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Macbeth: A Seared Conscience by Bonnie Buckingham

06 Jan 2018 1:45 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

What, you egg?

Young fry of treachery!

(Act 4, Scene 2)

      This line was chosen by most of my students to copy. We busted into laughter right before yet another murder.  I wonder if these words will be echoes in their lives like Hollins Hoodhood in The Wednesdays Wars  ( by Gary Schmidt) when he read Shakespeare every Wednesday afternoon with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. I would like to think so as my students read Shakespeare on Thursdays after lunch and another class on Wednesday mornings.

     I began scaffolding Macbeth with a reading from the beginning of Mary MacLeod’s   “Shakespeare Story Book”  called The Weird Sisters (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/49146/49146-h/49146-h.htm) :

      Quoting from the link above, 

Witchcraft is now a thing of the past unless there still lingers in some very remote corners a belief  for evil of some poor old body, whose only claim for such distinction is, perhaps, her loneliness and ugliness. But in ancient days, and even into the last century, such a belief was a very usual thing. ‘Wise women,’ as they were called, who pretended they had the power of foretelling the future, were by no means uncommon, and even learned people and those in high positions were not ashamed to consult them with regard to coming events. In Scotland, this belief lingered much longer than in England, and even to this day, in remote parts of the Highlands, there are some who claim they have the gift of ‘second sight’ – that is, that they can see in advance events that will happen several years apart. (p. 246)

The time when the present story occurred was hundreds of years ago, in the year 1039, before William the Conqueror had come to Britain, and when England and Scotland were entirely separate kingdoms. (p.246)

      My Form III and Forms IV – VI classes  opened up the play to see Macbeth coming from war to hear the three weird sisters or three witches. Throughout the term the students acted, narrated, used maps, picked out favorite lines, accessed character and plot, and guessed who was going to die next. We counted murders and discussed motives. They wrote obituaries, newspaper headlines, and rewrote one letter from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth. One student ended her note with a tweet! Another student used the term: seared conscience (which had come from a recent sermon) to define Macbeth’s character.  Plays are to be read aloud and acted. We did and there were many begging to be Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth. I showed a few clips from Kenneth Branagh’s  live performances  in England, New York City, and National Live Theater. I showed images from One Man’s Macbeth by a Senior at The Kings College in New York City. That’s right:  23 characters done by a 21 year old! As many extras came our way I was standing on the words of Charlotte Mason that the Holy Spirit will teach our children.

    Charlotte Mason wrote in Vol. 6, p. 140 about Macbeth’s seared conscience: “Thus, Macbeth, a great general, returns after a brilliant victory, head and heart are inflated, what can he not achieve? Could he not govern a country as well as rule an army? Reason unfolds the steps by which he might do great things; great things, ay, but are they lawful, these possible exploits? And then in the nick of time he comes across the 'weird Sisters,' as we are all apt to take refuge in fatalism when conscience no longer supports us. He shall be Thane of Cawdor, and, behold, confirmation arrives on the spot. He shall also be king. Well, if this is decreed, what can he do? He is no longer a free agent. And a score of valid arguments unfold themselves showing how Scotland, the world, his wife, himself, would be enhanced, would flourish and be blessed if he had the opportunity to do what was in him. Opportunity? The thing was decreed! It rested with him to find the means, the tools. He was not without imagination, had a poetic mind and shrank before the horrors he vaguely foresaw. But reason came to his aid and step by step the whole bloody tragedy was wrought out before his prescient mind. When we first meet with Macbeth he is rich in honours, troops of friends, the generous confidence of his king. The change is sudden and complete, and, we may believe, reason justified him at every point. But reason did not begin it. The will played upon by ambition had already admitted the notion of towering greatness or ever the 'weird Sisters' gave shape to his desire. Had it not been for this countenance afforded by the will, the forecasts of fate would have influenced his conduct no more then they did that of Banquo.”

    See how we wound up the term from two students term exams provided below.

Form V: Age 16

  1. Write the story of Macbeth from the viewpoint of one character: A) Macbeth, B) Lady Macbeth, C) the witches, D) Malcolm.

            Double, double, toil and trouble.

            We are the servants of Hecate.

            Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

            We are the speakers of prophecies.

            Double, double, toil and trouble.

