For the next few posts, I’d like to address something that I think is undervalued in our society and our school systems today: literature. I have already touched upon how it can help to cultivate critical thinking, but now, at the risk of sounding somewhat airy, I’d like to talk about how it can also cultivate the spirit and teach us important things about human nature. These aspects perhaps are not taken as seriously today when put against some of the ‘hard skills’ taught through public education, but, I would argue, are essential in order to live fully and meaningfully.
I was never one of those teachers who stand in awe of everything written by Shakespeare, (let’s face it, Romeo and Juliet really are just a couple of very immature teenagers who make some very bad decisions), but I never tired of teaching certain of his works, including his darkest, Macbeth. Set around the eleventh century, ‘the Scottish play’ has no end of relevance for our own times. Revolving around a military commander of great prowess and courage, the play tells the story of what happens when you start believing your own press. Praised by his King and colleagues, emboldened by the prophecies of some witches, and encouraged by a seemingly amoral wife, Macbeth gives in to his hidden ambition, setting down a dark road that will see him kill that King, assume the throne, and embark on a bloody reign of terror that will take many innocent lives and cost him everything: his virtue, his humanity, and ultimately his life.
So what does such a tragedy have to teach modern audiences? For me, it always put in stark relief the essential emptiness of pursuing purely material goals; even though we live in times that try to convince us that the key to happiness is “the next big thing,” be it the latest cell phone, plasma T.V. or ______________ (you fill in the blank), experience teaches us that we are doomed to be continually disappointed by such pursuits. Macbeth, however, learns this truth far too late for it to do him any good. We see him early in the play contemplating assassinating Duncan, both his King and his cousin; he asserts that if he could be guaranteed success in this venture, “We’d jump the life to come.” This willingness to sacrifice his very salvation for the acquisition of power is contrasted much later in the play when he admits, “…my way of life/ Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,/ And that which should accompany old age,/ As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have; but in their stead,/Curses, not loud but deep, mouth honor, breath,/ Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.” In this quotation, Macbeth realizes that the achievement of his ambition has not been worth the price he has had to pay, the complete absence of all the indicators of a life well-lived: integrity, love, respect, friendship. All he has instead is those who obey him out of fear.
A chilling lesson, both for Shakespeare’s time and all others.