Kevin Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonough School in Owings Mills, MD.
This is a pre-reading exercise for the study of Macbeth.
What's On for Today and Why
Students will focus on word frequencies in Macbeth to understand how Shakespeare uses a word or particular group of words in each play that form a web through which he invites his audiences to associate various meanings. Students will then be on the look out for these words as they read the play.
This lesson will take 2 x 45 min class periods.
What You Need
Folger edition of Macbeth
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
DVD of Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre Production of Macbeth. (2008)
What To Do
1. Have students watch the 7 minute special feature, Blood Will Have Blood on the DVD of the Folger/Two River Production of Macbeth.
2. Review the clip starting at 3:25 (the sequence on the word, blood)
Stop at 5:10 when the actor playing Banquo says "Blood can be life- affirming, and it can also be death."
3. Discuss the dual meaning of the word, blood and introduce the concept that Shakespeare typically deals with a set of recurring words particular to each play.
4. Divide the class into groups of 5 and have each group research the word frequencies in Macbeth by visiting http://www.eamesharlan.org/tptt/index.html
5. Have students navigate to the word frequency link from the "About the Play" section on the Macbeth page. Have each group identify five major words (other than high-frequency words such as thou, shall etc) and have them explore the various meanings of these words.
6. Have each group write the word in the center of a sheet of paper and then create a web of denotative and connotative associations.
7. Having completed this list, ask students to look up the meanings of their five words as they would have been used in Elizabethan England by using the online glossary available at www.shakespeareswords.com or at the Perseus Web site, where an online version of C.T. Onions and Alexander Schmidt's dictionaries are available:
8. Have students compare their associations with the dictionary definitions. Which meanings are alike? Which ones are different? Are there dual meanings?
9. Have each group create a frozen picture (instant tableau) that each of their words inspires. Encourage students to find physical expressions based on their immediate reaction to the word. Have students share and discuss their tableaux with the whole class.
10.Lead a discussion exploring the mood, atmosphere etc created by these recurring words. What themes and issues do they predict or foreshadow? In what ways are these words "special effects?", as supported by the directors in the documentary.
11. Ask the students to suggest other visual, aural or physical effects that could support the language of the play?
12. Keep the word charts the students created available as you study the play. Review it regularly to discover words that gain in meaning and those that lose meaning. Do any new words begin to appear regularly? What does this tell us?
How Did It Go?
Despite some inevitable overlap in word choices, did the students find a rich variety of associations to share with the class as a whole?
This pre-reading exercise can be adapted to any of Shakespeare's plays.(Othello, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream all work well.)While Shakespeare concordances and word frequency programs make such an assignment relatively easy for students, programs such as Wordle (www.wordle.net) can produce word clouds for poems and other texts. In a unit on Donne or Yeats, this assignment can provide a specific point of entry that focuses on the words a writer chooses to use.
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.