            We are one in three-

            Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

            We are the shadows under the bed-

            Double, double, toil and trouble-

            We are the movement in the corner of your eye-

            Fire burn and cauldron bubble-

            We are the magic-casters-

            We are the potion-brewers-

            We are the curse-dealers-

            We are the servants of Hecate, we are the stuff of old wives tales,

              and we are the reason behind Macbeth’s madness.

        He first came to us during a storm. We remember how the lightning flashed, how the thunder roared, and how the rain pounded on the ground like the feet of a rushing army battering the ground. The light from our fire illuminated his face and we remember how he carried himself with such pride, confident in his fine features and his noble wit. He was not a man to be trifled with.

      And yet—we saw in Lord Macbeth something he tried to hide. We saw an ambition that could seize his heart and stop his wit, a thirst for power that could be coaxed into a raging madness.

         A slow smile spread over our faces. It was time to stir the cauldron.

       Macbeth trusted us utterly. We looked into the future and saw his ascension to being the Thane of Cawdor, all the way to being king. With a little help from his cunning wife, he was able to be coaxed into murdering the king of Scotland. Of course, we left out the ensuing chaos that we saw in his future as a result of this act. We merely informed him that there was power in his future.

        Each time we saw him, the great Lord Macbeth’s eyes grew wilder. Each time he spoke to us, his voice lost its steady calm ring. Each time he walked into our cave, his gait became more and more hurried. We watched over him with our crystal ball. It was us who summoned the ghost of Banquo and sent him to torture Macbeth into shameful silence.

      One day in the dark winter, our Lady Hecate discovered the game we were playing. Her rage was colder and more furious than any snowstorm we have ever endured. In her rage, she stooped so low that she made an appearance in our filthy cave. If only such an honor had been under better circumstances. Still, even the threats of our Lady were not enough to stop Macbeth, who was heading straight for a massive collision.

The last time we saw him, we knew that his time was almost up. We looked into his future and saw a mighty army led by the dead King’s sons. We saw the army cutting boughs off of trees and carrying them up the hill towards Macbeth’s castle. Cackling to ourselves, we told him to fear the forest coming to attack him.

        Macbeth, the fool, believed us, and in the short time after this meeting his life fell entirely to shreds.

We are watching his wife as she succumbs to the tumor of guilt festering inside her heart. We are watching him as a mighty warrior and he engage in hand-to-hand combat, and we are watching as Lord Malcolm finally avenges his family and manages to kill Mac-


We scream as the temperature suddenly drops drastically low.  We look around—what’s going on? Our crystal gazing ball begins to dim and flicker, and as we watch the glow of it’s all—knowing beauty fades away. The fire crackling under our cauldron winks out in the blink of an eye.

Hecate knows what we have done.

Form III:  Age 12

 Describe your favorite scene in Macbeth.

     My favorite scene is in the very beginning where Macbeth and Banquo had just finished visiting the three witches. Macbeth was told by the three witches that he would become king over the land. Now when he told his wife about it, he was still debating as to whether or not he should do something about it. But his wife had given into the temptation right when he told her about the visit with the three twitches. And she nagged and persuaded him to act it, thus fulfilling the prophecies. He didn’t know how to act until Lady Macbeth said, “Tonight there is a banquet where all is invited, after the king, Duncan has drunk his fill and fallen into a deep sleep. I will put wine into the guards’ food to make them also drowsy. Then you will sneak into Duncan’s room and kill him while he is sleeping. Afterwards make sure to spread Duncan’s blood over the hands of the sleeping guard.” Macbeth had given into his dark temptation and excited to become king, acted out what his wife had told him to do. But guilt washed over him so that he couldn’t finish the job. Lady Macbeth called him a coward before entering the dead king’s chamber. When she entered the room, she was horrified to see that the dead king looked quite like her dear father: still, she hardened her heart, took in a deep breath and completed the brutal job.
      The very next morning, when the castle learned of Duncan’s tragic fate, they were in hysterics and were all too quick to blame things on the confused guards. Everyone was crying, weeping, as well Lady Macbeth and Macbeth who played their parts quite well so that they weren’t suspected at all. Those who were also scared they might be suspected fled to England, Ireland, anywhere they would be safe from the rage driven Scottish men.

© 2018 by Bonnie Buckingham


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