The Treasure In Shakespeare

I’m reading Macbeth with my 11th grade British Lit. students for the 6th time (I think), and this year I’ve had kind of a fresh awakening to the depth and richness of story that there is in Shakespeare’s plays, if we’re willing enough to go after it. I’m reminded of why Shakespeare’s so great, and so valuable of a literary treasure to us English-speakers.

I realized last week that no other piece of literature I’ve taught to high school students has lines that are so memorable as a Shakespeare play; in any scene I know exactly, almost word-for-word, what’s coming next as I read, or we read aloud in class. There’s really nothing else like it. And each scene, almost every few lines really, yields more depth of imagery and experience, conjured up as each character speaks. Each reading develops more clearly the intriguingly cold, medieval setting of Macbeth, and more of the intense human struggles of these poor characters.

Here’s an example, albeit a sinister one: in Act 1, Scene 4 when in spite of King Duncan’s recently bestowed honors on Macbeth, Duncan still reminds his hearers, Macbeth included, that the successor to the throne of Scotland will be Duncan’s son Malcolm. At this, Macbeth, in an aside, says the following:

“Stars, hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires./The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be/Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”

In a modern novel with the same plot, the character could say something like “I’m thinking some awful stuff about how I can become king instead of Malcolm – and I dread the thought of anyone knowing my mind.” But Macbeth, or rather Shakespeare, takes the darkness of a heart giving in to sinful desires, and really draws it out in full intensity, using language you might read in the epic poets. Macbeth tells even the stars in the dark night sky, only pinpoints of light to mortal men, to hide even their lights from the “black and deep desires” he’s entertaining. And isn’t this the true nature of sin? Any exposing, convicting light is hateful to a heart committed to its error. John 3:20-21 says,

“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

In Macbeth, sin isn’t a “mistake,” or unfortunate happenstance. It’s serious, and Shakespeare draws us out of ourselves to feel a great seriousness when man, created in God’s glorious image, departs from what he was made to be. We can surely treasure any story that makes us see and experience our fallen condition, and our need to be rescued from it.

Stars, hide your fires from us. But praise God he draws us to Himself. Peace on earth, and God’s goodwill toward sinful men, through our Mediator Jesus Christ.

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