Teacher, Try Me No.6: Teaching the Concept of Masculinity in Macbeth to the More Able

For the last week or so, I’ve been looking at honing students’ ability to have their own personal and critical stance on the themes in Macbeth. 

I’m fortunate enough to work in a school where students actively seek out revision guides and additional materials which support them in improving their knowledge of the text, but when it comes to essay writing, they are in danger of regurgitating pages and pages of other people’s views that they’ve almost committed to memory- I’ve found more recently that students end up having prepared an answer to a question that they haven’t been asked.

I’m trying hard to get the students to think for themselves about the play, to have a critical opinion/ a ‘gut’ feeling about characters and the presentation of certain themes within the play. 

This week with Year 10, we’ve been looking at ideas of masculinity in the play. I’ve really enjoying taking the time to ‘deep dive’ (to coin a phrase!) into one of the play’s thematic concerns. When preparing for the lessons,I had found this really interesting post-graduate essay written by a student in  Cairo. Whilst most of the essay wasn’t really appropriate for able Year 10s (as it was a complex psychoanalytical reading of the play), the opening chapter on masculinity in the play was particularly useful. This covered ideas of the environment being a place that valued ‘justified’ brutality and the extent to which Macbeth could be considered a victim.

This particular line made for some very interesting discussion, especially in terms of Shakespeare’s intentions. Once they had had some time to think, we started a class discussion, using the ‘Agree, Build, Challenge’ method (more on Visible Thinking here…).

The students did tend to side with the view that ideas of masculinity and femininity were confused by the play, which again led to some interesting interpretations of Macbeth’s actions when his masculinity or control of a situation is brought into question. 

After a deeper investigation into some of the key scenes that displayed aspects of masculinity (the opening scenes and Act 1 Sc 5, 6 and 7), I asked students to step back from the play and consider the theme again, but this time structurally. ‘What happens,where? Are there patterns to Macbeth’s behaviour? Why now?’ 

This time, they were asked the question, ‘ If you could draw masculinity in Macbeth, what would it look like?’

This question forces students to consider the purpose and value of the theme within the play, especially in relation to other themes.

One student said she would draw a dagger, as she thought the play showed that violence was synonymous with bravery/ masculinity- the follow-up question was ‘ Ok, so where would ambition be placed on that drawing?’

In speaking in quite an abstract way about the themes in the text, students were able to gain a clearer sense of the way that the themes are both interconnected and interdependent. 

After this, I asked students to consolidate their thinking by sketchnoting the theme itself. Some of their ideas and thoughts showed evidence of a personal engagement with the theme.

This idea of a ‘Why Macbeth kills potion’ is really interesting view in terms of the range of factors influencing Macbeth’s behaviour.
This student had a really interesting idea of how Macbeth acts violently in order to seek validation from Lady Macbeth, to the extent where he proves his masculinity by ordering further murders without involving her.

It was now time to start getting the students to be able to articulate clearly what they thought about the function of masculinity in the play. I was really pleased with this particular response, which had utilised a new thesis generator (free to download under the image!) to support the creation of their thesis statements (I have loosely based this on a document I had picked up some years ago, but I can’t remember where, so thank you for the source, whoever you are!)

You can download this (for free!) below

I’ve been really pleased with their initial efforts. This one was shared with the class:

Next, we are going to look at how to plan their thinking over the course of the full essay. I’ll update soon with how we are approaching planning.

Hopefully these ideas have been of some use, I’ve certainly found these strategies useful in helping to break free from the stock Macbeth response and has made their writing and thinking much more focused. 

Enjoy the challenge! 

UPDATE: In October, it seems that the slow planning and slow thinking about concepts in the play have really started to pay off. Students are now in the habit of questioning and delving deeper into Macbeth’s thinking and the construction of the play as a whole. This example really highlights the improvements in the students’ work:

The second paragraph , exploring the range of meanings behind Macbeth’s hallucination shows evidence of critical thought.

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