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Geoff Johnson: New film version of Macbeth shows its relevance to modern students

Despite its age, Macbeth remains relevant in the 21st century.
Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth, now playing in select ­theatres and streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 14. COURTESY APPLE TV+/TNS

Since 1906, there have been at least 17 film and TV productions of Shakespeare’s ­Macbeth, each one featuring the greatest directors and actors of the time.

The fact that film director Joel Coen has delivered yet another film version of Macbeth reinforces the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s themes and their place in our senior high-school classrooms, as those 16th-century themes continue to inform our understanding of the world of 2022.

It should be no surprise that Macbeth still resonates in 2022. After all, it is a ­version of a tale told so often about a ruthlessly ­ambitious man devoid of moral or ethical foundation who is not moved by the decency or integrity of those around him, and who gains the highest office in the land for no other reason than the power it brings against his perceived detractors and enemies.

The moral responsibilities of leadership are inevitably sacrificed on the altar of ­self-interest.

It is these themes that bring Macbeth’s relevance into the 21st century and the ­modern classroom.

Shakespeare’s enduring view of the world, with all its quirks and foibles, humour and tragedy, has always been more effectively represented by film than by words on a page. Macbeth is not a book but a script that needs to be interpreted through ­performance, and has always been a gift to imaginative film directors and actors.

Coen’s interpretation, described by one reviewer as “crowded with schemers seized by misguided ambitions,” will resonate with today’s CNN news-wise kids with its obvious and tempting 21st century political parallels.

Under the imaginative direction of Coen, Macbeth emerges in this latest iteration as a well-timed modern parable, starring Denzel Washington in the lead role, with Frances McDormand (from Coen’s Fargo) as ­Macbeth’s equally ambitious wife.

This version, like all the other film ­versions, raises important questions about how we teach Shakespeare in today’s heavily timetabled school day.

Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in their entirety at one sitting for an essentially non-literate audience of the 1600s, not read bit by bit in a high-school classroom with a shift to the next Math or Science class looming every 60 minutes, just when the plot becomes interesting. It is not an episodic play. It is a two to two-and-a-half-hour experience.

First performed in 1606, Macbeth is also an important piece of literary history, given that it marks the intersection between the fatalism of the great Greek tragedies such as Antigone and Medea and the post- Reformation Elizabethan tragedies such as Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, first performed in 1592.

The Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus demonstrated for audiences of their time that it was the cruel whimsies of the gods, that, through deception and temptation, controlled a character’s actions, and how through his overweening pride, his fatal hubris, the gods would destroy him. In contrast, the 17th-century post-Protestant Reformation-influenced Elizabethan dramas emphasized that it was man alone, not the gods, who must assume responsibility and be held accountable for his own sins.

The good news about Macbeth in the classroom, presented in filmed version, is that it is the perfect vehicle for teachers of English to teach the play at three levels of understanding.

First there is the literal level, which involves understanding words, phrases and cultural allusions from another time. That’s a cultural history lesson all by itself.

Secondly, the inferential level of ­understanding invites class discussion about the complex relationships and motivations of the characters in the play and the events that surround them.

Finally, the critical level challenges ­students to bring what they are learning into the context of what they already know and to understand that great literature is always subject to interpretation and is still relevant to the “now.”

Coen’s interpretation of Macbeth is described by film writer Jake Coyle as “an intoxicatingly expressionist Shakespeare adaptation, dense in fog and shadow… which has never been so starkly drawn in sound and fury.”

It’s yet another argument for ­immersing today’s kids in Shakespeare’s vividly visual imagination, which could never be ­adequately represented simply by words on a page, or even by a stage production. ­Modern film technology may be the ­closest thing to involving the audience with the intensely dramatic moral messages the Bard’s limitless and almost surrealistic imagination was intending to convey.

Today’s kids can forget surfing through Netflix, Amazon or Hulu when looking for an exciting story populated by complex and conflicted characters. Shakespeare had it all and his tragedies grapple with the most ­complex but ageless themes imaginable: murder, love, ambition, betrayal, violence, revenge and hatred. They are the complete package.

Geoff Johnson is a former high school ­English teacher and superintendent of schools.