Island Academics

Macbeth Saves the Quarter

By Ben Biddle,
Gifft Hill School Head Master
St. John Tradewinds

Along with my administrative duties, I have the good fortune of teaching Gifft Hill School’s advanced high school students in honors English each day. Whatever else is going on, second period is my respite, when I sit down with 11 hard-thinking teenagers to discuss great literature.

Little is as satisfying to a teacher as a roomful of engaged students. That said, engagement comes in different forms: students tend to condone and condemn with equal vigor. What interests me — particularly given how well I know the students in my class this year — is their unpredictable responses to the various texts we read.

So far this semester, we have completed William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” And I was quite surprised by how the class received each.

Students sometimes feel an initial disdain for complicated works of art, and Faulkner can certainly provoke such disdain, relating his stories in a time-backward, stream-of-consciousness way. Thus, teaching “Absalom, Absalom” requires patience: the will to withstand claims of “oh my gosh this is terrible,” while working to bring students around (hopefully before the end of the book) to a proper appreciation of Faulkner’s genius. These students, however, remained staunchly resistant to the novel throughout, often repeating, “Please, can we read something good?”

“You will be fond of ‘Absalom, Absalom’ one day, even if you never read it again,” I would state.

And I would explain that art, especially literature, can have a delayed impact. Years hence, that is, you may wonder about a certain texture or depth in your understanding of the American south — and only then recognize Faulkner’s power. But, alas, they would have none of it.  

In October, then, we read “Macbeth” — its distribution accompanied by deep sighs from all. Such low expectations do not typically concern me; often, a week elapsed, students will admit they are intrigued by a text they had derided. Nevertheless, a teacher does not want to defend what seems like boredom for too long at a stretch. Only because I anticipated the class would finally enjoy Faulkner did I place the daunting Shakespeare next on the syllabus. But now I felt some pressure. Was the first quarter to be remembered with all the relish of a Latin class?  

And then “Macbeth” unleashed its violent power; I had forgotten myself what was there. The play is Shakespeare’s blockbuster, fast and cool. Despite the old English and the cosmic metaphors, students were enthralled from the first scene — and were soon finding the tragedy hysterical too: Lady Macbeth is a riot of cruelty to Macbeth! Throw in the witches and he is doomed! So much blood! What a jerk!

Who would have guessed? The students thoroughly enjoyed “Macbeth”; Shakespeare succeeded as both outlandish and modern. Meanwhile, the indeed modern Faulkner had garnered no praise at all.

So, hail to the Bard! “Generation Next” thinks thee excellent. Faulkner, on the other hand, will simply have to wait his due.