The wonder of studying Shakespeare was brought home to me again during a recent field trip to the Museum of Surgical Science.
".. a little water clears us of this deed!"
Class Eight had just finished their tour — some of which was quite gruesome — and we were having lunch on the lakefront. While a few students splashed their feet on the water’s edge, I approached and asked if any Shakespeare lines came to mind. Without missing a beat, a student turned, gestured to the water, and declared: “a little water clears us of this deed!”
The contrast of the enormity of Lake Michigan with Lady Macbeth’s estimation that purging the guilt of King Duncan’s murder would amount to no more than a “little water” came through with fresh clarity and power.
What value is there in performing a play that is legitimately scary and has such a high body count? One answer might be that Macbeth puts evil on a scale: we witness the disastrous results of giving in to temptation. Indeed, the choices of Macbeth implicate the world of nature, men, and the supernatural, all of which are interconnected.
“New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if felt with Scotland and yell’d out like syllable of dolour.”
We see the psychological torment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the aftermath of the murder; we also see the misery and cruelty visited upon Scotland because of their avarice: “New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if felt with Scotland and yell’d out like syllable of dolour.” Macbeth’s actions sink Scotland into a world of destruction and are anything but little. Lady Macbeth says as much when she later laments: “all perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh.”
" All perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh.”
While it is instructive to learn from the disheartening scale of evil deeds, it is no less instructive to see the good that rises to overcome it. It is fortifying to witness nobility rise up against the abuses of a tyrant, even as victory comes at great personal cost. While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth invoke darkness as their cover (“Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires”), Malcolm and Macduff invoke heaven and grace. Macbeth’s increasing isolation is opposed by a great coalition of the good, who accomplish the impossible — the slaying of Macbeth by one who was not born of a woman and the woods of Birnam marching against him.
I am reminded of a line in a Longfellow poem that the Middle School memorized earlier this year, though there is often no peace on earth and it may seem like we are, in Ross’s words, “but float upon a wild and violent sea,” we can take heart knowing that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to man.” In the end, order is restored, the refugees that were hounded by the watchful eyes of Macbeth are called to return to Scotland under a rightful king who rules by “the grace of Grace.”
“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to man.”
"Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is amazing to witness how moments in Shakespeare seep through into real life. When students read, memorize, and perform Shakespeare, the world around them — full of its irony, comedy, and tragedy — shines a little more. Aside from the delights of language, the rails of the good are a great possession to have for facing the harsh realities of a world wracked with avarice. May we also form part of the coalition of the good.
The author Erik Aulie grew up in Mexico, where his grandparents and parents served as Bible translators and church-planters. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Erik moved to northern Iraq to teach History and Literature at the Classical School of the Medes. In recent years, he has been involved in building schools for displaced Yezidi children in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Erik is currently teaching Seventh Grade and upperschool Spanish at Clapham. He holds a BA in Middle Eastern History from Biola University, and a MA in Kurdish Studies from the University of Exeter.
For more information about the performances of this year's Middle School Shakespeare play, Macbeth, see our Shakespeare play webpage. For more on Shakespeare at Clapham see "Why Shakespeare" by our director, Hannah Bramsen, or "Why The Merchant of Venice? The Triumph of Grace Over Greed" by Jason Barney, Academic Dean.