Polonius and the shower curtain

4th June 2004 at 01:00
My Year 9s approach Macbeth like an assault course that they would handle better. "Macbeth should've had kids," says Liz. "And killed Malcolm and Thingy," says Sam. "Yeah. Why Thingy?" At least they've stopped sword-fighting with their rulers.

What about hell, then? Naah, forget all that spiritual stuff. To these kids, tragedy is a practical problem. Mobile phones would have sorted out Romeo and Juliet, after all: "Im nt dead CU J XX." And how about the AS student who said, "Polonius should've been wearing armour. You know, when he was hiding behind that shower curtain." An unstoppable discussion about why anyone would wear armour in the shower ensued until break.

Why am I surprised? Kids in school are bombarded with instructions and problem-solving. "Never do this, Always do this. If you do this, what will happen?" So, naturally, they approach these bloodthirsty stories with a can-do, practical optimism that can be quite cheery. Can be. "Lady Macbeth should've had a bag for the dirty daggers." And then everything would have been all right, I suppose.

Trouble is, how do you keep all this chirpy speculation out of their essays? Spend a double lesson on the title. Macbeth says, "We but teachBloody instructions." Yeah, I know the feeling.

You have to do it, though, or else you get a friendly tide of cosy anecdotes about the Macbeths' marital problems. "Lady Macbeth is cross with her husband because she had arranged the murder nicely." I like it. How to kill like a domestic goddess.

There is something about this cheerfully amoral approach to Shakespearean tragedy that I quite like, though. There's a bouncy faith here that all suffering can be avoided. No kind old king need ever be knifed in his sleep and no young bride need ever be biffed at the altar if only people wouldn't be so stupid. It's not greed, lust or ambition - it's just stupid. There's something very bracing about that statement, especially if you say it loud enough.

What would Shakespeare have made of all this? I don't think he would have minded. After all, tragedies were a bit like gigantic stop signs to a God-fearing audience. Shakespeare might have been quite chuffed with my Year 9s' final verdict on Macbeth: "What have you learned from this play?"

"Don't kill people." "Yeah. And don't listen to witches."

They're not messing about, are they? Who knows - with people not being stupid and everyone having a mobile phone, tragedies may become a thing of the past.

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