, and not read bit by bit in a high school class with a move to the next math or science class that takes place. profile every 60 minutes, just when the plot gets interesting. This is not an episodic play. It’s a two to two and a half hour experience.
Created in 1606, Macbeth is also an important piece of literary history, as it marks the intersection between the fatalism of great Greek tragedies such as Antigone and Medea and post-Reformation Elizabethan tragedies such as that of Marlowe. Dr. Faust, first performed in 1592.
The Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus demonstrated to the public of their time that it was the cruel fantasies of the gods who, by deception and temptation, controlled a character’s actions, and how by his inordinate pride, his pride fatal, the gods would destroy him. In contrast, the Elizabethan dramas influenced by the Protestant Reformation of the seventeenth century emphasized that it was man alone, and not the gods, who should take responsibility and be held accountable for his own sins.
The good news about Macbeth in the classroom, presented in a filmed version, is that it is the ideal vehicle for English teachers to teach the play at three levels of comprehension.
First, there is the literal level, which consists of understanding words, phrases and cultural allusions from another time. It’s a cultural history lesson in itself.
Second, the inferential level of understanding invites the class to discuss the complex relationships and motivations of the characters in the play and the events around them.
Finally, the critical level challenges students to place what they learn in the context of what they already know and to understand that great literature is always open to interpretation and is still relevant for the ‘now’.
Coen’s interpretation of Macbeth is described by screenwriter Jake Coyle as “an intoxicating and expressionistic adaptation of Shakespeare, dense with fog and shadow… which has never been so brutally drawn by sound and fury”.
This is yet another argument for immersing today’s children in Shakespeare’s vivid visual imagination, which could never be adequately represented simply by words on a page, or even by staging. . Modern cinematic technology is perhaps the closest thing to engaging audiences with the intensely dramatic moral messages that the Bard’s boundless and almost surreal imagination intended to convey.
Kids today may forget to surf Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu when looking for a compelling story filled with complex and conflicting characters. Shakespeare had it all, and his tragedies tackle the most complex but timeless themes imaginable: murder, love, ambition, betrayal, violence, revenge and hatred. They constitute the complete package.
Geoff Johnson is a former high school English teacher and school principal.