Shakespearean texts are funny old things. Every UK English literature exam board features one at GCSE, and I’ve worked in schools where parents complained if we didn’t choose the Shakespearean option. He’s synonymous with quality and genius – a national treasure in the truest sense.
However, I can count the number of 15- and 16-year-olds who have immediately loved Shakespeare on one hand. The language is inaccessible, it’s hard to work out what’s going on, and they (and I quote) “don’t get it”.
When relocation offered me the opportunity to take up a part-time PhD alongside teaching, it didn’t take me much time to arrive at a thesis subject: blood in Shakespeare. It’s everywhere, it’s gripping, it’s gruesome, it tells us all sorts of things about gender roles, medical beliefs of the time, social hierarchies – and it’s a way into context that isn’t “Shakespearean society was a patriarchal society” and “Lady Macbeth was unusual because Shakespearean women had no power”.
So how do I do it? Although my approach differs slightly across key stages 3 and 4, blood is at the heart of it.
Make blood potions
Key stage 3
I use blood initially as a “way in” with KS3 and, to begin with, we make blood potions. Early modern scientists and theologians believed you could tell a lot about a person just from looking at their blood: dark, sluggish, thick blood belonged to cowards while thin, fast-flowing, intense red blood was “laudable” and meant you were a moral individual.
Most scientists believed in the Galenic theory: that the body contained four humours (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood) – an excess of one could impact upon your personality (for example, too much black bile caused you to be melancholic, a brooder, a worrier – a bit of a Hamlet, if you will).
Once we’ve gone over the medical context of blood, we create our own blood vial “samples” based on a character profile of a character they’ve previously studied or are about to meet.
This can be done using the medium of arts and crafts or, if you’re feeling brave, through an actual blood potion. Red or brown food dye, some red slime to thicken, a sprinkling of coloured glitters for the other humours.
We then label our potions with key quotes, which justify the choices.
Key stage 4
In KS4, this can also be a lighthearted revision task: give them a scene and ask them to recreate the blood of a character at that dramatic moment. Macbeth in Act 4 after the Macduff murders might have thick, dark brown blood with sprinklings of black bile glitter –“give to the edge o’ the sword/ His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls/ That trace him in his line” – whereas the Macbeth from Act 1 might be have thin, bright-red, warm, fast-flowing blood – “For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name – /Disdaining fortune”.
Anything that gets them revising quotes that are meaningfully linked to transformation of character is a plus in my book, and it can be as restrained as just using a few coloured pencils if the idea of blood-coloured mess makes you want to reach for the surface spray.
Become 17th-century doctors and diagnose sickness
In both KS3 and KS4, we’ve also played 17th-century doctors and diagnosed Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines with maladies from the Renaissance, based on a character profile of their key quotes and characteristics: green sickness for frustrated virgins, hysteria, lovesickness, uterine fury.
All the illnesses chosen are connected to blood, usually through a suspected excess/plethora blocking up the body, and their treatments range from leeches (phlebotomy) to medically prescribed marriage. Having a more comprehensive contextual knowledge of blood doesn’t just make students seem informed, it allows them to be exploratory – the key assessment objective 3 element for a level 9.
Use blood to discuss dramatic interpretations
Blood is also an excellent medium for discussing different dramatic interpretations of characters: this is ideal for a higher-ability KS4 set and perfect for English literature A level.
Who does the director think is guilty? How do we know? Does their use of blood give us a clue? A classic example might be how different directors choose to stage the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder: Rupert Goold’s 2010 Soviet-inspired Macbeth has Patrick Stewart remain spotless in his white shirt, while Lady Macbeth’s hands quickly become soaked in blood.
On the other hand, Cressida Brown’s 2020 production at The Globe has Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equally stained with blood after the act has been committed. What does that tell us about who the director thinks is the impetus behind these evil acts? Does it support the idea of fate or personal agency?
And what about Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation, where the audience/viewer actually sees Macbeth stabbing the defenceless Duncan to death, and his prostrate, mutilated, blood-soaked body afterwards. How does that impact how we react to the character of Macbeth?
Blood seems to act as a natural draw for teenagers: it’s in every action film worth its salt, video games, comics, animation, magazine articles, the list goes on. It’s something we have in common with the 16th- and 17th-century population: they might not have had Grand Theft Auto, but they had bear-baiting, traitors’ heads displayed on sticks and public executions. They, like us, were fascinated with blood. And if we have a shared interest, we have a shared perspective – and that makes us a hell of a lot closer to “getting it”.
Hetty Hughes is subject lead for drama at The Bishop’s Stortford High School and a part-time PhD student at King’s College London