Monday, May 14, 2012

400 year old insights from William Shakespeare

Today, both my y12 classes, who are studying Macbeth, looked at Act 4 scene 2 (the murder of Lady Macduff and her family) and the first part of scene 3 (when Malcolm 'tests' Macduff.)

I spent some time talking to the class about the importance of the role of Thane: that it was an honored position which carried great responsibility to the people of the thanage - to ensure that they were well looked after; kept safe; that their issues were sorted; that they had enough to eat and were able to thrive. Also, that to be a king's thane meant absolute loyalty to the king - God's representative on earth. To bring discredit or to publicly criticize the leader of ones country was treachery.

We talked about the modern day equivalent - Chris Carter speaking out again the leader of the labour party here in NZ. I asked my students what they had observed of the fate of any politician in power to spoke out against their leader. Did the leader fall? No. The person who criticized did.

Lady Macduff was right to call her husband a traitor. She says that even the tiniest of birds, the wren, would do all it could against the owl to protect its babies. Her husband did not even have the courage of a bird. Later, Malcolm asks the same thing of Macduff - how could you leave your family so vulnerable - especially at this time?

It is poignant when Lady Macduff makes this comment - one that is a universal truth:
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly.

I said to my students - it takes great courage to stand up and do good. We talked about those that did and do: Martin Luther King Jr; Rosa Parks, Emily Pankhurst; Kathryn Bolkovoc; Sam Childers. We talked about the great challenge: Evil Flourishes when good men do nothing (Edmund Burke).

When we looked closely at the way Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty, we spotted another universal truth - one that has chilling recognition for many of them studying recent history:
A good and virtuous nature may recoil
In an imperial charge.

In other words, I was ordered to do it by my commanding officer.

The way human nature works - its expression and reaction to what people, circumstances and dreams come their way is richly mined in the works of Shakespeare.

As I work on the final rewrites for Birthright, I am so lucky to be daily saturated by the incredible insight from a man who died over 400 years ago.

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