My Advanced Sophomore Literature and Composition class spent all 45 minutes of class today engaging in a “Socratic Seminar” (student-led class discussion) about the play Macbeth. As usual with this class, I tried to cram too many topics into the agenda. Sorry, students: I’ll adjust my plans with greater accuracy as the year moves along.
There were many highlights of the conversation from my point of view, and although I disagreed with some of the interpretations I heard, none were ill-informed or just plain wrong.
When Nicole commented that Macbeth’s lack of children “fueled” his ambitions for power, I was very, very proud. I’ve been intentionally not making that argument in class so as to let the students come to that important psychological conclusion themselves, and voila! Good old Harold Bloom will add to the evidence for that interpretation when we read his chapter on Macbeth over the weekend.
I was worried that the class would just spend fifteen seconds on the Nietzschean material, but instead the students dug deeply into the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the play. Here I thought that no one got it exactly right. Yes, the witches represent the Dionysian force, but Macbeth is definitely the Apollonian. Yeah, yeah, I know that he kills a lot of people and that seems chaotic and thus Dionysian. But he is actually trying to force his particular sense of order on Scotland, and that is Apollonian. Remember, the main characters in a tragedy are the Apollonian force as they try to find their way through the challenging world in which they find themselves. The witches cause mischief and stir up the dreamlike, unconscious part of Macbeth, so it makes sense that they are Dionysian. No one mentioned in class that the play has no chorus, which was an omission. But notice how all of the rather interchangeable thanes function like a chorus (Lennox, Ross, Caithness, Menteith, etc.). They talk among themselves and to nameless citizens (a “Lord”) to comment on the actions of Macbeth.
The class also got a bit sidetracked in discussing what Hegel would have said about the play. Too many students zeroed in on the climactic moment when Macbeth decides to keep wading across the River of Blood (3.4). Remember that in the play Antigone, our heroine is trapped between two equally good/bad paths from page one. That is not the case in Macbeth. He begins the play as a war hero who is riding high, but then he meets the witches who plant the seeds of ambition and murder in his mind. He doesn’t have to do anything, though, and he speaks that clearly (“If chance will have me king . . .” 1.3). If you want to make the Hegelian argument, it would make more sense to talk about how his wife functions as one half of the Scylla/Charybdis in his life. If he chooses not to kill Duncan, then he will lose the respect of his wife, and that’s a bad path. But killing Duncan is also a bad path, so his life is going to take a turn for the worse after he meets the witches. I know that when I teach this play I hammer home the importance of the climax so forcefully that it is no surprise that many students went right to the River of Blood moment when discussing the Hegelian interpretation, but that is really an important moment in the map of Shakespeare’s plot arc (a.k.a. Freytag’s Pyramid). Overall, Macbeth is not a play that illustrates Hegel’s theory especially well.
Andrew made a wonderful point about children representing “lineage” in Macbeth, which was then augmented by Paul’s closing shot just as we were packing up after the bell. Paul argued that Macbeth lives in the present and is trying to “kill the future” by murdering children (Paul particularly mentioned Young Siward in Act 5). You are both absolutely correct: Macbeth’s childlessness makes him resent children and those who have children to inherit their titles. Notice how the witches’ prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo in 1.3 plant this seed in Macbeth’s mind. The Harold Bloom article will explain why Macbeth has no children (if you read carefully).