Who's this slag I see before me?

11th April 2003 at 01:00
The language may be streets away from Shakespeare's, but as new tests dispense with the need for a close engagement with the text, it's the Bard's own words that bring Macbeth to life for Emma Goldman's class of inner-city teenage boys

Many years have passed since I studied Macbeth at school, but I can still quote large passages - not unusual for someone my age. In Mrs Aranzulla's O-level class, we "translated" every word of the play: the process was the gateway to its soul. But depth has long been going out of fashion and this year sees the introduction of new-style English testing at key stage 3.

These tests will not ask if pupils have read their Shakespeare. They will simply request them to demonstrate that they "know the story" and can "do" things with it - for example, can they describe how they would direct the "action" of one of the four set scenes? Some teachers in my school joke that there is almost no need now to look at the poet's words. But as one of the many pedagogical dinosaurs that haunt Blair's Britain - still believing that the point of Shakespeare is the language and that therein lies the truth of all he writes - I am determined to sneak in as traditional a teaching as possible while I prepare them for their exams.

But it's not easy. My inner-city bottom set boys look at their Macbeth texts with varying degrees of interest. "Can you buy these books? Where from?"

"Are these the exact things Shakespeare said?"

"'ow much left of this lesson?"

King Duncan arrives, unsuspecting, at the Macbeths' Scottish castle and admires the view. He comments on the sweet-smelling air ("heaven's breath") and "the guest of the summer, the temple-haunting martlett". A martlett is a bird, I start to explain.

"What does it look like?" asks Gideon, a small boy with a yellow Afro comb stuck at a right angle through his hair.

"I'm not sure," I say. But the boys don't like uncertainty so I make it up.

"Grey. Small, I think."

Gideon's face brightens. "I sin one of them! The other day. Down ma area."

When Lady Macbeth tries to persuade her husband to kill King Duncan, the boys are disgusted; henceforth she is referred to as "a slag".

On stage alone, Macbeth, in a bleak soliloquy, reveals his confusion.

Running through the reasons why he should not go through with the murder, he says that, for starters, Duncan is "his kinsman and his subject". Once the meaning of that has been established, Trevor looks up. He is a large boy who combs his hair continuously in class and refuses to squeeze his legs under the desk.

"I'd never kill my cousin."

But Macbeth also fears retribution - he is worried that if "we teach bloody instructions they return to plague th' inventor".

It takes a while to get this clear; nobody knows the explanatory phrase "live by the sword, die by the sword" and, on a simpler level still, none has heard of karma. But, eventually, I think I've managed it. I try to underline the philosophy. "If you do good, you get good back."

Avar, a studious-looking boy, doesn't agree. "You don't know that, man.

People might still 'assle you on the street."

Discussions of royal murders widen to embrace our contemporary world.

"Is it true," Gideon suddenly asks, "that the queen, yeah, if she kills someone she won't get arrested?"

Derek, a blond boy who is forever asking if he can move up into a higher set, nods. "She rules the police."


A scuffle starts towards the front of the class. Trevor turns round irritably to the non-English speaking Muslim refugee sitting behind him.

"What ya chattin' about?"

The refugee grins.

"Stop it," I say sharply to Trevor.

"'e's cussin' me," he protests. "'e called me Bin Laden."

With an interest awakened by the "temple-haunting martlett", Gideon returns to birds.

"What are them black ones called with yellow beaks?"


They snigger.

After killing Duncan, Macbeth starts to get paranoid, and the next person to get the dagger is his best friend, Banquo. The appearance of Banquo's bloody ghost at a great banquet prompts our own brand of table talk.

"That's a long table, innit? An' people sit down an' munch on food."

Avar looks puzzled at the description of length. "What if they wanna pass the salt?"

Baron, at the back of the room, has started to leaf through Auto Trader magazine. It is impossible to predict how Baron will be on any particular day as whatever happens in one of my lessons has no bearing for the next.

He carries neither good feeling nor ill from one to another. He has two main airs: the first, a learnedness solemn enough to border on portentousness; the second, a may-the-devil-take-you dismissiveness. I ask him to put away the paper. He replies that his bag has been nicked so he has no books.

"You don't need any books. Just follow the play."

"The words is confusin'. They go in my 'ead an' confuse me, man."

"That doesn't mean you can sit and read Auto Trader."

"I'm lookin' for a motor, innit. Leave me alone."

I send Zakwan, who is reliable, downstairs for SSD (senior staff deployment) to take him away.

Miss Luck doesn't waste time arguing. When an indignant Baron refuses to move, she unlocks the door of the room opposite and moves the rest of the class into it, where the lesson now takes place. Baron is left behind.

Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his doubts, calling him "lily-liver'd". Then she berates him further: "I have given suck and know how tender 'tis to love the babe who milks me. Yet I wouldI have plucked my nippleI" I stop, looking bored at the commotion that ensues. "You'll fail if you don't pay attention, boys."

"I don't wanna fail."

"Neither do I."

"It's Trevor. Tell 'im to shut up."

"You shut up!"

"What, are you gay or what?"

Trevor starts laughing again.

"Shut up!" shout the boys angrily.

"Call SSD, Miss!"

I continue. "I my nipple from its boneless gums and dashed its brains outI had I known," she continues, "that you were going to turn out to be such a coward."

I wait.

Nobody speaks.

The boys have been temporarily silenced.

"Dashed its brains out?"

"That's disgustin'," somebody says at last.

"She gotta go to jail for that."


"Did you 'ear that, Miss? Did you 'ear what 'e called 'er?"

The bell goes.

Another class waits at the door but the boys do not move. The words of Lady Macbeth concern them.

"It's true. She's a slag. She shouldn't be nowhere near children."

"'e don't 'ave to do what she says."

"That's true. If she was my wife I'd just tell 'er to shut up."

"If she was my wife I'd never 'ave married 'er. She's too scary."

"You can't say if she was your wife you'd never 'ave married 'er. That don't make sense."

"Well, but she's still scary."

Finally they amble out of the classroom.

I go back to the original room. Baron is still sitting there, proving his point that he should not have to move. When he sees me he gets up.

"See you," he says at the door.

Images of Lady Macbeth float down the corridor.

"Dash a baby's brains out!"

"She don't deserve to be queen."

"It's 'er fault 'e kills Duncan. She makes 'im do it."

"'e can always say no."

"Would you, though?"


"Say no. To someone like that?"

"Well, but what about the three witches? They tempted 'im, too."

"'e's weak, man."

"Would you like bein' called lily-liver'd, though?"

"Woman wants to be queen and persuades her husband to kill his way to the top."


If anything has got to them it is the language. Only the language can take them inside the story. And I'm determinedthat one day it will take Baron there, too.

Emma Goldman teaches English at an inner-London school. She has written three (unpublished) novels and is nearing the end of her fourth.All children's names have been changed

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