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Secrets and Allusions in Macbeth by Grainne Hallahan

Secrets and Allusions in Macbeth by Grainne Hallahan

Do You Know What You Don’t Know, And Know Why You Need To Know It?

It’s a family dinner. We’re talking about the new CCTV cameras that have been installed by the bus stop. ‘Remember, Big Brother is watching,’ warns my dad. My little sister gives him a stare. ‘I didn’t know you watched Big Brother dad?’ she asks. My sister isn’t one for reading. She has watched Big Brother, and enjoyed it, without ever connecting it to the Orwellian dystopian novel. She enjoys the television show, she can follow it, she is entirely unaware of all of the references to the different parts of the novel that are referenced in the programme.

How can we be expected to know what we don’t know? The whole point is, we don’t know it.

There are definitely things that surprise me when I discover students don’t know them. I was doing some one to one work with a student in year eleven. We were recapping Act One of Macbeth. We had just had Easter week, and I knew she was a practising Catholic. The school was Roman Catholic. I was quietly confident that she would get the Golgotha reference.

Blank expression. A bit like when a cartoon squirrel is thinking about where the nuts could be.

It was at that point I started collecting bits and pieces on the allusions in Macbeth. To double triple check that they did know these things that I thought that they knew.

The importance of teaching these allusions is initially to ensure that they grasp the meaning of the words of the text. Shakespeare is complex enough without adding in references to places and people they haven’t heard of.

Using the Golgotha example, we can see how the connection go Jesus’ death totally alters the meaning of the worn-out soldier’s words.

As cannons overcharged with double cracks,

So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.

Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,

Or memorize another Golgotha,

I cannot tell—

But I am faint, my gashes cry for help.

Macbeth’s bloodlust is obvious right from the start. Here, the soldier is applauding the skill and bravery of Macbeth. He draws upon the shared understanding of Golgotha as a place of the Christian world’s most devastating destruction to convey the extent of the annihilation.

Later, when Macbeth murders Duncan, we then see the events that follow Christ’s death echo in the aftermath of Duncan:

Lennox: The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, (70)

Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,

And prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion and confused events

New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird

Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth

Was feverous and did shake.

(Act 2 scene 3)

By drawing these connections we can see Shakespeare elevating Duncan to a Christ-like status, emphasising both Duncan’s divine right the to throne, and Macbeth’s treachery.

By introducing these stories to our students in clear and explicit ways, we ensure that these analytical points are securely understood. For them to feel confident in the symbolism, we cannot just tell them it is a symbol, we have to read the original material with them and secure it in their understanding, so that the effect (and it is effect that matters) is firmly understood.

It is not only useful for the teaching of Macbeth, but also in other texts where these biblical and classical allusions are made. We’re preparing our students for the language exam, where the text could be taken from anywhere. We are preparing our students for A Level, where good Bible knowledge is necessary for every text on the syllabus. We are preparing our students for life, where we are sending them out into a world where allusions to the bible and the classical world could appear anywhere, and at any time.

Want to access the Edusites English Macbeth Allusions resources? Click here

How can I use this booklet?

This booklet can be used before you begin teaching the text. It could be set as a homework reading challenge, or to be completed during silent reading in form time.

Alternatively, you could use the booklet as you teach the text, and to support your teaching in class.

For each allusion the first source is the most important one, and then the following ones are there to give examples of where else we can see the allusions appear. You could use the first source in class, and then set the reading of others for homework.

If you still use library lessons in KS3 then this booklet could be used for research tasks, giving students reading material and then activities for research afterwards. All of the subjects are able to be researched without the internet.

Alternatively, you could use the booklet as a cross curricular project with RE, art and history. At the end the student could create their own booklet of allusions for other important biblical or classical events- such as Diana, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah…