Reading Macbeth in Middle School
Jenna Gareis M.Ed, 8th Grade English, 7/8 Writing, and Service

While I love the way using contemporary novels and authors in our classroom makes my 8th grade students light up and lean in – my own heart belongs to Shakespeare. I have always been enchanted by the way those stories were told, the way they are firmly planted in the past but can be applied so easily to the present, the way they so astutely capture the complexities of being an imperfect human in an imperfect world. I’ll admit that Macbeth is usually the furthest title from people’s minds when they think of Shakespeare for middle schoolers. Usually, you’ll find Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream on reading lists if Shakespeare is even present at all. And yes, I have taught them both, in my day, along with others. Yet, Macbeth with its witches, ghosts, battles, and storms is the play I keep coming back to with love and trepidation.

This brutal story of betrayal and vengeance appeals so strongly to the middle school sense of right and wrong. They love to grapple with the unsolvable mystery of free will verses destiny presented in the play. Do the witches see what will happen and simply report the inevitable, or do they share a possible future and through the telling the Macbeths make it so? Could this play have ended any other way? Could other choices have been made? They love to watch the lead characters defy gender expectations, grapple with guilt, and silence their heart’s call to remorse. What middle schooler cannot relate to the betrayal Banquo suffers at the hands of a trusted friend? And not only does the play itself appeal to this age group but the lore that surrounds it feeds their imaginations so heartily. From the moment they know the play is considered cursed all they want to do is say its name in a theatre and feel the chill of defiance run up their spines as they wait and wonder if any foul thing will befall them now.

I love watching a new group of students fall under the spell of one of Shakespeare’s plays and that is just what happened in my 8th grade classroom this fall. Through reading, discussion, acting games, analysis, and a field trip to see it performed live, a new group of students found delight in exploring its complexities. For me, there are few greater joys!